Have you ever wondered why Transylvania University in Lexington, KY is called Transylvania?
Was it settled by Romanians?
Staffed by vampires?


Transylvania University is so named because when it was founded as the first college west of the Alleghenies in 1780 much of the region was still colloquially called Transylvania.

Overlay of what might have been.

Overlay of what might have been.

Before Kentucky became a state in 1792, just at the beginning of the American Revolution in March of 1775, a North Carolinian named Col. Richard Henderson, under the umbrella of the Transylvania Land Company, purchased vast tracts of Cherokee lands of the southern and central Appalachian Mountains. As you can see from the accompanying map, this area (about 20 million acres) included most of Kentucky, as well as a good portion of Tennessee.

Henderson bought this area of land with the idea of making it another colony. He hired Daniel Boone to blaze trails, set up towns (which included Boonesborough), and negotiate with Native Americans in the area. And on this date, April 23, 1775, Henderson called for an election to select members to the “House of delegates of the Transylvania colony.”

After this, Henderson officially petitioned Congress to make Transylvania a colony. Despite his efforts, however, his Transylvanian dreams wouldn’t last much longer. Another entity claimed ownership of the land…and that entity was the colony of Virginia. In June of 1776 the Virginia General Assembly invalidated the Transylvania purchase and retook possession. As compensation, Henderson was given 12 square miles of land where the Green River joins the Ohio River…in an area now known as Henderson.

Though Henderson’s grand colony disappeared, at least the university bearing its name is still around. And what about that name? Where did the name Transylvania come from?

The word itself has nothing to with Dracula or Eastern Europe. Simply translated, the prefix “trans” means across or beyond, and the suffix “sylvania” means “pleasant, wooded area.”

Who knows? If things had gone just a little differently, we might have all just ended up a bunch of Transylvanians eating Transylvania Fried Chicken while gearing up to sing “My Old Transylvania Home” before the 141st running of the Transylvania Derby.

To learn more about this and that and other such things, come see us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this post, make sure to “like” our Facebook page.

–Matt Jaeger