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The State of Transylvania?

Transylvania’s name is an interesting one for several reasons, one of which could have been its application as the name of the 14th state to join the union had a group of settlers in the 1770s had their way.

In 1775, pioneers in an expedition to this area led by Daniel Boone sent a representative, Jim Hogg, to the Continental Congress with a proposal that Transylvania become the 14th state. The huge land tract encompassed by that name had been purchased from the Cherokee through a land company formed by Richard Henderson of North Carolina. It encompassed much of the mid-section of the current Kentucky as well as a large chunk of present-day central Tennessee.

Thus, Boone not only wanted to guide the settlers into a new promised land, he also wanted to set them up with their own new state and name it Transylvania.

As with many other statehood proposals over the years, this one failed to win support. In 1792, much of the Transylvania tract became the state of Kentucky.

Highlights of this intriguing story are recounted in Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States that Never Made It (2010: Quirk Books, Philadelphia). Emmy-nominated (PBS documentary Pioneers of Television/2008) author Michael J. Trinklein traces the tribulations of 74 failed statehood proposals, including those for Hazard, McDonald, Nickajack, Popham, Rough and Ready, and Yazoo.

Regarding the name Transylvania, Trinklein says, “...the name isn’t as odd as it might seem. The word sylvan means a ‘pleasant woodsy area.’ It was a popular suffix during the colonial era; think of Pennsylvania....”

Transylvania history professor emeritus John D. Wright Jr. includes a 1776 map titled “A General Map of the New Settlement called Transilvania (sic)” as a frontispiece to his book Transylvania: Tutor to the West (1975: Transylvania University, Lexington).

“The name Transylvania was a common designation...for a variety of enterprises venturing into the region across the Appalachian Mountains barrier” at that time, Wright wrote.

translyvania map created by author Michael J. Trinklein

This is how the state of Transylvania, as proposed by a group of settlers in 1775, would look on a modern map. This map was created by author Michael J. Trinklein and appears in his book on proposed states that never made it into the union.

Therefore, it was logical that the Virginia Legislature attached the name Transylvania Seminary to the new educational enterprise in a 1783 act that followed the granting of Transylvania’s original charter as a “seminary of learning” in a 1780 act.

In 1799 the institution became Transylvania University, a name it kept until an unsuccessful experiment from 1865-1908 that tried to combine a denominationally affiliated liberal arts college with a land-grant agricultural and mechanical college (later the University of Kentucky) and a theological seminary under one organizational umbrella known as Kentucky University.

The university reclaimed its historical name of Transylvania University in 1908, changed to Transylvania College in 1915, then in 1965 went back to Transylvania University, which it remains today.

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