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Why is Genealogy Research in Kentucky such a Challenge?

Arlene H. Eakle, Ph.D.

By Arlene H. Eakle, Ph.D.

Kentucky is a difficult place to trace a family tree–this state is the daughter of Virginia and thus you would think the genealogy sources are endless. There is less record loss than Virginia has suffered. The Colonial period when first settlement occurred was shorter and probably less traumatic, even though Indian massacres and military raids were also fewer in number than expected.

So why is genealogy research in Kentucky such a challenge?

One reason, in my opinion, is neglecting church records. Church records supply vital records long before state and local registration begins. Marriages performed by itinerant clergy–Methodist, Baptist, Adventist, Universalist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Disciples of Christ (Campbellites). These ministers on horseback brought religious services and sacraments to the rural populations residing on the Kentucky frontier. (Actually, a considerable number of services taken for granted in more populated areas came into Kentucky on horseback–even Library and education services.)

Church sources identify special populations better than other records. Native Americans could be recorded by both Indian name and Christian name in the same entry. Roman Catholic ancestors with origins in Maryland; German Baptist ancestors from New York and Pennsylvania. Unitarian ancestors from Rhode Island. You have to read the minutes and disciplinary actions and reports, disownments and manumissions to find evidence of these origins.

Naming patterns brought to Kentucky and passed on to descendants. The surname of Kelly and Kelley or Martin and Martain where your ancestor insisted on their own unique spellings being used in the records and the church clerk said so. Kentuckians were independent thinkers and wanted their point of view honored.

Church records were often considered to be personal and private sources that superiors did not require be turned in. They were passed to surviving descendants along with other forms of property. When the courthouse burned or the flood filled the basement, the church records were not there to be damaged or lost. Some still are to be found in family possession. Or they may be safely preserved on the top shelves of current congregations.

The time you spend searching record inventories and bibliographies and footnotes in printed histories and books will be well spent–for yourself and for other relatives, known to you or not.

The truth is out there!