Kentucky Colonel

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Kentucky Colonel 1876
Kentucky state coat of arms (illustrated, 1876).jpg
The Kentucky State Coat of Arms was representative of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Kentucky County, Virginia. The coat of arms serves a different purpose than the state seal that is used today.
Kentucky Colonel Commission
Awarded by  Kentucky
Type State Order of Merit
Ribbon Kentucky Blue
Motto United We Stand
Divided We Fall
Eligibility 18 years of age
Status Official
Established 1793, 1813, 1861, 1895, 1936
First induction March 1793
Last induction Current
Total inductees Circa 350,000 (2022)
Related Kentucky Admiral, Kentucky Commodore, Commonwealth Ambassador

Kentucky Colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and is the most well-known of a number of honorary colonelcies conferred by United States governors.[1] A Kentucky Colonel Commission (the certificate) is awarded in the name of the Commonwealth by the Governor to individuals with "Honorable" titular style recognition preceding the names of civilians, for noteworthy accomplishments, contributions to civil society, remarkable deeds, or outstanding service to the community, state, or a nation.[2] The Governor of Kentucky bestows the honorable title with a colonelcy commission, by issuance of letters patent under Common Law upon nomination by another Kentucky colonel, or by being recognized with the "Honorable" title directly by the Governor upon the recommendation of another.

Many famous and noteworthy people have received commissions and been recognized as Kentucky colonels. The award is distributed indiscriminately to people from many walks of life based on their actions and deeds; it does not matter what race, religion, sex, or socioeconomic status a person has, and anyone 18 years of age or older can be recommended to become a Kentucky colonel based on their deeds. It was widely understood in throughout the 20th century that, "if you could be recognized as a Kentucky colonel then you could do anything."[3] A person who is recognized as a Kentucky Colonel or obliged to the idea of using the honorable title styling of 'Col.' is reciprocally acknowledged in being officially known by the state as the goodwill ambassador of Kentucky culture, folklore, traditions and values.[4]


Governor Isaac Shelby, the first Kentucky governor to bestow the title of colonel to an aide-de-camp, in 1793.

The history of colonels in Kentucky begins with the pioneer, Daniel Boone when he was commissioned by Col. Judge Richard Henderson of the Transylvania Company to blaze and establish the Wilderness Road with a company of men. In March 1775, Colonel Richard Henderson and Daniel Boone met with more than 1,200 indigenous Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals (present day Elizabethton in northeastern Tennessee). Prior to the signing of the Sycamore Shoals Treaty, Col. Henderson had hired Daniel Boone, an experienced hunter, to travel to the Cherokee towns and to inform them of the upcoming negotiations. Boone had been in southeast Kentucky long before the founding of any Kentucky settlements. Afterward, Boone was commissioned a colonel to blaze what became known as the Wilderness Road, which went from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap and into central Kentucky. Along with a party of about thirty men under his authority as a colonel for the Transylvania Company, Boone marked a path to the Kentucky River, where he established Boonesborough (in present-day Madison County, Kentucky), which was intended to be the capital of Transylvania Colony.

From the early 20th century, it was widely believed, since at least as the 1930s, "that when the Kentucky Militia was deactivated following the War of 1812, Governor Isaac Shelby commissioned Charles Stewart Todd as one of his officers in the campaign, made him an aide-de-camp on the governor's staff with the rank and grade of colonel in 1813".[2] The story was proven to be a myth based in state folklore from the "Derby Colonels" which was challenged in U.S. Federal Court in 2020, when it was shown that Chas. Stewart Todd was made a captain of U.S. Army infantry in 1813, there he was an aide to General William Henry Harrison in the Battle of the Thames. In 1815, Captain Todd became Inspector-General of the Michigan Territory under General Duncan McArthur who commissioned him with the retiring rank of colonel before returning to his home in Kentucky. There he met Governor Isaac Shelby's daughter Leticia, then the Governor after writing him a letter to ask for his daughter's hand.[5] Marrying the Governor's daughter garnered him enough influence to become the youngest Secretary of State several months later under Governor George Madison.

