Did you know more than half of all Americans killed in the War of 1812 were from Kentucky? Did you know Man o War, the famous Kentucky thoroughbred, only suffered one defeat to finish second. The first place finisher? A colt named “Upset.” (Upset Boulevard does have an accurate ring to it.)
Too often in history class, we only learn what are deemed to be big, important events, concepts and dates. Think of these as the bricks that make up a building. While these bricks of history do form the solid structure, it’s the mortar – the stuff in between the bricks – that really holds the building together.
In honor of the 225th birthday of Kentucky and the 241st birthday of America, here are some little globs of that historical mortar that cement Kentucky’s place in history.
- The American Icon You Don’t Know
So we’ve all heard of iconic Kentucky heroes such as Daniel Boone, George Clooney or Muhammad Ali, but have you heard of Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield? We really need to talk about him, if not.
James Winkfield was born in Chilesburg, Kentucky, which was a small community in Fayette County located east of Lexington, just past where Hamburg is located now.
Wink’s claim to fame is that he is the last African-American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, which he did twice, consecutively, but his story is far more complex than that.
His wins in the Kentucky Derby came in 1901 and 1902, and he narrowly missed winning a third consecutive Derby in 1903, but increasing racism towards black jockeys and movements against organized gambling began to curtail racing opportunities.
He was shortly thereafter blacklisted for breaking a contract with his usual stable by riding for another owner, so he packed up and headed to race in Russia and Poland, where he began racking up impressive victories all over Russia and Eastern Europe.
The Russian Revolution pushed him and other horse owners and trainers, who were now reviled symbols of wealth and the aristocracy, south to Odessa, and here’s where Wink’s story becomes legend.
As the effects of the Revolution became clear and danger pushed closer, Wink and his fellow owners, trainers and riders took more than 200 thoroughbreds on a desperate trek to Poland through the Transylvanian Alps, consuming horseflesh to survive the perilous 1000-mile journey. Think of the Von Trapp family, add in some Hannibal (the elephants guy, not the cannibal guy) and mix in a dash of the Donner Party. Wink married an exiled Russian Baroness and settled down outside Paris to raise horses. Sadly, his wife died almost immediately, and their son together died in his teens. Wink then married a French woman and had two more children. He must have thought his hard days were behind him, when German forces commandeered his property. In his stables, Wink held his own against them with a pitchfork. Seriously.
After a few decades abroad, Wink returned to Kentucky in 1961 to celebrate the 60th Derby since his first big win. Because stupidity does not stand aside for greatness, Wink was initially unable to gain entrance to a dinner in his honor at the Brown Hotel, due to its segregation policies.
Wink died in France in 1974, having amassed over 2600 racing victories, two Kentucky Derbies, as well as having stared down Bolsheviks, Nazis, and racists.
Where is this guy’s biopic? Will someone get on this screenplay? Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield was an American icon. If only we knew about him.
- Of course there’s going to be something on Lincoln
It’s fairly common knowledge that the leaders from both sides of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were born in Kentucky, which a better writer could use as a metaphor for Kentucky’s conflicted role in the fight. What you may not know, however, is that Lincoln’s love of the law and eventual ascension to the Presidency was likely given spark in a house situated between Hawesville and Lewisport, two small towns in Western Kentucky just on this side of Owensboro. It was there in 1827 that Squire Samuel Pate heard the case of The Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Abraham Lincoln. That’s right – Honest Abe’s first legal case was defending himself on criminal charges of operating a ferry without a license. Abraham had been ferrying passengers from the Indiana side of the Ohio river to steamers out in the middle, angering some Kentucky brothers who had cornered the “taking people across the river” market in the area, and had him brought up on charges. Lincoln, all of seventeen, argued his case before Squire Samuel Pate at Pate’s house, earning himself an acquittal. After the short hearing, Lincoln lingered on the porch to talk with Pate, who spoke about the need for legal literacy. Lincoln became enamored of Pate and would often paddle across the river on Pate’s invitation to watch other proceedings, and thus was Lincoln’s interest in the law stoked.
- The Last Battle of the Revolutionary War
That’s right – Kentucky claims the last battle of the Revolutionary War, memorialized at Blue Licks Battlefield State Park. In August of 1782, Almost a year after Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, a British invasion force 1100-men strong was haphazardly attacking settlements in Kentucky, but had turned to head back to attack areas of what is now West Virginia. Kentucky militiamen caught up with them in Blue Licks after an abandoned British attack on Bryan Station. During the ensuing debate over whether to attack, Lt. Col. Daniel Boone warned about the possibility of an ambush. Rather than deal with things like “strategy” and “seriously, maybe we should listen to Daniel Boone,” the next morning one Major Hugh McGary allegedly just rode his horse into the waters of the Licking River waving his hat and shouting, “All those who are not cowards, follow me!”, the eighteenth-century equivalent of “Hold my beer and watch this!” or “Leeroy Jenkins!”, depending on your cultural touchstone. Of course, they couldn’t just sit there and NOT follow the lunatic urging them into a slaughter by calling them cowards, so we now remember the Battle of Blue Licks as the place where, almost a year after we won the American Revolutionary War, we still lost what many historians consider the very last battle, with 70 Kentuckians losing their lives, including Daniel Boone’s youngest son, Israel.