First Kentucky Colonels

The First Kentucky Colonel

This is a subject of debate and may depend on your actual perception and interpretation of the historical record. Officially the first Kentucky colonel was John Bowman who was commissioned on December 21, 1776 by Governor Patrick Henry, Jr. of the Commonwealth of Virginia to head the militia of Kentucky County and form a government.

Colonel Daniel Boone

We tend to believe "the very first colonel" was Daniel Boone who was commissioned by the Governor of Virginia in 1780. Boone perhaps the most famous Kentuckian, is known as the first settler of Kentucky. He became a Lieutenant Colonel of the Fayette County Militia, when Kentucky was a named territory made up of three Virginia counties.

Previously Daniel Boone was given the title of "Colonel" by Col. Judge Richard Henderson in 1775 when he blazed the Wilderness Road and founded the first territorial settlement of Boonesborough which was part of the Transylvania Colony which lasted until the Commonwealth of Virginia exerted its rights over the area starting at the end of the following year.

John Filson's "The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon", part of his book The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. Was first published in 1784, Filson's book was primarily intended to popularize Kentucky to immigrants. This in our opinion had much to do with the founding and establishment of the Commonwealth, following its publication immigrants went to Kentucky making it the great state that it has become today.

History shows that during these early years before Kentucky achieved statehood "colonel" became a claimed title by most Revolutionary War veterans relocating as settlers to the Kentucky territory. Nearly anyone holding a Warrant Deed for property issued by a colonel under the Governor of Virginia considered themselves colonels.

Colonel John Bowman

The first Kentucky Colonel commission was granted to John Bowman (American pioneer) by Governor Patrick Henry, Jr. of the Colony of Virginia to oversee the formation of a government in Kentucky County on December 21, 1776. After declaring that the Transylvania Colony was illegal because it was based upon a treaty with the Cherokee who had no rights as its native inhabitants, the Colony of Virginia declared that the entire area was Kentucky County belonging to the colony.

So technically speaking the first person appointed as a "Kentucky Colonel" was actually Colonel John Bowman in 1776. Patrick Henry designated the territory from the Ohio River south to the 36° 30′ parallel starting at the Cumberland Gap as a county of Virginia. Col. Bowman was also present at Boonesborough in 1775 for the Transylvania Convention. He was warranted with land and the duty to establish a government in Kentucky.

Colonel Bowman's Commission

“You are therefore, carefully and diligently to discharge the duty of Colonel of the Militia, by doing and performing all Manner of Things thereunto belonging; and you are to pay a ready Obedience to all Orders and Instructions which from Time to Time you may receive from the Convention, Privy Council, or any of your Superior Officers, agreeable to the Rules & Regulations of the Convention, or General Assembly, and to require all Officers and Soldiers under your command to be obedient and to aid you in the Execution of this Commission according to the Intent & Purpose thereof. Given under my Hand & Seal,

“Williamsburg this 21st day of December 1776. P. Henry, Jr.”

According to, "A History of the Mississippi Valley" written in 1903 by Alzamore H. Clark and John R. Spears;

Meantime the Kentuckians were organizing their country as a county of Virginia. At a gathering in Harrodsburg, in the middle of June, 1776, they elected George Rogers Clark (the youth who had been under Cresap in the murderous attack on Indians below Wheeling, in 1774), and one other man to carry a petition to the Virginia legislature. This petition was dated June 20, 1776, and the most interesting paragraph in it was that which pointed out “how impolitic it would be to suffer such a Respectable Body of Prime Riflemen to remain in a state of neutrality” while the United Colonies were in a desperate struggle for liberty.

Clark succeeded in his mission. Kentucky was admitted as a county, with Harrodsburg as the county town. The militia were organized, and John Bowman was placed in command with the rank of colonel — the name of the first Kentucky colonel is, doubtless, a matter of National, if not of world-wide, interest.

Other Perspectives

The popular account of the Commonwealth and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (HOKC) credits Governor Isaac Shelby with making the first Kentucky Colonel commission in 1813 to Charles Stewart Todd as his personal Aide-de-Camp, after the state's militia was dissolved. According to our research the actual date was in March of 1815, not in 1813, which contradicts the HOKCs previous documentation and claims, as well as that of the Commonwealth which has given them their consensus for many years. The error led to misprints in hundreds of publications including several by the Kentucky Historical Society. Whether the documentation leading to the popular interpretation was an error or a purposeful miscount will probably remain a mystery.

In 1861, Col. John Marshall Harlan under the orders of President Abraham Lincoln commissioned over 1,000 civilians (mostly physicians, attorneys, businessmen and merchants) as honorary officers to wear the Union Uniform at home and to work to create the illusion of a Union presence in the divided state throughout the Civil War. The Kentucky Colonels Command in Toronto recreated and use today for ceremonies which was actually worn through the 1880's.

Many claim that the modern tradition of the Kentucky colonel, did not truly emerge until in the 1890's when the state governor began naming Kentucky citizens as colonels as an honorary recognition (award) for their civilian deeds. Governor William O'Connell Bradley commissioned the first honorary Kentucky colonels as an award of merit bestowed upon citizens for their individual contributions to the state, good deeds, and noteworthy actions; those he named were also his Aide-de-Camp and had the duty of standing uniformed at events.

The First (Official) Kentucky Colonel

According to Miles Smith, PhD, in a brilliant doctoral research work in 2006, The Kentucky Colonel: Richard M. Johnson and the Rise of Western Democracy, the first Kentucky Colonel that was designated by the state emerged two years prior to Col. Charles Stewart Todd's commission in 1815 (if Charles S. Todd was ever commissioned at all).

In May of 1813, the Kentucky State Legislature commissioned Richard M. Johnson who had a "disregard for legalism at the state and federal level, and his reliance on political will emerged in his recruiting drive he answered their call, quickly raising 600 men. Of these, 140 made their homes in Scott County." Smith's paper also refers to Governor Isaac Shelby as Col. Richard M. Johnson's ostensible commander-in-chief, as Governor Shelby did not condone Col. Johnson's commission. This may explain for the miscounting of the state's historical record? Some say it was for other reasons such as racism.

Later Col. Richard Mentor Johnson became the ninth vice president of the United States from 1837 to 1841. He is the only vice president elected by the United States Senate under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment. Johnson also represented Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate; he began and ended his political career in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

First Honorary Commission

In 1813, Charles Stewart Todd was made a captain of U.S. Army infantry, and was a personal aide to the U.S. Army General William Henry Harrison in the Battle of the Thames near Ontario, Canada. Following the War of 1812, (as the story goes) in 1815, while at peace, Governor Isaac Shelby created the appointed civilian office of “Aide-de-Camp” with the rank of “Colonel” to specially recognize and work in office with his future son-in-law, Charles Stewart Todd. As an Aide-de-Camp to Governor Shelby, Colonel Todd established a legal practice in the Kentucky state capital of Frankfort where his diplomatic and political career began. On June 16, 1816 he married the youngest of Isaac Shelby's daughters, Letitia, with whom he had 12 children. In 1817, he was appointed Secretary of State of Kentucky under Governor Gabriel Slaughter.

Some of the information about this account was sourced from Wikipedia and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels; however when the references were checked we could not confirm that the commission ever took place, apparently Charles S. Todd was in the US Army from 1813-1816 and not present in Kentucky. See Honorary Colonels