Written records of West Virginia’s history reach back only slightly more than 300 years, about half of which encompass the time when West Virginia was part of Virginia. Recorded history, however, is only a fragment of the West Virginia story and must be coupled with artifacts of preliterate people and other evidence which falls within the realms of geology, geography, and archeology. Perhaps the best history of West Virginia was written by Dr. Otis K. Rice.
Still evident after some 245 million years are the effects upon West Virginia of a great geological disturbance, a mountain-building era, known as the Appalachian Orogeny. At that time the floor of a portion of a great inland sea, which covered much of the interior of North America, was forced upward to create the Appalachian Mountains. In time the new land wore down to a large peneplain that tilts gently toward the Mississippi Valley. Natural forces, including erosion and the flow of streams, eventually produced a terrain marked by numerous valleys, rugged hills, and mountains that distinguish the state’s landscape to this day. Immense deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, salt, limestone, and other resources laid down in long-past geological eras have been vital to the economic life of West Virginia in historic times. The huge glaciers of the Ice Age never reached present West Virginia, but they did much to determine the state’s basic drainage patterns, especially with respect to the New, Ohio, and once-mighty Teays rivers.
The first inhabitants of West Virginia apparently descended from ‘‘Old Mongoloid’’ stock, or eastern Asians, who crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska approximately 40,000 years ago. Over the centuries, Native Americans, or Indians, evolved through three major cultural stages, including Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Woodland. Nomadic Paleo-Indian life centered upon the pursuit of large game animals and lasted until these animals became extinct about 6000 B.C. As early as 7000 B.C., Archaic Culture began to appear and continued over the next 6,000 years. A more reliable food supply that included small game, fish, roots, plants, and berries enabled the Archaic people to live in camps, often for long periods of time. Woodland Cultures, including the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian, evolved between about 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1700 and were among the most advanced in prehistoric West Virginia. Woodland Indians cultivated such plants as corn, beans, and squash, made pottery, and practiced burial ceremonialism. They left hundreds of mounds and other structures scattered across West Virginia. Among the best known are the Grave Creek Mound at Moundsville, the South Charleston-Dunbar mounds, the Bens Run earthworks in Tyler County, and the Mount Carbon rock walls in Fayette County.
The first European explorers found only a few natives in present West Virginia. By then, the Indians had formed into tribes and warfare was common. Two of the most powerful groups in the eastern United States were the Iroquois and Cherokee, both of which claimed parts of West Virginia. They probably forced weaker tribes, including the Shawnee, Mingo, and others, to abandon most of the state.
In 1606, King James I of England granted to the Virginia Company of London a vast expanse of land that included all of Virginia, present West Virginia, and Kentucky, as well as parts of North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and even New York. The first English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607. During the 17th century, white settlers, as well as Africans, arrived in Virginia in ever-increasing numbers. As settlements pushed up the rivers of the Tidewater, native claimants to the land became more and more restless. In 1622 and 1644, clashes between English settlers and the Indians erupted into bloody wars with appalling losses and created conditions that made western exploration hazardous. Interest in advancing into frontier regions languished following the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, but it revived after the accession of Charles II to the throne in 1660.
Between 1669 and 1673, a surge of frontier exploration took place. Important explorers included John Lederer, who scaled the Blue Ridge Mountains northwest of present Charlottesville, Virginia; Batts and Fallam, who discovered the westward-flowing waters of the New River and laid the basis for English claims to the Ohio Valley; and Needham and Arthur, the latter the first person of European descent to visit the Kanawha Valley. After 1675, English expansion suffered setbacks partly due to troubles with the Susquehannock Indians, to Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, and to the death in 1680 of Abraham Wood, a leading promoter.
Renewed interest in the Virginia frontier did not develop until after the beginning of the 18th century. By then, land suitable for settlement had become one of the most important reasons for exploration. The first known plans for a settlement in present West Virginia were made by Louis Michel, a resident of Bern, Switzerland, who in 1706 envisioned a settlement at present Harpers Ferry. A later attempt by Michel and Baron Christopher de Graffenreid was abandoned because of objections of the Conestoga Indians and the conflicting claims to the region by Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. In 1716, Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, with about 50 gentlemen later dubbed the ‘‘Knights of the Golden Horseshoe,’’ their servants, and Indian guides, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains by way of Swift Run Gap. Standing on the banks of the Shenandoah River, Spotswood claimed the land for England.
The location and date of the first settlement in West Virginia is uncertain. A settlement known as ‘‘Potomoke’’ in 1717 may have been at Shepherdstown. Morgan Morgan, a Welsh immigrant, however, has commonly been credited with making the first settlement in the state near Bunker Hill, Berkeley County, about 1731. It is now known that Morgan arrived about 1731 and that settlers were already in present West Virginia. Regardless of the location of the first settlement, it is clear that large numbers of immigrants did not arrive until after 1730, when Virginia enacted a land law that encouraged movement of people westward. Under that law speculators could acquire 1,000 acres for each family they recruited from outside the colony within a two-year period. This generous policy attracted large numbers of German and Scotch-Irish settlers, and by 1750 the population of the Valley of Virginia had reached a saturation point. In 1719, one of the largest land grants in American history was acquired by Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax. The Fairfax estate included the Northern Neck of Virginia and present Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire, Hardy, and Mineral counties, as well as parts of Grant and Tucker counties in West Virginia.
As settlers crossed the Allegheny Mountains, serious conflicts over the Ohio Valley developed between England and France. In order to press her claims to the region and to erect a buffer between the settlements and hostile Indians, Virginia made use of the same land policy that had proved effective in the Valley of Virginia. Speculators, however, were now allowed three years to settle the required number of families. The largest grants were made to the Greenbrier, Loyal, and Ohio companies. Meanwhile, France vigorously asserted her claims to the Ohio Valley. In 1749, Celoron de Blainville led an expedition down the Ohio River and at places along the way buried lead plates with inscriptions claiming the Ohio Valley for his country. During the years immediately following, the French built key forts in the disputed region. In the clash between English and French interests, Western Virginia was in the very center of the storm. In 1753, Gov. Robert Dinwiddie, determined to block French expansion into the Ohio Valley, sent 21-year-old George Washington with a message to the French commandant at Fort Le Boeuf near Lake Erie. Dinwiddie asserted that the French were intruding upon British soil and demanded that they withdraw. The French made it clear that they would remain. At that time the young Virginian perceived that possession of the Forks of the Ohio, present Pittsburgh, held the key to control of the Ohio Valley.
Acting upon Washington’s advice, Dinwiddie dispatched a work party to erect a fort at that location. In April 1754, Washington with 150 militiamen set out to garrison the new fort. Meanwhile, a large French force had seized the Forks of the Ohio. In the skirmishes that followed, the French drove the Virginians from the region. In 1755, at the request of Governor Dinwiddie, Gen. Edward Braddock arrived in Virginia with two regiments of British troops. His coming transformed a frontier conflict into a war between two great empires. Unfamiliar with frontier modes of fighting, Braddock marched his army into an ambush, and his troops were defeated at the Battle of the Monongahela.
The clashes between the British and the French at the Forks of the Ohio were the initial hostilities in the conflict known in American history as the French and Indian War and in other parts of the world to which it spread as the Seven Years War. The war marked the beginning of a 40-year period in which the hunger for land and a preoccupation with frontier defense set the tone for West Virginia affairs. The Ohio Valley remained one of the war’s strategic theaters.
From the beginning, most Indians northwest of the Ohio River favored France, whose interests in the fur trade posed little threat to Indian land or ways of life. On the other hand, English settlements and agricultural pursuits were a danger that must be resisted. In Western Virginia hostile Indians destroyed the Greenbrier settlements and repeatedly attacked the upper Potomac settlers. The capture of the Forks of the Ohio by Gen. John Forbes in 1758 and the construction of Fort Pitt helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the English. By 1759, England controlled key positions in North America, and in 1763 the Treaty of Paris ended the fighting. France lost the Ohio Valley and the rest of her colonial possessions on the North American mainland. There was never then any doubt that English culture would be dominant in Western Virginia.
Western Indian tribes, fearful and embittered, joined together under Chief Pontiac and struck quickly at the English. The Greenbrier settlements were again destroyed, and settlers in the Monongahela Valley and other areas suffered heavy losses. In an attempt to appease the Indians, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade settlements west of the crests of the Allegheny Mountains. Later, by the treaties of Hard Labor, Fort Stanwix, and Lochaber, the Iroquois and Cherokee gave up their claims to lands in West Virginia. Beginning in 1769, waves of pioneers swept into the upper Ohio, Monongahela, Greenbrier, and Kanawha valleys.
The treaties, however, failed to consider the claims of such tribes as the Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo. Once again, an influx of speculators and new settlers alarmed the western tribes and by the early 1770s provoked a new round of hostilities. The most serious was Dunmore’s War. In its only battle, fought at Point Pleasant on October 10, 1774, the Virginians, led by Andrew Lewis, defeated the Indians under Shawnee Chief Cornstalk. The Treaty of Camp Charlotte restored peace. The Battle of Point Pleasant was a decisive factor in the neutrality of the Indians during the first two years of the American Revolution and allowed the continuation of settlements into Western Virginia and Kentucky.
Although Western Virginians participated in nearly every major battle of the Revolutionary War, for most families the war was a continuation of hostilities with the Indians, who now had British support. In 1777, the Indians broke their neutrality and attacked Fort Henry at Wheeling. Indian raids again became common in most of Western Virginia and continued even after the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. The last important Revolutionary War engagement in Western Virginia occurred in 1782 when about 200 Indians besieged Fort Henry. Clashes continued until 1794, when Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers and forced them to give up their claims to lands south of the Ohio River.
On the eve of the Revolution, avaricious speculators expanded their horizons. They proposed an ambitious scheme for a 14th American colony known as Vandalia, which included most of present West Virginia, southwestern Pennsylvania, and portions of Kentucky. The war prevented the establishment of the colony, and its promoters later attempted to gain approval for a 14th state known as Westsylvania. Congress, however, rejected the plan, and Western Virginia remained a part of Virginia.
In 1779, the Virginia general assembly passed a land law that had far-reaching effects upon West Virginia, even to the present. The law recognized the rights of original settlers. It also permitted the buying and selling of certificates that enabled speculators, many of whom were from outside West Virginia, to acquire hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Unfortunately, the law did not require land to be surveyed before its transfer. As a result, land claims were often imprecise and provided lawyers with a profitable business for decades in resolving disputes. Among the most baneful effects of the law on the state were the emergence of an enduring system of absentee landownership and arrested economic growth.
Until nearly the end of the 19th century, when large-scale industry became important, most West Virginians depended upon subsistence farming for their livelihood. Families continued to rely upon their fields and the forests for products commonly used in their foods, shelter, and clothing. Early industries, including grain milling and textile manufacturing, were often farm-related.
The War of 1812 stimulated industrial development, especially salt and iron. The Kanawha Salines at present Malden became by far the most important salt-producing center in the region. By 1815, 52 salt furnaces were operating along the Kanawha River for a distance of ten miles east of Charleston. Competition among salt-makers was so keen that in 1817 they organized the Kanawha Salt Company, sometimes regarded as the first trust in American history. Production in the Kanawha Valley peaked in 1846 when 3,224,786 bushels were produced. Salt stimulated the growth of timbering, flatboat construction, barrel making, and coal mining. The first iron furnace in Western Virginia was established by Thomas Mayberry at Bloomery near Harpers Ferry in 1742. The Peter Tarr Furnace on Kings Creek near Weirton, the first iron furnace west of the mountains, was erected in 1794. Later, the Wheeling area and the Monongahela Valley became the most important centers of iron manufacturing in West Virginia.
On the eve of the Civil War, Burning Springs in Wirt County emerged as one of the foremost oil fields in the United States. Natural gas, often found in the same locations as oil, had little importance before the war. During the 1840s, however, William Tompkins, a Kanawha Valley salt-maker, experimented with gas in the operation of his salt wells.
A growing population and expanding industries led to significant developments in transportation. The National Road, the first major highway in the region, was completed by the federal government from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling in 1818. The highway helped to transform Wheeling into a major industrial and commercial center in the upper Ohio Valley. Three roads completed by Virginia before the Civil War included the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, the Northwestern Turnpike, and the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. These highways stimulated economic development and promoted the growth of numerous new towns.
Although flatboats and keel boats were commonly used, the steamboat soon became the most important craft on Western Virginia’s rivers. James Rumsey, a resident of Shepherdstown, was one of the pioneers in the development of the steamboat. Construction of steamboats for western rivers quickly became an important industry along the upper Ohio. The George Washington, launched by Capt. Henry M. Shreve at Wheeling in 1816, demonstrated that the steamboat had an important future on the inland waterways. Steamboats made river improvements imperative. In the 1850s, the Coal River Navigation Company, with funds provided by coal companies and the state, built nine locks and dams, the first such facilities in Western Virginia.
By the 1830s, interest in transportation in the United States began to shift to railroads. The first major line in Western Virginia, the Baltimore & Ohio, was completed from Harpers Ferry to Wheeling in 1853. The only other important line in Western Virginia before the Civil War was the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, opened in 1857 from Grafton to Parkersburg.
In the early 19th century, sectionalism began to appear in Virginia. The Blue Ridge and later the Allegheny Front marked a divide between eastern and western parts of the state. Differences between Virginians grew out of their cultural backgrounds, their divergent economic interests, and the overwhelming political influence of Tidewater and Piedmont planters. Friction between the sections intensified over such political issues as expanding the vote, representation in the legislature, and popular election of state and county officials. Ironically, the Virginia constitution of 1776, crafted by leaders who proclaimed devotion to democracy, had a granite-like quality that assured the unassailability of eastern supremacy in state affairs.
Western dissatisfaction led to several attempts to reform the state constitution. The Staunton conventions of 1816 and 1825 and the Constitutional Convention of 1829–30 failed to meet western demands. Some western leaders favored separation from Virginia. The convention of 1850–51 made changes that addressed the political sources of western discontent. Under the new constitution a westerner, Joseph Johnson of Bridgeport, became the first popularly elected governor of Virginia. These successes, however, were overshadowed by economic inequities. The new constitution shifted the tax burden to the west by requiring that all property, except slaves, be taxed at its actual value, and it contained provisions that dealt severe blows to internal improvements favored by the west. Old rivalries between east and west were soon renewed.
In the three decades before the Civil War, slavery was increasingly an issue in the United States. Two prominent Western Virginians took a strong stand on slavery. Henry Ruffner, a Kanawha Countian who served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), published the Ruffner Pamphlet in which he attacked slavery as an evil that kept immigrants out of Virginia, slowed economic development, and hampered education. He urged gradual emancipation of all slaves west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Alexander Campbell, a founder of the Disciples of Christ and president of Bethany College, contended, however, that the North should accept slavery in the South. He supported the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 but believed that runaway slaves should be provided the necessities of food, shelter, and clothing. As tensions over slavery mounted, several churches divided over the issue. The Methodists, who split in 1844, included most of Western Virginia in their northern branch.
