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Francis Harrison Pierpont: ‘Father of West Virginia’

June 20, 2013
By JENNIFER COMPSTON-STROUGH - City Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Francis Harrison Pierpont is widely known as the "Father of West Virginia" - yet it appears "Pierpont" was not his given name.

Born Jan. 25, 1814, in a log cabin on "Peirpoint Plantation" at the "Forks of Cheat" in what was then Monongalia County, Va., Pierpont was largely a self-educated man who eventually led a movement toward what he believed was West Virginia's only legitimate path to statehood. His biographer, West Virginia University history professor Charles Henry Ambler, wrote in 1937 that Pierpont was descended from families who were prominent not only in early America but also in Europe.

According to Ambler's "Francis H. Pierpont, Union War Governor of Virginia and Father of West Virginia," Pierpont's ancestor Sir Robert de Pierrepont traveled with William the Conqueror to England in 1066. His descendant married Frances Cavandish, a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, prompting the use of Frances and Francis as family names. The surname Pierrepont took many forms, including Peirpoint and Pierpont, over the centuries.

Article Photos

This statue of Francis Pierpont is located at Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Pierpont is considered by many to be the “Father of West Virginia.”

Photo by Ian Hicks

Pierpont was named Francis in the family tradition, and he was given the middle name Harrison in honor of his father's commanding officer, Gen. William Henry Harrison. His father, Ensign Francis Peirpoint, served the United States in the War of 1812 and was away from home fighting with the "War Hawks of the Ohio Valley" for "free trade and sailors' rights" when Pierpont was born, Ambler states.

Francis H. Pierpont's grandfather, John Peirpoint, was the first member of the family to settle in Monongalia County. He married Nancy Ann Morgan, daughter of Morgantown founder Col. Zackquill Morgan.

Pierpont's own beginnings, however, were relatively humble. According to Ambler, the log home where he was born doubled as a fort when needed. During his infancy, his family moved to Marion County near Fairmont, where his father farmed and "Frank," as the young Pierpont was known, attended classes in a one-room schoolhouse. His family moved into Fairmont when Pierpont was 13, and his father built and operated a tannery.

In 1835, Pierpont walked the 180 miles to Meadville, Pa., where he attended Allegheny College. He performed manual labor to fund his education, graduating with honors in 1839.

During his studies and as a member of the Allegheny Literary Society, Pierpont developed a deep love of country, according to Ambler. His writings show that he was disgusted by "political slander" and believed science rather than superstition should be the guiding force behind the growing nation. During this time, he also predicted that the country would come to rely heavily on its natural mineral resources.

Following his graduation, Pierpont taught school for 18 months in what was then Harrison County, Va. In 1841, he set out to see the world, Ambler wrote, traveling by stage and steamboat to Mississippi. There, he encountered some of the more brutal aspects of slavery - something that surprised him even though his grandfather had been a slaveowner.

He returned home a year later and was formally admitted to the bar to practice law at Fairmont. And by 1848, he was working as legal counsel for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Marion and Taylor counties.

In 1854, he married Julia Augusta Robertson, a staunch abolitionist. Together they had one daughter, Anna Pierpont Siviter, whose own daughter, Frances Pierpont Siviter Pryor, was their only grandchild.

Pierpont opened a coal mine at Fairmont in 1856 and helped establish the Fairmont Male and Female Seminary, the forerunner of today's Fairmont State University.

Throughout this period, according to the "Calendar of the Francis Harrison Pierpont Letters and Papers," conflict was brewing in Virginia. The commonwealth's government, with its seat in Richmond, denied equal participation to the majority of white citizens. Instead, the government favored wealthy slaveowners who lived along the eastern seaboard, levying taxes and enacting laws that furthered only the interests of those in the east.

Daniel Webster, a senator from Massachusetts, predicted in 1851 that the western counties of Virginia would someday form an independent state, according to an 1897 account by Archibald Campbell, editor of the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer. He wrote that Webster, among others, "knew how unnatural, how uncongenial and how unprofitable was the status of western Virginia under the dominancy of the old state." Many statesmen, according to Campbell, realized that the industrial and trade interests of western Virginia were "wholly with the Ohio Valley."

After Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Pierpont served as a delegate to the First and Second Wheeling Conventions, where he worked to avoid immediate declaration of a new state, which he believed to be unconstitutional. Instead, the conventions resulted in Virginia's western counties forming the Restored Government of Virginia, which remained loyal to the Union.

Pierpont was unanimously elected governor of that entity, which was seated in Wheeling from 1861 until June 20, 1863, when West Virginia officially became a state. At that point, Pierpont remained at the helm of the Restored Government of Virginia, moving the unionist state capital first to Alexandria and then to Richmond following conclusion of the Civil War. He was removed from office in April 1868 under the Military Reconstruction Act, which led to Gen. John Schofield becoming military governor of Virginia.

Pierpont then returned to his home in West Virginia, where he served a term in the House of Delegates, helped found the West Virginia Historical Society and became president of the General Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church.

In 1881, the man who had been born Francis Harrison Peirpoint changed his surname to correct what he believed was an error on a patent to lands issued to his grandfather, according to Ambler. He instead began using "Pierpont" - a name that more closely aligned his family with prominent, but distant, relatives in New England.

Evidence of the name change can be found using several sources, in addition to Pierpont's biography. In "Recollections of War and Peace 1861-1868" by Anna Pierpont Siviter - a book dedicated to Wheeling News founder H.C. Ogden - the foreword refers to Pierpont's father as Ensign Francis Peirpoint.

Further evidence can be found in the June 22, 1863 edition of the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in an article titled "The Inauguration of the New State of West Virginia," which makes reference to Governor Peirpoint.

Additional information provided by author and Wheeling native Stan Klos, who is researching Pierpont and possible reasons for his name change, indicates that Pierpont's last will and testament, as well as his 1899 death certificate and several deeds, all were recorded under the name "Pierpoint" - a third, slightly different spelling - in the Marion County Clerk's Office.

Pierpont died at his daughter's Pittsburgh home in March 1899 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Fairmont.

A marble statue of him stands in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. It proclaims his name to be Francis H. Pierpont.

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