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Exploring the Past in Kentucky

Archaeology and History Sites in Kentucky

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Park

Abraham Lincoln is no doubt the most famous US President of the 19th century, having led its government to victory in the Civil War. Born in LaRue County in 1809, he spent his early years here. Several monuments now commemorate Lincoln: the well where his family collected their fresh water, a log cabin resembling that which he was born inside, and a neo-classical memorial structure completed in 1911.


Ashland in Lexington is a mansion house built in the 1850s. It stands on the site of an earlier, Federal-style mansion completed in 1811; the earlier structure was financed by the attorney and politician Henry Clay to serve as the heart of a plantation. The second Ashland was largely modelled on its predecessor, although included additional details. Many enslaved labourers lived at the plantation, where they were used to grow and harvest hemp.

Belle of Louisville

A steamboat chugging along the broad, tranquil river is one of the iconic images of the 19th century United States. Some of these vessels remain operational; the Belle of Louiseville for instance now serves as a passenger steamer along the Ohio River. Built in 1914, the boat was originally named Idlewild and initially hauled cargo along the Allegheny River. In 1931 it moved to Louisville, where over the years it became a popular heritage attraction.

Fort Boonesborough

Fort Boonesborough in Madison was established in 1775. The explorer Daniel Boone initiated its construction as he and other European Americans pushed westward to colonise new territories. One of the main frontier outposts during the Revolutionary War, it was then abandoned in the 19th century. A reproduction of the fort now stands near to the location of the original. Reenactors in period costume help visitors immerse themselves in the heritage experience.

Louisville Water Company Pumping Station

The Louisville Water Company Pumping Station is the world’s oldest ornamental water tower. The tower was completed in 1860, part of a larger water pumping station designed to help alleviate the problem of cholera in Kentucky. Designed in the neo-classical style, it was created to resemble an ancient Roman temple. The tower ceased being used for its original function in 1909. The western wing of the station now houses the Louisville WaterWorks Museum.

Mount Horeb Earthworks Complex

Among the most impressive remains of North American prehistory are the earthworks scattered across much of the continent. One example is the Mount Horeb Earthworks Complex, encompassing both the Horeb Site 1 and the Peter Village enclosure. Archaeologists attribute the creation of these earthworks to members of the Adena culture, which existed between 1000 and 200 BCE. Mount Horeb Site 1 stands in the University of Kentucky’s Adena Park and underwent excavation in 1939.

Portsmouth Earthworks

The Portsmouth Earthworks stand at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, partly in Kentucky and partly in Ohio. Archaeologists attribute the mounds to members of the Hopewell culture which existed between 100 BCE and 500 CE. Some of the earthworks represent enclosures, some circular and others shaped like a horseshoe. A series of rectangular enclosures, known as the Old Fort Earthworks, are to be found near South Portsmouth in Kentucky.

Red Bird River Petroglyphs

Kentucky’s best-known rock art site is the Red Bird River Petroglyphs, named after the Red Bird River where the original site is located. After the rockface collapsed in 1994, the engraved panels were moved to Rawlings/Stinson Park in Manchester. Many of the engravings are believed to be Cherokee in origin and are sometimes ascribed to the 19th century Cherokee Chief Red Bird.

Shakertown at Pleasant Hill

The Shakers were a Christian sect that originated in England before spreading across the U.S. in the late 18th century. Members often formed separate communities, most of which no longer exist. One such community was at Shakertown, which was the third largest Shaker settlement in the country when it operated between 1805 and 1910. Since 1961, efforts to preserve the site have ensured its survival as a heritage attraction.

Wickliffe Mounds

The Wickliffe Mounds just outside Wickliffe in Ballard County serve as an important reminder of prehistoric settlement in this area. Archaeologists attribute the site to members of the Mississippian culture, which existed between 800 and 1600 CE. Excavation suggests this site was inhabited between 1000 and 1350 CE. Among the features erected were two large platform mounds and at least eight smaller mounds. Archaeologists have excavated at the site sporadically since 1913.