Some well-known abolitionists regarded Western Virginia as useful to their cause. In 1857, Eli Thayer of Massachusetts chose Ceredo for a settlement by 500 New England emigrants who were expected to demonstrate to Southerners that free labor was superior to slave labor. The Civil War led to the collapse of the experiment, and when the conflict ended only about 125 of the original settlers were left. Unlike Thayer’s friendly invasion, abolitionist John Brown in 1859 led a bold raid on Harpers Ferry so alarming to the South that some historians believe it made the Civil War inevitable.
The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 exacerbated feelings that led to the Civil War and ultimately to the formation of West Virginia. Following the fall of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Virginia held a convention in April 1861 to consider a course of action. The convention voted 88 to 55 to leave the Union. Of 47 delegates from present-day West Virginia, 32 voted against secession, 11 favored it, and four did not vote. John S. Carlile and other Unionist delegates hurried home and organized opposition to Virginia’s decision. As a result of their efforts, 37 counties sent delegates to a meeting in May known as the First Wheeling Convention. There, Carlile urged immediate steps to establish a new state. Other leaders, including Waitman T. Willey, Francis Harrison Pierpont, and John J. Jackson, preferred to postpone action.
In June 1861, the Second Wheeling Convention established the Reorganized, or Restored, Government of Virginia at Wheeling. Francis H. Pierpont was chosen governor, and Willey and Carlile were named to the U.S. Senate to replace Virginia’s senators who had cast their lot with the Confederacy. Throughout the Civil War, Virginia had two governments. The Wheeling government supported the Union, and the Richmond government the Confederacy. In August, the Second Wheeling Convention, in its Adjourned Session, took steps to establish a separate state, subject to the approval of voters. On October 24, 1861, the voters of 41 counties approved the formation of a new state and on the same day elected delegates to a constitutional convention, although less than 37 percent of those eligible to vote actually did so. The constitution prepared by the convention was approved by the voters in April 1862, with the vote taken in unsettled conditions.
In order to become a state, West Virginia needed the approval of Virginia and a constitution acceptable to the Congress and the president. Since the Confederate government in Richmond would never agree to the dismemberment of Virginia, leaders of the proposed new state turned to the Reorganized Government. Governor Pierpont called a special session of the legislature that approved the request within a week. His role in establishing the state was so crucial that he is regarded as the ‘‘Father of West Virginia.’’
In the U.S. Senate, a petition that would allow West Virginia to enter the Union as a slave state was referred to the Committee on Territories, of which Carlile was a member. Unexpectedly, for reasons on which historians have disagreed, Carlile, who had previously favored creation of a new state, now included proposals that nearly destroyed the chances for statehood. At this critical moment, Willey offered a compromise to gradually abolish slavery in West Virginia. With the Willey Amendment to the state constitution, the statehood bill passed both houses of Congress. The West Virginia Constitutional Convention reconvened in February 1863 and accepted the Willey Amendment. The amended constitution was approved by the electorate in a vote of 28,321 to 572. In accordance with a proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, West Virginia entered the Union on June 20, 1863, as the 35th state.
When West Virginia became a state, the Civil War had already been raging within its borders for two years and had deepened the divisions among the state’s people. Historians do not agree on exactly how many West Virginians served in Union and Confederate armies. Charles H. Ambler and Festus P. Summers estimated that from 25,000 to 45,000 West Virginians fought in the Civil War, about 80 percent for the Union and about 20 percent for the Confederacy. More recent estimates place the number of Union soldiers at no more than 60 percent and Confederates at about 40 percent. Boyd B. Stutler, in his Civil War in West Virginia, counted 632 actions, including battles, skirmishes, and other engagements in West Virginia.
The year 1861 was one of intense military activity. The Battle of Philippi on June 3 is sometimes regarded as the first land battle of the Civil War. Before the end of summer, Union forces controlled both the Monongahela and Kanawha valleys. A Union victory at Carnifex Ferry in September 1861 prevented the Confederates from driving a wedge between the two federal forces. Later, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s efforts to regain lost territory ended in failure at the Battle of Cheat Mountain. By the winter of 1861–62, much of the military activity in West Virginia had degenerated into vicious guerrilla warfare involving such irregular bands as the Black Striped Company in Logan County and the Moccasin Rangers in Braxton, Nicholas, and other central counties. Some of the most notable military actions of 1862 and 1863 were in the form of daring Confederate raids into Union-held territory. They included the Jenkins Raid of 1862 and the Jones-Imboden Raid of 1863. The Battle of Droop Mountain on November 6, 1863, gave Union forces control over most of the territory of the new state of West Virginia.
The Reconstruction Era was hardly less traumatic than the Civil War. Divisions existed not only between Unionists and former Confederates, but also among the Unionists themselves. Unconditional Unionists, including Arthur I. Boreman, Archibald W. Campbell, and Waitman T. Willey, were willing to accept the emancipation of slaves and increased federal authority in order to maintain statehood. Conservative Unionists, however, adamantly opposed a government they considered dictatorial and abolitionist.
