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West Virginia State History

History | Symbols | Interesting Facts | Famous People


1607—England establishes the Virginia Colony

1670s—Exploration of the land now West Virginia begins

1727—Present-day Shepherdstown is established

1742—Coal is discovered along the Coal River

1815—Natural gas is discovered along Charleston

1836—The first railroad enters the state through Harpers Ferry

1859—John Brown raids the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry

1861—Virginia secedes; its western counties form West Virginia

1863—West Virginia becomes the 35th state

1912-1921—Conflicts between miners and mine owners over labor unions

1959—The National Radio Astronomy Observatory began operation

1968—Mine explosion kills 78 but leads to new safety laws

1972—Collapse of a dam near Man kills more than 100 people

1991—Laws are passed to improve education and protect natural resources

1985—West Virginia establishes a state lottery

A small population of Cherokee, Delaware and Shawnee Indian tribes lived in the West Virginia region when European explorers arrived in the area.  Many of the Native Americans had died in tribal wars or disease during the late 1500s.

In 1606, England established the Virginia Colony.  This very large area of land included what is now West Virginia.  During the late 1600s, explorers from Virginia entered the Eastern Panhandle and New River area.  Settlers arrived in the early 1700s.  Germans in search of religious freedom settled what is now Shepherdstown in 1727.  Other German and Irish farmers settled in the Eastern and Northern Panhandles.

In 1768, peace treaties forced Cherokee and Iroquois out of West Virginia.  Colonists rushed to settle the land between the Alleghenies and the Ohio River.  The Alleghenies Mountains separated the western and eastern counties of Virginia, which soon became very different in social and economic structure.

West Virginians fought hard to keep the British out of their lands during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).  During the early 1800s, industries developed in West Virginia.  Iron factories opened in the Northern Panhandle.  Natural gas and large amounts of salt were produced near Charleston.  Mills were built along the Mississippi River and oil was discovered at Burning Springs.

By 1860, great contention had grown between west and east counties in Virginia.  Huge disputes developed over issues such as slavery, taxation, education, and equal representation within their government.  In 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union and the Civil War began.  A majority of the people in western Virginia opposed slavery and supported the Union.  They voted to break away from Virginia and form their own government.  West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863.

During the late 1800s, railroads expanded throughout the state.  With new advanced technology, lumber and coal production increased dramatically.  New industries such as chemical, glass, and steel moved into the state to use the huge amounts of natural gas produced there.

Much of West Virginia’s population worked in coal mines during the early 1900s.  The work was dangerous and accidents killed hundreds of miners.  In 1902, the United Mine Workers labor union organized several miners and demanded safer working conditions, shorter work hours, and better wages.  Deadly fights often broke out between mine owners and union members, which ended for a short time under military law.  In 1933, the National Recovery Administration was established.  It protected union members and helped to bring about the needed changes within the mines.

Many lost their jobs during the Great Depression (1929-1939).  A federal program, the New Deal, created jobs constructing roads.  World War II also helped industrial growth in West Virginia and improved the economy.  Mines and factories reopened supplying the military with fuel, steel, chemicals and other war materials.

During the 1950s, the command for coal dropped dramatically.  Some mines closed and others replaced workers with machinery.  Thousands left the state to find work elsewhere.  Other industries did well, but federal aid was required to maintain West Virginia and improve the environment.  Also during this time, stronger labor laws were passed in response to continuing union strikes.

A nationwide energy shortage increased demand for coal during the 1970s.  New mines were opened and better technology processed the fuel more efficiently.  However during the mid-1980s, prices for coal again dropped sharply.  New developments in manufacturing have helped to diversify the economy and state leaders are striving to lessen the economy’s dependence upon coal by attracting other industries to the state.