The history of West Virginia is the history of the United States; a tale of strong men and courageous women, of saints and sinners, criminals and lawmakers, of pilgrims and refugees, ruthless corporate greed and selfless sacrifice, misled missionaries and misunderstood natives.
West Virginia is a state of opposites, a place of austere college campuses and hardscrabble coalmine towns, of unbroken forest ridges and industrial wastelands, of historic reverence and an uncertain future.
The per capita income of the capital city of Charleston is forty-ninth (second-lowest) in the nation. This same city at one time ranked number two in the nation for having millionaire inhabitants.
In a state whose very lifeblood is recreation and tourism, the inhabitants fight tooth and nail to defend out-of-state corporations that blow the tops off of mountains to extract coal, foul the water supply pumping out natural gas, and clear-cut huge tracts of ancient trees.
It is a state in which almost as many people belong to the Nature Conservancy as send their dues in to the National Rifle Association.
In which the Democrats fought on the side of big business and the Republicans supported the people.
It is a state that was created in the debate over race, and one in which the tolerance for those of other races is as low as anywhere in the south.
Once a leader in agriculture and business, home to the second producing oil well on the face of the planet, decades of government and corporate deception and abuse have left its people adverse to change and innovation and apathetic to the fact of their own decline.
It is the center of the mountain region known as Appalachia, a place about which it has been said, “There is more known about Appalachia that’s not true than any other place in the world.”
But centuries before any of this, West Virginia was the original frontier, the mountainous territory that separated the eastern region of the British colony of Virginia from the rest of the continent.
Since people often claimed ridiculously large pieces of land “for England and the Crown” in those days, the original Virginia colony stretched from the Atlantic to the mighty Mississippi River, but only the relatively small area around Jamestown and Williamsburg was actually settled.
Beyond the Blue Ridge and the broad Shenandoah Valley, the Allegheny Front rose in wave after wave of folded mountains and shadowed forests of mystery; a wilderness of sometimes impassable thickness, hunted by wolves and panthers, bear and lynx, the mountainsides filled with trees bearing fruit and nuts and the river bottoms home to six-foot long rattlesnakes and copperheads the size of a man’s arm.
According to Dr. Robert Jay Dilger, Director, Institute for Public Affairs and Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University:
"Pendleton County, was created by an act of the Virginia General Assembly adopted on December 4, 1787, and effective as of May 1, 1788, from parts of Augusta, Harding and Rockingham counties in Virginia. It was named in honor of Edmund Pendleton (1721-1803).
Edmund was born in Caroline County, Virginia on September 9, 1721. After studying the law, he was admitted to the bar in 1744. In 1751, he was appointed a justice of the peace for Caroline County and, from 1752 to 1774, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
He served as President of the Virginia Convention of 1774 and represented Virginia in the Continental Congress of 1774-1775.
In 1776, he returned to the now renamed Virginia House of Delegates and was elected its first speaker. Later that year, he joined George Wythe and Thomas Jefferson in a three-year effort to rewrite Virginia's legal code.
In March 1777, he fell from his horse and severely injured his hip, forcing him to use crutches for the rest of his life. His disability did not prevent him from continuing his public service.
After resting over the winter, he returned to his speaker's duties that spring and continued to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates until 1788 when he was appointed to the newly-created Virginia High Court of Chancery.
In 1788, he also served as President of the Virginia Convention of 1788 which ratified the U.S. Constitution. He also received an appointment to the federal court system that year, but he declined the offer.
In 1789, he was named President of the now renamed Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
He served in the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals until his death in Richmond, Virginia, on October 23, 1803.
The first native settlers in West Virginia's Potomac Highlands (Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Mineral, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, and Tucker counties) were the Mound Builders, also known as the Adena people. Remnants of the Mound Builder's civilization have been found throughout West Virginia, with many artifacts found in the Northern Panhandle, especially in Marshall County.
Several thousand Hurons occupied present-day West Virginia during the late 1500s and early 1600s. During the 1600s, the Iroquois Confederacy (then consisting of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca tribes) drove the Hurons from the state and used it primarily as a hunting ground.
During the early 1700s, the Shawnee, Mingo, Delaware, and other Indian tribes also used present-day West Virginia as a hunting ground. West Virginia's Potomac Highlands was inhabited by the Tuscarora. They eventually migrated northward to New York and, in 1712, became the sixth nation to formally be admitted to the Iroquois Confederacy. The Cherokee Nation claimed southern West Virginia.
In 1744, Virginia officials purchased the Iroquois title of ownership to West Virginia in the Treaty of Lancaster.
The Delaware, Mingo, and Shawnee sided with the French during the French and Indian War (1755-1763). The Iroquois Confederacy officially remained neutral, but many in the Iroquois Confederacy allied with the French.
When the French and Indian War was over, England's King George III feared that more tension between Native Americans and settlers was inevitable. In an attempt to avert further bloodshed, he issued the Proclamation of 1763, prohibiting settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. The Proclamation was, for the most part, ignored.