In 2020, researchers involved in a legal dispute came to understand the formal tradition of bestowing the "honorable" title of "colonel" to a civilian went back to before Kentucky became a state under Virginia Colonial Law (Common Law),[6] it was also widely used informally as a courtesy title of respect to refer to older gentlemen with honored reputations, often related to military service in the American Revolution.[2] It was also found that Kentucky before it was a state, there were more than one-hundred colonels living in Kentucky as early as 1785 according to Virginia (Kentucky) land records, American Revolution colonels from everywhere were entitled to 6,667 acres or more in the Kentucky District through land bounties in the form of warrant deeds issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The first colonels from pioneer settlers like Colonel Daniel Boone could be any of those from 1776-1793 or perhaps until 1895 when the title officially became honorary, there were different types of colonels in early Kentucky: there were colonels that were the heads of colonies; there were colonels in charge of companies; a colonel could be the head of a militia installation like a fort; a colonel in charge of an infantry command; retired Revolutionary War colonels; those with large land warrants; there were colonels everywhere.[7] Calling someone colonel in early Kentucky was an honorable and respectful way to demonstrate their authority.[1] In 1802, the United States Military formally adopted the rank of colonel in a similar position to those in the British Army, the incorporation of colonelcy in the U.S. Army redefined and distinguished the colonel from the civilian head of a colony, company or militia apart to become the head of a column of soldiers (brigade) with one lieutenant and four majors.[8]

1st Kentucky County Militia Colonel

Today it is understood that the titular use of Colonel has its roots in Colonial Virginia, some say the use of the title, Colonel in Kentucky dates back to 1774 and 1775 with Transylvania and Harrod Town colonels.[4] Government records show that the first official "Kentucky" colonel was John Bowman, who was commissioned in the months after the territory was claimed and officially named by the Colony of Virginia in 1776 as one of its own counties. Col. Bowman's "head of colony" commission was issued by Governor Patrick Henry his mission was to "colonize" Kentucky county and form a civil government. His commission certificate reads:

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.

With his official Commonwealth colonelcy in hand Col. Bowman formed a company of 100 men and travelled to Kentucky overland from Williamsburg. When he arrived in Boonesborough he bestowed the title of "Lieutenant Colonel" of Kentucky County to nearly any and all those who were already colonels in their own-right, and to many of his friends, delivering the news that the territory is part of Commonwealth of Virginia and that Transylvanians were all part of Kentucky, some moved south to Tennessee. Shortly thereafter Kentucky County became the Kentucky District with three counties; before it became a state it already had Louisville, Frankfort and Lexington and nine counties by 1791 all subdivided by its Kentucky colonels. To become a colonel you had to be friendly with one, as it was in Common Law.

Col. Bowman by nature was already a Transylvania lieutenant colonel, he was present as a delegate nineteen months earlier in the creation of the Transylvania Colony with colonels; Daniel Boone, Richard Henderson and eleven other heads of colony ("colonels"), he participated in the Transylvania Convention on May 23, 1775 in Boonesborough. The meeting brought together delegates from four Kentucky settlements, together these colonels wrote the instrumental "Kentucke Magna Charta" which served as a foundational document for Commonwealth of Kentucky (and other state constitutions), there is even an article about improving the breed of horses.[4]

Colonels founding a new Commonwealth

As early as 1784, a year after Col. Isaac Shelby who was a Revolutionary War colonel from North Carolina settled in the Kentucky District, he and other colonels from the territory's counties began meeting in Danville regularly discussing secession from the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1791, Colonel Shelby was unanimously selected by his peers to become the first governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The documents seeking statehood incorporated both the Kentucky Magna Charta and the principles of Commonwealth Law. In June of 1792 the Commonwealth of Kentucky was admitted to the United States (Union) as the 15th state with Col. Isaac Shelby its Governor.[9]

Governor Isaac Shelby was a most experienced statesman, head of colony, warranted land owner and equal rights advocate. He was involved in surveying for the Transylvania Company in August of 1775 working under Colonel Daniel Boone and Colonel James Harrod among other colonels, he was paid for his surveying work with a title to lands near Crab Orchard, Kentucky. After his experience surveying for the Transylvania Company and becoming 'unofficially' a lieutenant colonel under Boone, he went off to start his own county getting his own colonelcy for North Carolina's Sullivan County. As a colonel, Shelby was one of the Over the Mountain Men in the Battle of Kings Mountain and he was one of the founding secessionists for the extralegal Free Republic of Franklin which included Sullivan County. Instead of continuing to establish the State of Franklin, knowing what had happened with the Transylvania Company and unclaimed lands; instead in 1783, Shelby moved to Lincoln County in Virginia to claim his land warrants both as a surveyor for the Transylvania Colony and at least 6,667 acres more in bounty lands for his participation in the Battle of Kings Mountain.[10]

