Kentucky: Commentary

Kentucky Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Gordon DenBoer, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Digital Compiler; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2007

Kentucky Boundaries

Kentucky was a part of Virginia until 1792, and Virginia established the process of creating new counties in Kentucky. Beginning in 1735, present Kentucky was included, in turn, as part of Orange, Augusta, Botetourt, and Fincastle Counties; then in 1776 it was set aside as a separate county. Thereafter, as population increased, new counties were created by dividing existing counties. Until 1891 there were no constitutional barriers to the creation of new counties.

The current state constitution (1891) sharply limits the creation of new counties and the alteration of county lines: new counties must contain at least 400 square miles; no counties can be reduced below 400 square miles by such creations; the boundary lines of new counties must be at least 10 miles from the county seats of the counties from which they are taken; new counties and the counties from which they are taken must have at least 12,000 inhabitants; and a county cannot lose territory to another unless a majority of its voters approve the change.

The effect on county boundary changes was dramatic. Whereas there were twelve boundary changes approved by the legislature at its last biennial session (1889–1890) before the 1891 constitution took effect, there was not another change until Beckham County was created on 9 February 1904. However, Beckham survived only until 29 April 1904, when the state Court of Appeals abolished the county because it contained less than the constitutionally required 400 square miles (and its creation reduced Carter County to less than that) and because its boundaries ran less than ten miles from the county seats of Carter and Lewis Counties. Earlier, in 1867, the legislature approved the creation of Henrietta County from Marshall and Trigg Counties, provided that the voters of Trigg approved. They voted against it, however, and Henrietta never came into being.

Several Kentucky boundary descriptions were especially difficult to interpret. In the 1780s and 1790s a number of county creations hinged on an interpretation of the "middle" or "main" fork of the Kentucky River. Although the creation of Fayette in 1780 involves the "middle" fork, subsequent creations refer to the "main" fork or the existing boundary; in 1800, however, the "main" fork is by implication the North Fork (in the creation of Floyd). From 1780 to 1800, therefore, the "main" fork is interpreted here to mean the Middle Fork; from the creation of Floyd in 1800 onward, the North Fork is interpreted as the "main" fork. John Filson, on his 1784 map of Kentucky, clearly identified the South, Middle, and North Forks of the Kentucky River, so contemporaries were presumably familiar with those distinctions.

Another mapping problem involves a part of Ohio County added to Breckinridge County in 1831. The law effecting the change directs that the new boundary run up Pipe Run, whereas the effective boundary has apparently been Pond Run, a neighboring stream, from 1831 to the present. The compilers have found no law switching the boundary from Pipe to Pond Run, nor any explanation as to why the switch was made.

The many boundary adjustments, clarifications, and redefinitions reflect the fact that for much of Kentucky's history, counties were created against a backdrop of rapidly expanding population and often inadequate geographical knowledge. For other reasons, as well, some imprecision in drawing historical county boundaries in Kentucky is inevitable. The laws frequently direct that boundaries run along mountain ridges, between river systems, and to the "head" of a river or stream—directions somewhat vague and imprecise. Also, boundaries often involve landmarks that cannot be identified today, e.g., the property of named individuals, roads, water fords, ferries, mills, and river landings. Finally, some boundaries were ephemeral, disappearing completely in later boundary changes and sometimes in existence for only a brief time. Judging by the many boundary disputes and the stated reasons for specific boundary changes, it is also apparent that many county boundaries were not surveyed and clearly marked. A particular problem was posed by boundary changes made for the convenience of named individuals, with little or no geographic clues as to their location. Most of these changes are unmapped in this work; in the chronologies they are identified as "small area (areas)" transferred "to accommodate local property owner (owners)."


Virtually all boundary changes in Kentucky, from its earliest days when it was part of Virginia to the present, have been made by the legislature. The laws approved by the Virginia legislature before 1792 are collected in 13 volumes of William Waller Hening’s, Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia…, published between 1819 and 1823. Beginning with 1792, the state session laws, Acts of the General Assembly for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, are available in printed volumes and microform. Hening does not include the dates of passage for laws approved before 1787; in this work, those dates are taken from Morgan Poitiaux Robinson’s, Virginia Counties (1916). Harry Toulmin’s, A Collection of all the Public and Permanent Acts of the General Assembly of Kentucky…(1802), contains a handy summary of early county creations and boundary changes, but it has errors and should be used with caution.

Collections of pertinent sections of county boundary laws, such as the Historical Records Survey's West Virginia County Formations and Boundary Changes (Charleston, W.Va., 1938) are convenient but demand caution. There is a potential for error in transcription, as well as the possibility that valuable information (e.g., an effective date) may be lost in the editorial process of excerpting the selected passages. One useful secondary work was Wendell H. Rone's Historical Atlas of Kentucky and her Counties, which provides a good overview of county boundary changes, although the maps are small scale, highly generalized, and combine many changes on a single map.

Historical maps do not frequently play a large role in this sort of work. Occasionally they are indispensable for locating lost landmarks and names no longer in use, but seldom for interpretations of boundary descriptions. This is true, for example, of John Filson's famous Map of Kentucke (1784). The most useful of the historical maps was Luke Munsell's Map of the State of Kentucky (1818).