Migration Patterns

This is another great article in case you run into a brick wall and wonder where your family members could have gone.


Since the first white settlers moved into Kentucky in the late eighteenth century, migration has been primarily responsible for the distribution of the state’s residents and has shaped the age-sex composition and social characteristics of the population. Migration patterns are indicators of economic conditions of the state and its regions.

The movement of settlers into Kentucky began in the 1770s, when it was still a part of the state of Virginia. To settle the territory, Virginia initially issued land warrants to veterans of the French-Indian and Revolutionary wars but soon opened the territory to the general public. The general westward movement into Kentucky continued for the next several years. Most migrants came overland by way of the Wilderness Road, but increasing numbers traveled down the Ohio River. After 1820, when the Kentucky population exceeded half a million, the growth rate dropped well below that of the nation, indicating a loss of residents to other states.

In 1850 the federal census began to collect data on places of birth of the population. A comparison of place of birth with place of current residence data reveals a rather slow change in the origin of Kentucky migrants, although in all decades most came from neighboring states. In 1860 Virginia was the origin of most migrants to Kentucky, followed in order by Tennessee, Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. By 1870 most migrants to Kentucky came from Tennessee. By 1970 most came from Ohio. Migrants from Indiana, Illinois, and West Virginia came to Kentucky in greater numbers during the twentieth century, while the numbers from North Carolina and Pennsylvania declined.

The movements of Kentucky natives to other states show a significant shift from a movement west in the nineteenth century to a movement north by the mid-twentieth century. In 1850 Missouri, followed by Texas, was the leading destination of Kentucky migrants and remained so until 1910. Gradually the migrant streams shifted to the north and northwest; Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan became major destinations of migrating Kentuckians. The availability of land had been the major attraction for nineteenth century migrants, but the lure of industrial jobs was a stronger moving force in the twentieth century.

Economic factors have exerted the greatest influence on the movements of people both into and out of Kentucky. Within sixty years after the first settlers moved in, the availability of good farmland farther west caused a net loss in population. The failure of Kentucky to develop major manufacturing industries to supplement agriculture and mining made it even more difficult for the state to retain its population in the years following World War II. The energy crisis of the 1970s produced simultaneously an industrial recession and a coal boom that temporarily reversed the direction of migration, creating Kentucky’s first gain in recent history. Since 1980, though, deteriorating economic conditions have sent migrants south and to the far West rather than to the industrial North.

Compared with more urbanized states of the region, Kentucky has attracted relatively few foreign immigrants. In 1850 the first count of the foreign-born tallied 31,400 immigrants, or 4 percent of the state’s population. The highest percentage (6.4) of foreign-born persons in Kentucky was recorded in 1869 and the greatest number (63,400) in 1870. From 1860 until 1950 both numbers and percentages of the foreign-born decreased. Since 1950 there has been a slight increase, but the 34,562 foreign-born counted in 1980 constituted less than 1 percent of the total population. Many of these foreign nationals were university students rather than true immigrants, while others were refugees or spouses of service personnel who had been stationed abroad.


Howard W. Beers, Growth of Population in Kentucky 1860-1940 (Lexington, Ky., 1942)

George A. Hillery, Jr., Population Growth in Kentucky, 1820-1960 (Lexington, Ky., 1966)

Simon S. Kuznets, ed., Population Redistribution and Economic Growth: United States, 1870-1950 (Philadelphia 1957).

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In the print edition this entry appears on pages 636 – 637

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