During the summer of 1763, Ottawa Chief Pontiac led raids on key British forts in the Great Lakes region. Shawnee Chief Keigh-tugh-qua, also known as Cornstalk, led similar raids on western Virginia settlements. The uprisings ended on August 6, 1763 when British forces, under the command of Colonel Henry Bouquet, defeated Delaware and Shawnee forces at Bushy Run in western Pennsylvania.
In 1768, the Iroquois Confederacy (often called the Six Nations) and the Cherokee signed the Treaty of Hard Labour and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, relinquishing their claims on the territory between the Ohio River and the Alleghenies to the British.
In April 1774, the Yellow Creek Massacre took place near Wheeling. Among the dead were Mingo Chief Logan's brother and pregnant sister. Violence then escalated into Lord Dunmore's War.
On October 10, 1774, Colonel Andrew Lewis and approximately 800 men defeated 1,200 Indian warriors led by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk at the Battle of Point Pleasant, ending Lord Dunmore's War.
The Mingo and Shawnee allied with the British during the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783). One of the more notable battles occurred in 1777 when a war party of 350 Wyandot, Shawnee, and Mingo warriors, armed by the British, attacked Fort Henry, near present-day Wheeling. Nearly half of the Americans manning the fort were killed in the three-day assault. Following the war, the Mingo and Shawnee, once again allied with the losing side, returned to their homes in Ohio. As the number of settlers in the region grew, both the Mingo and the Shawnee move further inland, leaving western Virginia to the white settlers.
John Van Meter was probably the first European to set foot in the county. In 1725, he accompanied a group of Delaware warriors on their way to attack the Catawba Indians. During their travels, they crossed through present-day Hardy County and southern Grant County and were ambushed by a group of Catawba warriors near present-day Franklin, in Pendleton County. He escaped and returned to his home in New York. His son, Isaac Van Meter, played an important role in the settlement of Hardy County.
When George Washington passed through the northern portion of the county in 1748, he noted that there were about 200 people living in the area, with most of the settlers living to the north of the present county's boundaries. At that time, Robert Green, of Culpeper, along with James Wood and William Russell, had purchased rights to almost all of present-day Pendleton County. It is believed that in 1745 Abraham Burner was the first European to build a cabin within the future site of Pendleton County. His cabin was located about a half a mile south of present-day Brandywine.
In 1747, six families, then located in the Moorefield area, purchased legal title to 1,860 acres in present-day Pendleton County for 61 pounds and 6 shillings ($230.33) from Robert Green. They were the families of Roger Dryer; his son William and his son-in-law, Matthew Patton; John Patton, Jr.; John Smith; and William Stephenson. There are no records to indicate if they relocated to the county that year or the next, but given the relatively short distance from Moorefield, they probably moved to the county in 1747.
By the mid-1750s, there were about 40 families, or 200 people, living within present-day Pendleton County. In 1756, Seybert's Fort, named for Captain Jacob Seybert of Pendleton County and located about 12 miles west of Franklin, was built by the settlers as a place of refuge during Indian uprisings. On April 28, 1758, with about 30 settlers, mostly women and children, gathered inside, the Fort was attacked by about 40 Shawnee Indians led by Chief Killbuck. The Fort was surrounded by the Indians and after two days siege, Captain Seybert agreed to surrender the Fort to the Indians in exchange for their safe passage out of the area. Unfortunately, when the Fort's gates were opened, the settlers were taken captive. While the Indians were setting the Fort on fire, a Mr. Robinson was able to escape. The Indians then marched their captives about a quarter of a mile, separated them into two rows, and seated them on logs. The captives in one of the rows were spared. The others, including Captain Seybert, were tomahawked to death. The 11 remaining captives were taken to the Shawnee Indian village at Chillicothe, Ohio. Five of the captives, including Captain Seybert's son, Nicholas, later escaped to reveal what had happened at the Fort.
Many of present-day Pendleton County's earliest settlers left the county during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Following the war, settlers began to return and, by 1790, when the first national census was taken, Pendleton County had 2,452 residents."
Although the large plantations to the east had begun to use Negro slaves, purchased from the Muslims and imported by the Dutch, to raise huge crops on the flat, open land of the Tidewater and Piedmont, most of the people who first settled in Western Virginia were too poor to own slaves, or had been among the first true slaves in this country, the indentured Irish and Scottish servants brought by the English from their native lands. Slavery had of course existed for thousands of years before the settlement of North America, and had been practiced by every civilization and culture. The colonial history of the United States is only the latest chapter in the long, sad story of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
In England, the Crown had declared the lands of the Scots-Irish farmers around Ulster to belong to the English aristocrats and Irish nobles who were in favor with the government.
Overnight, Irish families that had farmed the land for decades found themselves penniless and homeless, suddenly in debt for rent owed on the homes and farms their ancestors had created.
