Kentucky Colonel History

Starting in 1776 upon naming the new Virginia county based on the recommendation of Col. Daniel Boone, Governor Patrick Henry Jr. created Kentucke County and commissioned Boone's Lt. Colonel John Bowman promoting him to the post of "Kentucke County Colonel" to raise a 100 man militia to establish a civilian government. Col. Bowman went to Boonesborough and commissioned Col. Daniel Boone as his Lieutenant. Later Boone became the Colonel of Fayette County also serving as its surveyor.

History of Kentucky's Colonels (1775-1792)

The Kentucky Colonel Defines Culture, Customs, Law, Society and Tradition in the State

History, culture, traditions, customs, and storytelling are all relatively important elements of being a Kentucky colonel, they always have been. The ideal of receiving the commission of a Kentucky Colonel encompasses all of these ideals at both a personal and state level contributing to the sense of pride one feels upon receiving the award. Honor and morality also play an important role for Kentucky colonels.

We thought it would be nice that we define our understanding for you here, because they are important terms that we use throughout our website. To read about our history please see our "About Us" section or to read about the history of Kentucky colonels see the other parts of this section of the website.

All of our historical conclusions are authenticated, confirmed and verified by academic papers, news articles, and published books linked to this website. Our website is one of a kind and is the most complete in the presentation of resources on Kentucky Colonelcy ever developed with more than 600+ unique citations from the public domain. See American News, Bibliography and Resources.

Recognized as Tradition by the Commonwealth in 1895

Kentucky colonels are known as the founding fathers, first settlers, pioneers, great explorers of the West, Revolutionary War veterans, Kentucky's militiamen, plantation owners, governor's aides-de-camp, and later Civil War veterans from both the Union and the Confederacy. An article published in 1889 by the Louisville Post entitled, "Kentucky Colonels: How it Happens That They Are so Numerous in the Blue-Grass State" was published in more than 250 independent American newspapers. This inspired author Opie Read to visit Kentucky leading him to write the book, "A Kentucky Colonel" which became a best-seller in 1890. His book led to a play in 1892 and a silent film in 1920.

While the Kentucky Colonel was at the height of their popularity, those holding the title became very important to the state's progress. In 1895, Col. William O'Connell Bradley was elected as the Commonwealth's first Republican Governor when he formalized the ideal of commissioning "colonels" without regard of political party as members of his honor guard and decided that an unlimited number of civilians could also be recognized as "honorable" with the title of "colonel" based on their noteworthy deeds and personal dedication to the Commonwealth. Since February of 1900 Governors have continued this tradition eventually eliminating the uniformed State Honor Guard by the 1920's.

History of the Iconic Kentucky Colonel

Most Significant in Kentucky are its Colonels

Colonels hold a very significant role in the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. From 1776 when the governor of the Colony of Virginia issued the first county commission to John Bowman for Kentucky County on December 21, within 4 years the county was subdivided into 4 surveyed counties. Col. Bowman served under Governor Patrick Henry Jr. and General George Rogers Clark who was charged with the entire Western Territory during the American Revolution. Until Kentucky county became a state in 1792 there was no official higher than a colonel, by this date Kentucky County had been subdivided into nine Virginia counties and the region was referred to as Kentucky. Colonels were busy men responsible for the establishment of government, subdividing counties, designating authority to establish towns, issuing land deeds, setting up companies, founding schools, organizing militias, and assigning colonelcy to others to do the same under a strict code of honor under the Colony of Virginia common law.

In early years prior to becoming a state people began learning about "Kentucke" in the 13 original colonies based on stories they heard starting in 1769 from Daniel Boone who travelled back and forth to the territory from his home in North Carolina. Upon hearing the stories of Daniel Boone in 1774, Judge Richard Henderson sought a colonelship in North Carolina to form the Louisa Company which led to the establishment of the Great Grant Deed with the purchase of land rights from the Cherokee, America's 14th colony, and commissioning Daniel Boone a colonel to blaze the Wilderness Road to open what was then called Transylvania to settlement. On May 23, 1775, Col. Henderson held the Transylvania Convention with colonels and delegates from 4 settlements to meet in Boonesborough creating America's 14th Colony and established the Kentucky Magna Charta. First that, Election of delegates should be annual. Second, Perfect freedom of opinion in matters of religion. Third, That judges should be appointed by the proprietors, but answerable for malconduct to the people; and that the convention have the sole power of raising and appropriating all moneys and electing their treasurer. This epitome of substantial freedom and manly, rational government, was solemnly executed under the hands and seals of the three proprietors acting for the company, and Col. Thomas Slaughter acting for the colonists.

The purchase of Col. Henderson from the Cherokees was afterward annulled by act of the Virginia legislature in 1777, as being contrary to the chartered rights of the Transylvania Company. But, as some compensation for the services rendered in opening the wilderness, and preparing the way for civilization, the legislature granted to the proprietors a tract of land twelve miles square, on the Ohio, below the mouth of Green River." (Today's Henderson County)

A New Land of Wonder

John Filson, Colonial American author wrote a book and was in correspondence frequently with George Washington to whom he submitted his work, The Discovery, Settlement, and the present State of Kentucke; and An Essay towards the Topography and Natural History of that important Country in 1784, which was published by James Adams in Philadelphia and Wilmington. The book was very popular and accounts from the book were make into news and folklore featuring the Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon. The book was endorsed by Col. Daniel Boone, Col. Levi Todd, and Col. James Harrod on whose collective accounts the work is based.

