Much later, West Virginia broke off from Virginia as a result of the Civil War. Earlier than that, Maine became "independent" from Massachusetts as part of the Missouri Compromise.

But during and after the Revolution, Virginia claimed Kentucky as its "backland." In 1795, it relinquished this claim to let Kentucky split off to become the 15th state. (Vermont had just done that from New York to become the 14th). Why was that?

Apparently, there was pressure from the other states. Was it because they wanted all the states to be about the same size in area and population, or because they wanted to prevent an "arms race" of superstates like Virginia-Kentucky, North Carolina-Tennessee, Pennsylvania-Ohio (in today's terms) etc.?

  • 1
    Check out this map. Basically, just about all of the original states thought they should extend as far west as possible...
    – AlaskaRon
    Dec 22, 2015 at 20:32
  • I see you're still around more than six years after posting this. I think you ought to unaccept the accepted answer since it is grossly incorrect (as explained in my posted answer). May 6, 2022 at 17:00

3 Answers 3


Prior to the signing of the Constitution, most of the 13 colonies ceded all territorial claims to the Congressional Government in exchange for it assuming their debt. Virginia followed suit 3 years later. This made the Kentucky Territory under Federal jurisdiction, and later it was organized into another state.

The text of North Carolina's Act of Cession: HERE

  • I don't know of a good online reference, but I do believe I read this myself in How the States Got Their Shapes. Well worth picking up if you are interested in this kind of thing. (My only quibble is that the format the author used caused every border decision to be covered twice or more. Not sure how that could have been fixed that wouldn't have been more inconvenient though.).
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 23, 2015 at 16:31
  • It appears that all states (particularly Virginia) expressing a willingness to do this was a precondition for some states signing on to the Articles of Confederation in the first place. So even if nothing was officially on paper forcing them to, it was generally accepted that they would have to eventually.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 28, 2016 at 16:07

For a corollary explanation to Oldcat's answer, try reading The Division of Territory in Society by Ed Stephan. It's a very interesting read, even if you aren't a sociology student. He goes into quite a bit of depth into why counties kept splitting and why they have stopped splitting in modern times.

The American people took their roles and responsibilities as citizens more seriously in the 18th and 19th centuries. If it took too long for them to make it to the county seat and participate in the operations of the county, they would complain and petition for the county to be split. When the county split, the seat would be chosen near the center of mass for the population. You can see the procession of county-splitting in Kentucky with this interactive map.

As Oldcat mentioned, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia all had territory extending clear to the Mississippi River. The people in what became Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi couldn't hope to make it to the state capital (Richmond, Raleigh, Charleston, or Atlanta) in a reasonable period of time, especially with the Appalachians in the way, so they told their senators and representatives to split up the state.

  • That is a good point that a state of that size would have been impractical if the land had been kept.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 23, 2015 at 22:52

Kentucky was admitted on June 1, 1792, not 1795. It was a part of Virginia until it became a separate state. In that respect, it differed from Tennessee, which was a part of North Carolina that was ceded by the legislature to federal jurisdiction, and was an organized incorporated territory of the United states, called the Southwest Territory, for five years before becoming the state of Tennessee.

Virginia's legislature consented to Kentucky's admission as a separate state as early as 1788, when the Articles of Confederation were still in effect. Congress's deliberations on whether to admit Kentucky were interrupted by a notification that New Hampshire had become the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, which then went into effect in the ratifying states. They decided to defer the matter until the new Congress under the Constitution could take it up. Virginia's legislature reiterated its consent in 1789. The act of Congress admitting Kentucky takes note of the consent of the legislature of Virginia. It was passed by Congress on February 4, 1791, two weeks before the act admitting Vermont was passed, but it said the new state was not to be admitted until nearly a year and four months later, because Kentucky politicians had asked for some time to get things ready. (Vermont, on the other hand, was admitted only two weeks after the act of Congress was passed and signed.)

I think the expense of governing so vast a territory under 18th-century conditions may have played a role, and also a desire to increase southern representation in the Senate (or ealier, in the unicameral Congress of the Confederation).

Here's an article that explains some of the history of Kentucky's admission as a separate state: When Did the Articles of Confederation Cease to Be Law.

  • 1
    This is great. What about the question of why Virginia consented to this? Sep 26, 2016 at 6:35
  • @axsvl77 : My third paragraph above is as much as I can currently say about that. I posted largely for the purpose of setting the record straight about incorrect information in the accepted answer. Sep 26, 2016 at 15:38

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