When the brutal winter of 1708/09 shattered trees and froze birds from the skies, these refugees boarded boats bound for the promise of America, as did thousands of Germans seeking freedom from the religious persecution and violence in their shattered homeland.
This was only the middle chapter of the Irish Holocaust, one which is not loudly trumpeted by historians or civil rights leaders. The Irish were in fact some of the first slaves in America. In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves."
"[In] 1650, 25,000 Irish were sold to planters in St. Kitt. During the 1650s decade of Cromwell’s Reign of Terror, over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from Catholic parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing “free” population of the Americas!"
"52,000 Irish, mostly women and sturdy boys and girls, were sold to Barbados and Virginia alone. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were taken prisoners and ordered transported and sold as slaves. In 1656, Cromwell’s Council of State ordered that 1000 Irish girls and 1000 Irish boys be rounded up and taken to Jamaica to be sold as slaves to English planters."
"Although the Africans and Irish were housed together and were the property of the planter owners, the Africans received much better treatment, food and housing. In the British West Indies the planters routinely tortured white slaves for any infraction. Owners would hang Irish slaves by their hands and set their hands or feet afire as a means of punishment. To end this barbarity, Colonel William Brayne wrote to English authorities in 1656 urging the importation of Negro slaves on the grounds that, "as the planters would have to pay much more for them, they would have an interest in preserving their lives, which was wanting in the case of (Irish)...." many of whom, he charged, were killed by overwork and cruel treatment. African Negroes cost generally about 20 to 50 pounds Sterling, compared to 900 pounds of cotton (about 5 pounds Sterling) for an Irish."
Fleeing their long history of abuse at the hands of the English, Irish refugees were reluctant to treat others as they themselves had been treated, and relied on large families and tightly-knit communities, rather than slaves, to raise their crops and defend their homes in the New World. They raised cattle and pigs, sheep and corn, fished the rivers and hunted bear, foxes and wolves, wild turkeys and the elusive white-tailed deer.
When the Revolutionary War came, men from Western Virginia answered the call of the new nation to defend her independence. George Washington once stated that, should the Revolution falter, instead of surrendering he would retreat to Pendelton Country and there surround himself with Scots-Irish forest fighters, for surely no army of England could force such flint-hard men from their mountains.
William Eagle was one such man. Volunteering on Christmas Eve of 1776 at age fifteen, William served the 3rd, 4th, 8th, and 12th Virginia Regiments of the Continental Line at Valley Forge and Yorktown. He returned to Smoke Hole Canyon after the War’s end, to raise sheep and start a family. Local legend holds that William once climbed to the summit of the then-un-named Eagle Rocks to retrieve a lamb snatched by an eagle. The bird attacked him just as he reached the nest, tearing a large chunk of flesh from his side. The tale holds that, when he began the climb, William’s hair was coal black, but that by the time he returned to the riverside, he had lost so much blood that his hair had gone snow-white. He is buried there, across the road from Eagle Rocks, which he named for the bird that had so severely wounded him.
During the early 1700s, England had hired nearly 30,000 mercenary soldiers from Germany to control the unruly American colonies, many of them from the German province of Hesse. Although these soldiers came from many other places as well, in time they came to be known simply as Hessians. Most of them had no ill will towards the upstart colonies, but were instead conscripted into service by the landgraves who had splintered Germany into religious division after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. When the war ended, less than half of them returned home. So many Germans settled in the North Fork Valley that it came to be known as Germany Valley, a name it carries to this day.
One of these soldiers was Johann Dahle, who had been captured in the late days of the war. Dahle would eventually settle in the North Fork Valley, and his descendants would change the name to “Dolly”. They moved onto the high mountain pastures or “sods” on the north end of the valley and built homes and farms. At that time, areas were often named for the families and features that dominated there, and it is for this family that Dolly Sods is named.
The Pendleton county seat, Franklin, was settled by Francis (Frank) Evick and was originally named Frankford in his honor. Francis and George Evick arrived in the area in 1769. Francis settled in present-day Franklin, and George settled just to east, across the South Branch River.
The first meeting of the county court took place in June 1788 at the home of Captain Stratton, six miles south of the Evick's homes. One of the court's first orders of business was to select a permanent county seat and they selected Frankford.
Francis Evick immediately laid out a town and placed the lots for sell. One of the first buildings constructed in the town was the county court house. It was made out of logs by Thomas Collett, and was 22 feet by 23 feet. It remained in service for 28 years before being replaced by a brick court house.
By 1794, the town's population increased to around 50, sufficient to apply for a town charter. On December 19, 1794, the town was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly as Franklin, primarily because another town in the state was already called Frankford. Several sources indicate that the town was named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. However, since Mr. Evick was known as Frank, the town may have been named in his honor. For example, the West Virginia Blue Book indicates that the town was named in Mr. Evick's honor
In the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, little changed for the subsistence farmers living in the deep mountains of WV. Beyond the Alleghenies, the Constitution was ratified and the Bill of Rights drawn up. Louisiana was purchased and Virginians Meriwether Lewis and George Rogers Clark set out to find the Northwest Passage that many hoped would link the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean by a water route. The War of 1812 “began in discontent, proceeded with indifference, and ended without victory“. The “Star Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key and became the National Anthem. Meanwhile, a young Booker T. Washington, future leader of the civil rights movement, began his education in Charleston.
