A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky’s Governors: First chief executive, Isaac Shelby, first served in a log cabin

This year, as they do every four years, Kentuckians will elect a new governor. Prior to the Nov. 3 general election, independent historian Paul L. Whelan will share profiles of the 58 people who served previously in the state’s highest office.

1 Isaac_shelby

Isaac Shelby
Served 1792-1796 (first term)

Kentuckians chose a war hero to be its first chief executive. General Isaac Shelby was the hero of the Battle of King’s Mountain (near Blacksburg, South Carolina) during the Revolutionary War. He was unanimously elected Kentucky’s first governor by the “electors” as set forth in the first constitution of Kentucky two weeks prior to the state’s admission to the Union on June 1, 1792.

Shelby, whose name would be used in cities, counties and military installations across the country, was born near Hagerstown, Maryland, on Dec. 11, 1750. Prior to moving to Kentucky, he lived in western Virginia near present-day Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee. He initially came to Kentucky due to a 1,400-acre land grant in the late 1770s.

In addition to his military service, Shelby served in the legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina. The capitol building in which he was elected Kentucky’s first governor was a log cabin located just south of present-day Rupp Arena on Lexington’s Main Street.

Shelby’s first-term issues concerned choosing a permanent state capital, protecting Kentucky from Indian attacks and financing the militia which provided that protection. In December 1792, Frankfort was chosen as state capital.

During the last year of Shelby’s term, he authorized the widening of the Wilderness Road from Cumberland Gap to Crab Orchard (most of which is now U.S. Highway 25E) to allow better access for wagon travel. Daniel Boone in February 1796 unsuccessfully sought the contract, which was awarded to James Knox and Joseph Crockett instead.

There was dissatisfaction with Kentucky’s 1792 constitution because of opposition to the use of the Kentucky “Electoral College,” which elected the governor and members of the Kentucky State Senate rather than by popular vote. This was one of the reasons for the adoption of the Kentucky constitution of 1799.

After serving his first term, Shelby was elected to another term in 1812.

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paul whelan

Paul L. Whalen is an attorney and independent historian. He has a bachelor’s degree in history/Latin American studies from University of Kentucky, a juris doctorate from Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law, and a master’s from Ft. Hays State University in Hays, Kansas.

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