Three weeks hence, West Virginia will conduct a huge observation of the state's 150th birthday. This sesquicentennial season is a good time to remember all the powerful forces that brought the 35th state into existence.
Oddly, you might say that slavery created West Virginia, as follows: If Virginia and the rest of Dixie hadn't rebelled against the United States to preserve human slavery, West Virginia probably wouldn't have severed itself from the Old Dominion. And America would have escaped the horror of the Civil War -- the nation's most tragic bloodbath -- that launched the Mountain State.
Before the war, Tidewater Virginia's agricultural economy rested heavily on slaves: nearly a half-million of them. But just 4 percent, 20,000, were used in the mountainous western counties -- chiefly in Kanawha Valley salt works, Greenbrier County farming, and agriculture in the South Branch and Shenandoah valleys of the Eastern Panhandle.
The 1840 census found that Charleston was a rudimentary town of 657 whites and 415 slaves. But the booming salt industry centered at Malden spurred growth. By 1860, Charleston's count was 1,208 whites and 388 slaves.
Various local historians say elite Charleston businessmen listed their occupation as "gentleman" and owned sizable squads of slaves who were used to boil brine from salt wells, cut trees or dig coal to fuel boiling kettles, grow food to sustain the labor force, build flatboats to float the prized commodity down the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, and perform other manual work.
Downstream from Charleston, a large slave plantation was operated by Samuel Cabell -- who secretly made a slave woman his lifelong mate, had 13 children by her, was murdered by white neighbors, and left his rich bottomland to his illegal mate and offspring. Thus Institute became West Virginia's largest black community.
Slave auctions were held in Charleston and various other Mountain State cities. One account says:
"In 1835, a large auction was held in Charlestown, Jefferson County. One male slave sold for $1,200, a woman and four children for $1,950, the modern equivalent of $30,000 and $49,000 respectively."
Wealthy owners invested great sums in their slave crews. They were understandably upset when their property absconded on stormy nights and traveled the Underground Railroad to safety in slave-free Ohio or Pennsylvania.
The economy in the Kanawha Valley, Greenbrier County and the Eastern Panhandle rested strongly on slavery. Those regions became Confederate hotbeds during the Civil War. Charleston historian Eugene Harper wrote:
"More than half of Charleston households owned slaves through 1850.... It is little wonder that Charleston was a divided city during the Civil War."
In 2009, state Episcopalians held a "Day of Repentence for the sin of slavery, racial segregation and racial discrimination in the Diocese of West Virginia." The bishop said that, in pre-war Virginia, "80 percent of the clergy of the Episcopal Church owned slaves. So much of what we have today in the church was created on the backs of slaves."
It was an entirely different world in those days -- and it caused the birth of West Virginia as mountain residents unconnected to slavery broke from the Tidewater.
Today, this state's split personality can be seen in adulation of Stonewall Jackson, who hailed from Clarksburg and fought for slavery. Lakes, parks, resorts and schools are named in his honor, and his statue stands on the Capitol lawn. Lovely Ruffner Park beside Charleston's Kanawha Boulevard is dedicated to Col. George S. Patton and his Confederate riflemen.West Virginia's heritage is a tangle.