Tensions rose between the self-styled aristocrats of the Piedmont and the self-reliant pioneers of the Alleghenies. While eastern planters relied more and more on their Negro slaves, Western Virginians strongly opposed slavery, not just from a practical but also from a moral standpoint. Instead of obediently shipping their produce and trade goods to Richmond to be paid as the businessmen there saw fit, Western Virginians traded with Pittsburgh and Wheeling, and thought more in line with those northern towns than their eastern cousins.
In 1859, the infamous abolitionist John Brown carried out his bloody raid on Harper’s Ferry, and it was in Charles Town, WV that he was executed by hanging. This event stirred strong emotions among both pro- and anti-slavery communities.
Unfair tax laws favoring Tidewater planters and businessmen only increased the strain, and when the rest of the state threatened secession in 1861, Western Virginia delegates met to declare in favor of the Union. One of those representatives was Abijah Dolly, one of Johann Dahle’s descendents. Abijah Dolly, who would later vote to create Grant county out of pro-secessionist Hardy County, was instrumental not only in creating of the state of West Virginia but also in the formation and direction of her early government.
The first land battle of the Civil War was fought in Phillipi, West Virginia, in 1861. The Phillipi Covered Bridge, around which the battle raged, still stands.
In 1862, the first Union raid into Pendelton County ended with the Battle of Riverton, near Seneca Rocks, when 40 northern soldiers were ambushed by local Confederate Infantry and two units of cavalry known as McNeill‘s Raiders. Like Robert E. Lee, McNeill, a cattle farmer from Missouri, abhorred slavery, but would not stand idly by to watch the invasion and destruction of his beloved South. Union forces rallied, forcing the rebels from the field and killing two local men in the process, Perry Bland and Thomas Powers.
During the War, 12,000 Union troops held the town of Franklin for two weeks, and in that time stripped the area of “every cow, sheep, pig, goose, turkey, duck, chicken and every last kernel of corn or grain of wheat“.
In the midst of war, the first public school for Negroes in the United States was founded in Parkersburg, WV, in 1862.
In 1863, President Lincoln signed the bill recognizing West Virginia as a state. Grant County, named in honor of the famous Union general, was created from the eastern half of Hardy county, bringing a large number of Southern sympathizers into Union territory. At this time, Pendleton and Hardy Counties were a hotbed of Rebel activity, and the battle for the Mountaineer State raged hot and uncertain. One town changed hands more than fifty times during the course of the war.
From 1861 through 1864, Union trenches overlooked the town of Petersburg, which was predominately pro-Union. Railroad connections and a fortified structure, Fort Mulligan, made the town a strongpoint and strategic link with the North until Confederate general Jubal Early‘s forces took the town in January of 1864, destroying Fort Mulligan. Union soldiers who had used nearby Mount Zion Church for storage of supplies burned the church when Confederate forces approached. Signs of Civil War entrenchments still remained visible in Petersburg 79 years later, when infantry soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division arrived to begin training in 1943.
Oddly enough, the people over whom the entire war had begun, the Negro slaves, fought on both sides during the war. Negroes fought in the Confederate army, and served as nurses and orderlies in hospitals throughout the Confederacy. They also served with distinction in the Union Army, even while serving for far less pay than the average white soldier. Apparently, Northern concern for the Negro did not extend to his economic welfare. In the armies of the North, where one soldier in ten was black, over 40,000 Negroes gave their lives to secure the freedoms of democracy for themselves and their descendants.
After Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the new state quickly recovered and actually thrived. In 1872, the new state constitution guaranteed Negroes the right to vote, one of the first states to do so. From 1865 to 1885, West Virginia became one of the most productive and progressive farming areas in the country. The remarkable numbers of mountain-raised cattle, sheep, pigs and turkeys brought to market by Appalachian farming communities literally fed the cities of Richmond, Washington, and Baltimore. Had this portion of America been allowed to develop commerce and agriculture at the same rate into the 20th century, life in West Virginia would be very different now.
But between 1880 and 1920, changes came that would result in devastation to rival or even surpass that of the Civil War.
The Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains represented one of the richest regions of resources in the world. Their hardwood forests were the oldest known to man. The coal seams of the region surpassed deposits found anywhere else in the world.
Following the recession that gripped the country in the wake of Grant’s Presidency, thoroughly dishonest agents representing J.P. Morgan and a half-dozen other robber barons bought land for little more than pocket change. One man sold a mountain of timber and coal for a Singer sewing machine.
