West Virginia

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

West Virginia

West Virginia, E central state of the United States. It is bordered by Pennsylvania and Maryland (N, NE), Virginia (E and S), Kentucky (W) and, across the Ohio River, Ohio (NW).

Facts and Figures

Area, 24,181 sq mi (62,629 sq km). Pop. (2010) 1,852,994, a 2.5% increase since the 2000 census. Capital and largest city, Charleston. Statehood, June 20, 1863 (35th state). Highest pt., Spruce Knob, 4,863 ft (1,483 m); lowest pt., Potomac River, 240 ft (73 m). Nickname, Mountain State. Motto,Montani Semper Liberi [Mountaineers Are Always Free]. State bird, cardinal. State flower,Rhododendron maximum, or "Big Laurel." State tree, sugar maple. Abbr., W.Va.; WV


Nicknamed the "Mountain State," West Virginia is very hilly and rugged, with the highest mean altitude (1,500 ft/457 m) of any state E of the Mississippi. Nearly all of the state is on the Allegheny Plateau, with the jagged Virginia–West Virginia line roughly following the eastern escarpment of the plateau (known as the Allegheny Front). Extremely irregular in outline, West Virginia has two narrow projections—the Northern Panhandle, which cuts north between Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the Eastern Panhandle, which cuts east between Maryland (with the Potomac River forming the state line) and Virginia. In the Eastern Panhandle, a part of the Appalachian ridge and valley country, lie the state's lowest point (240 ft/73 m) near Harpers Ferry where the Shenandoah River joins the Potomac, as well as its highest point, Spruce Knob (4,860 ft/1,481 m).

West Virginia is well drained; its important rivers include the Tug Fork, the Big Sandy River, the New River, the Kanawha, the Little Kanawha, the Cheat, and the Monongahela, all of which find their way to the Ohio. The New River and the Kanawha combine to form the most important waterway entirely within the state. West Virginia's climate is generally of the humid continental type, with hot summers (except in the highest areas) and cool to cold winters.

West Virginia's natural beauty is spectacular, and the excellent hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and skiing offered here form the basis of a growing tourist industry. The state has numerous state parks, public hunting areas, and state forests; Monongahela National Forest and a portion of George Washington National Forest (most of which is in Virginia) are in West Virginia. Mineral springs are scattered throughout the state, notably at the resorts of Berkeley Springs and White Sulphur Springs. Other tourist attractions include Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (see National Parks and Monuments, table) and various mounds built by ancient peoples, most notably Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, one of the nation's largest. Charleston is the capital and largest city; Huntington is the second largest city, followed by Wheeling and Parkersburg.


Except on river-bottom lands, on a few small plateaus, and in the northern end of the rolling, fertile Valley of Virginia in the Eastern Panhandle, farming is not extensive. (The population nevertheless is predominantly rural.) Apples, peaches, hay, corn, and tobacco are the principal crops, while broiler chickens, cattle, and dairy products lead in market receipts. West Virginia has extensive natural resources; it is among the nation's leading producers of bituminous coal, although coal production has declined. Natural gas, stone, cement, salt, and oil are also important.

Utilizing these mineral resources are major glass, chemical (including synthetic textile), and high-technology industries; they are concentrated in the highly industrialized Ohio and Kanawha river valleys, with Charleston a leading center; Huntington and Parkersburg are also important. Other manufactures include primary and fabricated metals and machinery. Steel mills extend south from Pittsburgh, Pa., into the Northern Panhandle; Wheeling is a manufacturing hub there. Lumber has long been an important resource; about two thirds of the land is still forested, most of it in valuable hardwoods. Since the 1960s a number of federal offices and facilities have been built in West Virginia, and government service is a growing employment sector.

Government, Politics, and Higher Education

West Virginia's first constitution was ratified in 1862. The present constitution dates from 1872. The executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term. The state's legislature has a senate with 34 members and a house of delegates with 100 members. The state sends two senators and three representatives to the U.S. Congress and has five electoral votes. Democrats have generally dominated West Virginia politics since the Great Depression, but in recent years Republican candidates have been more successful in the state. Gaston Caperton, elected governor in 1988 and reelected in 1992, was succeeded by Republican Cecil H. Underwood, elected in 1996, but Underwood lost to Democrat Bob Wise in 2000. In 2004, Democrat Joe Manchin was elected to the office; he was reelected in 2008. In 2011 Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat who became acting governor after Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, was elected governor; he was reelected in 2012. In 2016 Jim Justice won the office; elected as a Democrat, he became a Republican in 2017.

