Here is Part 35 of 50 in a randomly updated series. Let’s go back to the real show for a minute.
This was a story everybody thought we’d already told.
By 1860, the expansion of the United States had already moved well beyond that patch of eastern tidewater where John Rolf had once wooed Pocahontas. Immigrants and wanderers had climbed past the Appalachian Mountains, spread across the entire Mississippi Basin, trickled into the Rockies and taken the short cut path to California or the Pacific Northwest. All those old Allegheny hills and hollows that marked the natural boundary between the Thirteen Colonies and the “West” were settled territory, already divvied up among established states. Nobody had any business thinking the story of statehood would ever run all the way back to the eastern mountains.
Which just goes to show how messed up the Civil War made things. You can blame South Carolina for it all if you want. They started the mess when they seceded from the union on December 24, 1860, followed in January of 1861 by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. Then Texas seceded in February, Virginia in April, Arkansas and North Carolina in May, and Tennessee in June. A total of eleven states had seceded by the time things started heating up at Bull Run in northern Virginia that July.
The admission of Bloody Kansas had taken our count of United States up to 34. Now all of the sudden, we were back down to a number we hadn’t seen since Maine joined up as the free half of the Missouri Compromise in 1820. But Maine was an eastern territory carved from an existing state, too. So maybe it makes sense that we’d go back now and take a look at the northwestern corner of Virginia. Secession was in the air, and once people start splitting up, it’s hard to stop. Virginia was never sure what to do with those mountain people, anyway.
Country Roads … (No, I’m Not Going There)
I guess if you wanted, you could go back to Jamestown and start the story of West Virginia’s European settlement there in 1607. From a technical standpoint, that was the first European contact with the colony-turned-state that would control West Virginia up until the Civil War, but that doesn’t make for a satisfying start for a couple of reasons. One, the original charter King James I had granted to the Virginia Company of London to justify Jamestown’s founding had included pretty much everything on North America’s East Coast south of the future site of Connecticut, and west to some unnamed boundary that might very well have been the Pacific Ocean. So Jamestown turns out to be the European starting point for a lot of states. Two, while John Smith and a few buddies roamed west into Virginia’s interior as far as the eastern foothills and north as far as the Potomac River, it’s unlikely that his little band ever came within fifty miles of anything that might eventually become West Virginia. The Virginians just liked marking down ownership of that patch of mountains on their maps. They had no idea what was actually there, and it took a few generations for anybody to get curious enough to go find out.
That first expedition came along in 1671, when a couple of Virginia explorers named Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam gathered a bunch of Native American guides and headed west from a frontier fort located near the falls of the Appomattox River, in what today is Petersburg. They were hoping to find that elusive water passage through the mountains everybody had been hoping to find since the first boat landed at Jamestown, but that passage is mythical, so they didn’t have any more luck than anybody else. There’s some debate over how far Batts and Fallam got, and some scholars say they actually stopped one valley short of where the West Virginia border would run, in part because their native guides got nervous about the other Native American groups who lived in the region. But most folks say the expedition actually made it far enough into West Virginia to discover the New River and the Falls of the Kanawha, about 30 miles upstream from the future site of Charleston.
The next group that might have come this way showed up in 1716 led by Alexander Spotswood, acting royal governor of Virginia. By this time, the Virginia tobacco farmers were running out of soil to burn through in the colony’s settled parts, and people were starting to get fidgety, so Spotswood came up with what he called his Knights of the Golden Horseshoe Expedition, which is way too grandiose a name for a bunch of guys traipsing off into the woods. The idea was to go check out the Shenandoah Valley, but though the expedition might have made it as far as the future site of Harpers Ferry, nobody’s sure that they actually saw West Virginia. It’s only known that they crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and roamed an unknown distance north down the Shenandoah, and despite what John Denver might have told you, that’s not West Virginia.
Maybe that was why Spotswood seemed so willing to give West Virginia up if he had to. Sure, a Golden Horseshoe Expedition could probably have taken a left and headed west past the Shenandoah if it wanted, but all Spotswood and his contemporaries could see once they crossed the Blue Ridge was a big wall of more mountains they didn’t want to climb. Everybody figured that no self-respecting tobacco farmer would ever want to build a plantation up there, and so in 1722, Spotswood went up to New York and joined up with the other colonial governors to sign the Treaty of Albany with the Six Nations of the Iroquois, establishing the Blue Ridge Mountains as the limit of Virginian advance and granting the Iroquois free reign in the west.
Meanwhile, Virginian settlers would focus on filling in some of the more accessible corners of the Shenandoah and Potomac Valleys, where that little eastern arm of West Virginia would someday run. This land was too close to the foothills to be much good for farming, but hunters and trappers liked it here well enough. In about 1725, a group of fur trappers finally kicked things off when they established an informal little trading post town along the South Branch of the Potomac they called Pearsall’s Flats, the first permanent settlement in what is now West Virginia. That town still exists, though the Virginia House of Burgesses changed its name to Romney when they granted the town’s official charter in 1761. Other settlements soon popped up all along the valley, and it wasn’t long before they started getting into fights with all those Catholics over in Maryland.
Tuckahoes and Cohees
Meanwhile, there was still all that mountain country west of the Blue Ridge that nobody was doing much with. Technically, the British colonies recognized this as Iroquois land for the moment. But the Iroquois were relatively new to this part of the country themselves, having just shown up after a war with the region’s previous inhabitants about fifty years earlier. They hadn’t yet fully devoted themselves to settling the place, in part because the British kept talking them into hassling the French to the west in the Illinois country, and the Iroquois didn’t have the resources to do both things at once. There were still remnants of the people the Iroquois had kicked out of the mountains roaming around, people like the Shawnee and the Cherokee and others, but their numbers were small. The Appalachian heart of West Virginia was kind of a vacuum at in the 1720s and ‘30s, and colonial settlers can’t resist a vacuum. It wasn’t long before people started ignoring whatever some treaty they hadn’t heard of might say and headed up into the West Virginia mountains.
The funny thing about that was that they mostly didn’t do it from Virginia. The thing is, the Virginians were kind of right about how hard it was to get up that first ridge past the Shenandoah Valley onto the Appalachian Plateau, and they didn’t see any reason to do that when the land there wasn’t fit for their plantation mindset anyway. But people up in western Pennsylvania felt differently about the whole thing. The northeastward lean of the Appalachian mountain chain deprived Pennsylvania of the vast tracts of rolling Piedmont that made Virginia’s tobacco economy possible, so Pennsylvania had never developed that plantation mindset. The people who wound up in western Pennsylvania were mostly poor farmer types who didn’t mind the struggle it took to farm the side of a mountain, so they just kept rolling west into the ridge and valley country.
And once you’ve crossed the ridge, moving down the valley is easy. Appalachian valleys sometimes stretch hundreds of miles, reaching from Pennsylvania far into lands Virginia thought it controlled. By the 1740s, the Pennsylvania valleys became de facto turnpikes funneling Pennsylvania settlers south into western Virginia. These tended to be more recent immigrants to the New World, first-generation Germans or Irish or Scotch who felt no connection to the third- or fourth-generation aristocratic English who were running things in the rest of Virginia. This quickly developed into a lasting divide in Virginian culture.
The two sides of this divide even developed slurs for each other: Tuckahoes and Cohees. The words were likely perversions of words Powhatan’s native groups had used in the era of the Jamestown settlers, and it’s anybody’s guess what they originally meant. In 18th and 19th century Virginia, “tuckahoe” was the derisive name mountain people used for the low-country slave-holding plantation owners, the aristocratic types who spent lots of money on their big plantation houses and sprawling estates with dozens of slaves even though they were all deeply in debt. Those aristocrats referred to the mountain people as “cohees,” often poor, small-hold farmer types who wouldn’t have had a use for a slave even if they’d been able to afford one. As time wore on, the animosity between the tuckahoes and the cohees grew more rigid than the Appalachian spine that separated them.
Flash forward through a lot of history: The British crown keeps trying to limit westward expansion with various treaties and royal proclamations, which the western Virginia mountain people ignore. A war breaks out with the French and their Indian allies that mostly keeps to the far side of the mountains. The British win, but then decide to pay their war debts by taxing the colonies. Somebody throws tea in a harbor, and a revolution explodes. The Virginia colony becomes a semi-independent state in a Union of States, and then in 1788, it signs onto a Federalist constitution written the year before. At about the same time, it surrenders any claim to territory west of the mountains that will become Kentucky, but for some reason, it keeps the mountains themselves.