The first Governor of the Commonwealth was Col. Isaac Shelby formerly of North Carolina that returned to Kentucky after the American Revolution in 1783 to settle down near Boonesborough on land he acquired as a surveyor working with the Transylvania Company years earlier. In 1784 he became active in local community service, talked about separation of the Kentucky District from Virginia and in 1792 was selected by the other colonels and secessionists as the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Colonel Shelby was elected unanimously to that post by the electors on May 17, 1791. He took office on June 4, 1792, the day the state was admitted to the Union. Though not actively partisan, he identified with the Democratic-Republicans. Much of his term was devoted to establishing basic laws, military divisions and a tax structure. Under the new constitution, the voters chose electors who then elected the governor and members of the Kentucky Senate.

In 1799 colonels began to lose their power under common law when the Second Constitution was adopted giving new powers to the governor. In addition to appointing judges, the governor was given the power to appoint a number of local offices including sheriffs, coroners, and justices of the peace.

For the many years that followed, colonels continued in their roles as county authorities they were involved in organizing voting places, establishing courts, serving in public office and remained the most prominent major landowners in the state. Now that Kentucky had a Legislature, Capitol, and a Governor (nearly all of whom were originally colonels) upon a new codified laws developing in the third Kentucky Constitution in 1850 the elected position of County Judge was created to replace the position of Justice of the Peace. The county judge presided over certain county courts, most notably the court of claims, the forerunner of the fiscal court.

Many like to connect the title to an event which occurred in 1813 where the Kentucky Legislature designating the U.S. Army Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson, a state legislator with the title of "Kentucky Colonel" to form the "Kentucky Mounted Militia" in support the War of 1812 to defend the area against Tecumseh. Others claim the first honorarily appointed position by the Governor of Kentucky in 1813 or 1815 to Charles S. Todd as his civilian "Aide-de-Camp" with the rank of "Colonel" is when the tradition started, however there is no evidence that Charles Todd was ever commissioned by Gov. Shelby, as it appears Charles Todd became a colonel when he was made an inspector general for the US Army in the Michigan Territory. Nonetheless, we believe both accounts are exaggerating because Kentucky was founded and established by colonels much like the United States, colonels during these years were most essentially the highest designated colonial officers and key figures during the times of the colonists. Texas and other Western States were founded by colonels like Kentucky, but it was in Kentucky where the Colony of Virginia tradition became so prominent.

Most of Kentucky's counties were named after famous colonels from the American Revolution and its first residents, a great many of its original settlers and pioneers shared the title during the course of their lives.

It could be said that since Kentucky was founded, chartered and organized by its colonels who dutifully served the people directly. Colonels eventually eliminated themselves from their official capacities once their jobs were accomplished. History tells us since they started the official role of those honorarily recognized as colonels became less and less significant until 1920 when there were no longer any official duties for these honorary officers.

Governor William O'Connell Bradley and Staff

Top Row Left to Right: Lieutenant H.S. Whipple, Colonel J.W. Wright, Colonel F. Ahlring, Colonel Ed. Conway, Colonel Will Coles, Colonel R. Wilbur Smitt, Colonel C.C. Mengel, Colonel Tom Landrum Bottom Row Left to Right: Colonel Henry S. Cohn, General D. R. Collier, Governor W.O. Bradley, Colonel W.S. Forrester, Colonel Dr. A. Kimbley - Photo: Public Domain

"The Kentucky colonel is no myth. Governor Bradley had sixty-three, having complimented friends in the ranks of all political parties with appointments. By law the governor is permitted to appoint a personal staff, all of whom bear the title of colonel. Besides these, he may appoint an unlimited number of honorary colonels. All of the straight colonels wore dazzling uniforms and swords that had been scathed by the powder of many a ball. The multitude cheered when the party walked into view on the platform. Gov. Bradley wore his famous white hat, such a familiar figure in the campaigns of many years. He also wore a great brown overcoat, which completed his make-up. Gov. Taylor wore a black Prince Albert and black tie, a modest make-up of another characteristic style. The band played "My Old Kentucky Home," which it always does at inaugurations." –December 12, 1899

Colonels to Pay their Own Expenses

Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, Kentucky): 1899-03-31

The numerous Kentucky Colonels who have been commissioned by Governor Bradley to accompany him to Chickamauga to attend the dedication of the State Monument on May 3d next, will not go entirely free of cost as was at first supposed. Colonel W. J. Murphy, of Lexington, one of the staff, has sent out a circular letter to the other Colonels notifying them that he has secured transportation for them from Louisville to Chattanooga, but that each will have to pay his own Pullman transportation, and the fare from Chattanooga to the National Park over the Chattanooga, Rome and Southern Railway.

