Why A West Virginia (Part 1)
West Virginia is about to celebrate 150 years of statehood. For those of us who attended school in the state we were taught by the education system why we became a state, weren’t we? I consider myself to be a bit of an amateur historian; therefore I should in all likelihood know the answer to the question. But I found myself at a bit of a loss for a simple definitive answer.
Being fortunate to have friends who pride themselves on knowing local history I figured to ask them for the answer, why is there a state of West Virginia? Most that I asked gave the typical answer; during the Civil War we were opposed to slavery. Others answered; it was for political reason, although they could not remember the exact cause.
I decided if I were to celebrate the 150th birthday of the state I call home, I should at least know the answer to the question of our statehood. After all, on June 20th we will collectively blow out the candles and share a birthday cake with 1.9 million citizens of the 35th state in the union.
It is not an easy question with a simple answer and the following is my interpretation of the events that led to statehood. I believe it began in 1829 when the state of Virginia held a Constitutional Convention. Western Virginia and Eastern Virginia were separated by ideas of taxation, equal representation, and slavery-not to mention the Appalachian Mountains.
To the east of the mountains large land owners were more interested in the agriculture of the Virginia low lands. The plantations used slaves as the means to work the land and harvest crops. Western land was much more mountainous and did not lend itself to large agriculture tracks of land. Representation was not based totally on population, but on property owned. For thirty years after the convention of 1829 the people of western Virginia tried to find equality in the two very different regions of Virginia. The question went unanswered and unresolved for many years. Western newspapers editorialized the needed for separation of the state after the convention failed to meet the west question of equality. But their words were unheard by the wealthy land owners and politicians in the east.
Throughout the years after the convention some in the west purposed becoming part of Pennsylvania or Maryland. The debate may have gone on for years until the Civil War came along. With the country split along political and ideological ideas, Virginia found itself standing on the divide. States rights and slavery were issues driving the march toward war. For western Virginia, statehood and the right to govern itself became a long awaited goal by its independent thinking citizens.
Since the convention of 1829 the territories west of the Appalachian Mountain range had begun to grow into a land of industry, especially along the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. Vast coal reserves were being mined by immigrants from Europe that came looking for a new life for their families. Mountains which had stood for thousands of years were covered in dense forest of old growth timber were beginning to be harvested for timber.
The deep mines were supplying coal to industry for an endless need to create steel to build a growing country. The hardwood trees were being cut for lumber, building homes and businesses. The great steam engines of the railroads needed tracks to stretch towards the setting sun in the west. For every mile of track put in place, hundreds of wooden ties needed to be laid for steel tracks foundation. The mountain state was believed by some to be in the far north from those in the south, far to the south from the north, far east from those in the west, and far west from those in Virginia. As the war began, men who built those industries now wanted to be in control of the political process. They wanted it to be in a new state, West Virginia.
In 1861 politicians, industrialists, and the citizens of western Virginia wanted statehood. The time had come for action and the movement began to create a new state as war came to the nation and calls for secession were heard from Richmond.
In 1861 oil fields were beginning to be developed in western Virginia. Four major oil fields were coming into production as war loomed over the mountains to the east. Along the Kanawha River, oil fields were producing thousands of barrels of crude oil used for lubrication of the new industrial America. In Wheeling a convention was held that year to begin organizing a new state. One of the men in attendance was an oil baron from Wirt County. He was said to have been making $10,000 a day from his wells.
Federal Navy ships fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., in April 1861. In Richmond a convention was being held to decide the question of secession. A total of 47 delegates from what would become West Virginia were called upon to vote on the question; 32 voted against secession from the union and 11 for the motion. War had come and the western delegates had for the most part voted to retain the union. Those delegates had chosen against many others in the state. Cracks in the foundation of the commonwealth were now beginning to show as the eastern delegates voted in favor of secession from the union. Delegates were voting to divide themselves on both the question of secession and the territory of one of the original 13 states.
Those that understood the state’s “Bill of Rights” first adopted in 1776 realized that it was not as simple as dividing the state along territorial or political lines. Legal separation that would grant the new state legal status and be recognized by the federal government was not allowed, even by a state that had separated itself from the union. Virginia’s representatives in Washington City had withdrawn to be part of the new Confederate government in the south. The federal government found itself in an odd predicament. It maintained the belief the union was intact and therefore it must recognize Virginia’s state’s rights. But if it allowed western Virginia to separate and be given state status, it would be violating state law. The question that had waited for over 30 years was once again unanswered and the citizens of western Virginia needed to find a solution.