It's often been repeated in years past - by me, even - that there's an old legend about Kentucky's name coming from a Native American word for "dark and bloody ground". The legend, of course, isn't true - but hey, it's always been a useful meme, because Native Americans did use that specific phrase to describe this area.
We still don't really know for certain where the word "Kentucky" comes from. George Rogers Clark said it came from a Native American word meaning "river of blood". That's pretty awesome, but really, there's no reason not to make the more logical assumption that it comes from the Mohawk word Kentah-Ke, meaning "meadow".
But that doesn't mean we have to abandon the "dark and bloody ground" concept, not by any stretch. The term really was applied by Native Americans to describe the territory that would become Transylvania, and then eventually our modern-day Commonwealth of Kentucky. In Steven A. Channing's Kentucky: A Bicentennial History:
When representatives of the Transylvania Land Company
signed the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals in 1775, Chief Dragging Canoe of the Cherokee said they had secured "a dark and bloody ground."
Why dark and bloody, exactly? Well, it's complicated. Northern and southern tribes, such as the Cherokee and Shawnee, had been fighting over the land for as long as either side could remember. But the curious thing is, they weren't fighting for it for the purpose of living there. They wanted the land strictly for its qualities as a superb hunting ground, but one that spooked all concerned (perhaps it was, even then, teeming with Devil Deer.) There was something about this land, even in ancient times, that early man seemed fearful of.
And it seems to go back to early, early man, ones that even predate our own Native Americans.
In his 1806 book Travels In America, Thomas Ashe writes of his experiences with a vast network of huge open-room caverns originally discovered in 1783 beneath the city of Lexington, containing exotic artifacts, a stone altar for sacrifices, human skulls and bones piled high, and mummified remains.
These mummies were very strange looking, of unusually tall stature, and had red hair. The local native Americans claimed that these were the remnants of an ancient race predating their own; one that died out long ago and about which they knew very little.
Respected historian George W. Ranck, writing in 1872, also discussed this "lost city" buried beneath Lexington, and Don Edwards, writing a century later in the Lexington Herald-Leader, noted that when construction workers were preparing to build one of the downtown hotels, they took many more core drillings of the ground than usual - just to be sure they weren't building atop one of the legendary giant caverns.
Lexington isn't the only place that strange Kentucky mummies have been found. Check your copy of Weird Kentucky for information on the mummies discovered in Mammoth Cave - mummies that continue to confound our current ethnological paradigm.
And in 1792, General John Payne made a strange discovery while building his house in the tiny town of Augusta, KY, 63 miles North of Lexington. Payne's firsthand account is related in Historical Sketches of Kentucky by Lewis Collins:
"The bottom on which Augusta is situated is a large burying ground of the ancients...They have been found in great numbers, and of all sizes, everywhere between the mouths of Bracken and Locust Creeks, a distance of about a mile and a half. From the cellar under my dwelling, 60 by 70 feet, over a hundred and ten skeletons were taken. I measured them by skulls, and there might have been more, whose skulls had crumbled into dust...The skeletons were of all sizes, from seven feet to infant.
David Kilgour (who was a tall and very large man) passed our village at the time I was excavating my cellar, and we took him down and applied a thigh bone to his. The man, if well-proportioned, must have been 10 to 12 inches taller than Kilgour, and the lower jaw bone would slip on over his, skin and all. Who were they? How came their bones here?
When I was in the army, I inquired of old Crane, a Wyandot and of Anglerson, a Delaware, both intelligent old chiefs, and they could give me no information in reference to these remains of antiquity. Some of the largest trees of the forest were growing over the remains when the land was cleared in 1792."
A few years later, on December 21, 1806, the town of Augusta, KY was visited by Harman Blennerhassett, lawyer, occultist, and member of the Illuminati. Was he aware of the ancient underground civilization in the region?
Blennerhassett was born on October 8, 1764 in Ireland and moved to the USA with his wife, where they settled on Blennerhassett Island on the Ohio River. Blennerhassett was a friend and colleague of Adam Weishaupt, and a member of his Order of the Illuminati, reaching the level of Illuminatus Magus. He was also a friend of Vice President Aaron Burr, with whom he, some allege, engaged in a conspiracy to, among other things, remove President Thomas Jefferson from power. The plot was discovered, and Blennerhassett's secret camp at Marietta was destroyed on December 19, 1806.