After becoming governor, most of the colonels in Kentucky that were involved in the founding of the Commonwealth in 1792 became legislators and government officers. The mission of the first Colonel John Bowman and his designates was completed, they formed a civil government and designated one of their own as the new governor. Under the new head-of-state it was Governor Shelby became responsible for designating who would serve with him in government and who would continue to be acknowledged or recognized as a colonel. State records indicate that his first colonelcy commission as a governor of the Commonwealth was granted to his adjutant general and military aide-de-camp, Col. Percival Pierce Butler in 1793. Colonel Butler served in the role until 1817 under Governor Gabriel Slaughter, Butler was the first civilian uniformed commander of the Kentucky State Militia, however he was not the only colonel in Kentucky, or the only Kentucky Colonel.[11]

In 1813 the Kentucky State Legislature commissioned Richard Mentor Johnson a colonel to form a mounted militia to support the campaign of the War of 1812, this was the state's first cavalry and first legislative colonelcy, this is well documented. This commission was independent of Governor Isaac Shelby during his second term as governor, who supported the War of 1812 with the Kentucky Volunteer Militia. Shelby commissioned Adjutant General Col. John Adair as his first aide-de-camp and Colonel John J. Crittenden as his second aide in 1813 before departing north to the Battle of Thames. Soon thereafter, Kentucky colonels went to assist Colonel Sam Houston defend Texas in the Mexican War.[4]

Lincoln's Kentucky colonels

In 1861 Kentucky was a swing state in the Civil War, with two Kentucky antagonists, Jefferson Davis as the President of the Confederate States and President Abraham Lincoln the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief of the Union Army. To keep hold of Kentucky in the war, President Lincoln and one of his own colonels, Col. John Marshall Harlan came up with a plan to post 1,000 civilian officers in uniform in Frankfort, Lexington and Louisville; which in reality were "citizen peace and goodwill ambassadors" for the Union being asked to wear the uniform to home and work, with no special duties. The campaign was started from Louisville, it focused on prominent members of society like lawyers, judges, professors, merchants, dock captains, railroad operators and physicians.[12] Although it was a secret program several stories emerged between 1881-1903 later collaborated by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan's biographical works.

Civilian honorary officers

While some early colonels served military roles in the state, colonel in Kentucky was a well-known civilian honorific title belonging to attorneys, judges, county commissioners, large land owners and sheriffs well into 1860. Henry Clay of Fayette County and Cassius Clay of Madison County were both Kentucky colonels. In the latter part of the 19th century, Commonwealth colonelcy took on a more ceremonial function with governors. Colonels in uniform attended functions at the Governor's mansion and stood as symbolic guards at state events. By the late 19th century, the title had become more of an honorary one assigning colonelcy duties to the ceremonial guard and recognizing civilians for their promotion of the prosperity of the state by commuting the Honorable title as an honorary colonel. In 1895, Governor Col. William O'Connell Bradley[13] commissioned the first honorary Kentucky colonels[14] as an award of merit bestowed upon citizens for their individual contributions to the state, good deeds, and noteworthy actions. The Governor could not resist officially designating the title, he had been called "colonel" since his youth himself, having adopted the moniker in his community of Somerset, Kentucky after unsuccessfully attempting to become a soldier in the Civil War for the Union twice in 1861.

Considering as well, the popularity of the idea of the Kentucky Colonel, in 1890, a book was published by Opie Read called 'A Kentucky Colonel' which evolved a new public perception of what a Kentucky colonel was, posing himself more as a refined, well-mannered southern gentleman, rather than a figure in the Kentucky militia. This view was further established by Zoe Anderson Norris with a series of twelve stories published in The Sun (New York) in 1905 describing scenes and incidents in a Kentucky Colonel's life in the South, adding to the allure of the somewhat mythical life of the most distinguished Kentucky colonels.[15][16]

Kentucky colonels became definitively idealized in the Commonwealth in 1889 with the rest of America when the Louisville Post published an article "Kentucky Colonels: How It Happens They are so Numerous In the Blue Grass State" in September 1889, the article was published by more than 80 regional city newspapers defining the Kentucky Colonel.[17] While this may be one of the reasons Governor Bradley made it an official honorific form of address for civilians, it is not close to the end of the history of Kentucky colonelcy.[3]

At the beginning of the 20th century into early 1930s, Kentucky colonels began to come together to form sociopolitical, charitable, and fraternal organizations.[18] Newspaper archives found online show thousands of articles that contain the terms Kentucky Colonel(s) and more than 20 organizations had formed, some organizations had sub-groups.[3]

