Born: January 17, 1947, Lexington, Kentucky
James Christopher Klotter, an award-winning author, professor and the State Historian of Kentucky since 1980, has spent his career researching and interpreting Kentucky’s history.
“With the possible exception of Thomas D. Clark, Jim probably knows more about the Commonwealth than anyone else in our history,” said William Ellis, a fellow Kentucky historian and author.
Klotter was born in Lexington to Marjorie Gibson and John C. Klotter. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up mostly in Owsley County. Klotter was educated at the University of Kentucky, where he earned a Ph.D. in history in 1975. He was a U.S. Army officer, 1970-71.
“As a young child, I had traveled to many Kentucky sites with my father and had always found them fascinating,” Klotter said.
But he didn’t start taking Kentucky history seriously until graduate school, when mentor Holman Hamilton got him interested in the Breckinridge family. “That dissertation required me to study the state’s history over a two-century timeframe, which awoke in me a fascination with the state’s past—and its future.”
Klotter is the author of 10 books and more than 60 articles. He also wrote chapters for six other books, edited 11 more books and has given almost 1,000 talks about Kentucky history across the state.
“Research is usually fun, as you read other peoples’ mail or old newspapers or recent interviews and the like,” he said. “Writing is a solitary action, and it can be hard at times. But there is a special joy when you craft a well-written sentence, when you understand your subject and can explain that revelation to the reader, when you realize that you are creating a special story that no one else can do.
“In fiction, you are limited by your imagination; in nonfiction, historical writing you are limited by your sources,” he said. “How frustrating it can be to feel you know something important about your subject, but you cannot find the sources to prove it. But there is a real excitement when you do find missing pieces to the puzzle, when you are operating as the historian as detective, when you find answers no one else has discovered.”
Klotter said he is especially proud of two books: his most recent one, Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President (Oxford University Press, 2018), and Kentucky Justice, Southern Humor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid ( LSU Press, 2003).
The Clay book “encompasses such an imposing national subject, over such a long time period, and covered a timeframe where I had not worked in much previously,” he said. “The other favorite is almost the reverse. (It) explores the life and death of an almost forgotten man, but in a short book looks at him in special depth and is, I think, well-written and even shocking.”
Klotter went to work for the Kentucky Historical Society in 1973 and was its executive director from 1990 to 1998. He directed funding and started construction of the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort. He was a history professor at Georgetown College from 1998 until his retirement in 2018.
He has been a leader in many other historical organizations, including the Filson Historical Society, the Kentucky Oral History Commission, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the Kentucky Civil War Roundtable.
Klotter has been married since 1966 to Freda Campbell Klotter, whom he met when he was five years old. She was his co-author on two Kentucky history textbooks. They have two daughters, a son and seven grandchildren.
Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President (2018)
In Defense of Clio (2016)
A Concise History of Kentucky (2008) With Freda Klotter
Faces of Kentucky (2008) With Freda Klotter
Kentucky Justice, Southern Humor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid (2003)
A New History of Kentucky (1997)
Kentucky: A Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950 (1996)
History Mysteries: The Cases of James Harrod, Tecumseh, “Honest Dick” Tate, and William Goebel (1989)
The Breckinridges of Kentucky, 1760-1981 (1986)
William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath (1977)
Kentucky: Decades of Discord, 1865-1900 (1977) With Hambleton Tapp.
University of Kentucky Medallion for Intellectual Achievement (2016)
Carl West Literary Award, Kentucky Book Festival (2021)
Governor’s Outstanding Kentuckian Award (1998)
Distinguished Service Award, Kentucky Historical Society (1998)
Thomas D. Clark Award for Excellence in Kentucky History (2003)
Thomas D. Clark Award for Literary Excellence (2005)
Outstanding Alumnus of Kentucky Award, Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (2008)
Clay Lancaster Heritage Education Award, Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation (2013)
Honorary degrees from Eastern Kentucky University and Union College.