Fearful for the state’s future, Governor Boreman and Radical Republican leaders who dominated the legislature were determined to prevent former Confederates, most of whom were Democrats, from regaining political power. Repressive legislation provided for confiscation of the property of persons regarded as enemies of the state. The Radical- dominated legislature also enacted the Voters’ Test Oaths of 1865 and the Voters’ Registration Law of 1866. These measures restricted the right to vote and required state and local officials, as well as attorneys and school teachers, to take oaths of allegiance to West Virginia and the United States. Estimates of the number of disfranchised voters range from 15,000 to 25,000. By the end of the 1860s, the anomaly of these stern proscriptions at a time when the federal government was assiduously protecting the voting rights of African-Americans led to calls for change. In 1871, moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the Flick Amendment to the state constitution, which ended political restrictions on ex-Confederates in West Virginia. Voters approved the amendment by a margin of more than three to one.
In 1870, the Democratic Party carried the West Virginia elections. The governorship of John J. Jacob initiated a period of Democratic control that lasted 26 years. Democrats immediately took steps to provide the state with a new frame of government. A convention assembled in Charleston and wrote the constitution of 1872, under which the state is still governed. The new constitution eliminated the township system and implemented a modified county court system. It extended the term of office of the governor from two to four years. From time to time voters have declined to authorize a new convention to modernize the state constitution. However, they have endeavored to retain the workability of a somewhat antiquated document by approving 70 of 118 proposed amendments.
One of the most sagacious and farsighted provisions of the original constitution of 1863 was its mandate to the legislature to provide a ‘‘thorough and efficient’’ system of free public schools for all children in the state. The legislature created an administrative structure that included a state superintendent, county superintendents, and officials in townships, into which counties were divided for educational purposes. By 1870, the state had 2,270 schools, mostly with one room and one teacher. The constitution of 1872 retained the free school mandate. Some counties, nevertheless, faced lingering opposition to free schools largely because of objections to taxes needed for their support or to the free-school principle itself.
The development of West Virginia public schools in the last quarter of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century was similar to that of several southern and midwestern states. Important milestones were the designation of Marshall College (now Marshall University the state’s normal training school for teachers in 1867 and the establishment of branch normals at Fairmont, Athens, Shepherdstown, Glenville, and West Liberty in the 1870s; the assignment of training for black teachers to the two ‘‘colored institutes’’; the enactment of a compulsory attendance law in 1903; and the opening of 233 high schools by 1925 and 88 junior high schools by 1928. West Virginia pioneered the adoption of a graduating plan for public schools, formulated by Alexander L. Wade of Monongalia County. Beginning in the 1890s, it gradually became the pattern throughout the United States. With the adoption of the County Unit Plan of 1933, providing countywide rather than district school boards, West Virginia again led the nation in a major educational reform. During the 20th century, public schools were strongly influenced by the progressive education movement, whose leaders gained control of the educational administrative machinery at the state level and achieved power that lasted throughout the century.
As in other states, West Virginia education has been shaped to a considerable extent by federal policy and federal support. Under the terms of the Morrill Act, West Virginia University was founded in 1867 as the state’s land-grant institution. The GI Bill of Rights of 1944 provided generous educational benefits to thousands of World War II veterans and improved the financial condition of nearly every college in the state. Segregation of West Virginia schools, mandated by the state constitution, was ended by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Unlike several southern states, West Virginia achieved integration with little opposition. Ongoing federal programs launched in the 1960s, including Upward Bound and Headstart, have done much to provide equal educational opportunities for children throughout the state. Some major issues in education at the turn of the 21st century include the pros and cons of school consolidation, and the impact of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. At the same time, like other Americans, West Virginians have serious concerns regarding a decline of discipline and an increasing violence in the public schools.
In celebrating the 50 years of statehood in 1913, West Virginians looked back with pride upon an era of unprecedented industrial development. The achievement was largely in extractive industries and based upon coal, oil, natural gas, and timber resources, which had lain dormant for millennia. In the late 19th century, state government, whether in the hands of Democrats or Republicans, endeavored to extirpate the bitterness wrought by the Civil War and Reconstruction and to establish a climate favorable to industrial growth. By 1913, annual coal production exceeded 28 million tons. The state achieved first place in the nation in oil production in 1898 and in natural gas output in 1906. Timber production reached its peak in 1909.
Closely associated with such expansion was the building of hundreds of miles of railroads, including the Chesapeake & Ohio, Norfolk & Western, Coal & Coke, Western Maryland, Virginian, and Kanawha & Michigan lines. Railroad magnates such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington, and others acquired vast acreages of West Virginia land and mineral resources. By the end of the 20th century, major West Virginia railroads, after numerous mergers, were incorporated into such giants as CSX and Norfolk Southern, two of the largest landholders in the state. Also vital to industrial growth was the construction of locks and dams in the Ohio, Kanawha, Monongahela, Big Sandy, and Little Kanawha rivers, their upgrading in the 1930s, and further improvements as the 20th century drew to a close.
