History of West Virginia
There is evidence that Native Americans were present and active in the area of the present-day West Virginia in 100 BC. However, man-made mounds suggest the human presence in the area well before that, during the times of the mound-building cultures. Several Siouan-speaking tribes, such as the Osage, were living in the area before the Iroquois drove them out, wishing to hold the hunting grounds in the upper Ohio River Valley for themselves.
The territory of the present-day West Virginia was explored in 1671, when Kanawha Falls were discovered. Other expeditions followed in 1716 and 1725. German settlers came down from Pennsylvania and founded a new settlement on the Potomac River in 1725, opening the area for others. Before that, in 1661, a company of gentlemen received a grant for the land from King Charles II. The land was located between Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. The surveyors who came to examine the area in the mid-18th century noted that the land was already inhabited, mostly by Germans from Pennsylvania. During the same period, an Ohio Company expedition explored the area near the mouth of the Kanahwa River and Ohio River Valley with the intention of establishing a new fourteenth colony, which would be called Vandalia. The presence of Native Americans in the area posed a serious threat to the new settlers and the two groups engaged in several conflicts, which continued even after the American Civil War.
The population in the western portion of Virginia was different in many aspects from that in the rest of the territory. For one thing, it was decidedly heterogeneous, with settlers that included Germans, Ulster-Scots and those from the northern states. The socioeconomic differences were also very pronounced. In the west, the slavery proved unprofitable due to the nature of the terrain and the mountains were perceived as too big a barrier towards eastern parts of the territory. During the American Revolutionary war, a petition was sent to Congress with the request to establish a new territory, which would be called Westsylvania.
When a convention met in 1829 to propose a constitution for the entire Virginia, the western portion of the territory voted against it almost universally (except for one county). The eastern portion was larger and the constitution was passed anyway. The next convention, in 1851, called the Reform Convention, proposed more favorable solutions for western Virginians. However, the east did not appreciate the compromises made towards the west and the proposed constitution was rejected.
In April 1861, the Ordinance of Secession from the Union was presented in the Virginia General Assembly. The majority of the delegates from the future West Virginia voted against it, using at the same time the opportunity to finally separate from Virginia. In June, they met in Wheeling and voted to nullify the Ordinance, forming a “restored government” of Virginia. Francis H. Pierpont was named governor. After the referendum in October, which supported the establishment of a new state, another convention was held, again in Wheeling, to discuss the new state constitution. The constitution was approved in April 1862 and in April 1863 the new state was admitted to the Union with the proclamation by the president Lincoln. The new state was given the name of West Virginia and the first governor was Arthur I. Boreman. The “restored government” accepted the formation of the new state, which was required by the U.S. Constitution (a state had to consent to its own division into two or more new states).
Meanwhile, the Confederates were struggling to maintain control in the area and General Robert E. Lee’s efforts to gather and rally the forces had failed and he was defeated at Cheat Mountain. This was in 1861 and a year later the Union control expanded to the lower parts of the Kanwha River valley thanks to the Rosecrans’s victory in the Gauley Bridge battle.
Except for a few guerrilla attacks, the Confederates never made any real effort in gaining control over the western portion of Virginia. The only part of the state that was considered strategically important was the Eastern Panhandle, because of the Ohio and Baltimore rivers.
West Virginia itself was politically divided between those who were loyal to the old state (Virginia) and the Union supporters. These divisions could be seen even within single families and they certainly left a mark in the politics of West Virginia in the years following the war.
When the Reconstruction era began, and in the following decades, Virginia and West Virginia disputed over West Virginia’s share in the old state’s government debt. The issue was resolved only in 1915 with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling that West Virginia owed Virginia $12,393,929.50. The debt was paid off in 1939.
The late 19th century marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in West Virginia, which was vital for the growth and development of the state and its population. West Virginia was always rich in natural resources, such as saltpeter, limestone and especially bituminous coal. Southern Blacks and northern laborers came to West Virginia looking for jobs and this, combined with increased exploitation of the natural resources, caused a shift from a once self-sufficient economy towards an economy based on industrial profit. The chemical industry in the state started growing during the World War II and experienced a true boom during the World War II. Mines and steel mills also boomed in this period. Labor problems, such as poor working conditions and low wages, while the mine owners and industrial magnates opposed the unionization. This led to a series of strikes that continued until after the WWII and were sometimes very violent, especially in the early 1920s.
The state economy improved during the 1960s, thanks to the federal aid. The industry of coal rose again in the 1970s, only to decline again in the 1980s, leading to one of the worst economic downfalls in history of West Virginia. The unemployment rate skyrocketed and many factories, mines and mills shut down. The state began recovering in the 1990-2000 period, mainly thanks to the foreign investments and the new orientation towards tourism-oriented economy.
West Virginia Geography
West Virginia belongs in its entirety to the Appalachian Region. The state is almost completely mountainous, with the exception of lower terrain in Shenendoah and Ohio river valleys. About two-thirds of West Virginia lie in the Allegheny Plateau and Cumberland Plateau regions. Although the elevations are not particularly high, the terrain predominately rugged.
The portion of the state along the border with Virginia is similar in climate and ecosystems to those of New England and southeastern Canada.
The highest point in West Virginia is Spruce Knob, located in the Monongahela National Forest, part of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. This boreal forest also contains six protected wildernesses and just to the south of it, the New River forms a 1,000 ft. deep canyon called New River Gorge, partly protected by the National Park Service.
Other significant natural and historical areas in West Virginia include Appalachian National Scenic Trail, George Washington National Forest, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Gauley River National Recreation Area and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Forests in West Virginia are mostly oak, maple, chestnut, beech and white pine, as well as willow and sycamore along the river banks. West Virginians are very proud of the state’s rich biodiversity and scenic beauty, to the point that one of the state’s unofficial nicknames is “Almost Heaven”.
Most of the state has humid continental climate, with the exception of southwestern portion of the state and the Eastern Panhandle, which have a humid subtropical climate. West Virginia is frequently cloudy and the precipitation is very frequent. Severe weather is not frequent in the state.
Population of West Virginia
In July 2011, West Virginia has a population of 1,855,364. The state capital, which is also the largest city and the only city in the state with more than 50,000 residents, is Charleston (population of 51,400). The second-largest city is Huntington, with a little less than 50,000 residents, followed by Parkersburg, Morgantown, Wheeling, Weirton, Fairmont, Beckley, Martinsburg and Clarksburg.
The majority of population is non-Hispanic White (93.2%), followed by 3.4% Black or African American, 1.3% mixed races, 1.2% Hispanic or Latino of any race, 0.7% Asian and 0.2% American Indian or Alaska Native and 0.1% some other race.
The largest ancestry groups in West Virginia are English, German, Irish, Scots-Irish and Italian. Most of the people who self-identify as “American” are of English and Scots-Irish ancestry.
West Virginia has the least foreign-born residents.
One of the characteristics of the Appalachian Region, West Virginia included, is the large number of small, unaffiliated churches, that are usually not registered in census. The largest religious group in West Virginia, according to a 2008 survey, is Evangelical Christian (36%), followed by Mainline Protestant (32%), Roman Catholic (7%), Jewish (1%) and Hindu (1%), while 19% of the population self-identified as unaffiliated.
West Virginia Economy
The economy of West Virginia is based on chemicals, biotech industry, energy, aerospace, healthcare, education, metallurgy, manufacturing, media and communications, forestry, biometrics, tourism and hospitality.
The largest private employers in the state are Walmart, West Virginia United Health System, Charleston Area Medical Center, Kroger, Consolidation Coal Company, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Lowe’s, St. Mary’s Medical Center, American Electric Power and the Mentor Network.
West Virginia is a leading US state in coal mine and natural gas and also the largest interstate exporter of electricity. The renewable energy is a sector that has been experiencing significant growth over the last few years.
Some of the largest manufacturing businesses located in West Virginia are Homer Laughlin China Company, Blenko Glass Company, Champion Industries and MTR Group. International metal and steel companies with divisions and establishments in West Virginia include ArcelorMittal, Severstal and Nisshin.
Some of the federal institutions in the state include the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Bureau of the Public Debt and FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Service Division. NASA has an Independent Verification and Validation Facility in the state as well.
Farming is largely present in West Virginia, but in a manner that is very different from the rest of the state. Roughly 97% of the farms in the state are owned by the operators, which means that the person who is working the land actually owns it. However, not many farm owners list agriculture as their primary occupation. The rural zones of West Virginia have a high unemployment rate and are generally poor.
The agricultural focus in most of the state is on raising animals (cattle and chickens) rather than growing crops, which is logical considering the terrain in the state. The richest soil and lands with most crops are located near the eastern border with Virginia.
Tourism is an important industry in West Virginia. The state relies mostly on winter recreational tourism, especially skiing, the major destinations being Canaan Valley, Oblebay Bay Resort and Snowshoe Mountain.
Other tourist destinations and attractions of note include Huntington Museum of Art, West Virginia Zoo, West Virginia State Wildlife Center, Moncove Lake State Park, Blackwater Falls State Park, the Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort and many more.
West Virginia Government and Legislation
West Virginia has a citizen’s legislature, meaning that the legislative office is more of a part-time job or secondary job. The legislative branch consists of the House of Delegates and the Senate. The legislature holds regular 60-days sessions between January and April and the final day of the session is usually marked by a great rush to finish everything before the deadline.
The West Virginia Governor serves a four-year term and can serve two consecutive terms.
The highest judicial body in West Virginia is the Supreme Court of Appeals. The state has 31 judicial circuits.
West Virginia does not have the death penalty. It is an alcoholic beverage control state, but, unlike most other states with similar laws, it only holds a monopoly on distilled spirits wholesaling.
Politically, West Virginia is mostly Democratic. However, the Democrats in the state are generally more conservative than those on the national level, especially when it comes to issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.
West Virginia Education
West Virginia Department of Education manages and operates the entire public school system in the state. The West Virginia Board of Education supervises all of the 834 elementary and secondary schools in the state. Each county in the state is a school district and those are supervised by boards of education, one for each K-12 district.
There are 21 universities and colleges in West Virginia, both public and private. Some of the top institutions of higher education in the state include West Virginia University, Marshall University, Mountain State University, Fairmont State University and Shepherd University.
Transportation in West Virginia
The main form of transportation in West Virginia is via highways. The state has over 37,300 miles of public roads. Six interstate highways cross the state: I-64, I-77, I-68, I-79, I-70 and I-81.
The state used to have more railroad lines, but many of them were discontinued due to increased road traffic. Several commercial freight lines still exist, as well as Amtrak lines that run through the state.
One untypical form of transportation has been introduced in Morgantown. It is called Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit and it is one-of-a-kind single rail system that connects three campuses of the West Virginia University and also downtown Morgantown.
Being a mountainous state, West Virginia has a lot of tunnels and bridges, most notably the famous New River Gorge Bridge (featured even on the state quarter), the Fort Steuben Bridge and the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.
The largest airport in the state is the Yeager Airport in Charleston.