West Virginia History

Historic Facts & Overview of West Virginia History

Take a peek at West Virginia history. Discover an overview of West Virginia's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

In 1861, Virginians in the northwestern part of the state defied Virginia's secession from the United States. The region chose to remain in the Union and form a new state. West Virginia was admitted into the Union in 1863, after conditions requiring the gradual emancipation of slaves had been met. The state motto is "Mountaineers are always free," and West Virginia lives up to its nickname of the "Mountain State." With an average altitude of 1,500 feet above sea level, it's the highest of any state east of the Mississippi River. For a long time, West Virginia was a leading producer of coal in North America, but many people left to pursue better employment opportunities. That trend has turned around, and now the state's economy is in a more stable condition. The capital is Charleston, and the state flower is the big rhododendron.

Overview of West Virginia History and Heritage

In the 1600s, Europeans started crossing the Appalachian Mountains to explore the area. In 1606, England established the Virginia Colony. This very large area of land included what is now West Virginia. In 1669, King Charles II granted land patents, including the eastern part of the present state of West Virginia, to supporters of his family.

Alexander Spotswood from Virginia came in 1716 and claimed the land for England. By 1719, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, had consolidated claim to the entire 5,282,000 acres in his own name.

The white settlement of present-day West Virginia probably began with the first Germans in search of religious freedom at Mecklenburg (present-day Shepherdstown) in 1727, despite earlier claims that Morgan Morgan had been the first.

Winning a dispute over the state of Virginia in 1746, Fairfax was officially granted all the land to the North Branch of the Potomac by the King of England. Fairfax had the land surveyed and leased to European immigrants in a manner similar to the European feudal system. He also sold much of it to land speculators.

Over the next two decades, England granted other large tracts of property to various land companies, attempting to copy Fairfax's success, but the Native Americans, French, and scattered settlers complicated their efforts.

Dispute over land in the Ohio Valley in the 1740s led to armed conflict in 1754. Treaties between the British, French, and Native Americans in the 1740s failed to clear title to the property in question. The French had laid claim to the territory on the basis of explorations of Robert Cavelier, the Sieur de La Salle and Celeron de Bienville. The British claims were based also on early explorations, as well as the original charter of the colony of Virginia, which claimed all the territory extending to the Mississippi River. Treaties with the Iroquois in 1722 and 1744, and with the Delaware and Shawnee tribes in 1752, gave England a more legal claim. However, under terms of the Native American concept of the land, many tribes other than the Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee claimed rights to the territory. Forced into a confrontational stance with Great Britian, the Native Americans allied with the French, who primarily wanted the territory for trading purposes rather than for settlement, which Native Americans perceived as a threat to their way of life. As a result, much of the French and Indian War (or Seven Years War), from 1756 and 1763, took place in the Appalachian region.

Early defeats in the French and Indian War led Virginia Governor Dinwiddie to construct forts in present West Virginia as defensive positions from attack. These forts became a boundary that approximate the eastern border of West Virginia. Native American warriors attacked Fort Evans in present-day Berkeley County in 1756, and Forts Seybert and Upper Tract in present-day Pendleton County in 1758, as well as sites throughout the Monongahela, New River, and Greenbrier valleys. In November 1758, the British captured Fort Duquesne (renamed Fort Pitt) at the mouth of the Ohio River at present-day Pittsburgh, securing the Ohio Valley. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the French and Indian War, giving England title to virtually all territory east of the Mississippi River. The 1768, peace treaties forced Cherokee and Iroquois out of West Virginia. Colonists rushed to settle the land between the Alleghenies and the Ohio River. The Alleghenies Mountains separated the western and eastern counties of Virginia, which soon became very different in social and economic structure.

With the French eliminated, the Native Americans were left alone in their fight against colonial agression. In the summer of 1763, the Delaware and Shawnee tribes decided to attack settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains. Under the Ottawa chief Pontiac, Native American warriors captured most of the trans-Allegheny forts, with the exception of Fort Pitt. On August 6, 1763, British forces, under Colonel Henry Bouquet destroyed Delaware and Shawnee forces at Bushy Run in present-day western Pennsylvania, paving the way for colonial settlement. However, England's King George III's Proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains in an attempt to avoid contact with Native Americans.

In 1768, the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes released their claims to the territory between the Ohio River and the Allegheny Mountains. This nullified the Proclamation of 1763, producing a rapid increase in settlement. Land speculators again became concerned with their legal rights to the land on which white settlers were squatters. One of the speculators was none other than George Washington, who acquired 45,000 acres of present-day Mason, Putnam, and Kanawha counties.

With the incursion of colonial surveyors into the trans-Allegheny region, Shawnee forces once again attempted to defend their property. Colonists attempted pre-emptive attacks which further infuriated the Native Americans. In 1773, land speculator Michael Cresap led a group of volunteers from Fort Fincastle (later renamed Fort Henry) at present-day Wheeling, murdering several Shawnee at Captina Creek. Among many other atrocities, on April 30, 1774, colonists murdered the family of Mingo chieftain Tah-gah-jute, who had been baptized under the English name of Logan. Although Logan had previously lived peacefully with whites, he killed at least 13 settlers that summer in revenge, justifying his actions in a famous letter.

