A History of the Daniel Boone National Forest
1770 - 1970


The origin of the name "Kentucky" is credited to many locations, people, and circumtances.

A study of available information establishes with reasonable certainty that the name is of Indian origin. The earliest white visitors to the area, west of what we know today as the Cumberland Mountains, recorded in their journals and reported their interpretations of the sounds of the words used by various Indian tribes to denote the area and river we now know as Kentucky. These names were further confused in their recording by the phonetic spelling employed by these early explorers whose skill in spelling simple English words left much to be desired.

It is significant that each of the Indian tribes, having a knowledge of the area, were sufficiently impressed with the land to give it a special name in their own language.

The Wyandots, who frequently came south of the Ohio River to hunt or to travel the Warriors Path enroute to collect scalps from the southern tribes, named this country Kah-ten-tah-teh, meaning "Fair Land of Tomorrow" or "Land Where We Will Live Tomorrow."

The Shawnee name for this country, where they hunted frequently and where many of them lived for awhile in the famous Indian town of Es-kip-pa-kith-iki, was Kain-tuck-ee. Johnson, in his book Indian Tribes of Ohio, tells us that Kain-tuck-ee means "At The Head Of The River" in Shawanese. Since members of this tribe hunted throughout what is today eastern Kentucky where the Big Sandy, the Licking, the Kentucky and the Cumberland rivers have their origins, their name for the area was most appropriate.

Darlington, in Archives of Americana, tells us the Mohawk word, Kentucke, pronounced as we do today, had a meaning in their language of "Among the Meadows."

The Delawares also designated both the river and the area as Kentucke, which had a meaning in their language of "Place of the Meadows."

Colonel Ruben Durrett, an early traveler of the area, has written that the word Kentucke in the Catawba language had a meaning of "The Prairie, or Barrens."

Since the principal contact of these tribes with the river and area was by their travel through this country on the Warriors Path, which traversed the levels around Es-kip-pa-kith-iki, it is understandable that their designation of the area would reflect the conditions found there.

John Selling, a prisoner among the Cherokees for several years, prior to 1736, recorded on paper the name used by that tribe. Selling said that they took him "to the salt licks of Kentucky." Another prisoner of the Indians, Alexander Maginty, writes that he was captured by Indians in 1753, on the south bank of the Cantucky.

A British agent with the Six Nations for many years, Colonel George Croghan, recorded in one of his reports, made in 1765, a reference to the "River Kentucky." Another Indian agent, Major William Trent, Virginia's agent to the Allegheny tribe, records in a report of about the same date an incident which he describes as happening at a place called Kentucky. His report used the spelling of the word Kentucky that is used today. His long service with the Indians had made him familiar with their language to the extent that we may assume his spelling correct. It appears that he had received his information from the Conewagos who were part of the Iroquois Nation. He had identified the place by it's Iroquois name of Kentucky. Kenta is an Iroquois root-word meaning level. Since Major Trent was referring to the 3,500-acre prairie area which we know as Indian Old Fields, and to which Daniel Boone referred to as "the levels of Kentucky," the relevancy of the Iroquois name is easily understood.

In 1751 Christopher Gist, who had just returned from exploring a part of northern Kentucky for the Ohio Company, wrote his understanding of the Indian word for that area as Cuttaway. In a similar manner Lewis Evans, who prepared a map of the area in 1775, shows the river which we know as the Kentucky as being named the Cuttawa, which was his spelling of the name frequently used by Indian traders.

Many of the early hunters and Indian traders referred to the area west of Cumberland Gap as Kaintucke or Kaintuck. At least one writer has ventured that the name was a contraction of the words Cane and Turkey because of the abundance of both species which occurred there. Another writer of that period referred to the area as the land of Cane and Turkeys.

Kentucky's first historian, John Filson, writing in 1784, is probably responsible for the widespread belief that the English meaning for the Indian word Kentucke is "Dark and Bloody Ground," a term known to every school boy of past generations. In his book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, he writes, ". . . now called Kentucke, but known to the Indians by the name of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and sometimes as the Middle Ground." A few paragraphs later he states, ". . . Hence this fertile spot became an object of contention, a theater of war, from which it was properly denominated the Bloody Ground."

In his book Daniel Boone, John Bakeless makes the statement, "Back woods and settlements never loved each other. Friction between them had helped to send Daniel Boone westward into the Dark and Bloody Ground." It appears most likely that Bakeless borrowed the term from Filson, as have so many other writers of the early days of Kentucky.

It is generally believed that the term, Dark and Bloody Ground was applied to Kentucky by the Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe, speaking in the Great Council at Sycamore Shoals in March, 1775, which resulted in the Treaty of Watauga. The Chief, who was strongly opposed to the treaty, told the whites that there was a dark cloud over the land they were seeking to acquire from the Cherokees. This is a possible source of Filson's wording. A search of the records of this historic meeting fails to substantiate the wording used by Filson or any of the participants. Chief Dragging Canoe later explained that his statement referred to the opposition of the northern tribes to settlement of the land south of the Ohio and west of Cumberland Gap by whites.

Another Cherokee Chief, speaking at the same council, told the whites that the land they desired from the Cherokee was a Bloody Country, referring to the age-old conflicts between the tribes claiming hunting grounds in the game-rich Bluegrass area.

It is significant that in none of these cases did the speaker imply that the terms used were a translation of the meaning of the name, Kentucky.

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Last Updated: 07-Apr-2010
Forest History Society Electronic edition courtesy of the
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