Editor’s note: This article is one a series that will be written about West Virginia’s first governor, Francis Pierpont, and coincide with the planned installation and unveiling of a statue commemorating his role as the “Father of West Virginia” at Independence Hall in Wheeling on June 20.
Two hundred years ago, during a cold January in 1814, Francis Harrison Pierpont was born in a log home in Monongalia County, Va., near the Forks of Cheat. His was an established western Virginia family, with ancestors entering the region in 1770. Among those early ancestors were the Morgans, whose family included Zackquill Morgan, founder of Morgantown, and Morgan Morgan, considered the first permanent white settler in western Virginia. Interestingly, this descendant of the first settler would become the “Father of West Virginia.”
His first name, Francis, was an ancient one in the family, perpetuated through the generations to honor an ancestor, Lady Frances Cavendish from the bloodline of William the Conqueror. The surname “Pierpont” was of French origin, meaning “stone bridge” and applied to the family after Charlemagne built a bridge near their castle in the eighth century. “Harrison” was given by his father to pay tribute to his military commanding officer, William Henry Harrison. Throughout his life, Pierpont’s friends and associates addressed him simply as “Frank.”
Frank Pierpont was a self-made man from modest beginnings. His father was a tanner, working in the production of leather goods while also maintaining the family farm. At age thirteen, Frank’s father built and operated at tannery in Fairmont and moved the family to the city. Young Pierpont’s formal education consisted of learning the “three R’s” in a one room log schoolhouse. His already quick wit was augmented by reading literary works such as the Bible, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” which helped prepare him for college, preparations that were self-directed and self-achieved. He was an active youth, working in the tannery and on the family farm, so that when he reached college age he was both sound of mind and sound of body.
1835, Pierpont began a walk of one hundred eighty miles to Meadville, Pennsylvania to enter Allegheny College. He did very well academically, graduating with honors in 1839. One of his college papers entitled “Politcs and the Country’s Future” may have foreshadowed his later role as a statesman. Upon graduation, however, Frank put his efforts into teaching, his first post in Harrison County, Va. Then in 1841 he set out for a teaching position at an academy in the cotton fields of upland Mississippi, where he taught over a year before returning to his native hills. Commendations for his teaching stated he was the best teacher at the academy, one making note of his “gentlemanly deportment and strict attention to duties,” qualities that would later serve him well during the storm of Civil War.
While teaching, Pierpont “read the law,” which was the way most studied to become attorneys during the time period. As with many of his peers, teaching was a stepping stone to other endeavors for young Frank, and in 1842 he was formally admitted to the bar as a practicing attorney. His strong grasp of the law would soon benefit all western Virginians, as Pierpont would become the architect of a new government, and the father of a new, independent state.
— Travis Henline is the site manager of West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling