Kentucky Colonel

Kentucky Colonel (Honorable Title)

Kentucky Colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky today. Honorary commissions for Kentucky colonels are given by the governor and the secretary of state to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments, contributions, and outstanding service to community, state, or nation.

The Governor of Kentucky bestows the honor of a colonel's commission, through the issuance of letters patent. The commission is a legal act of the Office of the Governor and lifetime appointment.


There is some debate as to who the first Kentucky colonel was, many say it was Daniel Boone (Kentucky's First Settler), others say it was Richard Henderson who commissioned Col. Boone and along with other colonels that founded the Transylvania Colony at Boonesborough on the Kentucky River in 1775, which today, is part of Madison County, Kentucky. 'Kentucke' as it was called then, was the area North of Boonesborough on the Northern side of the Kentucky River, by December of 1776 it included most of Transylvania as well. The act created by the founding of Transylvania at the Convention was attended by 13 (or more) colonels and established the Kentucky Magna Charta.

Technically speaking the first person appointed as a "Kentucky Colonel" was Colonel John Bowman in 1776, he was commissioned by the Governor of the Colony of Virginia, Patrick Henry who designated the territory from the Ohio River south to the 36° 30′ parallel starting at the Cumberland Gap as a county of Virginia. Col. Bowman was also present at Boonesborough in 1775 for the Transylvania Convention. He was warranted with land and the duty to establish a government in Kentucky.

Colonel Bowman's Commission

“You are therefore, carefully and diligently to discharge the duty of Colonel of the Militia, by doing and performing all Manner of Things thereunto belonging; and you are to pay a ready Obedience to all Orders and Instructions which from Time to Time you may receive from the Convention, Privy Council, or any of your Superior Officers, agreeable to the Rules & Regulations of the Convention, or General Assembly, and to require all Officers and Soldiers under your command to be obedient and to aid you in the Execution of this Commission according to the Intent & Purpose thereof. Given under my Hand & Seal,

“Williamsburg this 21st day of December 1776. P. Henry, Jr.”

Another Historical Account

According to the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, the first Kentucky Colonel commissioned was Charles S. Todd in 1813 among other mythical accounts, however when we checked with history only Richard Mentor Johnson could be identified as being commissioned that year which was done by the State Legislature not the governor, apparently Charles Todd was commissioned, but not until 1815. (see below)

Historical marker denoting the founding of Transylvania (Kentucky) in 1775 by early settlers.

Military or Honorary

The first honorary commission of a Colonel as an "Aide-de-Camp" by a Kentucky governor was in 1815, Governor Isaac Shelby bestowed his future son-in-law Charles S. Todd with the title of Colonel. Earlier in 1813 however, the Kentucky Legislature commissioned Richard M. Johnson designating him officially as a colonel to form a mounted militia, making him the highest military officer in Kentucky at the time. It was not until 1895, the Commonwealth officially adopted the practice of naming individual civilians and recognizing those who were known to already be using the title as aristocrats, land holders and veteran, of the Civil War.

During the Civil War there were many militia colonel commissions issued by Senators to both the Union and Confederate sides in the state which was divided, but aside from these commissions many landowners were already known as colonels.

In 1861, Col. John Marshall Harlan on the behalf of President Lincoln issued uniforms and the rank of colonel to many lawyers, physicians and business owners in Louisville to create a presence and sentiment of Union control in the state, they were commissioned to wear the Union Uniform at home and to work. Likewise, as many know Confederate President Jefferson Davis was from Kentucky and led the Rebels to the South.

Officially only the head of state or a member of the legislature could issue an official commission; while traditionally, a colonel could also make another person a colonel if he had a company or a militia under common law, this ended in 1895.

Painting by Col. Russow of the 6th Kentucky Regiment in Tennessee, 1862

Civilian Commission

Governor Col. William O'Connell Bradley began the tradition which remains today by recognizing his political allies, friends and others by establishing an honor guard staff which were presented at the Kentucky Derby and also recognized uniformed Kentucky colonels at the Capitol of the Commonwealth in Frankfort. Prior to this in 1890, Opie Read popularized the ideal of the Kentucky colonel with his book, "A Kentucky Colonel" which portrayed colonels as distinguished, refined Southern gentlemen, usually land holders further popularizing the ideal prior to becoming officially adopted by the state in 1895 resulting in the first official civil award and commission authorized by the Commonwealth that remains today.

Other References