By 1900, West Virginia was clearly on the threshold of major economic and demographic changes. The state still had some 93,000 farms. Nevertheless, migration from rural areas to cities, one of the dominant trends in the nation, was also in progress in West Virginia. By 1994, farm acreage was less than 35 percent of that of 1900. Most were commercial rather than subsistence farms. Three fourths of agricultural income came from livestock, including cattle and calves, poultry, and dairy products. Apples, peaches, and tobacco were important commercial crops.
By the late 1800s, rapidly expanding industries, especially coal, led to an acute need for labor, and both the state government and individual companies sent agents abroad to take advantage of the ‘‘New Immigration’’ from southern and eastern Europe. They recruited thousands of Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, and other nationalities, as well as African-Americans from the South. These ethnic groups added greater diversity to the state’s population and culture.
West Virginia’s rich resources and emerging extractive industries caught the attention of powerful business and financial interests outside the state. Many acquired large amounts of land for a small fraction of its real worth. State businessmen and politicians sometimes became allies of powerful non-resident interests whose activities left both benefits and problems. The new industrial age transformed much of the state from a society of small, independent farmers into one with a class-oriented social and economic structure of newly rich industrial barons at the apex and landless wage-earners at the bottom. Sizable amounts of West Virginia’s wealth left the state, and the land from which it was drawn fell under the heavy cloud of a colonial economy.
As extractive industries, particularly coal, gained a prominent place in the West Virginia economy during the first half-century of statehood, capital investment in manufacturing increased fourfold between 1870 and 1900. The Northern Panhandle, Ohio Valley, and Kanawha Valley became major manufacturing areas. Wheeling was the leading industrial city in the state throughout the 19th century. Other prominent industrial centers included Charleston, Parkersburg, Newell, Wellsburg, Benwood, New Cumberland, and Huntington.
World War I was a major stimulus to industry, especially the manufacture of chemicals. The federal government laid the basis for the industry in the Kanawha Valley by constructing a mustard gas plant at Belle and a smokeless powder plant at Nitro, where a community of 25,000 people sprang up almost overnight. Chemical firms in the Kanawha Valley expanded rapidly in the decades after 1920 and manufactured a great variety of new products, including rubber, plastics, rayon, nylon, and automotive antifreezes. World War II further accelerated the making of chemicals in West Virginia. The Kanawha Valley became one of the chemical centers of the world. By 1970, every Ohio River county except Jackson had at least one chemical plant.
During the first half of the 20th century, textile, clay-product, glass, and electric power industries grew rapidly. Hancock County manufactured fine chinaware. The state was a pioneer in the development and use of modern glass-making machinery, but it was also known throughout the world for its Fostoria and hand-blown Blenko, Fenton, and Pilgrim glass products. After 1940, electric power production increased by about 2,000 percent.
By the mid-20th century, mechanization, foreign competition, and emergence of a global economy contributed to fundamental changes in West Virginia industry. Many traditional industries experienced decline. Increasingly, the state was confronted with technological unemployment. Thousands of miners and other workers lost their jobs and left. The population fell from 2,005,552 in 1950 to 1,860,421 in 1960. Further losses occurred in the 1960s and 1980s. Scores of once-thriving mining towns lost so many families that they became ghost towns. In the 1990s, however, the state’s economy showed signs of improvement. Important growth areas included certain areas of manufacturing, such as the automobile and wood-based industries, as well as the service industries, and tourism and recreation. Investments by Japanese, Taiwanese, and British firms attested to an increasing globalization of the state economy. Service industries, including banking and insurance, real estate, and rapidly expanding health care, made up 68 percent of the gross state product. By 1996, the state’s improved economy seemed to be contributing to a reversal of nearly four decades of population losses. In 2010, the state’s population was 1,852,994.
Industrialization in West Virginia produced conditions conducive to an organized labor movement. As early as the 1820s, Wheeling had a sizable wage-earning class and a labor newspaper. A strong labor movement, however, did not develop until after the Civil War. The first important union was the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869. The Knights established a local organization at Paden City in 1877, and within a few years 16 others were founded in the state. The great railroad strike of 1877, the first nationwide industrial strike, began at Martinsburg and ended only by federal intervention. In 1880, the Knights of Labor supported an unsuccessful strike by miners at Hawks Nest in Fayette County. Following these and other setbacks, the union gradually declined.
In 1881, the American Federation of Labor, made up of crafts of skilled workers, was organized. It advocated an eight-hour day, six-day workweek, higher wages, and job safety and security. By 1914, the West Virginia Federation of Labor, which was affiliated with the national organization, included 152 local craft unions with 31,315 members. The union was especially strong among iron, steel, and tin workers; transportation employees; and glass workers. Wheeling had more than 40 percent of the union craft workers in the state. Wheeling, Fairmont, Clarksburg, Charleston, Hinton, Morgantown, and Parkersburg had central labor organizations made up of the craft unions.
