Myth of the Kentucky Colonel

Kentucky Colonel, History, Myth or Propaganda?

We found the first official account offered by the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. As academic researchers and historians that hold great pride, honor and dignity for history we felt it was important for Kentucky Colonels to understand where the erroneous account of history came from. Someone recently posted the original program of the Derby eve dinner presentation from 1941. As we know today this historical account is false and considered a myth.

In essence what this means that almost all colonels, elected officials, newspaper reporters, historians, sociologists, and the public have been deceived by this historical account, which can be read in newspaper articles, magazines and books from about 1944-2020. Based on the in-depth research performed by our organization in 2020 we have proved most of the following information is false.

Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels Derby Eve 1941

Derby Eve Dinner Party, May 02, 1941

"Almost 150 years have elapsed since Isaac Shelby, the first elected Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, issued the first Colonel's commission in Kentucky. This was granted to Hon. Charles S. Todd, who married Letitia Shelby, the beautiful and gifted daughter of the Governor. Later Shelby issued commissions to all the men who enlisted in his regiment and fought with him during the War of 1812. This began the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.

The first Kentucky Colonels were commissioned by Gov. Isaac Shelby in 1792, when Kentucky became a sovereign state. Then and onward until the third constitution became operative a colonel was commissioned by the Governor for each regiment of the State Militia. The county was then the regimental district, so each county has always had one active colonel and several who retained the title after the commission establishing it had expired. After a few decades it was a pretty safe bet that the head of any household occupying a dwelling with at least two chimneys was a colonel.

Kentucky's State Guard was organized by Gen. Simon B. Buckner in the late 1850's. This reorganization reduced the number of new colonels commissioned for actual regimental duty. The old titles survived by courtesy, and with the new commissions to State Guard commanders the title of colonel remained about stationary until 1915. In that year, A.O. Stanley, then Governor, commissioned 110 honorary colonels; Gov. E.P. Morrow added 243; Gov. W. Fields, 183; Gov. Flem Sampson, 677; Gov. Ruby Laffoon, 10,450; and Gov. A.B. Chandler, 85. In 1934, at a meeting of Kentucky Colonels a social organization of colonels was effected. Then on March 28, 1936, the Attorney General of Kentucky voided all of these commissions, but a month later they were revived by the Acting Governor, James. E. Wise.

Kentucky’ s colonels have always been devotees of her racing. The public mind seems to have associated the Kentucky Derby with the Kentucky Colonel and the mint julep. In recent years the association has become actual, taking the form of a banquet in Louisville on the eve of Derby Day. The program of the evening and the menu reflect the atmosphere of the occasion.

Although history gives us this information as to the origin of this organization, the question is always brought up for discussion at the annual dinners and many are the reasons given for: "Why is a Kentucky Colonel?" Perhaps the best answer to this question, in all seriousness, is that definition given by Hon. Keen Johnson, the present Governor of Kentucky. Governor Johnson, in an address given at My Old Kentucky Home, Bardstown, Kentucky in 1940, said: "the title, "Kentucky Colonel" is a unique distinction. Those upon whom it has been conferred have received this coveted commission because of noteworthy service in Kentucky or friendship for our State."

The late Ruby Laffoon, who issued more Kentucky Colonel commissions than any other Governor, had this to say: "The folks that are Colonels are the ones who make presidents and governors." Doubtless Governor Laffoon meant this in all sincerity and certainly the more than 10,000 Kentucky Colonels throughout the country include many who have played an important part in state and national politics, there are also names on this long list who would be surprised to find themselves placed in this category. For instance, Col. Mae West of Hollywood, Col. Charles C. Pettijohn of New York, and a former commanding general of the Kentucky Colonels, was quite frankly in his definition of the why of a Kentucky Colonel. He said: "The only purpose of this organization is to have a party on Derby Eve." Admiral Cary Grayson offered an explanation given him by an ex-slave. This aged Negro said: "Some as in de war. Some was born Cuhnels. But most of them get to be Cuhnels by givin' dollahs to culled fellows like me."

The annual dinner of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels is a gala occasion and the attendance roster might well be likened to a few pages from Who's Who. Stage, screen, and radio are presented in large numbers. Governors, congressmen, cabinet members, and other lesser political lights are found exchanging views with horse owners and industrial leaders, and the most of these views have to do with the probable winner of the Derby classic of the morrow, or perhaps with the grave problem of whether the mint should be crushed for a julep. Guests at this dinner are not permitted to forget that it is Derby eve and but a matter of hours before the greatest race in America will be settled at historic Churchill Downs. Even the items on the menu bear names of past Derby winners, and far into the night the Kentucky Colonels fortified with the traditional mint juleps discuss a traditional race the Kentucky Derby."

Col. Anna Safron Friedman Goldman (1894-1981)
Secretary and Keeper of the Great Seal
Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels