Historian Says Location Was Key to State, Name
WHEELING – If some would have had their way, the state now known as West Virginia would have been named Allegheny, Augusta, Kanawha or even Western Virginia.
After much debate, however, delegates eventually settled on giving the 55 counties that seceded from the Commonwealth of Virginia the title “West Virginia.”
According to David Javersak, dean emeritus of the School of Liberal Arts at West Liberty University, delegates decided against the name Kanawha because they believed it would be too difficult to pronounce or spell. Today, Kanawha County, home to Charleston, is West Virginia’s largest county.
Speaking at the Ohio County Public Library on Tuesday evening, Javersak told about 50 interested audience members how important Wheeling was in the crafting of West Virginia.
He said his students often wonder why the Friendly City served as the Mountain State’s first capital.
Javersak said in the mid-1800s, Wheeling was not just the largest city in the counties that would become West Virginia, but it was also the largest municipality west of the Allegheny Mountains. Also, having the non-slave states of Ohio and Pennsylvania on either side of the city played a role.
“Had this taken place anywhere else in the counties of West Virginia, it would not have worked,” Javersak said.
Javersak said many factors helped create the conditions under which West Virginia seceded from the Old Dominion. He stressed that the 1860 election of Republican President Abraham Lincoln set the wheels in motion.
“In the election of 1860, Lincoln wins nothing south of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Javersak said, noting that southern slaveholders knew Lincoln would not be good for their way of life.
“The more slaves you had, the more likely you were to vote to secede,” he said, noting the South Carolina General Assembly voted 169-0 in favor of leaving the Union.
Javersak said the Virginia counties that would become West Virginia, particularly those farther north, had relatively few slaves.
He said according to the 1860 Census, Ohio County had only 100 slaves, while Hancock County had just two.
Virginia legislators – including those from the counties that would become West Virginia – initially voted 85-45 against secession from the Union. However, the same group of lawmakers later voted 88-55 to leave the Union and join the Confederacy.
This set in motion the Wheeling conventions of May and June 1861. The second convention created the Restored Government of Virginia.
Eventually, the U.S. Senate voted to allow West Virginia statehood by a vote of 23-17, with eight senators failing to cast votes, Javersak said.
“The Wheeling conventions created a new state. Wheeling is rightly called the birthplace of this state,” he added.