During this time Kentucky colonelcy gained considerable attention as a desirable honorific title that was even being awarded to women, until being harshly ridiculed and called a hollow title by Marsh Henry also known as Col. Henry Watterson, who had been a Kentucky Colonel for over 30 years already in 1920.[19] In 1931 in Las Vegas a well-read story about Kentucky colonels emerged, "Thousand New Kunnels, Suh, In 25 Years".[20] Prior to 1932, only about 1,000 people had received official "Honorable" commissions as Kentucky colonels from Kentucky's governors. Governor Ruby Laffoon, in office from 1931 to 1935, dramatically increased the number of colonels by issuing more than 10,000 commissions in 1933 and 1934; among his motives was officializing the Kentucky colonel to identify with the Commonwealth, taxing the title of colonel, and boosting his own political support. One of his most famous colonelships was granted to restaurateur Harland Sanders, who was commissioned by Laffoon in 1935. Ruby Laffoon was Kentucky's most flamboyant governor and public relations expert, he had to be, he took over the state during the Great Depression, with his aide Colonel Anna Bell Ward he selected some of the most well-known celebrities and well-connected movers and shakers from Kentucky society. He commissioned Shirley Temple, Mickey Mouse and Santa Clause as well. Governor Laffoon's influence on the Kentucky colonel and flair connecting the idea of the Kentucky Colonel to the state and the Kentucky Derby was very successful and brought great prominence to the Kentucky Derby inviting celebrities and heads of state to visit Kentucky each year for Derby Day.

When Governor Albert Benjamin Chandler (better known as Happy Chandler) took office in 1935, he took a much different view on the distinction of a Kentucky colonel commission. Governor Chandler issued only about a dozen new commissions annually, on Derby Day. Governor Keen Johnson followed Governor Chandler's lead during his time in office from 1939 to 1943, commissioning only those select individuals who were deemed to have exhibited exceptionally noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation.[21] The subsequent governors, however, have typically been much more liberal in issuing Kentucky colonel commissions.[22]

Talking about their known history in 1941 the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels stated, "A.O. Stanley, then Governor, commissioned 110 honorary colonels; Gov. E.P. Morrow added 243; Gov. W. Fields, 183; Gov. Flem Sampson, 677; Gov. Ruby Laffoon, 10,450; and Gov. A.B. Chandler, 85. In 1934, at a meeting of Kentucky Colonels a social organization of colonels was affected. Then on March 28, 1936, the Attorney General of Kentucky voided all of these commissions, but a month later they were revived by the Acting Governor, James. E. Wise."[23]

Colonel Harland Sanders, a restaurateur who adopted the honorary title of Colonel as a prominent part of his public persona. Sanders was commissioned by Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935 and launched Kentucky Fried Chicken as a franchise chain in 1952.

Contemporary Kentucky colonelcy

Since commissioned Kentucky colonels are considered in Common Law as aide-de-camps to the governors and members of their staff, they are all are entitled to the style of "Honorable" as indicated on their colonelcy commission certificates.[24][25][26] This is rarely used, however; Kentucky colonels are usually just referred to and addressed as "Colonel" and use the abbreviation "Col." like auctioneers in the south and midwest. In writing, usage is Kentucky colonel when the term is not being used as a specific title for an individual. Most properly in writing "Col. First Name, Middle, Surname" should be followed by a comma then "Kentucky Colonel" especially in writing to members of Congress, the Executive and Judicial branches of U.S. Government.

Too many Kentucky colonels

Under Governor Steve Beshear in 2008, so many commissions were being issued that state budget cuts led to a major change in the design of the commission certificate, as the governor was issuing as many as 16,500 colonelships per year.[27] The certificate was downsized from the 10-by-15-inch (25 by 38 cm) size to 8.5 by 14 inches (22 by 36 cm). The wording remained the same on the certificate; however, the traditional gold seal and ribbon were replaced with a state seal that is embossed. Reducing materials for the new certificates was expected to save $5,000 annually for the state; the substantial savings was for excluding the labor formerly needed to apply the gold seal and ribbon by hand. The Kentucky colonels objected to the changes in the certificates, and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels offered to pay $5,000 a year to keep the traditional certificates. Yet the substantial savings in labor to produce the new certificates led the Secretary of State's office to proceed with the changes.[28]