Blennerhassett fled with about 50 of his fellow initiates, leaving his wife, his sons and the rest of his guerrilla troops behind. But here's what has always puzzled me: instead of making a direct exit, Blennerhassett risked making a mysterious side trip to Augusta, KY, arriving on the day of the solstice. Given his penchant for mystical folderol, it seems clear to me that there must have been some occult significance to his visit to Augusta. But what? We may never know.
That Blennerhassett was interested in Kentucky's forgotten ancient civilization is a distinct possibility, however. And did the Marquis de Lafayette have similar thoughts in mind when he toured America with an eye for ancient burial mounds and significance found in calendar dates?
(By the way, I originally wrote an essay on these subjects on my old, now defunct, original version of the UnK site, and much of that material was cut and pasted with some unwelcome alterations and reprinted on other sites with credit given not to me but someone else. So here on this Halloween, I hereby declare the Curse of Grillo's Grandfather and will also mention that I have some excellent attorneys.)
And then there's The Kentucky Anomaly, which is something I ran across accidentally while combing through a mind-numbing quantity of old NASA technical reports. NASA subsequently pulled the report from the URL at which it had previously occupied, and replaced it with something else. But the original report had spoken of "a very prominent magnetic anomaly measured by MAGSAT over the eastern mid-continent of the United States was inferred to have a source region beneath Kentucky and Tennessee. Prominent aeromagnetic and gravity anomalies are also associated with the inferred source region."
Gravity anomalies. Caused by something beneath Kentucky. Seriously. Now that's news! Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find out much else about this so-called "Kentucky Anomaly". What does it all mean? Dunno. I'm working on it. But if, as NASA says, this thing goes back to Pre-Cambrian times, consider that this could be the smoking gun as to why this territory has had a palpably weird vibe for as long as humans have dwelt on its soil.
On the other hand, the Ohio River along Kentucky's upper border also seems to be a source-point for spookiness, from the burial mounds of the Ashland area where Charles Manson grew up, to the aforementioned Augusta, to the anomalous Welsh-speaking people that implausibly turned up in the area that would later become Louisville (Again, consult your copy of Weird Kentucky.)
The mysterious and awe-inspiring Great Serpent Mound is just on the other side of the river in Ohio, but definitely related to all this other ancient activity in the Kentucky/Ohio Valley region. The tribes involved have been alternately theorized to be the Hopewell, the Fort Ancient, the Adena, and a prehistoric precursor of the Allegheny tribe known as the Tallagewi. Still others contend that it all goes back even further, to lost cultures about whom we know absolutely nothing.
Of the Great Serpent Mound, Wikipedia has this to say:
The mound is located on a plateau with a unique cryptoexplosion structure that contains faulted and folded bedrock, usually produced either by a meteorite or a volcanic explosion.
Determining exactly what formed the Serpent Mound Cryptoexplosion Structure is a problem that geologists continue to debate. Two main solutions have been offered. Some geologists think the structure is a meteorite or asteroid crater. Others suggest that the structure was caused by forces from inside the earth, probably an explosive eruption of gases derived from a deep magma source in the basement rocks.
A similar anomaly exists at Jeptha Knob in Clayvillage, KY (Shelby County). Jeptha Knob was originally thought to be a cryptovolcanic structure but now is considered to be the site where a massive asteroid struck the Earth 425 million years ago.
One could go quite mad studying all the puzzling evidence - and some have.
This Halloween, my fellow Kentuckians, count yourself lucky to be living in one of our country's most interesting states - but also consider that "may you live in an interesting state" could be an equally effective variant of the Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times."
There's yet another proposed meaning for the word Kentucky - some say it comes from a Wyandot word meaning "Land of Tomorrow". Though not as plausible as some of the ones we addressed at the outset, I just like the sound of it, and the implication it carries - that as interesting as Kentucky is now, it's going to get even more interesting in the future...