West Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This small, mountainous state has attracted little foreign immigration; however, modest numbers of northern Europeans came during the nineteenth century and larger numbers of southern and eastern Europeans came to work in its coalfields during the early twentieth century. By the early twenty-first century, West Virginia had one of the nation’s smallest foreign-born populations.

The region that has become West Virginia was settled by Pennsylvania German immigrants;West VirginiaGermans, who established their first settlement at Shepherdstown on the Potomac River in 1731. Later influxes of Germans settled in more scattered patterns, but German-speaking peoples were sufficiently numerous into the early nineteenth century for public documents occasionally to be printed in both German and English. Most of the state’s other early settlers were of English and Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants];West VirginiaScotch-Irish extraction. A number of northern and western Europeans entered the area during the mid-nineteenth century. By 1863, the year in which West Virginia separated from Virginia to become a Union state, 4 percent of its residents were from Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Belgium, and Scandinavia.West VirginiaWest Virginia[cat]STATES;West Virginia

West Virginia’s small population at statehood worried many of its political and business leaders, as more people were needed to develop the state’s natural resources and farmlands. In 1864, the state legislature created the office of immigration commissioner and made the energetic Swiss immigrants;West VirginiaSwiss immigrant Debar, Joseph H. DissJoseph H. Diss Debar the first commissioner. His main interest–and that of his backers–was to attract farmers of northern European extraction. However, although Debar began his work with energy, he faced many problems, including a confusing tangle of land titles that disillusioned new, land-hungry immigrants and prevented others from coming. His successors as immigration commissioner proved to be both inactive and underfunded. West Virginia’s office of immigration was also plagued by both disorganization and the presence of unscrupulous employees who sought to profit from credulous immigrants. Nevertheless, the office was a modest success. By the turn of the twentieth century, the foreign-born population of the state had risen to 22,451, of whom 6,537 Germans constituted the largest portion.

Meanwhile, the opening of new railroads and the development of coalfields in the southern part of the state after 1880 brought new immigrants, The mines needed more workers than the state’s native white black communities could provided, so they sought workers from Europe–especially southern and eastern Europe. In 1900, the U.S. Census counted 2,921 Italian immigrants;West VirginiaItalians and 810 Hungarian immigrants;West VirginiaHungarians in West Virginia. By 1920, Italians, Hungarians, and Polish immigrants;West VirginiaPoles were among the largest groups of foreign laborers in West Virginia’s mines. A number of Syrian immigrants;West VirginiaSyrian and Lebanese immigrants;West VirginiaLebanese suppliers and shopkeepers were also attracted to the region by the coal boom. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the coalfields went into a slump, and many foreign workers left the state. However, several thousand immigrants remained to raise families in West Virginia.

West Virginia has not shared the economic and demographic growth that many southern states have had since the early 1990’s. It has also seen little growth in its immigrant population. In 2000, only 1.1 percent of state residents were foreign born–a figure far below the national average. Indeed, the total number of foreign-born residents in West Virginia has increased little since the late nineteenth century.

In 2006, the largest number of immigrants in the state were of Mexican immigrants;West VirginiaMexican origin. They were followed by Canadians and Germans. West Virginia also has smaller communities of Asians and Europeans of various nationalities. Another aspect of West Virginia’s small immigrant community has been a small rate of illegal immigration. In 2006, fewer than 10,000 undocumented immigrants–mostly Latinos–were estimated to be in the state.West Virginia

Further Reading
  • Fones-Wolf, Ken, and Ronald L. Lewis. Transnational West Virginia: Ethnic Communities and Economic Change, 1840-1940. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2002.
  • Hennen, John C. The Americanization of West Virginia: Creating a Modern Industrial State, 1916-1925. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
  • Sullivan, Ken, ed. The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Charleston: West Virginia Humanities Council, 2006.
  • Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia: A History. Rev. ed. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2001.

British immigrants

Economic opportunities

European immigrants

German immigrants

Hungarian immigrants

Italian immigrants

Mexican immigrants

Polish immigrants

Swiss immigrants

Virginia

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