Making the Mountain State
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "I suppose you have learned before this by the newspapers that, two weeks ago today, we were fighting for our lives at Harpers Ferry," John Brown wrote in an Oct. 31, 1859 letter to his wife and children from his jail cell in Charles Town.
The letter, sent just after the fiery abolitionist was tried and convicted for leading the historic raid on the federal armory, but before he was sentenced to death, informed family members that Brown's sons, Oliver and Watson, were among those killed in the raid.
"But under all these terrible calamities I feel quite cheerful in the assurance that God reigns," Brown wrote. ". . . I feel no consciousness of guilt in the matter."
Brown's letter is among hundreds of documents included in a new exhibit, titled "Documenting West Virginia's Past: Items from the West Virginia State Archives," open now through June 22 in the State Archives Library in the Culture Center.
"Instead of having an exhibit that starts and ends on June 20, 1863, we thought we would show documents, photographs and drawings that would bring things up to that date and then move beyond it," said archivist Debra Basham, who helped assemble the display.
Brown's letter helps anchor the pre-June 22, 1863 era, since his raid "was one of the key events that led to West Virginia statehood," said Bryan Ward, Archives and History's assistant director, who also pored through Archives files to identify documents to be displayed.
The earliest document in the exhibit is a hand-scripted 1749 land grant issued by Thomas Lord Fairfax, the only member of the British House of Lords to live in America, granting 400 acres of Eastern Panhandle land to George Hogg in exchange for one shilling per year for each 50 acres.
An 1806 map of Virginia shows the area that is now West Virginia divided into 15 counties, instead of the current 55. According to that map, Kanawha County, or "Kenhawa," as it was spelled then, was bordered by Giles and Tazewell -- Virginia counties now 100 miles to the southeast.
Also on display are sketches and notes from the 1830s made during construction of the Northwestern Turnpike, connecting Parkersburg to Winchester, Va., by French-born engineer Claudius Crozet. Crozet served under Napoleon Bonaparte before settling in the United States, teaching at West Point before becoming Virginia's chief engineer. Crozet's turnpike route evolved into present-day U.S. 50.
"People in the western part of Virginia wanted infrastructure improvements like this, while the people in the East were reluctant to pay for them," providing fuel for those wanting to fan the fires of West Virginia statehood, Ward said.
In a letter sent to a friend in April 1861, two months before Civil War hostilities began, Wheeling resident Laurane Bullock wrote of strong local support for the Union cause.
"In the event of an attack upon the Custom House, we will be very much opposed," she wrote. But at the same time, Bullock worried that those favoring the Southern cause would be treated unfairly. "A Union meeting will be held here tonight, and a great fear is entertained that they will be asking for the property of the leading secessionists if they do not put up Stars and Stripes."
Bullock went on to become West Virginia's first first lady, marrying Arthur Boreman, the first governor of the new state.
Among documents on display covering the era that followed statehood is an 1870 "Immigrants Guide," produced by Diss Debar, the state's first immigration commissioner, as well as the designer of the State Seal. In the guide, Debar talked up the benefits of resettling in the Mountain State, including scenic beauty and an abundance of natural resources.
Harpers and Colliers magazines covered the 1877 Martinsburg rail strike, the nation's first large labor action, in which Baltimore & Ohio Railroad employees, upset by a 10 percent wage cut, parked and abandoned more than 70 trains at Martinsburg. Illustrations of the strike from the two magazines are included in the exhibit.
A shopping list of materials needed for construction of the West Virginia pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair is on display, along with items to be included in a West Virginia coal-mining exhibit.
Documents from the 20th century include photos and news accounts of mining disasters, New Deal projects and the formation of the Green Bank Observatory and National Youth Science Camp.
A 1959 letter from John F. Kennedy to then-state Democratic Party Chairman Hulett Smith seeks Smith's comments regarding an attached statement announcing Kennedy's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
A 1960 poster issued by the Charleston chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality urges shoppers to boycott the Diamond Department Store for refusing to serve black shoppers at its lunch counter. "Every dime you spend there supports racial abuse," the poster proclaims. "Don't betray your principles and your people by being seen in that store."
Among the most recent events covered by the exhibit are documents dealing with the development of the Boy Scouts of America's Summit Bechtel Reserve near Mount Hope.
The exhibit, free and open to the public, will be on display through June 22.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.