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Harlan County, Kentucky facts for kids

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Harlan County
Harlan County courthouse in Harlan
Harlan County courthouse in Harlan
Map of Kentucky highlighting Harlan County
Location within the U.S. state of Kentucky
Map of the United States highlighting Kentucky
Kentucky's location within the U.S.
Country  United States
State  Kentucky
Founded 1819
Named for Silas Harlan
Seat Harlan
Largest city Cumberland
 • Total 468 sq mi (1,210 km2)
 • Land 466 sq mi (1,210 km2)
 • Water 2.3 sq mi (6 km2)  0.5%%
 • Total 26,831 Decrease
Time zone UTC−5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−4 (EDT)
Congressional district 5th

Harlan County is a county located in southeastern Kentucky. Its county seat is Harlan. Alcohol status is classified as a moist county—a county in which alcohol sales are prohibited (a dry county), but containing a "wet" city, in this case Cumberland, where package alcohol sales are allowed. In the city of Harlan, restaurants seating 100+ may serve alcoholic beverages.

Harlan County is well known in folk and country music, having produced many prominent musicians. During the 20th century, it was often a center of labor strife between coal mine owners and union workers, especially in the Harlan County War of the 1930s. The coal mining industry began to decline in the 1950s. The loss of jobs resulted in a steadily declining population and depressed economy. Harlan became one of the poorest counties in the United States.

Kentucky's highest natural point, Black Mountain (4,145 feet or 1,263 metres), is in Harlan County.


Harlan County was formed in 1819 from a part of Knox County. It is named after Silas Harlan. A pioneer, he was born on March 17, 1753 in Berkeley County, West Virginia (when it was still part of Virginia), the son of George and Ann (Hunt) Harlan. Journeying to Kentucky as a young man with James Harrod in 1774, Harlan served as scout, hunter, and held the rank of Major in the Continental Army. Harlan assisted Harrod's party in Harrodsburg to deliver gunpowder to settlers in Kentucky, and to assist them against the British in the Revolutionary War.

With the help of his uncle Jacob and his brother James, Harlan built a log stockade near Danville known as "Harlan's Station". He served under George Rogers Clark in the Illinois campaign of 1778–79 against the British. He also commanded a company in John Bowman's raid on Old Chillicothe in 1779, and assisted Clark in establishing Fort Jefferson at the mouth of the Ohio River in 1780.

Silas Harlan died leading the advance party at the Battle of Blue Licks on August 19, 1782. At the time of his death, Harlan was engaged to Sarah Caldwell, who later married his brother James and was the grandmother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.

Harlan County Courthouse, Kentucky
Harlan County Courthouse

The county has been the site of repeated attempts to organize labor and gain better deals from owners, beginning in the early 20th century, primarily related to the coal mining industry. What was called the Harlan County War in the 1930s consisted of violent confrontations among strikers, strikebreakers, mine company security forces and law enforcement and led to the county being called "Bloody Harlan." After the Battle of Evarts, May 5, 1931, the governor of Kentucky called in the National Guard to restore order. Ballads sung on the picket line at the Brookside mine in Harlan County were captured on film by documentarian John Gaventa. The county was the subject of the film Harlan County, USA (1976), which documented strikes and organizing during a second major period of labor unrest in the 1970s.

My daddy was a miner
And I'm a miner's son
And I'll stick with the union
Till every battle's won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

"Which Side Are You On?"
by Florence Patton Reece

In 1924, Condy Dabney was convicted in the county of murdering a person who was later found alive.

From the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century, Harlan County and nearby counties were settled by numerous persons of multiracial descent, with African, European and often Native American ancestors. Descendants, some of whose members have been called Melungeon, have documented the racial heritage of Harlan's early settlers through 19th-century photographs, DNA analysis and historic records. In 2007, the Ridgetop Shawnee Tribe of Indians formed as a non-profit to work on improving the lives of multiracial families and preserving Native American heritage. It established the Kentucky Native American Data Bank, which has the names of 1,000 people of documented Native American descent related to this region; it is accessible for free on Rootsweb.


Franklin D. Roosevelt with others in Harlan County, Kentucky - NARA - 197021
Franklin D. Roosevelt in Harlan County, 1908
Main Street South - Harlan
Main Street in Harlan

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 468 square miles (1,210 km2), of which 466 square miles (1,210 km2) is land and 2.3 square miles (6.0 km2) (0.5%) is water.


The headwaters of the Cumberland River are located in Harlan County: Poor Fork (extending from the city of Harlan east past the city of Cumberland and into Letcher County), Clover Fork extending East from above Evarts, and Martins Fork (extending through the city of Harlan west). The confluence is located in Baxter.

Black Mountain, located east of Lynch, is Kentucky's highest point, with an elevation of 4,145 feet (1,263 m) above sea level.

Major highways

  • US 421.svg U.S. Highway 421
  • US 119.svg U.S. Highway 119
  • Elongated circle 38.svg Kentucky Route 38
  • Elongated circle 160.svg Kentucky Route 160

Adjacent counties

National protected areas


Historical population
Census Pop.
1820 1,961
1830 2,929 49.4%
1840 3,015 2.9%
1850 4,268 41.6%
1860 5,494 28.7%
1870 4,415 −19.6%
1880 5,278 19.5%
1890 6,197 17.4%
1900 9,838 58.8%
1910 10,566 7.4%
1920 31,546 198.6%
1930 64,557 104.6%
1940 75,275 16.6%
1950 71,751 −4.7%
1960 51,107 −28.8%
1970 37,370 −26.9%
1980 41,889 12.1%
1990 36,574 −12.7%
2000 33,202 −9.2%
2010 29,278 −11.8%
2015 (est.) 27,703 −5.4%
U.S. Decennial Census
1790–1960 1900–1990
1990–2000 2010–2013

2000 census

As of the 2000 census of 2000, there were 33,202 people, 13,291 households, and 9,449 families residing in the county. The population density was 71 per square mile (27/km2). There were 15,017 housing units at an average density of 32 per square mile (12/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 95.56% White, 2.62% African American, 0.48% Native American, 0.29% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.08% from other races, and 0.95% from two or more races. 0.65% of the population were Hispanics or Latinos of any race. Because those self-identified having White ancestry include those known as Melungeons, actual African and Native American ancestry may actually be higher.

There were 13,291 households out of which 32.20% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 54.30% were married couples living together, 13.20% had a female householder with no husband present, and 28.90% were non-families. 27.00% of all households were made up of individuals and 12.60% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.47 and the average family size was 3.00.

The age distribution was 25.00% under the age of 18, 8.50% from 18 to 24, 27.50% from 25 to 44, 25.20% from 45 to 64, and 13.90% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 91.80 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 87.80 males.

The median income for a household in the county was $18,665, and the median income for a family was $23,536. Males had a median income of $29,148 versus $19,288 for females. The per capita income for the county was $11,585. About 29.10% of families and 32.50% of the population were below the poverty line, including 40.10% of those under age 18 and 21.00% of those age 65 or over. During Harlan County's early history a number of Native Americans of mixed heritage, or commonly called Melungeons, settled the area.

Life expectancy

Of 3,142 counties in the United States in 2013, Harlan County ranked 3,139 in the longevity of both male and female residents. Males in Harlan County lived an average of 66.5 years and females lived an average of 73.1 years compared to the national average for longevity of 76.5 for males and 81.2 for females. Moreover, the average longevity in Harlan County declined by 0.6 years for males and 2.6 years for females between 1985 and 2013 compared to a national average for the same period of an increased life span of 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women. High rates of smoking and obesity and a low level of physical activity appear to be contributing factors to the lowered longevity for both sexes.

Area attractions

  • Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area: This off-road park has been voted number one all-terrain vehicle (ATV) destination by ATV Pathfinder for two years running. It consists of more than 7,000 acres (28 km2) set aside for quads and 4WD vehicle recreation. The park attracts several thousand visitors and is considered by many to be the best riding area in the eastern United States. Harlan County also holds the Guinness World Record for the largest ATV parade.
  • Cranks Creek Lake
  • Kentucky Coal Mining Museum
  • Kingdom Come State Park; Elevation: 2,700 feet (820 m); Size: 1,283 acres (5.19 km2); Location: On the outskirts of the city of Cumberland, and is connected to the Little Shepherd Trail. This state park was named after the popular Civil War novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by Kentucky author John Fox, Jr. The park contains a picnic area, hiking trails, a fishing lake, a cave amphitheater, several lookouts and contains many natural rock formations, including Log Rock and Raven Rock. It is also the site of the annual Kentucky Black Bear Festival.
  • Martins Fork Lake
  • Pine Mountain Settlement School
  • Benham School House Inn



Census-designated places

Other unincorporated communities

In popular culture


Elmore Leonard's novels Pronto, Riding the Rap, and "Raylan" feature Raylan Givens, a Harlan County native, and his short story "Fire in the Hole" has Givens returning to Harlan.

In the James Jones novel "From Here to Eternity", later made into the famous film with the same title, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a bugler in the Army and one of the main characters, is from Harlan County.


Harlan County is mentioned in many versions of the 18th century folk song "Shady Grove". The famous labor song, "Which Side Are You On?", was written by Florence Reece in 1931 in and about Harlan. It has been covered by many artists from Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers to Billy Bragg, the Dropkick Murphys, and Natalie Merchant. Harlan is mentioned in the Aaron Watson song "Kentucky Coal Miner's Prayer". It is mentioned in Robert Mitchum's "Ballad of Thunder Road" as a stop along the route in which moonshiners would run through. It is the subject of the Darrell Scott song "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive", which has been covered by Brad Paisley, Dave Alvin, Kathy Mattea, and Patti Loveless, among others. Dierks Bentley's song "Down in the Mine", on his Up on the Ridge album, mentions Harlan. The band Spear of Destiny wrote a song entitled "Harlan County", which was released on their album World Service in 1985. It is also mentioned in the Merle Travis song Nine Pound Hammer which he wrote in 1939 and is covered by many bluegrass artists, Doc Watson having a very popular version. Wayne Kemp wrote and recorded a song called "Harlan County." Harlan County is also the name of the first album by Jim Ford, 1969, as well as a song bearing the same name. The Dave Alvin song "Harlan County Line" take place around the area of Harlan. Singer/Songwriter Loudon Wainwright III included a song titled "Harlan County" on his 2014 album I Haven't Got The Blues (Yet). Harlan County is also mentioned as the setting of the David Allan Coe song "Daddy Was A God Fearin' Man" off of his 1977 album Tattoo.



  • The FX television series Justified, created by Graham Yost and based on Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens novels and short story, is set in the U.S. federal district of Eastern Kentucky and prominently in Harlan County. The show is filmed in California, however, not in Kentucky.
  • William Lewis (played by Pablo Schreiber), the suspect in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Her Negotiation" (season 14, episode 24), was born and allegedly committed his first offense in Harlan County.
  • Kentucky Justice, a reality TV show on National Geographic Channel, is set in Harlan County and follows Sheriff Marvin J. Lipfird & his department.


For 100 years, the economy of Harlan County and other counties in eastern Kentucky was based on coal mining. The latter-twentieth-century decline of coal production and employment has led to widespread poverty and high unemployment.

Although coal mining began much earlier, the first shipment of coal by railroad from Harlan County occurred in 1911 and coal production boomed thereafter. Mining employment in Harlan County rose to 13,619 in 1950. The number of employed miners had declined to 764 by June 2016. During the same period, the population of Harlan County declined from 71,000 to less than 28,000. Unemployment has been as high as 20 percent (September 1995) and has consistently been higher than the U.S national average. Unemployment in December 2016 was 9.5 percent, compared to 4.8 percent in the nation as a whole. Harlan County ranked in the highest 10 percent of all United States counties in the prevalence of poverty among its residents.

Annual per capita personal income in Harlan County was $27,425 in 2014 compared to a national average of $48,112.

By 2016, more than half of the county's income came from transfers from the Federal government such as Social Security, Medicare and Food Stamps.

As of 2018 new jobs are being located in the county as Teleworks USA has opened a hub in the city of Harlan. This has provided over 200 new jobs as of April 2018 SEKRI, located in the Blair community near the city of Cumberland, also announced expansions and added an additional 100 jobs in March 2018.


Higher education

The county's only higher education institution is Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (formerly known as Southeast Community College), a part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, with its main campus in Cumberland.

K–12 Harlan County public schools

The county has two K–12 public school districts. Harlan County Public Schools covers all of Harlan County, except for the city of Harlan and some small unincorporated communities adjacent to the city. The district operates one high school, Harlan County High School, which opened in August 2008. The school nickname is Black Bears, reflecting the area's increasing black bear population. The new high school, located in the rural community of Rosspoint east of Harlan, replaced three other high schools:

  • Cumberland High School, Cumberland, served students from the cities of Cumberland, Benham, Lynch, and near the Letcher County border.
  • Evarts High School, Evarts, served the area from the Harlan City limits to the Virginia border.
  • James A. Cawood High School, Harlan, served students in central Harlan County.

The district operates the following K–8 schools:

  • Black Mountain Elementary
  • Cawood Elementary
  • Cumberland Elementary
  • Evarts Elementary
  • Green Hills Elementary
  • James A. Cawood Elementary
  • Rosspoint Elementary
  • Wallins Elementary

Harlan Independent Schools

Harlan Independent Schools is a separate district covering the city of Harlan and operating the following schools:

  • Harlan High School
  • Harlan Middle School
  • Harlan Elementary School

K–12 private schools

  • Harlan County Christian School (Putney)

Notable people

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Condado de Harlan (Kentucky) para niños

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