Col. Russ Marlowe, a 70-year-old Bardstown resident, estimated that he had personally nominated about 500 recipients (mostly military veterans) and that none of his nominations had ever been turned down.[27] John Carbone, a man from Philadelphia who later became a humorist in Kentucky, said that shortly after moving to the state in 1995, he struck up a casual conversation with a stranger while standing in line at a muffin shop, and was soon surprised to receive a Kentucky colonel certificate in the mail, as the man he had spoken with had been a member of the governor's staff and had submitted his name for the award.[27] In a 2008 news article on the subject, a reporter wrote of preparing for writing it by asking some friends and family if they knew anyone who was a Kentucky colonel and being surprised to find that at least a dozen were colonels themselves, and then quipped to the reader, "You’re not a Kentucky Colonel? Actually, neither am I. But sometimes it seems like everybody else is. ...". Surprisingly, only a third of all Kentucky colonels nominated were Kentuckians in 2008.[27]

Recent controversy among colonels

In 2016, Governor Matt Bevin briefly suspended the program to conduct a review of the requirements for receiving the title and then changed the nomination process so that "only active members of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels" were allowed to make recommendations for the honor.[29][30][31] Up to that point in time, the longstanding practice had been that recommendations could be submitted by anyone who already was a Kentucky colonel, without any requirement for donations or membership in any particular organization, and at least 85,000 people had received the title.[29]

In 2019, the unincorporated fraternal membership organization Kentucky Colonels International raised concerns and harsh criticism over the changes instituted by Governor Bevin, saying that the commission is a lifetime appointment as an honorary award and should not require colonels to donate annually to a particular organization in order to make nominations and retain their status or privileges.[32] Sherry Crose, executive director of the HOKC, confirmed that there was a donation component to the nomination process under Governor Bevin, but said the HOKC does not control the criteria for the nomination process, which is a matter under the discretion of the sitting governor. She said "The entire nomination process is handled by the governor. We have no say in how it's done."[33]

With the change in the state's government in 2019 the Kentucky Colonels International commissioner wrote to the Governor, published a website and a series of articles advocating the salvation of the honorable title to the standards used under the previous governors and criticizing the current standards.[32] The organization also attempted to develop a new membership program for Kentucky colonels, citing the lack of members voting rights in the Honorable Order. This placed the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels on the offensive and prompted them to file for trademark registration to protect their brand name ideas using the term "Kentucky Colonels ® _______" followed by the filing of a Federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. The lawsuit alleged trademark infringement and unfair competition, but the matter was settled by the parties with an Agreed Permanent Injunction voluntarily entered into prior to answering all the questions it raised based on the organizations' past histories together and the history of the Kentucky colonel which was presented to the Court.[6]

The nomination process changed around the same time the lawsuit began in February 2020, under Governor Andy Beshear (who entered office in 2019 and is the son of the former Governor Steve Beshear who had issued more commissions than even Ruby Laffoon), the governor had the nomination process frozen from December 10, 2019. On February 19, 2020, Governor Andy Beshear not only removed the donation requirement, but also removed the requirement that the nominators be among those previously designated as Kentucky Colonels.[33] Beshear began allowing nominations to be submitted by anyone among the general public through a website form which requires that the person's qualifications are declared and well-elaborated prior to being considered for a Kentucky colonelcy.[33]

Kentucky Goodwill Ambassador

When using the title "Colonel" or "Col." as a Kentucky Colonel as a "style" or "form of address" in presentation like many people do; is to infer that their colonelcy represents civilian officership (non-military) as an ambassador of goodwill. As a form of address in writing, a Kentucky colonel should present themselves as "Col. Firstname Lastname, Kentucky Colonel" or "Col. Firstname Lastname, Kentucky Goodwill Ambassador", both of these styles are acceptable with government, are correct, and understood internationally.[24]

Although there are no specific duties required of those to whom the title is granted, the Kentucky colonel has served the Commonwealth of Kentucky as a cultural icon since it began. Legally, the current job description for a Kentucky Colonel is to serve as an ambassador of goodwill for the state's culture, customs, and traditions; Kentucky colonels are implicitly obliged with the honorable title of being recognized today as the promoters of economic development and tourism as well. In common law, since colonial days, colonels had more rights and authority based on their own and everyone else's understanding, these common law customs continue today; although these customs are not as easily so easily applied under today's rule of the government created by the colonels of yesterday.

Kentucky colonel organizations

Today there are a number of charitable, fraternal, and social organizations around the world that are either dedicated to, show deference to, or provide fellowship to Kentucky colonels. The social formation of these organizations created by those who have received the title has been facilitated by the use of social media allowing new alliances, fellowships and chapters to be created. There are currently organized fellowships (civil societies) located in the United Kingdom,[34] Philadelphia,[35] Switzerland,[36] Spain, New York, Toronto, Germany, and several other places.[18][37] Such groups have sometimes teamed together to support humanitarian causes like tornado disaster relief in Kentucky in 2012 and in Oklahoma in 2013. This has resulted in individuals spreading social media messages using Facebook diplomacy to generate goodwill towards the state of Kentucky and further recognition of the honorary title.[38] There are two large Facebook groups online as well one is called the Kentucky Colonel Community and the other is Kentucky Colonel Club, both are popular social media places to find other colonels.

Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels

The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (HOKC) is the largest and most well-known organization of Kentucky colonels, so well-known that their name, trademarks and service marks, "Kentucky Colonels ®" have become synonymous with their identity. The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels was first established during the depression in 1933 by Governor Ruby Laffoon to raise tax-revenues and attract attention to the state, it was founded based on the recommendation of Governor Flem Sampson in 1931 to create a brotherhood of colonels. Governor Laffoon awarded over 10,000 commissions between 1932-1935, he established the organization originally as a state order of merit with an office at the capital. After being criticized politically and challenged legally by the Attorney General of the Commonwealth, Beverly Vincent cancelled 17,000 colonel commissions in 1936; the practice and colonelcies were reinstated by James Wise serving as the acting governor under Governor A.B. "Happy" Chandler exactly one month later. Since 1936 "Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels" has been dependent on each of Kentucky's governors to make new colonels. In 1957, it was incorporated as a nonprofit dedicated to building playgrounds, curating history, awarding scholarships and providing relief to Kentuckians in need.[6]

After a person receives a commission from the governor they automatically become an honorary lifetime member of organization. Recipients of Kentucky colonel commissions are invited to donate and participate in the HOKC's charitable efforts throughout the state to be considered an active member.[2][39]

Commonwealth Colonels

Another organization, started originally in 1998 for Kentucky colonels was Kentucky Colonels International[40][41] which was a part of Globcal International[42] until February 25, 2020 when the trade name was abandoned as an assumed corporation name with the Secretary of State's office due to the filing of a trademark and trade name infringement lawsuit by the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (HOKC) several days earlier on February 20. Several months later in August after a Preliminary Injunction was imposed prohibiting the use of the term "Kentucky Colonels", the organization re-emerged as an unincorporated Creative Commons authorship called the Commonwealth Colonels, launching new Creative Commons website spin-offs, "American Colonelcy" and "Kentucky Colonelcy" and mounting an incredible defense case.[43] The lawsuit was settled without fault and dismissed with prejudice under a Court Mediated Agreement,[44] an Agreed Permanent Injunction[45] and an Agreed Dismissal Order[6][46] entered by the parties on February 23, 2021. The defendants were prohibited from further implied use or infringement of the "Kentucky Colonels" Mark as part of any trade name, social media handle or domain name; however the defendants were not prohibited from recognizing award recipients as Kentucky colonels, using the title "Kentucky Colonel", conducting their social media efforts, publishing online, pursuing the history of the Kentucky colonel, writing a book, discussing Kentucky colonelcy or presenting themselves as Kentucky colonels. The lawsuit states that the author Col. David J. Wright was online with a website entitled "Kentucky Colonels" with [][47] as early as three years prior to the "Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels" began using the Internet, this is verified by the Internet Archive and ICANN.[48]

Kentucky colonel toast

In 1936, New York advertising agency owner Colonel Arthur Kudner wrote a toast to Kentucky colonels. The toast was quickly adopted by the HOKC, and it was widely promoted and published for use by colonels. The toast has since been ceremoniously presented at each of the Kentucky Colonels' Derby Eve Banquets:

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I give you a man dedicated to the good things of life, to the gentle, the heartfelt things, to good living, and to the kindly rites with which it is surrounded. In all the clash of a plangent world he holds firm to his ideal – a gracious existence in that country of content "where slower clocks strike happier hours". He stands in spirit on a tall-columned veranda, a hospitable glass in his hand, and he looks over the good and fertile earth, over ripening fields, over meadows of rippling bluegrass. The rounded note of a horn floats through the fragrant stillness. Afar, the sleek and shining flanks of a thoroughbred catch the bright sun. The broad door, open wide with welcome ... the slow, soft-spoken word ... the familiar step of friendship ... all of this is his life and it is good. He brings fair judgment to sterner things. He is proud in the traditions of his country, in ways that are settled and true. In a trying world darkened by hate and misunderstanding, he is a symbol of those virtues in which men find gallant faith and of the good men might distill from life. Here he stands, then. In the finest sense, an epicure ... a patriot ... a man. Gentlemen, I give you, the Kentucky Colonel.[49][50]