The most powerful union in West Virginia has been the United Mine Workers of America. The union was formed in Columbus in 1890 and only gradually established itself in West Virginia. Only about half of state miners participated in a nationwide strike in 1894. Union membership declined in 1897 to a mere 206 workers. Between 1897 and 1902, the UMWA enlisted the support of well-known labor leaders from across the nation. They included Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, and Mary ‘‘Mother’’ Jones. Operators responded with court injunctions, yellow-dog contracts, blacklisting, and heavily armed mine guards. Nevertheless, in 1902 the union, with assistance from Jones, organized about 7,000 miners in the Kanawha Valley. For the next quarter-century, Mother Jones had a powerful influence with miners in West Virginia.
During the Mine Wars of the early 20th century, some of the most violent episodes in the state’s labor history occurred in the coalfields. In 1912–13, troubles erupted on Paint and Cabin creeks, tributaries of the Kanawha River, when operators refused to renew contracts with the union. Sporadic violence occurred at Mucklow and Holly Grove and caused Governor Glasscock to impose martial law. The strike ultimately ended when Governor Hatfield helped arrange a settlement.
The great demand for coal and a shortage of labor during World War I produced conditions in which the industry flourished, wages rose, and union membership increased. Between 1919 and 1921, UMWA efforts to unionize the mines of southern West Virginia, particularly in Logan and Mingo counties, were marked by incidents of unusual violence, including the Matewan Massacre, Sharples Massacre, and the Battle of Blair Mountain. Labor suffered major setbacks. By 1924, the UMWA had lost half its members in West Virginia and was nearly bankrupt. Collective bargaining, one of the union’s major goals, remained unachieved.
The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, proved a catalyst for fundamental political, economic, and social reforms in the United States. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic candidate for president, promised a ‘‘New Deal’’ in handling the nation’s extraordinary economic problems. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA) gave workers benefits for which they had long battled. It offered an eight-hour workday, an end to yellow-dog contracts, and the right to collective bargaining. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that NIRA was unconstitutional, many parts of the act relating to labor were included in the Wagner Act of 1935.
Under the leadership of John L. Lewis, coal miners made rapid gains in the more benign political environment. The Appalachian Agreements eventually ended unfavorable wage scales, and in 1946 a Miners’ Welfare and Retirement Fund, one of the union’s most important goals, was established. During the 1940s, the UMWA reached the zenith of its political influence in West Virginia when its leaders persuaded Matthew Neely to give up his U.S. Senate seat to run for governor. After 1950, mechanization and automation in coal mining drastically reduced the number of miners and began a long-term and eventually dramatic decline in UMWA membership and influence in the state.
Historically, mining has been one of the most dangerous industries. Most miners died in individual accidents killing one or a few miners at a time, but major mine disasters occurred at Monongah in 1907, Eccles in 1914, Benwood in 1924, and Farmington in 1968. Another disaster, at Buffalo Creek in 1972, was the result of the collapse of a coal company dam in which 125 people were killed and 17 communities destroyed. The dangers of underground work outside the coal industry appeared in 1932 during the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel, which diverted waters of the New River to a hydroelectric plant. Scores of men died of silicosis that might have been prevented had the company taken the proper precautions.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the actions of both federal and state governments led to improved safety and working conditions. In 1969, the federal government recognized pneumoconiosis, or black lung, as an occupational disease and set up a fund to support afflicted miners. A year later, the state established a Black Lung Fund.
One of the most distinctive events in the state’s labor history occurred in the early 1980s when workers of the Weirton Steel Company purchased its properties and prevented the plant’s closing. For a time, the new company was the largest employee-owned business in the nation, before suffering serious setbacks at the end of the 20th century. Employee ownership ended when Weirton Steel was sold to the International Steel Group early in the 21st century.
Political affairs since 1863 have reflected both changes and continuities in life in West Virginia. In the years immediately following statehood, the state was profoundly affected by the problems and tensions of Reconstruction. Partisan politics agitated discussions regarding the location of a permanent state capital. Republicans favored Wheeling, their center of influence. Democrats wanted the capital in southern West Virginia, where their party was strong. In 1877, the matter was submitted to the voters, who chose Charleston over Clarksburg and Martinsburg as the permanent seat of government. The move was made in 1885.
In 1871, following the troubled eight years of Radical Reconstruction, the Democratic Party, augmented by disfranchised ex-Confederates and by Liberal Republicans, captured the governorship and the legislature. The so-called Bourbon Democrats often clung to the ideals of the rural South but promoted the development of industry, and their rule coincided with the beginnings of the industrial revolution in West Virginia.
Party labels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are not always enlightening. Bourbon Democrats and conservative Republicans shared many of the same ideas and policies, and favored the development of the state’s resources. The political and business relationships between Henry Gassaway Davis, who had enormous power in the Democratic Party, and his son-in-law, Stephen B. Elkins, who after 1894 had similar control over Republican affairs, illustrate the degree to which politics was tied to industrial welfare and influenced by great industrial tycoons. Four governors—George W. Atkinson, Albert B. White, William M. O. Dawson, and William E. Glasscock—are commonly known as ‘‘Elkins governors.’’ Relations between West Virginia industrialists and those on the national scene often brought temporary prosperity and opportunities but in the long run helped move the state toward economic dependency.