Families often owned parcels of land in community, where several hundred people held joint title to thousands of acres of mountain land. A typical ploy of the land agents was to find the disgruntled member of the family (there’s always one), stir up their feelings of persecution and indignation, get them drunk, and convince them to sell the property for a fraction of its actual value. Judges would be bribed in advance, as would the local newspaper editor. The mine agent, now part-owner, would then file a petition for a ruling by the court as to whether it was “in the best interest of all parties” to sell the land at public auction. Notice of the auction would be printed in tiny blocks in the middle or back pages of the newspaper (or conveniently forgotten) and the compromised judge would then render a judgment in favor. When the bidding reached $100, the poor farmers living on the land could no longer bid. The coal and timber companies used this method to steal hundreds of thousands of acres and millions of dollars from families that had been here since before the Revolutionary War. In the process, they turned a population of self-sufficient landowners and prosperous farmers into homeless refugees.
Another trick was the use of the “short form deed”, a document that left the land in the family’s name, but gave away all the minerals and timber, leaving the family to pay the taxes and requiring them to maintain roads for mining and logging out of empty pockets.
This was the beginning of a policy of out-of-state ownership and exploitation of WV’s incredible mineral resources, tacitly (and sometimes forcefully) supported by the legislation, the courts, and the Federal Government, a policy unchallenged by the numerous missionaries and other out-of-state “relief organizations” to this day.
In less than 40 years, the oldest stand of timber in North America fell to the loggers that swarmed the rugged mountains. Timber camps that resembled a vision of Hell sprang up all over the state. Railroad spurs were constructed into almost every valley and hollow to haul out the plunder. It has been estimated that 98% of West Virginia was stripped of timber by 1920; thirty-eight billion board feet of lumber left the state, along with 98% of the profits. With that much timber, you could quite literally build a causeway 13 feet wide and 2 inches thick from Earth to the moon.
Between 1907 and 1920, over 700 wildfires swept through the scrub cedars, lapwood and brush that were, in all but the steepest and rockiest portions of the mountains, all that remained of the state’s once-proud forests. With little or no remaining vegetation to absorb annual rainfall, heavy spring and summer rains turned into floods that raged through the valleys below the bare mountainsides with devastating effects. During the flood of 1929, a seven-mile-long mudslide reached from the top of North Fork Mountain to the bottom of Germany Valley, blocking roads, sweeping away houses, cars, and bridges.
Since before the migration of early Indians across the Bering Strait land bridge, the chestnut tree had been a vital part of Appalachian forest ecology. These trees were the largest in the forest. They grew quickly and lived for as long as 300 years. In Spring, the chestnut blossoms covered the mountains like snow, and in the Fall the bounty of nuts covered the ground so thickly as to make it nearly impossible to climb the steeper ridges.
In the last years of the 19th century, nursery operators had attempted to crossbreed American chestnut with an imported Asian species. In 1904, it was discovered that the huge American chestnuts in the Bronx Zoological gardens of New York were all either dead or dying. With an infection and mortality rate of near 100%, the Asian chestnut blight obliterated a cornerstone of Appalachian subsistence farming and forest ecology by the start of the Second World War.
With the great forests gone, the corporate giants turned their eyes to coal. With their farms destroyed or stolen, the mountains stripped of timber and game, West Virginians had few choices left but to leave their homes or go to work for the mines. Coal mining has been a source of employment for many West Virginians ever since. Negro laborers came from throughout the Deep South, attracted by the coal companies’ offers of equal pay. These descendants of slaves make up an important part of West Virginia’s history, playing an important role in early mining and railroad development; working alongside white men laying track and digging coal and joining with white pro-union forces in the Battle of Blair Mountain, a turning point in the battle for workers‘ rights.
While many of the early mine operators were honest businessmen who treated their workers fairly and indeed lived and worked among them, as coal grew more important following the Industrial Revolution, this became the exception rather than the rule. Most mine owners lived out of state, with little or no concern for the environmental and economic wreckage left among the tiny mountain communities struggling in their wake.
Coal became King in the early days of the 20th century, and coal operators became millionaires, ruling the regions where they lived like feudal lords and living in castles that rivaled any in Europe while paying their employees, often illiterate locals or immigrants, pennies on the ton and stealing even that pitiful pay in every conceivable manner.
Mine employees were required to buy their own tools, as well as all their food, clothing, and other household goods from “company stores” which charged ridiculous prices. Miners were allowed to purchase items “on account”- in effect a loan, to which was often added interest payments so large as to keep the family forever in debt, trying to pay for goods already consumed on an income of 8 dollars for a 12-hour day. Coal companies often paid in “script”, coins they themselves minted, which were only of value in the company store. Desperate for cash, miners often sold this script to local businessmen for half to three-quarters of its face value. These businessmen then redeemed the scrip from the coal companies for cash, at full value.