The state's leading institution of higher learning is West Virginia Univ., which has its main campus at Morgantown. Other schools include the Univ. of Charleston and West Virginia Wesleyan College, at Buckhannon. West Virginia also has an extensive state college system.


Early Inhabitants and European Settlement

The Mound Builders were the earliest known inhabitants. When the first Europeans arrived, however, the region was for the most part unpopulated, serving as a common hunting ground (and therefore a battleground) for the settlers and Native Americans. This part of Virginia, which later became West Virginia, was penetrated by explorers and fur traders as early as the 1670s. It was cut off from the eastern regions by rugged mountains and remained uninhabited for more than a century after Virginia had thriving colonies.

What is now the Eastern Panhandle attracted the first settlers. They were Germans and Scotch-Irish, and they came not over the Blue Ridge Mts. from Virginia but rather down the valleys from Pennsylvania. German families established (c.1730) a settlement on the Potomac and named it Mecklenburg; now called Shepherdstown, it is the oldest town in the state. Homes sprang up along the rivers, but the formidable Allegheny Plateau barrier was not crossed until after the British government, concerned about French claims to the Ohio valley, granted (1749) the Ohio Company large tracts of land in the trans-Allegheny region.

Settlers began laboriously making their way over the mountains, and they eventually came into conflict with the French; this conflict was the direct cause of the French and Indian War (1754–63; see under French and Indian Wars). During the war, most settlers fled the area. They returned after the English captured Fort Duquesne in 1758 and broke the French hold on the Ohio valley. Great numbers poured back over the mountains, ignoring the British proclamation of 1763, which, in the hopes of avoiding conflict with the Native Americans, forbade settlement W of the Alleghenies.

The Native Americans resented this encroachment on their hunting grounds, and their hostility was fed by the often unjust treatment they received at the hands of settlers. The brutal murder of the family of chief James Logan provoked a series of attacks that resulted in Lord Dunmore's War (see Dunmore, John Murray, 4th earl of), in which the Native Americans were decisively defeated (Oct. 10, 1774).

The American Revolution

During the American Revolution the area was invaded three times by British-led Native American forces. After the American conquest of the Northwest by an army (consisting mostly of western Virginians) under George Rogers Clark, the British and Native American threat to the area was virtually removed. Western Virginians overwhelmingly supported ratification of the U.S. Constitution; they wanted a strong federal government that would quell further conflict with the Native Americans and that would enrich commerce along the Ohio, a river of central importance to their economic life.

Growth and Estrangement from Eastern Virginia

Population growth and prosperity were spurred by the opening of the Mississippi River with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, by the resulting expansion and improvement of river-borne commerce, and by the completion (1818) of the National Road at Wheeling. The area became an increasingly important part of Virginia, but the predominance of small farms and the almost total absence of slavery were already contributing to a sense of estrangement from the eastern part of the state.

Virginia was politically dominated by the wealthy tidewater planters, who were overrepresented in the state legislature because slaves were counted in apportioning representation. As a result the western Virginians suffered from inequitable taxation, and their demands for internal improvements and public education were not met. A new Virginia constitution, ratified in 1830, brought no reforms, but another charter (1851) effected a compromise by which representation in the lower house was based on white population and under which universal white male suffrage was granted. It was not enough; tidewater domination of the state legislature continued, and the two sections were being pulled further apart by economic differences—western Virginia was becoming an industrialized coal and steel center—and by the increasing prominence of the slavery issue.

Civil War and the Creation of West Virginia

At the outset of the Civil War the northwestern counties of Virginia overwhelmingly opposed the state's ordinance of secession (Apr. 17, 1861). Unable to halt Virginia's secession from the Union, westerners in the state were quick to take advantage of a long-awaited opportunity for their own separation from Virginia. Protected by federal troops, delegates representing most of Virginia's western counties met at Wheeling on June 11, 1861, and nullified the Virginia ordinance of secession, declared the offices of the state government at Richmond to be vacated, and formed the "restored government" of Virginia, with Francis H. Pierpont as governor.

Creation of a new state was overwhelmingly approved in the referendum of Oct. 24, and in November another convention at Wheeling began to draft the state constitution that was approved in Apr., 1862. President Lincoln proclaimed (Apr. 20, 1863) admission of a new state, West Virginia, to be effective 60 days thence, and on June 20, 1863, Arthur I. Boreman was inaugurated as its first governor. Pierpont and his "restored government" of Virginia had, of course, consented to the formation of the new state, thereby technically fulfilling the requirement in the U.S. Constitution that a state consent to its own division. Pierpont continued to act as governor of occupied Virginia throughout the war.