Concerns over unbridled industrial exploitation of both natural and human resources, as well as government neglect of many vital services, helped set the stage for the Progressive Movement in West Virginia. From 1900 to 1920, progressive ideals were at the center of state affairs. Although the movement transcended party lines, the greatest gains were made during the tenure of the Republican governors, particularly Henry D. Hatfield. One student of the period observed that at the end of the Hatfield administration West Virginia had as much progressive legislation as any state in the nation. Except for the Cornwell administration (1917–21), Republicans continued to control the governorship until 1933.
Like many other Americans, West Virginians were beguiled by the prosperity of the 1920s. In 1924, when John William Davis of Clarksburg received the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, West Virginia nonetheless gave its electoral votes to incumbent Republican Calvin Coolidge, whom they associated with the good times. Republican administrations in West Virginia during the 1920s were conservative, and the laissez-faire philosophy of government and economic affairs was the order of the day.
The Great Depression brought wide-scale unemployment, with thousands of people reduced to penury, and proved to be a watershed in American and West Virginia history. Laissez-faire doctrines fell before the activist philosophy of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which projected an expanded role for government in economic, social, and cultural matters and allowed the Democratic Party to regain control over national and state affairs. The New Deal and the measures taken by Governor Kump and the legislature brought new hope to economically distressed West Virginians. Through such agencies as the National Industrial Recovery Administration, Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, and others, unemployment diminished and the economy improved. The easing of the Great Depression paved the way in West Virginia for a new Democratic era that continued into the 21st century. The period following World War II witnessed troubling new economic problems in West Virginia. The unsettled conditions, along with the popularity of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, interrupted Democratic trends in the state and helped Republican Cecil Underwood capture the governorship in 1956.
While state politics have normally had little impact on the rest of the nation, the West Virginia primary of 1960 attracted national interest when it became a battleground between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey for the Democratic nomination for president. Kennedy’s landslide victory in West Virginia proved to be a turning point in his campaign for the presidency.
During the 1960s, policies of the federal government exerted major impact upon conditions in West Virginia. President Kennedy’s New Frontier and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty pumped millions of federal dollars into the state. Among the most important new federal agencies was the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), established in 1965. Although it helped develop health-care centers, and supported vocational training, erosion control, and other projects, four-fifths of the ARC budget was devoted to construction of highways. At the close of the 20th century, more than 300 miles of Appalachian Corridor highways had been completed in the state.
Since the 1960s, one of the most significant changes in West Virginia government has been the emergence of a strong chief executive. The Modern Budget Amendment of 1968 made the governor responsible for preparation of the state budget. In 1970, the Governor’s Succession Amendment permitted a governor to serve two consecutive terms. These amendments have led to a sharp increase in the influence and prestige of the governorship. Unlike other branches of state government, which have been dominated by Democrats, the governor’s office since 1968 has alternated between Republicans and Democrats.
Leaders in both parties were deeply concerned about the condition of the state’s economy. Economic improvements were sometimes made at high costs to the environment, and government officials sought ways to balance economic gains against environmental concerns. One controversial issue was strip mining, which liberals maintained must either be abolished or strictly regulated. Young John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, who came to rural Kanawha County as a social worker in the 1960s, endeared himself to liberals by boldly advocating the abolition of strip mining. Following the energy crisis of 1973 and his election to the governorship, Rockefeller became a proponent of regulation rather than abolition. By the early 1990s, continued complaints over the destructive practices of coal operators led to threats by the federal government to take over regulation of surface mining in West Virginia. The actions of Governor Gaston Caperton and the legislature, which appropriated more funding for the employment of additional state inspectors, averted federal actions. By the late 1990s, mountaintop removal, the most profitable and arguably the most damaging form of surface mining, had become common and led to sharp public debate.
Public demands for greater access to education, health care, and other services produced rapid growth in both the size and costs of state government. In an effort to streamline administration, Governor Caperton reorganized the executive branch under seven ‘‘super secretaries,’’ each responsible for several formerly separate agencies. His action, however, aroused criticism that another layer of expensive bureaucracy had been established.
In recent decades the state’s governors, congressional representation, and other officials have made concerted efforts to promote economic development, including foreign investments. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, known nationally as an authority on Senate history and the U.S. Constitution, won federal appropriations in excess of $1 billion and brought numerous federal projects and facilities to West Virginia. By the mid-1990s, the state’s economy bore signs of improvement although some ground was later lost in the recession that followed the national boom of the late 1990s. Between 1988 and 1997, the state budget more than doubled, rising from about $3.3 billion to approximately $7 billion.
As the 20th century slipped away, West Virginians could reflect upon the great changes that it had brought. The automobile, radio, motion pictures, television, computers, and other inventions had opened vistas little dreamed of when the century began. It had brought new opportunities for education and self-fulfillment, recognition of human rights for all people, and ever-increasing prospects for more people to share in the blessings the state had to offer. As always, however, problems remained. West Virginians had deep apprehensions about the future. Their concerns included the quality of education; the availability of health care, especially for children and the elderly; environmental matters; threats to cherished traditional values; and fears that the nation might not have in the future the prescience or the strength to manage the responsibilities of world power.