Which seems kind of nuts when you think about it. The biggest reason Kentucky split off from Virginia was that they were on the opposite side of the Eastern Continental Divide, and all their waterways flowed toward the Mississippi. The cost of shipping overland through the mountains in the era before trains meant that Kentuckians would ship any goods they produced toward New Orleans by river, not to Richmond by road, so their interests would naturally lie on the west side of the mountains. But the situation was no different for the western Virginia mountain people. They were also on the Kentucky side of the divide, which runs atop the Allegheny Mountain Front ridge that now marks most of West Virginia’s eastern border. Just like Kentucky, the economics of the thing demanded that western Virginia commerce flow west. And yet politically, the western Virginians were still controlled by Richmond and held under the influence of the Old Dominion.
And this led to predictable problems once Virginia became one of the United States. From the start, the eastern Virginia tuckahoe plantation owners did their best to rig the state’s political system to protect eastern interests against the whims of those cohee mountain rednecks. The first state constitution ratified in 1776 gave each county two seats in the House of Delegates, for instance, knowing that the greater number of counties in the east gave the tuckahoes an unbreakable electoral advantage over the mountain folk.
The easterners then spent the next 70 years blocking any attempt to use state tax revenue to fund even small infrastructure improvements in the mountains. The easterners refused to fund mountains roads to make it possible for mountain farmers or mountain loggers to ship their goods east. They finally started funding construction of a canal between the east-flowing James River and the west-flowing Kanawha in the 1820s, but they only authorized the money in pennies at a time, so that construction took decades. Once railroads became a thing in the 1830s, the eastern Virginians refused to fund any mountain routes. They kept trickling their dimes toward that never-ending canal project instead. The eastern Virginians refused to give the mountain folk anything that might improve their access to the outside world or increase their connection to the east Virginia aristocracy, and the cultural divide strengthened with every passing year.
Things really started getting tricky after the 1840 census showed that western immigration had finally pushed the number of free white men higher west of the Allegheny Front than it was in the Old Dominion low country. There were now more mountain rednecks than there were low-country aristocrats, and the mountain rednecks spent the next decade yelling about it. The tuckahoes couldn’t just keep pretending they had some numerical justification for holding onto Virginia power, and even they understood that no system that gives an electoral edge to a numerical minority is long sustainable (ahem), so they finally called a convention in 1850 to write an all-new state constitution.
The fact that this post exists tells you how that went. I mean, sure, the easterners did make some concessions, like expanding suffrage (to more white men) by dropping the property requirements that had previously limited voting rights to large landowners. And they redistributed representation in the House of Delegates to more closely fit the census of 1850. But they also fixed the state senate at fifty seats and gave 30 of those seats to the eastern counties. And they gave eastern plantation owners a tax benefit by dropping slaves from any property tax calculation. This shifted a huge portion of the tax burden from the wealthy-but-debt-ridden eastern aristocrats to the poor and scraggly mountain farmers, who had no slaves and believed they were only poor because the east had refused to spend any money on the west for the past 60 years.
Still, though there was continuous grumbling and talk of secession, the greater state of Virginia held together through the 1850s. But then the one great issue dividing everybody popped up, and the eastern Virginia plantation owners decided to go to war over it. And guess what that issue was.
We Shall Be Free
The Virginia state government responded to the secession of South Carolina by calling a special convention of its own in January of 1861 to decide what to do about that whole Union of States thing. The sentiment of the convention initially seemed to lean toward sticking with the Union, but then newly-inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln called on loyal states to provide armed militia to suppress the rebellion. Despite their current reputation as a state full of gun nuts, Virginia’s never been the kind of place that liked committing arms or money for that sort of thing. (You should see some of the excuses Thomas Jefferson came up with when he was governor to avoid having Virginia contribute anything to the Revolution.) And so, on April 17, 1861, the convention voted to repeal Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution of the United States and secede from the Union. The vote of the 152-seat convention had been 88 for secession and 55 against, with 9 delegate abstaining after the secessionists ticked them off. Thirty-two of the votes against secession and two of the abstentions came from western mountain counties, where sentiment against secession was strong.