Kentucky colonel culture

Starting around 1889, culture began incorporating the idea of the Kentucky Colonel as the name or part of the name of bars, beer, bourbon, barbecue, burgoo, clubs, hotels, food, liquor stores, plants, restaurants, social venues, sports teams, tobacco products and even a political lobby. The Kentucky Colonel has always been most notorious for drinking bourbon, making moonshine liquor, storytelling and dueling over their honor[51] starting in the 19th century. Likewise the Kentucky colonel has been portrayed in a number of films, cartoons, movies, books and featured in newspapers since as early as the 1850s.[3]

Those who have received a Kentucky colonelcy commission have often used the title, idea or the image of the concept of the idealistic Kentucky Colonel to promote art, business, events, music, places and recreational activities while simultaneously promoting the state's customs and traditions, resulting in the honor becoming a well-recognized trademark of Kentucky's culture. As it was explained by the defense in the U.S. District Court in 2020, "the idea and image of the Kentucky Colonel and Kentucky colonels is inextricably intertwined with the state".[6]

Bourbon whiskey

The Kentucky colonel title in business marketing is seen in the ongoing historic association between Kentucky and bourbon whiskey production. As of 2013, approximately 95 percent of all bourbon was produced in Kentucky, and the state had 4.9 million barrels of bourbon in the process of aging.[52][53] The historic distiller James B. Beam is referred to as "Colonel James B. Beam" for the marketing of the Jim Beam brand (the largest-selling brand of bourbon).[54] The Sazerac Company similarly refers to the distiller Albert Blanton as "Colonel Blanton" for their marketing of the Blanton's brand. In both cases, the "Colonel" title refers to being a Kentucky colonel. A brand of Kentucky bourbon called Kentucky Colonel was produced in the 1980s,[55] and at least two current brands of Kentucky bourbon have the word "Colonel" in their name, the Colonel E. H. Taylor and Colonel Lee bourbon brands. In 2020 the Neeley Family Distillery (a craft bourbon distiller) in Sparta, Kentucky filed for the trademark "Old Kentucky Colonel" to bring back the original Kentucky Colonel brand.[56]

Fried chicken

While there are many prominent public figures who are adorned with becoming Kentucky colonels, no other figure defined themself as well as Harland David Sanders (1890 – 1980) who used his legitimate title of "Colonel" and his own personal determination to make himself and Kentucky world-famous for fried chicken and its colonels. From a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, Colonel Sanders as he became known, started one of America's most successful franchise endeavors in history, Kentucky Fried Chicken, known today as KFC. He invented a way to make chicken faster and moister with a high-pressure fryer. Himself as the company mascot became so well known that he was often referred to simply as "The Colonel", which is also a book title that was written about his life.

Horse racing

Colonels were known as the owners of some of the greatest thoroughbred horse farms in the Bluegrass region of the state. Louisville was a most important city as well because it served commerce and was a port city. It was also the natural place to race horses from other places giving birth to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. Col. Matt Winn who was present at the first race at Churchill Downs in 1875 turned it into the Kentucky Derby we know today. His savvy drove together the ideas of the Kentucky Colonel, Southern hospitality, spectacular hats and high-society figures to create one of the most important annual events in America.[57]

Hospitality industry

The first modern hotel (for it's time) in Tulsa, Oklahoma was called the Kentucky Colonel Hotel, built in 1903 before Oklahoma was a state. The hotel was built by Colonel G.W. Gist who left the area shortly after the Oklahoma Territory became a state because the community would not let him promote horse racing from the location.[58] There were several other hotels and motels including the Kentucky Colonel Motel in Bowling Green, Kentucky and another in Bradenton, Florida.[59]


There have been Kentucky Colonel postcards of a stereotypical southern gentleman with a goatee dating the late 1800's going all the way back to the Kentucky Colonels baseball club in 1892. There have been uniforms, badges, toys, children's fiction and comics. There are also many Kentucky Colonels ® brand name products those who are active members of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels available from the Kentucky Colonels Shop. Among the most collectible items are formal medals of valor, they are given in appreciation of gifts made directly to the Honorable Order to the Good Works Fund.


There have been several musical groups (bands) that used the name or incorporated the idea of the Kentucky colonel in their performance. A popular bluegrass band of the 1960s was also called the Kentucky Colonels. It included Clarence White, who was later with The Byrds and who also worked extensively as a session musician with various highly prominent performers. There are a great number of other musicians that have used the idea or image of the Kentucky Colonel in their act or as part of their name.

Sports teams

A number of sports teams in Kentucky, have been known as the Kentucky Colonels. These include the Kentucky Colonels professional basketball team of 1967–1976, the Kentucky Colonels professional basketball team of 2004, and the Eastern Kentucky Colonels athletic teams of Eastern Kentucky University. The athletic teams from Centre College in Danville are also known as the Colonels.

Notable Kentucky colonels

The title of Colonel or its abbreviation "Col." belongs to many of the most notable historic and iconic figures who manifested Kentucky dating back to the dawn of the American Revolution starting with pioneers, Col. Daniel Boone and Col. John Bowman. None of the original Kentucky colonels (from 1774-1815) were from Kentucky until after 1813 when the legislature commissioned Col. Richard Mentor Johnson to form the Kentucky Cavalry in the War of 1812. All the actual colonels in Kentucky during the period were colonels from somewhere else, from Georgia in the South to Massachusetts in the North. The first person born in Kentucky after it officially became Commonwealth of Kentucky, to actually be recognized as a colonel was Charles S. Todd in 1815 for his role as Inspector General, who in 1816 after returning to Kentucky became Secretary of State at the age of 25. Col. Chas. S. Todd was one of America's great diplomats to Russia and Colombia he was also known as Kentucky's Native Son, in folklore and social circles.

In Kentucky, the most notable colonels are the ones that have counties and towns named in remembrance of their honorable acts and lives. Over 70% of Kentucky's 120 counties and a great number of towns are named after or by a historical civilian company colonel or former militia colonel that received land bounties or purchased land from 1777 to 1865 when the Civil War ended. Originally title of "Colonel" was granted based on purchasing a colonelcy from a governor, earning it through service, being selected to head a militia to form a government or be recognized based on land ownership with a colonel title. Large landholders who were colonels often formed their own colonies in the form of plantations or thoroughbred horse farms. Colonels were known until 1793 to be the only authorized person to appoint a sheriff or designate a justice of the peace, when the colonists voted a colonel had to count the votes.[1]

The title has been given to a broad variety of notable people – including various celebrities who are actors, artists, writers, athletes, performers, poets, business people, US and foreign politicians, and members of foreign royal families – some of whom have no obvious connection to Kentucky.[60] It has also been bestowed upon various people who are not generally considered especially notable – Kentucky colonels have been people from "all walks of life".[2][3]

Kentucky colonel nominations

Each governor decides to whom, how, under what conditions, the selection process and the frequently he/she will issue colonelcies. Since the late 1890s only a colonel could nominate another colonel or the governor had to independently recognize the individual. Under the current process established by Governor Andy Beshear (elected 2019), nominations and recommendations for the honorable title can be submitted by both Kentucky colonels and members of the general public. The nomination form solicits the recipient's name, telephone number, email, birthdate, detailed information about "any active or previous service in a charitable organization or community service and/or any military service", and a statement of the "noteworthy deed", stating why the person deserves to be recognized as "honorable" without requiring an affiliation with (or donation to) any particular organization. Individuals may not nominate themselves and many applications are rejected for not providing the proper details or being considered noteworthy enough, applications are expected to say much more than "good person".[61]

See also


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  15. Norris, Zoe A. Kentucky in American Letters 1784–1912, September 1913. p 136-137.
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  21. "You Too Can Be an Admiral", Youngstown Vindicator, August 3, 1947. A-6.
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  25. Websters Dictionary Archived 2011-07-18 at the Wayback Machine.
  26. Dictionary definition of colonel.
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  28. "Budget Strains Pare Back Kentucky Colonel Commissions" Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine, Associated Press, May 19, 2008.
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  37. Facebook Platform, Facebook Search, February 12, 2020
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  40. Kentucky Colonel, Official Facebook Page for the Kentucky Colonel at @KyColonelcy
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  49. Porter, Marion. Howdy Colonel. 1947. p8. Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels
  50. Colonel Toast Archived 2012-11-07 at the Wayback Machine, Speech, Kentucky Derby 1936, Colonel Arthur Kudner
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  52. Maker's Mark to restore alcohol content of whiskey, USA Today, February 17, 2013.
  53. Schreiner, Bruce, "Kentucky Bourbon Trail Expands to Include Stop in Downtown Louisville Archived 2013-06-28 at", Associated Press, May 9, 2013.
  54. Beveragenet Reference URL last accessed April 11, 2008. Archived 2006-05-01 at the Wayback Machine
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  • Carl Edwin Lindgren. Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (February/March 2001). Il Mondo del Cavaliere, Vol. I, No. 1, p. 14. ISSN 1592-1425.

External links

Kentucky Colonelcy Creative Commons
Commonwealth of Kentucky