2015-10-25 23:02:00

Significance: Kentucky has taken in fewer foreign immigrants than more urban states. Most nineteenth and twentieth century immigration was urban or, in the case of Kentucky’s eastern coal region, industrial in nature. However, during the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the next century, immigration to Kentucky began to increase; undocumented Hispanic workers have come in unprecedented numbers.

Although early immigration to Kentucky was dominated by people of Scotch-Irish and English ancestry, immigrants from other parts of Europe were represented as well. Germans—particularly settlers who came by way of Pennsylvania—were not uncommon, and significant numbers of Welsh, French Huguenot, and other groups also came. As early as the 1780’s, Dutch settlers from Pennsylvania arrived in Kentucky and near Harrodsburg erected an archaic Dutch Reformed Church meeting house of timbered wattle and daub that still survives. Slaves, too, migrated to frontier Kentucky, and in their veins ran the blood of various, mostly West African, ethnicities.

After 1848, famine and political unrest drove large numbers of Germans and Irish to the United States. While most headed for the Northeast or joined the growing tide of settlement in the American Midwest, a number entered the urban centers of the South. In Kentucky, this meant the Ohio River cities of Covington, Newport, and Louisville. Louisville especially received large numbers of Irish and Germans. In 1850, members of these groups constituted 11,000 of the city’s total white population of 36,224. In Louisville, a combination of raw xenophobia, anti-Catholicism (many of the newcomers were Roman Catholics) and the popularity of a short-lived national nativist movement called the Know-Nothing Party finally erupted in the "Bloody Monday” antiforeign riots on election day, August 6, 1855. Twenty-two people were killed and much property was destroyed, but the incident was not to be repeated in Kentucky.

As occurred in a number of other southern states during the late nineteenth century, some Kentuckians feared that the state was not receiving sufficient immigration to support its economic growth. The state legislature took action, creating an immigration commission in 1880. The commission launched a campaign to attract northern Europeans to the state and met with some success. A number of Swiss, Germans and Austrians did arrive. By 1885, these newcomers had established a sprinkling of small colonies, spanning the region between Lyon County in western Kentucky to Laurel in the east. Although none of these settlements thrived as much as hoped, some have survived into the twenty-first century as small communities.

Profile of Kentucky


Eastern central United States

Entered union


Largest cities

Lexington-Fayette, Louisville, Owensboro, Bowling Green

Modern immigrant communities

Vietnamese, Asian Indians, Mexicans



Percent of state

Percent of U.S.

U.S. rank

All state residents





All foreign-born residents





Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract for 2006.

Notes: The U.S. population in 2006 was 299,399,000, of whom 37,548,000 (12.5%) were foreign born. Rankings in last column reflect total numbers, not percentages.

Twentieth Century Developments

As American industry began tapping in earnest the vast timber and mineral resources of the eastern Kentucky mountains during the early twentieth century, new immigrants entered the state. Indeed, as coal mines and company towns arose during the first two decades of the century, Hungarians, Poles, Italians, Yugoslavs, and a veritable Ellis Island of other groups entered the Kentucky coal fields. These immigrants never outnumbered native-born white miners in the region, but they become a large contingent. Immigrants, along with African Americans, were typically assigned the dirtiest and most dangerous of jobs. By 1930, immigrants had begun to leave Kentucky’s depressed coal fields, but a handful stayed and their descendants were absorbed into the local culture.

Into the twenty-first century, Kentucky’s population has remained predominantly white and native born. Nonetheless, during the 1990’s, Kentucky experienced the nation’s third-fastest growth in immigrant population. By 2000, about 2.5 percent of Kentucky’s total residents were documented immigrants. Immigrants from Vietnam and China were among the two fastest-growing groups to enter the state during this period. Most of these new immigrants did not come to Kentucky directly from their original homelands but instead migrated from elsewhere in the United States. They were evidently hoping to make their livelihoods in a less crowded state.

Hispanics have long worked as laborers in Kentucky. They have had a particularly long-standing presence in central Kentucky’s famous thoroughbred horse industry. During the 1990’s and early twenty-first century, Latin Americans began entering Kentucky in unprecedented numbers. By 2006, Mexicans alone accounted for nearly one-quarter of the state’s foreign-born population. By this period, a large but unknown number of illegal immigrants— mostly from Mexico but also from other Latin American countries—had entered the Kentucky workforce. Most worked in agriculture, agricultural processing and the service sector. While these undocumented workers are not as numerous as those in some other southern states, their numbers have been sufficiently large to attract political controversy.

Jeremiah Taylor

Further Reading

Barrett, Tracy. Kentucky. 2d ed. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2008.

Cantrell, Doug. "Immigrants and Community in Harlan County, 1910-1930.” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 86 (1988): 119-141.

Klotter, James C., ed. Our Kentucky: A Study of the Bluegrass State. 2d ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Ray, Celeste, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Vol. 6. Ethnicity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

See also: British immigrants; Coal industry; Economic opportunities; European immigrants; German immigrants; Irish immigrants; Know-Nothing Party; Mexican immigrants; Ohio; Swiss immigrants.