Virginia Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, decided to end the conflict in the Ohio Valley by force. Dummore created two armies, one marching from the North, consisting of 1,700 men led by himself and the other marching from the South, comprised of 800 troops led by western Virginia resident and land speculator Captain Andrew Lewis. Shawnee chieftain Keigh-tugh-qua, or Cornstalk, elected to strike the southern regiment before they united with Dunmore's forces. On October 10, 1774, Cornstalk's approximately 1,200 men attacked Lewis' forces at the confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, present-day Point Pleasant. After the battle, which resulted in significant losses on both sides and a Shawnee retreat to protect their settlements in the Scioto Valley, Lord Dummore met with members of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo tribes. As a condition of the subsequent Treaty of Camp Charlotte, the Native American tribes relinquished all property and hunting claims on land south of the Ohio River.

The Battle of Point Pleasant eliminated Native Americans as a force on the frontier for the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, clearing the way for peaceful settlement of the region. It was the second colonial step in eliminating the elements restricting settlement and successful land speculation, as the Treaty of Paris had removed the French eleven years before. The Revolutionary War would eventually remove British claims from the Appalachian region, leaving the area in the hands of large non-resident land holders such as George Washington, Robert Morris, and DeWitt Clinton.

After the defeat of the French and their Native American allies, England and American colonists finally clashed over the ownership of what became the United States. Despite years of conflict with the British, by 1777, many Native American tribes had joined in the fight against the colonists. The great Indian chief Cornstalk was taken hostage at Fort Randolph at present-day Point Pleasant while trying to warn settlers that the Shawnee had decided to fight on behalf of the British. In retaliation for the murder of a colleague, soldiers at the fort murdered Cornstalk and his son. In 1777 and 1778, British and Native American forces attacked outposts held by colonials, including Fort Henry (present-day Wheeling), Fort Randolph, and Fort Donnally (west of present-day Lewisburg). In 1778, George Rogers Clark, accompanied by troops from the Monongahela and Shenandoah valleys, temporarily broke the British-Indian alliance with victories in the Illinois territory at Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes. Colonials rejected an attempt by Wyandots and some Shawnee to negotiate a peace in 1779. One of the most violent skirmishes in present-day West Virginia took place when Wyandot and Delaware warriors laid siege to Fort Henry in 1782, nearly a year after the surrender of the main British army at Yorktown. American aims were consolidated with General Anthony Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers in present-day northwestern Ohio, effectively removing any remaining Indian claims in the Ohio Valley. A number of prominent Revolutionary War officers came from present-day West Virginia, including Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Adam Stephen, Hugh Stephenson, and William Darke.

Besides determining self-rule of the country, the American Revolution negated all claims upon land in western Virginia by the third and final group, the British. The Revolution opened up settlement of territory west of the Allegheny Mountains, but at the same time, cleared a route to a frontier beyond the Ohio River, which was often more appealing than that territory guarded by the mountains.

Those unwilling or unable to purchase property from land companies claimed homesteads on the frontier through squatter's rights. Although avoiding considerable expense, the settlers faced problems on the frontier, such as conflict with Native Americans and disease. Furthermore, the government and land speculators in eastern Virginia, disregarding the "squatter's rights," surveyed and distributed the land.

Early settlers pushed west of the Alleghenies and settled first along the major river valleys, including the Greenbrier, Monongahela, Cheat, Tygart, Kanawha, and Ohio. It was not until the 1780s, that a substantial number of people had moved west of the mountains, but after that settlement proceeded at a rapid rate. In 1790, there were 56,000 people in present-day West Virginia. By 1810, there were 105,000, and on the eve of the Civil War, 377,000.

In 1794, President Washington personally led federal troops into western Pennsylvania. Washington's actions united settlers on the western frontier, including present-day West Virginia, against the power of a strong central government. Over the next seventy years, western Virginians continued to struggle against their state government which they felt did not truly represent their interests

By 1860, great contention had grown between west and east counties in Virginia. Huge disputes developed over issues such as slavery, taxation, education, and equal representation within their government. In 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union and the Civil War began. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, the residents of the western counties, few of whom owned slaves, decided to stay with the Union. "Mountaineers always freemen" is the state's motto. They voted to break away from Virginia and form their own government. West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863.

During the late 1800s, railroads expanded throughout the state. With new advanced technology, lumber and coal production increased dramatically. New industries such as chemical, glass, and steel moved into the state to use the huge amounts of natural gas produced there.

Much of West Virginia's population worked in coal mines during the early 1900s. The work was dangerous and accidents killed hundreds of miners. In 1902, the United Mine Workers labor union organized several miners and demanded safer working conditions, shorter work hours, and better wages. Deadly fights often broke out between mine owners and union members, which ended for a short time under military law. In 1933, the National Recovery Administration was established. It protected union members and helped to bring about the needed changes within the mines. Despite these reforms, many workers left West Virginia from the 1940s to the 1970s in search of better economic opportunities.

A trend of increased retirement to West Virginia in the 1980s resulted in renewed population growth for the state. The wealth of natural resources attracted retirees to West Virginia, which is the state highest in elevation east of the Mississippi and is part of the Appalachian Mountain system. Forest forms approximately three-fourths of the state, while farms cover many of the ridges and fertile valley bottoms. West Virginia boasts thirty-three state parks, and is considered one of the best spots in the world for white water rafting, which constitutes an important part of the state's growing tourist industry.

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