And why wouldn’t it be? The western Virginians had no slaves, and they had no reason to fight a war just so a bunch of tuckahoes could keep theirs. Why should the people take arms just to protect what amounted to a bunch of tuckahoe free labor and tax breaks? What’s more, poor mountain western Virginia was one of those places unconnected to the plantation economy that had the luxury of contemplating the morality of the slavery issue, and abolitionist sentiment in the mountains was strong. So let the tuckahoes secede if they want, the mountain folk said. We’ll just secede right back.
The Wheeling Convention(s)
The pro-Union contingent of western Virginians called for a convention in Wheeling on May 13th, 1861. The idea was to organize anti-secessionist resistance for the public referendum the Commonwealth of Virginia had scheduled for May 23rd that would pseudo-legally confirm the secessionists’ convention results, but that turned out to be almost no time for anybody to organize anything. The secessionists won the referendum with about 64% of the 54,000 votes cast. And yet again, most of the public sentiment against secession from the Union came from Virginia’s western counties.
In the meantime, people had already started taking sides, and fighting-age men were signing up for militias and armies. A bunch of western Virginia militia men signed up with the Union army and joined a Federal invasion of the Kanawha Valley that lasted into June and July. That invasion gave the western Virginia anti-secessionists cover to call for a second Wheeling Convention in June to discuss whether it might make sense to leave Virginia altogether.
Some Wheeling Conventionists wanted to form a new state all their own right off, but others suggested it might be a bad idea to try to pull that sort of thing in the middle of a war when you’ve already been invaded. A third group worked out a compromise solution that called for the creation of a sort of alternate Virginia, with a government made up of loyalists who thought of themselves as the state’s restored government in exile. Kind of a Vichy Virginia, but without all the Nazi collaboration. They’d elect their own governor and alternate state legislature, and they’d send a couple of senators and a few representatives to the U.S. Congress to serve as alternate Virginians. Everybody liked that at the moment, so they sent the proposal off to President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln thought that would be easier to pull off than authorizing a whole new state, so he signed off on it.
But then a Morgantown man named Waitman Wiley decided this sort of half-measure unsecession just didn’t cut it, and he got everybody riled up enough for the new state-legislature-in-absentia or whatever they were to right that moment authorize the creation of an all new western Virginia state, which they would call Kanawha, after the new state’s primary west-flowing river. (I kind of wish they’d kept that.) This group called for a Third Wheeling Convention to meet in November of 1861 and work out all the legal hoops the U.S. Constitution required for statehood. By that point, Bull Run had shown everybody that the war wasn’t going to be a cake walk for anyone, and everybody decided statehood for Kanawha was the way to go. Only they decided to call it West Virginia instead, because Kanawha sounded too Indian.
Lincoln was kind of cold on the whole statehood idea at first, and his cabinet got caught up in all sorts of questions about the legality of the thing. But then, everybody had thrown legality out the door the moment the South Carolinians shot up Fort Sumter, and the nation was kind of at that point where “law” was whatever you could convince people it was. Lincoln’s Attorney General assured Lincoln that the process was legal, and on December 31, 1862, Lincoln decided to just go with it. He pushed for the West Virginians to pass a ban on slavery, which they did, and on June 20, 1863, Lincoln declared West Virginia to be the temporarily broken Union’s 35th state. Which he could do, because it was the Civil War, and process didn’t matter so much at the moment. It was, of course, a free state, but the free-versus-slave-state count doesn’t matter anymore.
Though a lot of little sub-states have tried over the centuries, West Virginia turns out to be the only piece of an existing state to successfully secede and become a state of its own. Its road to statehood is unique, and it was only able to join the Union because everybody was so distracted with questions about who could leave it. Virginia’s border was the only border to change during the war, unless you count the re-division of a bunch of western territories and the formation of a 36th state. But we’ll talk about when we go back to the order of admission.
Next time, though, we’re due for another supplement, because a lot of things change after the Civil War. And I’m not just talking about the fight between free states and slave states, or the push for states’ rights, or anything like that. Settlement patterns shift, and the motivation for statehood changes, and a lot of that has to do with the way the nation fights this war and tries to rebuild afterward. So we’ll talk about that next time.