By SAM TERRY
Jobe Publishing Inc.
On August 11, 1787, the first newspaper published west of the Allegheny Mountains, and in Kentucky, made its debut. When Kentucky was a territory of Virginia, those living in pioneer towns found their issues were neither highly regarded or understood by papers hundreds of miles away in cities such as Richmond, Baltimore or Philadelphia. In the 1780s, Lexington was a small but growing town of 300 settlers living in fewer than 50 log cabins. As the desire for Kentucky to become a state became the top issue, brothers John and Fielding Bradford decided Kentucky needed a newspaper. There were no experienced editors or equipment to be found so the brothers traveled east to purchase a press and learn some basic information about publishing a newspaper.
The Kentucke Gazette published its first issue in August 1787, five years before statehood was achieved. History generally credits John Bradford as the founder since Fielding left the frontier in 1788 but the initial effort was the work of both men. The early editions were small – two pages – but in time the size was increased to four pages published weekly. News from the East Coast and foreign countries kept frontiersmen informed but the balance of copy was local news of interest to those living on the frontier. In its initial year, Bradford had 180 subscribers – more than half the population of Lexington – who paid 18 shillings per year. If cash payment wasn’t possible, Bradford announced he would accept “corn, wheat, country-made linen, linsey, sugar, whiskey, ash flooring and cured bacon” as payment.
By March 1789,
Bradford had changed the name to The Kentucky Gazette with the now-traditional spelling of Kentucky after the Virginia General Assembly officially changed the spelling. John Bradford also printed the first book published in Kentucky – a compilation of the first session of the Kentucky legislature in 1792 shortly after becoming the nation’s 15th state.
The newspaper had no competitors within 500 miles until 1795 when Bradford’s former employee, Thomas H. Stewart, began publishing The Kentucky Herald. In 1802, Bradford bought Stewart’s newspaper and shut it down. In that same year, Bradford turned the Gazette over his son, Daniel, and within a few months the younger Bradford changed the name to Kentucky Gazette & General Advertiser. Another of Bradford’s five sons, Benjamin, bought The Kentucky Journal in Frankfort in the mid-1790s. Son James Bradford worked with his father to publish a Frankfort paper, The Guardian of Freedom. Both Frankfort papers republished much of the Gazette’s stories while establishing while establishing a formidable newspaper presence in the Capitol city. By the War of 1812, Kentuckians scattered across the Commonwealth had access to nearly 30 local papers sharing news in towns such as Bardstown, Danville, Georgetown, Lancaster, Paris, Richmond, Russellville, Shelbyville, Stanford, and Washington.
By 1809, the newspaper had grown to a 6-page weekly using its simpler name of The Kentucky Gazette, and Daniel Bradford boasting that his newspaper was “superior in size to any weekly paper in the United States and equaled by but few daily papers.” For just over two years in the late 1820’s John Bradford returned as publisher, producing some of the most important work documenting early Kentucky history in 66 columns entitled, “Notes on Kentucky.”
Outside of his work as Kentucky’s first publisher, John Bradford left an indelible mark on the state and the city of Lexington. As chairman of the Transylvania University Board of Trustees, Bradford was responsible for recruiting Rev. Horace Holley as the school’s president, establishing the institution as one of the leading colleges in America. A tireless entrepreneur and promoter of education and culture, Bradford helped to establish Lexington as the famed “Athens of the West” with involvement in virtually every aspect of life in that city.
Among the colorful episodes involving the Kentucky Gazette was editor Thomas Benning’s 1829 editorial mentioning Robert Wickliffe, the largest slave owner in the Commonwealth. Wickliffe’s son, Charles, was incensed by Benning’s portrayal of his father and an argument between the two ended when the editor was fatally shot. Wickliffe was represented by Henry Clay who managed to have his client acquitted. The same year Wickliffe’s best friend, James George Trotter became the editor and in short time there was an argument resulting in Wickliffe demanding a duel. The matter ended with Wickliffe dead and Trotter committed to a lunatic asylum.
Daniel Bradford sold The Kentucky Gazette in 1840 to Joshua Cunningham, an experienced newspaper editor from Maryland. Unfortunately, his failing health resulted in the demise of Kentucky’s first newspaper after 61 years with its final edition on December 29, 1848.
Few copies of The Kentucky Gazette remain with the Lexington Public Library holding the largest collection of original copies but not the first edition of August 11, 1787. The last documented first issue was in the Cheapside office of H. Howard Gratz when it burned decades ago. Gratz had resurrected The Kentucky Gazette after the Civil War, continuing in business for nearly 50 years.