Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns about West Virginia becoming a state, which is commemorated this year in its sesquicentennial celebration.
Statehood for West Virginia was a long, hard road. In spite of popular belief to the contrary, the countdown to statehood and the western part of the state’s problems with the rest of the state didn’t start with the American Civil War. They started long before that.
Western Virginia was originally part of almost 6 million acres acquired in 1718 by Thomas Fairfax, the sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron. Fairfax’s huge holding contained all the land between the mouths of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers
In order to start selling his vast holdings, Fairfax needed the huge acreage to be divided into smaller, more salable plats. His land was formally subdivided by various surveyors, including a young George Washington, over a span of several years. Among those new first residents were German immigrants who settled in Mecklenberg (today known as Shepherdstown) as early as 1727.
By 1746, a stone was set called the Fairfax Stone, which is located in Fairfax Stone Historical Monument State Park at the convergence of Tucker and Preston counties, to identify the Lord Fairfax parcel.
During the early 1750s, some settlers began crossing the mountains into western Virginia. Their journeys were often impeded and discouraged by Native Americans. A larger group started immigrating after the American Revolution.
In the latter stages of the 1700s, towns had sprung up in what today is known as the Eastern Panhandle — Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties. Western Virginia was settled later, due to the aforementioned problems with the local American Indians and conflicting land disputes that took years to settle in the courts.
From the beginning, there were both physical and social differences between the two ends of the state, which were separated physically by the Allegheny mountains. Whereas their eastern Virginia neighbors owned plantations, raised tobacco with slave labor and relied on the sea for its commerce, those who lived in western Virginia owned much smaller acreage and found slavery not to be profitable. Eastern Virginians tended to face the Atlantic Ocean while their western counterparts traded more with those who’d settled west along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
As the years went by, the western section of the state increased in population more rapidly than its eastern counterparts, but those in the east always had the population advantage. The 1790s census shows the total population of eastern and western Virginia to have been 750,000 with only 55,000 living in the western region. The eastern section had 13 times more people, giving them a huge advantage in the General Assembly. By 1820, the seaside’s population numbers had grown, but the western region was growing significantly faster. Still the east plurality was six to one. Forty years later, in 1860, the western region continued growing at a much faster rate, cutting the east’s majority to three to one. But even with the increase in population, western Virginia’s representatives in the General Assembly got very little support from their eastern Virginia brethren.
— Bob O’Connor writes from Jefferson County.