What do we really know about who we are as Northern Kentuckians? One thing that unites us is that we are all from somewhere else. Regardless of being a recent transplant or a sixth generation resident, Northern Kentuckians come from somewhere else. In other words, we are all immigrants. Each of our ancestors brought religious traditions, food and language with them when they arrived. Many of our ancestors arrived in the region in the 19th century—a time when immigration laws were minimal and if you could afford to get here, didn’t have a communicable disease and were not a criminal, you were let in.

The first immigrants to the region were Native Americans who arrived in the region about 12,000 years ago. By the time the early European explorers came to the area, Native Americans were primarily using Northern Kentucky as hunting grounds. Among those first European settlers were the Scots Irish. Thomas Kennedy, of Scots Irish ancestry, arrived in what is today Covington in 1789 and established his ferry and tavern and the “Point” where the Ohio and Licking rivers meet. Around Kennedy’s Ferry the city emerged. One of the earliest congregations to be established in the city was Presbyterian—the preferred denomination of the Scots Irish.

Immigrants from England and Wales soon followed. Many received land grants from the government as payment for their service in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. The English brought a drive to expand the economy and the expertise they had learned from the burgeoning industrial revolution in their homeland. They also brought their religion, which resulted in the founding of Covington’s Trinity Episcopal Church.

African Americans were also among the area’s earliest residents—although most were forced immigrants. African Americans contributed greatly to early development of agriculture and industry in the region. Many, especially in the river cities, were instrumental in the development of river trade. African Americans brought their culture and religious beliefs with them and a spirit that yearned for freedom.

By the mid-19th century German and famine Irish were flooding into the region. These two groups, by far, were the largest immigrants groups to arrive in Northern Kentucky and had the most significant impact. The German immigrants rarely spoke English and brought with them their food, love of music and art and drinking habits—particularly on Sundays. The famine Irish typically arrived poor and with little education. The Irish were almost exclusively Roman Catholic, as were a majority of the Germans.

The “otherness” of the Germans and Irish brought about a great deal of tension in Northern Kentucky. The rise of the Know-Nothing Party in the years before the Civil War also reached our area. The Know-Nothings were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. They supported Puritanical Sunday laws and opposed Catholic schools, the use of the German language in public schools and any further immigration. The party had some early success, but the growth of the German and Irish populations in the region left them outvoted and on the sidelines. Within time, the German and Irish immigrants in our region became a dominant cultural and religious force in the community.

Small numbers of Italians, Poles, Greeks, Eastern European Jews and Chinese—yes Chinese—arrived in Northern Kentucky at the turn of the century. Although small in number, they did add to the flavor of the community with their new foods, businesses and cultural traditions. Think Cincinnati-style chili!

The 1920s also saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Northern Kentucky. Although vehemently anti-African American, the Klan in this era focused primarily on immigrants, Jews and Roman Catholics. Large parades and rallies with fiery crosses and hooded men became commonplace. It was not unusual during this era for the Klan to burn crosses in Catholic neighborhoods.

The 1920s also witnessed changes in immigration policies and laws on a national level. These changes included a quota system, which greatly favored Western European immigrants above all others. The few immigration laws most of our Northern Kentucky ancestors faced were replaced by a much stricter process.

Appalachian migrants also added to the region’s diversity. During the First World War many came to find jobs in the industrial plants of the area. Appalachian migration has continued to this day. This group infused Pentecostalism, Appalachian music and dance, and a fierce independence into our cultural identity. Like the other groups before them, they tended to settle in tight knit neighborhoods, but as they moved up the economic ladder, they too spread to different communities.

More recently, Hispanic immigrants have found their way to Northern Kentucky. A few decades ago it would have been rare to hear people speaking Spanish on the streets of our communities. Today, it has become a much more familiar sound—along with the smells of Mexican food and the appearance of Hispanic groceries and businesses. Hispanics also brought their religious traditions with them—some Protestant, but most Catholic. In 2004 Cristo Rey Parish was established in Boone County by the Diocese of Covington to care for the spiritual needs of the Hispanic population of Northern Kentucky. It was the first ethnic Catholic parish to be established in Northern Kentucky in over a century.

Throughout our history, immigration has had a great impact on the Northern Kentucky region. We are a tapestry of cultures, religions and traditions. That tapestry has been strengthened with each new group.

Dave Schroeder is the executive director of the Kenton County Public Library. He serves on many regional and state boards including Friends of the Kentucky Public Archives and the Northern Kentucky Education Council


To receive more articles from NKY Magazine sign-up for a complimentary subscription here: http://bit.ly/SwEQdC