My dissertation traces the long-term evolution of the Inner Bluegrass region of central Kentucky with a focus on the period between the first Euro-American incursions into the area and the Civil War era. Utilizing an agroecological perspective that analyzes cultivated landscapes for their ecological features, it explores the ever-shifting mix of cultural and natural influences that shaped the local environment. Most prominently, it reveals the extent to which intertwined strands of capitalism and slavery mingled with ecology to produce the celebrated Bluegrass agricultural system.
It begins with an appraisal of the landscape before white men like Daniel Boone arrived, emphasizing the roles native cultures played in shaping regional ecology and arguing for a more complex periodization of eighteenth century Kentucky. The frontier period from the 1770s through the 1790s witnessed a struggle for control over the region linked to competing ideas about how the local landscape might best be used by humans. That Euro-Americans ultimately emerged victorious in this contest held tremendous ecological consequences as domesticated species, organized according to Euro-American agricultural principles, spread across the region. Introduced plants, such as corn, hemp, and bluegrass, and livestock, including hogs, cattle, sheep and horses, increasingly filled ecological niches previously held by native flora and fauna like cane, elk, and buffalo.
As Kentuckians set about refining their influence over the surrounding natural world during the final decades of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, their actions demonstrated the varied ecological, economic, and cultural connections and incentives engendered by their slave-reliant, market-oriented agricultural system. These connections exposed the Bluegrass landscape to national and international currents that enriched some Kentuckians, encouraged the exploitation of others, and facilitated a dramatic simplification of the regional ecology in pursuit of economic gain. Yet, the transformations of the local ecology and the demands of those cultivating it also affected national and international events such as the American Revolution, Louisiana Purchase, and the Civil War. The environmental history of the Bluegrass agricultural landscape demonstrates the complexity of influences on the antebellum world and suggests that complexity continues to affect the regional ecology and culture well into the twenty-first century.