Museums in Kentucky

Bluegrass Heritage Museum

The Bluegrass Heritage Museum in Winchester showcases the heritage of this area of Kentucky. The museum occupies a 19th century Romanesque Revival building that once housed a medical clinic. As well as including exhibits pertaining to the building’s former life, the museum displays a broad range of artefacts, among them quilts, militaria, and photographs. The museum is also now home to the collection of the former Pioneer Telephone Museum.

Civil War Museum, Bardstown

One of many museums devoted to the Civil War, that at Bardstown was established in 1996 and brings together five separate buildings. These include the Civil War Museum of the Western Theater, the Women’s Civil War Museum, and the Pioneer Village, an open-air display of 18th and 19th century structures from Nelson County. Despite its name, the museum also features displays focusing on other periods. Various special events take place throughout the year.

Kentucky Coal Museum

The Kentucky Coal Museum in Benham explores the important role that coal mining played in the heritage of eastern Kentucky. It occupies a company store originally constructed in 1923 by the International Harvester company. Opened in 1994, the museum showcases a range of displays pertaining to the lives of the miners during the 19th and 20th centuries. Several exhibits also deal with related elements of local history, for instance country singer Loretta Lynn.

Kentucky Folk Art Center

The Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead showcases and celebrates traditional arts and crafts of the Appalachian region. The museum possesses over 1000 pieces of local folk art, which are displayed on a rotating basis. Morehead State University administers the museum, which has occupied the historic Union Grocery building since 1997. The center also incorporates an auditorium at which visitors can enjoy performances of Appalachian folk music.

Kentucky Museum

Kentucky Museum stands on the campus of the Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. It has a varied collection of material on display, much pertaining to local history. Displays cover topics such as Kentucky’s role in the American Civil War, varied styles of quilts from the local area, and the life of Duncan Hines, the Bowling Gren resident who pioneered the idea of restaurant ratings. Items from further afield include an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.

Magoffin County Pioneer Village and Museum

Run by the Magoffin County Historical Society, this open-air museum in Salyersville brings together nearly 20 timber cabins, many of 19th century date, from various parts of the state for their long-term preservation. Many are decorated with historic furnishings and other objects testifying to the life and times of 19th and early 20th century communities who lived in the region. The museum continues to collect historical material from across the county.

Mountain Homeplace

Found within the Paintsville Lake State Park in Staffordsville stands the Mountain Homeplace. Opened in 1995, this open-air museum brings together preserved historic buildings originating from around Kentucky, including a blacksmith’s shop, a school, a church, a cabin, and a barn. In the early 1990s, the ‘In the Pines Amphitheater’ was added, architecturally modelled on the amphitheatres of ancient Greece. A visitor’s centre includes the Museum of Appalachian History.

Muhammad Ali Center

The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville is dedicated to the eponymous boxer, perhaps the most famous American sportsman of the 20th century. Located in the city of his birth, the center opened in 2005. It includes a museum that tells the story of Ali’s life and career, showcasing a range of pertinent artefacts. The center is also used for a range of special events and educational projects.

NKU Museum of Anthropology

Opened in 1976, the Northern Kentucky University’s Museum of Anthropology can be found on the second floor of the Landrum Academic Center in Highland Heights. Its collection includes material from across the world, with a focus on Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and New Guinea, as well as the artwork of Native American communities in the United States. The museum supplements its permanent collection with a range of temporary displays.

Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History

Run by the Kentucky Historical Society, the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History has been open to the public in Frankfort since 1999. Covering 12,000 years of regional heritage, it features exhibits on the prehistory of Kentucky, the arrival of European American settlers, the impact of the Civil War, and the transformative developments of the 20th century. An extensive archive and library is available for researchers interested in the history of the Bluegrass State.

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