West Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

More than most states, West Virginia has been shaped in its development and its history by its geography. Although part of Virginia for almost a century, it was separated from the coastal and central portions of Virginia by the Allegheny Mountains and was thus removed from the sources of political and economic power and influence.

History of West Virginia

More than most states, West Virginia has been shaped in its development and its history by its geography. Although part of Virginia for almost a century, it was separated from the coastal and central portions of Virginia by the Allegheny Mountains and was thus removed from the sources of political and economic power and influence. Lying completely within the Appalachian Highlands, the state is mountainous and rugged, and although it is blessed with abundant mineral resources such as coal and natural gas, it has little land available for large-scale agriculture. Travel and transportation have often been extremely difficult and even hazardous, fostering a sense of isolation in the state, which in turn fostered a high degree of independence expressed in the state’s official motto, Montani semper liberi (mountaineers are always free).

Early Times

Although Native Americans entered the West Virginia area as early as fifteen thousand years ago, most of them regarded the territory as unfit for permanent settlement and good only as hunting and battle grounds. Later, when the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Shawnee arrived to establish villages, they located them near the major rivers; instead of developing agriculture, these tribes relied on hunting. The tradition of tribal warfare continued, including fights over the springs found throughout the area that were a source of valuable salt, used in food preservation and for trading.


The original grant of Virginia by King James I of England included what is now West Virginia. The colonists first explored the western portion of their territory in 1669, when an expedition under John Lederer reached the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam followed in 1671, striking along the New River and claiming the Ohio Valley for England, a claim that was disputed both by France and by Native Americans. Morgan Morgan, a Welshman, is traditionally considered the first European settler in the West Virginia area, having established Bunker Hill in 1726. Morgan was followed by other colonists, including Germans from Pennsylvania and Scotch-Irish from northern Ireland. Although King George III prohibited American colonists from crossing the Allegheny Mountains, this ban was largely ignored, and during the period from 1722 through 1740, the Iroquois and Cherokee ceded their lands to advancing settlers.

The distance and physical barriers between the western settlements and the rest of Virginia began to cause difficulties. In addition, the planters and traders along the Virginia tidewater and eastern rivers exerted a monopoly on the state’s political and economic life. Settlers beyond the Allegheny Mountains grew restive, and by 1776, when the American colonies were ready to break with Great Britain, western Virginia was asking the Continental Congress for independence from Virginia. The necessities of the ensuing American Revolution put this request on hold, however. As part of Virginia, it joined the Union in 1788.

Independence and Civil War

Following American independence, political and economic power in Virginia shifted more than ever toward the tidewater and eastern section, where slaveholders were dominant. The west was unsuccessful in its requests for fairness during the revision of the state constitution in 1829, and it continued to suffer from neglect by the Richmond state government. Poor roads, inadequate schools, higher taxes, neglected economic development, and lack of representation in the state legislature were among the west’s major complaints. Some, but not all, were addressed in a new state constitution adopted in 1851, but the movement toward separate statehood continued.

In 1859, John Brown, a militant abolitionist from Kansas, seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry as the first step in a revolt. He was soon captured, tried, and hanged for treason. Soon the nation was in the throes of the Civil War, and Virginia joined other southern states in seceding from the Union. The largely non-slave-holding and pro-Union western counties summoned a convention in Wheeling in August, 1861, and formed a government for a new state to be known as Kanawha. In November of that year a second convention at Wheeling adopted the name “West Virginia” and began drafting a constitution. In December, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln approved an act admitting the new state.

In the aftermath of the Civil War arose one of the most famous feuds in American history, that of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Both families lived along both banks of the Tug River, which forms the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. The precise cause of the feud is unknown. Some have suggested the theft of a McCoy hog by a Hatfield; others, a forbidden romance between a McCoy girl and a Hatfield boy. Whatever the underlying reasons, the feud began in earnest during 1882, when a West Virginia Hatfield was killed by Kentucky McCoys. As the feud escalated, West Virginia authorities sought to suppress it by legal action, even taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the feud finally came to an end in the late 1880’s, more than a dozen people had been killed.

Coal Mining and Coal Strikes

Following the Civil War, West Virginia advanced in exploitation of its major resources, primarily timber, coal, and natural gas. Coal had been discovered as early as 1742, but the deposits were not effectively mined until after the Civil War, primarily because of transportation difficulties. When these difficulties were solved by the spread of the railroads, West Virginia became the leading producer of bituminous, or soft, coal in North America. In addition to its abundance and relative ease of mining, the state’s coal proved to be remarkably free from sulfur and other impurities, making it even more valuable.

Although coal was the chief source of West Virginia’s revenues, it was also a major cause of internal problems. Coal mining was hard and dangerous work, and mine owners insisted on long hours and low pay for their workers. Deaths in mine disasters were frequent, and the toll was often high: In 1907, 537 persons died in mining accidents, 362 of them in one mine alone in Monongah, the worst single mining disaster in U.S. history.

Efforts to organize and unionize the miners to fight for better pay and working conditions were met with bitter hostility by mine owners, other businesses, and even the state and federal governments. Time and again, West Virginia governors declared martial law and called up the National Guard to put down strikes and other union-organizing efforts. The struggles reached a peak of violence in the years between the end of World War I and the Great Depression. In 1920, the Matewan Massacre led to the deaths of more than ten people during a confrontation between miners and their supporters in the community and mine owners and their forces. As a result, the United Mine Workers of America saw an increase in its membership, but its work toward better conditions was smothered when federal troops were ordered into the area. The strikes and conflicts continued until New Deal programs and the need for increased coal supplies for defense production during World War II brought better conditions to the mines.

Into the Future

The market for coal was often uncertain, and prices for the product could fall to low levels. Because of this, its isolation, its poor economic base, and inadequate schools, West Virginia suffered from a high degree of poverty, which reached its depth during the Great Depression. As part of Appalachia, the mountainous region stretching from Pennsylvania to upper Alabama, West Virginia was among the prime targets for massive federal assistance, especially during the Great Society’s War on Poverty during the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. Funding was made available for roads, schools, retraining for workers, forest restoration, and the fight against rural poverty. Entire communities, especially in the more remote areas of the state, were aided by these efforts. In addition, the state’s private sector began to revive.

Following World War II, coal production proved uncertain, largely because it was linked to the availability of other energy sources, such as oil, and to environmental concerns about matters such as strip mining. The timber industry, which had been a source of income for the area since the mid-1700’s, expanded greatly after steam power replaced hydroelectric power in the late nineteenth century. Natural gas, which had been discovered in 1815, was also plentiful in the state. However, manufacturing became the major source of income for the state, ahead of mining and timbering combined. Chief products were first steel and later chemicals and allied products.

In 1960, West Virginia played a major role in U.S. presidential politics when its Democratic presidential primary pitted John F. Kennedy against Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy’s landslide victory over Humphrey (almost 61 percent of the vote) caused Humphrey to withdraw from the race and, more important, demonstrated that a Catholic such as Kennedy could have a chance at victory. In the November presidential election Kennedy won the presidency. Political analysts regarded the West Virginia primary as a turning point in Kennedy’s campaign and its results among the most important in American politics.

As the twentieth century ended, West Virginia continued to diversify its economic base, adding to mining, forestry, and manufacturing and drawing increasingly on recreation and tourism. The completion of major interstate highways through the state made travel easier and faster and encouraged development of the southern portion of the state, where vast areas of largely untouched natural beauty lured visitors, campers, and nature enthusiasts. Once an isolated and difficult-to-reach territory, West Virginia was rapidly becoming a destination for a variety of travelers.

Categories: History