One of the earliest explorers of the Kenton County area was Christopher Gist. In 1751, Gist and his companions were sent to the region by the Ohio Land Company to plat the area and to report on its value. Traveling down the Ohio River, Gist landed at “the point,” in present day Covington. This area lies at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking Rivers. By 1815, a small town of homes and businesses had developed around “the point.” The area was incorporated on February 8, 1815 by the state legislature as the City of Covington. The city was named after General Leonard Covington, a casualty of the War of 1812.
The population of the area continued to grow throughout the 1830s. By 1840, residents were requesting the establishment of a new county. The legislature of the Commonwealth of Kentucky officially carved Kenton County from Campbell County on January 29, 1840. The county was named after Simon Kenton, an early pioneer and explorer in the region. The county contained 163 square miles and was bounded by the Ohio River to the north, the Licking River and Campbell County to the east, Boone County to the west, and Grant and Pendleton Counties to the south.
The seat of government was established in the center of county in the newly established City of Independence. This rural location, however, was located a great distance from the major concentration of population in Covington. County officials decided to recognize two county seats – one in Independence and one in Covington. This arrangement continues today.
Covington’s location on the Ohio River opposite the City of Cincinnati, the “Queen City of the West,” proved to be very beneficial. Large numbers of Irish and German immigrants, attracted to the area by the burgeoning industrial growth of Cincinnati and Covington, began arriving in the 1840s. German churches, schools, fraternal groups, breweries, and newspapers soon became commonplace in the county.
During the Civil War, the vast majority of Kenton County residents remained loyal to the Union. To protect Cincinnati from Southern invasion, a string of fortifications was built in the county. The two major military installations were Fort Mitchell and Fort Wright. Also during this era, the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis from Aachen, Germany established St. Elizabeth Hospital on 7th Street in Covington to care for the sick, poor, and orphans. Today, St. Elizabeth Medical Center operates in three locations: Covington, Edgewood, and Grant County.
The slave population in Kenton County in the 1840s and 1850s was small. A number of wealthy Covingtonians owned slaves for use as house servants. The majority of the slave population, however, worked as farm laborers in the rural areas of the county.
Following emancipation (1866), a Freedman School was established in Covington under the direction of Jacob Price. In 1880, the city of Covington established the Seventh Street School for African Americans, which later evolved into Lincoln-Grant School. Also in the 1880s, the Dunbar School was established for African Americans in the city of Elsmere. Beginning in the 1940s, the Catholic Church established Our Savior Parish and School on 11th Street in Covington for African Americans. The school housed grades 1-12 and was staffed by the Sisters of Divine Providence. All of these schools closed during the era of desegregation.
In 1867 the Roebling Suspension Bridge was completed between Covington and Cincinnati. (The Roebling Suspension Bridge was the prototype for the later Brooklyn Bridge in New York City). The new bridge allowed many residents to live in Northern Kentucky while continuing to work in Cincinnati.