Between 1889 and 1969, over 142,000 miners were killed or crippled in mine explosions and cave-ins, but mine owners bribed government officials of both parties and did everything in their power to keep laws from being created that would protect the workers and hold the owners responsible for their safety.
Since mining accidents and deaths were commonplace, coal companies purchased large numbers of cheap coffins, often for as little as $25-30 each. These coffins were then “sold” to the miner’s “burial fund” for as much as $300 apiece, making the mine operators a tidy profit for killing their own employees through unsafe conditions and neglect.
Miners lived in and paid for houses built by the company, and if a miner died with no sons to take his place in the mine, his family’s possessions were often seized by the mine against the debt he owed to the company and its store, and his family forcibly evicted within days of his death.
The struggle for miner’s rights was a long and bloody battle, as vicious as any war fought on American soil. Coal Companies paid for and often ran the campaigns of Governors, Senators, sheriffs and judges. As a condition of employment, miners were often required to vote for candidates hand-picked by the coal companies. In return, these representatives turned a blind eye to the plight of their constituents even as they acted as apologists and advocates for the interests of their masters.
Unfair eviction and false arrest, brutal beatings, and even murder were commonplace in the struggle for workers‘ rights. The Battle of Blair Mountain is the only instance in American history in which the United States military dropped bombs on civilians over a labor dispute. In another incident, a mine owner strafed a tent village of women and children with a .50 caliber machine gun, mounted on the back of a train. The massive miner uprising only ended when U.S. troops were ordered into the field to repel the miners from reaching Charleston. The miners, many of them veterans of the First World War, refused to take arms against men they had fought beside in the trenches of Europe.
Unionization brought peace, but only temporarily. The unions soon became as corrupt as the mine operators had been, and in many places were actually run by agents of the mine owners. Miners could seldom read or write, and were forced to depend on corrupt union leaders for news and information of world and local events, which those leaders often mis-stated to achieve political or business victories, often at the expense of miners. Union leaders also used miners to attack and disrupt operations of mines which would not participate in strikes. Gangs of hundreds of armed men would roam the highways, threatening anyone who questioned their activities or failed to submit to their rules with beatings or worse, while the Governor and the State Police turned a blind eye, in hopes that this would increase votes for themselves or their candidates-of-choice in election years.
Unfortunately, this sad tradition continues to this day, as hardworking miners are misled to believe that the people who have for decades fought for their rights and safety are “trying to shut down the mines” or “trying to take their jobs”. Out-of-state corporations and billionaires come hat-in-hand, playing the role of good ol’ boy or kindly uncle whenever any attempts are made to enforce environmental or labor laws, to protect the beautiful mountains of West Virginia from the destructive practice of mountaintop removal or to protect miners from the deadly explosions that have killed so many in the coalfields of West Virginia.
In 1907, spring rains and the melting of winter snows had led to floods that swept away houses and neighborhoods in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In 1920, the Monongahela National Forest was created, in part to protect the cities downstream of the slashed and burned mountains from the effects of clear cutting and wildfires. Although this huge governmental step to protect the land and the people was a necessity, one that has preserved some of the most beautiful wild places in America, it once again brought that government between the people and their land.
In many places, in an effort to protect and control the watersheds around the flood plain, the government would offer a “fair market bid” on the property; in other words, what a steep, rocky piece of land, with no possibility of development, would be worth to a builder, not an environmentalist. The farmers, already struggling with washed-away crops and livestock, were left between the proverbial rock and a hard place- lose your family land to a declaration of “eminent domain” by a government that has shown little interest in your life up to this point, or sell it for a fraction of its environmental and historical value, and lose it anyway.
It is ironic that these forests were often owned by the last holdout families who had defied the logging companies and mining agents and held on to their land and timber. The irony is made more bitter by the fact that today, with the National Forests administered by the Department of Agriculture, logging companies buy that same timber and the states lose money building and maintaining logging roads.
The “short form deed” seems have survived.
It is a sad and beautiful truth that the Past still lives in West Virginia.
Between the First and Second World Wars, America entered the Great Depression of the 1930s. Greedy, irresponsible stock brokers, bankers and businessmen had driven the American Stock Market to unrealistic heights, and when the bubble burst, it swept the country into an era of terrifying social destruction and abject poverty. Overnight, millionaires became paupers, banks became empty buildings, and millions of Americans lost their life savings. The West Virginia families still making a living by selling produce to the large cities faced the sudden loss of an income that in many cases meant the existence of the family home and farm.
It was during this era that the Civilian Conservation Corps was created, to give Americans jobs and shelter and food, and to try to preserve families in the face of one of the greatest calamities of the 20th Century. CCC workers planted trees, built roads, constructed flood control dams, and in many ways created the rough sketch of the country in which we live today. There were CCC camps throughout West Virginia. One such camp, at Hopeville, was responsible for the construction of the road between Seneca Rocks and Petersburg, a road still in use today.
