Kentucky Gazette (LEXINGTON) - Kentucky's First Newspaper

Available only in the Kentucky Digital Library

By the early 1780's Lexington, Kentucky was a burgeoning frontier town with 300 settlers in fewer than 50 log cabins. The western hub of what was then Virginia territory was over 400 rugged miles from the capital in Richmond; a distance that created communication problems and a lack of understanding for frontier matters. By 1784, prolonged eastern disregard had moved the frontiersmen to sedition until, finally, on June 2, 1792, the 15th state of the Union was born.

It was during the separation debates that the need for a frontier newspaper became clear. Since no trained editor could be found in the territory, brothers John and Fielding Bradford headed east to learn the craft and to gather the necessary supplies for a press. They returned to Lexington and the first issue of the Kentucke Gazette appeared on August 11, 1787, making it the first newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains. (The Commonwealth of Kentucky shares the same distinction)

The earliest years of the Gazette were meager; barely two small pages of print, but it quickly grew into a four page weekly imparting East Coast and foreign news in addition to the sometimes colorful local announcements. Above all else, though, the Gazette's primary agenda was the dissemination of opinions regarding state politics and global issues of American frontier concern. Throughout the Gazette's life it remained true to this principle. As political parties emerged the Gazette became a strong Democratic (Jacksonian) mouthpiece, a stance clearly reflected in its editorials.

A number of editors contributed to the Gazette's success though the founding Bradford family remained involved for over 50 years. Fielding Bradford's tenure was short, departing in the spring of 1788. Because of this, John Bradford alone is most often credited with the paper's founding. A year later, on March 14, 1789, he changed the paper's title to reflect what was to become the official spelling of the state: Kentucky Gazette. After 15 years, in April 1802, the elder Bradford handed the reins to his son, Daniel.

In short order, in 1803, Daniel Bradford changed the title to Kentucky Gazette and General Advertiser; an alteration most likely owed to economic circumstance and its increased physical size. The paper carried this name until 1809 when it returned to the simpler Kentucky Gazette. By then Bradford touted the six page newspaper as "superior in size to any weekly paper in the United States and equaled by but few daily papers". Thomas Smith, "successor to Daniel Bradford" as he billed himself, took the editorial helm soon after this change but he was just the first of many editors to come.

Perhaps the most colorful turn of events in Gazette history was due to the untimely demise of Editor Thomas Benning in March 1829. Charles Wickliffe, son of the area's largest slave owner (Robert Wickliffe) was incensed by his father's portrayal in a Gazette editorial. A disagreement ensued and Wickliffe fatally shot Editor Benning. He was acquitted thanks to his defense attorney, Henry Clay. But later that same year, Benning's successor and Wickliffe's best friend, James George Trotter, was challenged to a dual by the hot-headed Wickliffe. It ended in the death of the latter and landed the former in a lunatic asylum.

Daniel Bradford returned to the Gazette where he remained until March 1840 when he sold the paper to Maryland native Joshua Cunningham. Although Cunningham was an experienced newspaperman, his failing health crippled the newspaper, and the Kentucky Gazette ceased publication after the December 29, 1848 issue.

Twenty seven years later, in June 1866, the Kentucky Gazette was revived, again with a political bent. The editorial salutation decried "The establishment of a Democratic newspaper in the city of Lexington was determined upon by the unanimous resolution of the Democratic Committee of Fayette [County]." It was a semi-weekly publication though some editions were printed as the Kentucky Gazette Weekly. Once again a number of editors steered the Gazette starting with prominent Lexingtonian H.H. Gratz.

By January 1907, under the leadership of Editor Enoch Grehan, whose name adorns the Journalism Building at the University of Kentucky, the Gazette Publishing Company incorporated. The new board of directors and editorial staff thus made substantial changes. Field correspondents were stationed throughout the area for more comprehensive reporting, and taking advantage of the railway system, service expanded further into the eastern and central counties with two daily editions; Kentucky Gazette (formerly the Semi-weekly Kentucky Gazette) and Kentucky Evening Gazette. Beside Gehan stood Editor A.M. Harrison of the Semi-weekly Kentucky Gazette who remained with the new daily edition.

Within weeks the Gazette had partnered with The Lexington Herald to use its modernized press. Before long, the two were "clubbing"; a practice whereby multiple papers could be bought and delivered together at discount rates. The comingling didn't end there and its effects are felt today.

Col. William Pulaski "W.P." Walton was the last editor of the Gazette. He was a well-known, fiery newspaper man with several central Kentucky papers under his belt, including Lexington's Morning Democrat which had been "absorbed" by his rival The Lexington Herald in late 1904. Since 1875, with his brother E.C., Walton published Stanford, Kentucky's Democratic Interior Journal (still in print today www.theinteriorjournal.com). For a short time (1910-1914), the Journal was owned by Shelton M. Saufley, who had been the Frankfort correspondent for the Gazette in 1907. (Saufley went on to create what is today the Richmond Register richmondregister.com)

Given his long-running success and strong Democratic leanings, W.P. Walton seemed the best man to lead the Gazette that, by 1909, was suffering at the hands of its competitors. Alas, his charge failed. The final issue of The Kentucky Gazette was published on January 12, 1910. In the article; "Suspension of The Gazette", Walton noted the financial decline of the newspaper; "the two old, established ones [The Lexington Herald and The Lexington Leader] are sufficient for the needs of the city and give but scant support to a third."

Preservation and Digitization of the Kentucky Gazette

The preservation and digitization of the Kentucky Gazette was a partnership between the University of Kentucky Libraries and the Lexington Public Library (LPL). The project was undertaken in two phases beginning 2009. Owning the majority of the original newspapers, LPL provided 1787-1840 to the UK Libraries for extensive conservation treatment prior to digitization. This content was made available online exclusively through the Kentucky Digital Library (KDL) by June 2010. The second half of the project, 1841-1910, is slated for digitization in the near future. (Historical essay provided by Kopana Terry and Jan Marshall)