Did a lunatic discover West Virginia?

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Mountain Scene in Randolph County WV
Mountain Scene in Randolph County

As humorous as the tale might seem, one enduring West Virginia legend posits that the land now within the boundaries of the Mountain State was first visited by a “lunatic,” at least as far as visitors of European descent are concerned.

According to the late Jim Comstock, editor and publisher of the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, “early histories agree that the first white man to travel west of the Blue Ridge was a ‘lunatic’ from Winchester who, despite his mental condition, returned and gave an account of rivers flowing westward.”

“He also reported that hunting was good in the country west of the mountains and that there was some fine farmland in the Greebrier Valley.”

“His journey took place in 1749,” Comstock wrote, “and it was in that same year that the French engineer De Celeron [Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville] planted a leaden plate at the mouth of the Kanawha, claiming for his sovereign all the land drained by that river.”

De Blainville, to establish French claims to the Ohio Valley, buried at least six leaden plates at the mouths of major tributaries of the Ohio, including the plate at the mouth of the Kanawha.

“The report given by the ‘lunatic’ influenced Jacob Marlin and Stephen Sewell to settle at Marlin’s Bottom [now Marlinton] in Pocahontas County, the first permanent settlement in what is now West Virginia,” Comstock wrote.

Comstock in his 1976 retelling in volume 13 (page 2883) of the encyclopedia declines to cite a source for the tale, but Comstock, by his own admission, knew a good story and never let lack of a source prevent him from passing a tale along.