The Mythical Kentucky Colonel

In Kentucky between 1933, upon the suggestion of the former governor and anticipation of other Kentucky colonels, Governor Ruby Laffoon created the "Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels" based on an organization he has been a member of called the "Honorable Order of the Blue Goose International" which had its own Kentucky Colonel Model Initiation Team. It is believed that Governor Laffoon started and changed the ideal of the Kentucky Colonel as a way to raise funds for the state during the Great Depression (1929-1939) and used it mostly for political gain. Numerous bills were introduced to the state legislature to tax the Kentucky Colonel title which was mostly awarded to prestigious socialites, celebrities and business people.

Governor Laffoon viewed the ideal as a political lever that he could use to bring a great deal of attention to the state and to himself as a politician that was reforming the Kentucky Colonels. Without much regard for history or the other organizations that already existed at the time, the governor started naming celebrities, government officials, movie stars, social figures, children, even Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse were commissioned with the help of Anna Bell Ward Olsen working with him in Frankfort. Col. Olsen became good friends with the Governor who trusted her implicitly, she served as the Secretary (Keeper of the Great Seal) for the Honorable Order.

Initially it was a rocky time for colonels, there was talk about taxing Kentucky colonels, and all the commissions were cancelled by the attorney general at one point in 1936 less than two months before the Kentucky Derby for not being codified in Kentucky law. The decision was reversed a month later by the acting governor, James Eugene Wise. During Governor Laffoon's term in office, he reportedly made 5,000 new Kentucky colonels (according to the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels he commissioned over 10,000). All the scandal surrounding the commission and the value of the honorability were critically questioned all across the United States.

The subsequent governor was very discreet with the issuance of commissions. The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels had a distinctive and interesting name, but it was never fully formed as a state order of merit. By 1940 the order was under new administration in Frankfort with J. Fred Miles as its Commanding General and Anna Friedman as the Secretary and Keeper of the Great Seal. Many questions had been posed to the new administrators so in 1941 with the assistance of the new governor a plausible history was introduced a explaining the mythical origins of Kentucky's colonels.

Understanding that the new colonels by this time were mostly public figures, socialites, business people and celebrities that had only recently been commissioned (within a few years), everyone came to believe that the honor of being a Kentucky colonel was a novo privilege bestowed upon them based on their fame and favor in society. The history and purpose of the organization they were ushered into was a lighthearted one, but we could expect nothing less from a crowd going to the Kentucky Derby the next day and drinking mint juleps when the program was presented. The irony is that the history that was introduced was very erroneous and based on postulating figures they were inclined to recognize at the moment.

Only 10 years previously there were already a number of other fraternal organizations dedicated to Kentucky colonelcy like the Chicago Kentucky Colonels Club, Louisville Kentucky Colonels Club, Kentucky Colonels Club of Texas and the Honorable Order of the Blue Goose's, Model Kentucky Colonel Initiation Team. Most of the organizations, however, were put off to the sideline and overshadowed greatly by the prominence of the Kentucky government and the news media focused on celebrities and officials attending the Kentucky Derby.

As a result of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels' quick rise to prominence with the help of the government and reckless disregard for others who were already Kentucky colonels much of the history was lost and mistaken by historians who depended on the real information being emulated by the State. As a result of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels' activities since 1934 much of the history has been distorted and mistruen resulting in even the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Kentucky Historical Society printing the false history.

Ideals Defined

  • History is the past as it is described in written documents, and the study thereof. "History" is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Scholars who write about history are called historians. Kentucky colonels are responsible for understanding the facts to the best of their knowledge regarding the rich history of the state.

  • Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups. People acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, which is shown by the diversity of cultures across societies. Culture serves as a guideline for behavior, dress, language, and demeanor.

  • Traditions are beliefs or behaviors (folk customs) passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. A component of folklore, common examples include holidays or impractical but socially meaningful clothes, but the idea has also been applied to social norms such as greetings. Traditions can persist and evolve for thousands of years—the word tradition itself derives from the Latin tradere literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping. While it is commonly assumed that traditions have ancient history, many traditions have been invented on purpose, whether that be cultural, over short periods of time.

  • Customs or social norms are regarded as collective representations of acceptable group conduct as well as individual perceptions of particular group conduct. They can be viewed as cultural products (including values, customs, and traditions) which represent individuals' basic knowledge of what others do and think that they should do. From a sociological perspective, social norms are informal understandings that govern the behavior of members of a society. A legal custom is the established pattern of behavior that can be objectively verified within a particular social setting. A claim can be carried out in defense of "what has always been done and accepted by law". Related is the idea of prescription; a right enjoyed through long custom rather than positive law.

  • Storytelling describes the social and cultural activity of sharing history and stories sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment. Every culture has its own stories or narratives, which are shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative point of view.

Kentucky colonels are well-known to be reliable storytellers and use history frequently to enhance their ideals and perspectives as goodwill ambassadors to promote, emulate, and reinforce traditions and customs that foster positive social values of the state.