Since the 35th state was formed, we’ve largely let outsiders, folks who don’t know Charleston from Charles Town, define us. Their rube jokes and unrelenting focus on the state’s most impoverished and uneducated has somehow trumped its knee-buckling beauty, neighborly people and singular history.
Nonnatives have no particular reason to know the state’s origin, but those within her borders should.
“The roots of that period are basically indistinguishable for most West Virginians, and that’s sad,” said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National State Park, site of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on a U.S. arsenal, a precursor to the start of the Civil War. “They were a state born of conviction. They were a state born for advocating for and defending the United States of America rather than the seceded states of America. Western Virginians were very committed to the Union in a state that left the Union.
“When secession occurred, Western Virginians felt that they were being told that this is what you’ve got to do, and they rebelled against that. That’s another part of West Virginia’s soul . . . that there is a rebellious nature to them and they exhibited that very, very much with respect to the Civil War. It’s really fascinating how they were willing to declare their own declaration of independence.”
Secession rumblings began long before the Civil War. Rugged Western Virginia was settled largely by Germans and Scotch-Irish. The mountains both isolated them and made them independent. Their communities differed sharply from the more refined eastern part of the state, with its population mostly of English descent.
In the state capital of Richmond, the slave-dependent plantation owners of the eastern territory had far more clout than the small farmers in the mountains. Discord mounted over slavery, voting requirements, allocation of funds and taxation — not to mention respect. A symbolic difference: About 80 percent of West Virginia’s streams flow west to the Mississippi River, not east to the Chesapeake Bay as in Virginia.
“The East has always looked upon that portion of the State west of the mountains, as a sort of outside appendage,” Boreman would later say in his inauguration address as governor. “The unfairness and inequality of legislation is manifest on every page of the statute book.”
As historian Frye says today, “The Civil War was not the cause of the formation of West Virginia. It was the opportunity. They looked at that as a way to get away from what they thought were the shackles of the rest of the state and the monopoly and attitude of Richmond.”