One of the greatest tragedies in the history of American construction also took place in West Virginia during the 1930s, during the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel near New River Gorge, when hundreds of Negro workers died from the effects of silicosis (inhalation of tiny particles of silica which gradually block the lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen). Many of them are buried in a nearby Nicholas county graveyard.
When the Second World War broke out in Europe, America wanted nothing to do with this “foreign conflict”. But when Japanese planes attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, there was no choice but to go to war. In a country still reeling from the Depression, enlistment offered one of the few escapes from grinding poverty and hopelessness.
With many formerly unemployed Americans leaving for service, the CCC camps were shut down or converted to military training centers for soldiers who would soon fight in the mountains of Europe. West Virginia became the first place in America that the military taught climbing skills to soldiers. The 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army created the Seneca Rocks Maneuver Area, which included Seneca and Champe Rocks and Smoke Hole Canyon.
Here, military instructors taught men how to climb at night, with heavy gear, in all kinds of weather. At that time the area around the Rocks was a sheep farm owned by the local Kisamore family. During the years that they trained there, soldiers fought fires, cleared the trees and brush from the base of the Rocks, killed over 5,000 copperhead snakes, and married more than a few local girls. On nearby Dolly Sods, artillery training exercises fired thousands of shells, and unexploded rounds are still found today, over 60 years later.
In order to equip the soldier, the Ames Tool Company of Parkersburg, WV became one of the first climbing equipment manufacturers in the United States, turning out hundreds of specialized hammers and the thousands of pitons and ring pins they were meant to drive. So many of the latter were left at Seneca Rocks that one face came to be known as the Wall of a Thousand Pitons. Pitons and ring pins can still be found throughout Germany Valley and Smoke Hole Canyon, legacy of the soldiers and the climbers who followed them after the war.
These climbing soldiers would go on to fight in the Battle of Riva Ridge in the Italian Apennines Mountains, driving the last Nazi forces from their strongholds. This campaign has been called one of the most important of the Second World War and credited as a crucial element in the final collapse of Nazi Germany.
Men of the 10th eventually came home to a country where they were determined to make a difference. 10th Mountain veterans revolutionized downhill skiing equipment and techniques, innovated a wide assortment of vehicles for travel over snow and ice and created many of the major ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains. Shocked by the desolation he had seen as an aftermath of war, Dave Brower founded the Sierra Club to protect America‘s wild places from development and destruction. Paul Petzoldt created the National Outdoor Leadership Schools. Others returned to the green forests and silent mountains of West Virginia, searching for peace, rebuilding their lives, and founding families. Several of these vets went on to pioneer modern technical rock climbing, honing skills they had learned for combat, creating new tools and devices and techniques for ascending and protecting steeper and more difficult climbs here and across the United States.
West Virginia sent many of her sons and daughters to fight and care for the wounded in Europe and the Pacific. This proud tradition continues to the present day. Mountaineer soldiers fought and died in Korea, Panama, Viet Nam, Palestine, Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan. There are few towns or cities in West Virginia that do not have a memorial listing the Mountaineers who gave their lives to preserve freedom for all mankind.
One West Virginian serviceman who did not fall in combat was Chuck Yaeger. Born in Myra, WV on February 13, 1920, Yaeger became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound on October 14, 1947 when his experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane was dropped from a B-29 bomber and reached a speed of 700 mph. On December 12, 1953, Yaeger set another record when he became the first man to fly at two-and-a-half times the speed of sound (1750 mph) in a Bell X-1A.
Even as the decade of the 50s dawned and a West Virginian brushed the edge of space, the heritage of West Virginia began to fail, as family farms were sold and auctioned off in the face of recession and foreign agribusiness with which they could not compete. Families were forced to sell off equipment, herds and acreage, or to watch as the property went at public auction.
With land cheap and plentiful, West Virginia was soon “discovered” by the wealthy inhabitants and retirees of Washington, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. While this story is no different from that of any other declining rural population invaded by refugees from the “big city”, the difference is that here there existed the perpetual myth of the “other” Appalachia; a culture of backward country savages who feuded and drank and bred with their own kin, sitting around on the porches of their log cabins, just passing time waiting for butcherin’ and apple butter makin’ while pickin’ homemade banjos. This illusion created prejudices conscious and unconscious among the influx of outsiders. And, in truth, the bitterness of lost farms and heritage brought a harsh unwillingness to communicate from the natives that only helped support the belief that they were no more than ignorant hillbillies.
Outsiders brought money, but in the end most of it went to the same families that have been in power since the days of Reconstruction. The recreation industry exploded, but few of West Virginia’s sons and daughters found employment as ski instructors, outfitters, or climbing guides. Those positions more often went to college graduates from more prestigious and prosperous places like New York, North Carolina, California and Colorado, while the natives were tossed the scraps of jobs in housekeeping and maintenance. West Virginia’s natural wonders and beauty have always been powerful draws for recreation-seeking urban dwellers, but her population is usually seen only in terms of its usefulness and utility, and through the distorted lens of stereotype.
The oldest river in North American runs through West Virginia. It is, ironically enough, named the New River. It is one of the three oldest rivers in the world, and is crossed by the longest single span bridge in the world, which is also the highest bridge east of the Mississippi River. Other West Virginia bridges of note are the covered bridge at Phillipi, made famous in the Civil War, now the only covered bridge still in use on a federal highway, and the Wheeling suspension bridge; at 1,010 feet in length it is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.
It is in West Virginia that the Potomac River has its headwaters. The North Fork, The South Fork, and the South Branch gather from springs and creeks flowing out of the westernmost range of the Appalachians and the eastern flanks of the Allegheny Front. Every year, thousands of fishermen migrate to the region from all over the world in pursuit of golden, rainbow, and brown trout, brookies, and bass.
They share the rivers with boating enthusiasts in kayaks and canoes, also from points around the country and globe, many of whom also paddle the world-class whitewater of the Gauley, New, and Meadow Rivers. Mountain bike riders and backpackers have dubbed the North Fork Mountain Trail “the best in the East“, and hundreds of thousands of tourists have made the drive to the tops of Spruce Knob and Dolly Sods to enjoy the amazing views and incredible diversity of plant and animal life. As fall brings a blaze of color to the region, people from all walks of life come to enjoy the spectacle, and crowds throng to the Old Time Fiddler’s gathering at Elkins-Davis College, the Treasure Mountain Festival of Pendleton County, and the Heritage Days celebration in Petersburg, where steam and coal locomotives from a bygone era still offer thrills for young and old alike. In the winter, skiers and snowboarders sample perfect champagne powder on the slopes of Canaan, Timberline, and Whitegrass.
Rock climbers from around the globe come to scale the historic fins of Seneca Rocks and New River Gorge’s miles of incredible cliffs. It was this pursuit that first brought me to West Virginia over 20 years ago, and it is the beauty of this place and the character of its people that has brought me back again and again, first as a visitor and finally as a resident. I have traveled across this amazing country, lived in huge cities and in quiet little towns, and yet it is to the Allegheny Mountains that I find my heart drawn, in the end. I am no native, but no adopted son was ever more proud of the place he chose to call “home”.
If I have painted a picture of West Virginia that is less than sunny and bright, it is because the history of West Virginia is perhaps the saddest and most disturbing of any state in our nation. Again and again the people of the Mountaineer State have triumphed over adversity, only to have governments and corporations take from them their fortunes, their birthright, and their victory, based on a convenient myth and the misconception of their inability to direct and govern their own destinies. This is the other “Appalachia”, the stereotypical home of feuding hillbillies and sullen poor white trash.
The myth of “Appalachia” was, in fact, created by missionaries bent on “uplifting the people” by changing them into the stereotypes that outsiders have always brought with them to West Virginia. That myth has been perpetuated by every other group that has come here to “help” in order to secure funding, entertain their colleagues, and to insure their own sense of superiority.
The people of West Virginia are no more isolated or backward than the people of any mountainous region anywhere else in the world. There are ignorant, impoverished, suspicious people in every culture, in every nation, and in every age. The people of West Virginia have never been allowed to fully develop their own unique culture and personality, because that would not have fit into the plans and budgets and conceits of the many individuals and organizations that have made a fortune ”uplifting” them.
And yet they persist. The sap rises again in spring, red bud trees and wildflowers color the mountainsides, turkeys gobble in the forests, and white-tail deer herd their awkward fawns under dogwood blossoms as robins sing and jays scold and eagles soar high overhead. Morel and lady's slipper and jack-in-the-pulpit peek from beneath leaves in the shadow of great oaks and poplars, as chipmunks and squirrels dash madly between heaven and earth.
If there is a bright side to the story of West Virginia, it is that, though her people may find defeat again and again at the hands of ignorant humans and blind Nature, they still find the courage to rise up, each day, and to press forward into the future in search of answers and in the defiant belief that life can be better for their children and the generations yet to come.
Let those of us who come to this place to find something special, something different, something lost in much of the rest of the world, realize that part of that magic, that unique attraction, is the people and culture of West Virginia. Let us vow to leave behind our prejudices and preconceptions, to open our eyes to the ongoing abuses and injustices still woven into the ongoing history of the Alleghenies, as schools close or go without adequate supplies and children go hungry, while mountains are reduced to rubble, wells are poisoned, and miners continue to die. Let us all strive to support the children of the Mountain State as they battle the corporate and government corruption that owns so much of their homes, as they fight to overcome the stereotypes and prejudices of yesterday to reclaim control of their futures.
I would like to thank the many authors and researchers who have provided so much printed data and online information regarding West Virginia and Pendleton County. In particular, Dr. Robert Jay Dilger, Director, Institute for Public Affairs and Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University, whose publication on the history of Pendleton County is referenced here.
The following is a list of West Virginia Counties, with the names of county seats and founding dates.