Meanwhile, the Confederates had failed to hold on to the region militarily; Union forces, under the command of Gen. George B. McClellan and then under Gen. William S. Rosecrans, were victorious in battles at Philippi (June 3, 1861), Rich Mt. (July 11), Corrick's Ford (July 13), and Carnifax Ferry (Sept. 10). Gen. Robert E. Lee's attempt to rally the Confederate forces ended in defeat at Cheat Mt. (Sept. 12–13), and a year later Rosecrans's victory at Gauley Bridge extended Union control to the lower Kanawha valley.

The Confederates made no serious endeavor to recover the territory W of the Allegheny Front, although guerrilla attacks persisted throughout the war. The strategically important Eastern Panhandle, on the other hand, was the scene of continual fighting; not originally a part of West Virginia, it had been quickly annexed (1863) because it contained the Baltimore and Ohio RR. (West Virginia's possession of this area was confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1871.) Of the many West Virginians who remained loyal to the old state, Virginia, the most notable was Gen. Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson; his only sister, however, was a staunch Union supporter. Such a division in allegiance was common in many families, and these divisions affected West Virginia's politics for several decades after the war.

Postwar Political Changes and the Hatfield-McCoy Feud

Slavery was abolished in 1865, but it was not until 1872 that the state allowed African Americans to vote and to hold public office. In 1866 Radical Republicans disenfranchised all persons who had aided the Confederacy, but after the Democrats came to power (which they held for 25 years thereafter), this act was annulled (1871) by the Flick Amendment.

In 1885 the capital, which had been shuttled back and forth between Wheeling and Charleston, became fixed at Charleston. Three years earlier, along the border region between West Virginia and Kentucky, there had begun the now famous Hatfield-McCoy feud, which was to encompass many killings and embroil the governors of the two states in lengthy and heated controversy. The blood of West Virginia Hatfields and Kentucky McCoys was shed until 1896.

Industrial Expansion and the Labor Movement

Of great significance to West Virginia was the state's industrial expansion in the late 19th cent. Based on rich resources and supported by the immigration of Southern blacks and northern laborers, industrialization marked a change from the largely self-sufficient economy of local communities to one of dependence on industry's profits and labor's wages. West Virginia's great chemical industry was founded during World War I when German chemicals could no longer be imported, and it was greatly expanded during World War II.

Both wars also brought unprecedented boom periods to the mines and the steel mills. The state's rapid industrialization, however, was long accompanied by serious labor problems. This was especially true in the coal mines, where wages were low and working conditions dangerous. Unionization was bitterly resisted by mine owners, and strikes throughout the latter part of the 19th cent. and the first third of the 20th cent. were often marked by serious and extended violence, particularly in 1912–13 and in 1920–21.

The Great Depression in 1930 intensified difficulties, but reform measures under the New Deal finally assured the miners their right to organize; membership in the United Mine Workers of America soared, and by 1937 labor leaders enjoyed tremendous political power in the state. During the 1950s economic weakness in the coal industry, combined with the mechanization and automation that enabled mines to operate at top efficiency with far fewer employees, were the chief factors in bringing about the highest unemployment rate in the country and a major exodus of the state's population—down 7.2% from 1950 to 1960 and another 6.2% from 1960 to 1970.

Late-Twentieth-Century Developments

Economic conditions improved during the 1960s, as federal aid poured into the state (in part owing to the rise to power in the U.S. Senate of Robert C. Byrd), and massive efforts were made to attract new industry. Since the 1960s the ravages of surface mining have been a major political issue; recently, the practice of leveling mountains and filling creeks with slag has come under fire. In the 1970s, West Virginia's coal-based economy flourished as energy prices rose dramatically; but in the 1980s energy prices fell and employment in the mines rapidly declined as West Virginia suffered through one of the worst economic periods in its history. By 1983 the state's unemployment rate had risen to 21% as its manufacturing base also slumped. West Virginia's population declined 8% from 1980 to 1990. It rose slightly from 1990 to 2000, as a modest recovery based largely on foreign investment and further development of the tourist industry took place, but the state still ranked last in U.S. housing construction.


See O. K. Rice, The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1780–1830 (1969); West Virginia: The State and Its People (1972); and West Virginia: A History (1985); Federal Writers' Project, West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State (1941, repr. 1980); S. B. Cohen and M. Pervical, King Coal (1984); A. Hyde, A Portrait of West Virginia (1989).

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