The Messy Truth of how West Virginia became a State

Slavery compromise needed to establish the new state

This map from the 1860 U.S. Census shows slave population by county. Note that Kanawha County, now home to the state’s capital, had nearly 14 slaves per 100 residents.

SWEET SPRINGS, W.Va. – Today is West Virginia’s 159th birthday. It’s beginning was a complicated affair, nearly scuttled by a debate over “gradual emancipation” for slaves in the proposed new state.

West Virginia today.

While it is often taught that West Virginia came about because the residents of western Virginia were staunch abolitionists and rejected Virginia’s secession from the United States at the beginning of the Civil War, only the second part is true. Four months before West Virginia could be carved out of Virginia in the midst of the Civil War, resolving the question of slavery for the roughly 15,000 slaves that lived in the western counties had yet to be resolved.

According to an article by Kenneth R. Bailey in the online West Virginia Encyclopedia, “In 1861, voters west of the Allegheny Mountains rejected Virginia’s secession from the United States, and instead opted to create a loyal Reorganized Government of Virginia. It was only a matter of time until West Virginia was created.” However, Bailey continues, “Among the constitutional issues to be addressed was the question of slavery, which existed in parts of the proposed new state. Sentiment in the western counties was sharply divided. Some preferred to retain slavery, some favored total abolition, and some favored gradual emancipation. Still others sought to exclude Blacks from the new state entirely.”

The Sweet Springs Hotel in Monroe County, W.Va. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson near the end of his life. It opened ca. 1835 and enjoyed great popularity, especially among plantation owners from the Deep South. It’s decline coincided with the beginning of the Civil War. When West Virginia was created, Monroe County became part of the new state despite opposition from many of its residents.

Most of the slaves were in the southeastern counties of what is now West Virginia, counties that, like Monroe County today, are primarily border counties with Virginia. The wider valleys were more suitable for plantations. The climate and springs of those counties also offered a playground of sorts for plantation owners from the Deep South. The milder climate and Springs areas of Monroe County and other nearby environs drew families – and slaves – from those plantations from July through October to the Sweet Springs Hotel and other nearby resorts. Also, some slaves were owned by middle- and upper-class residents of counties further west, in the Allegheny Plateau. Among them was Waitman Willey, a Morgantown attorney that had been born a few miles south in Farmington.

Waitman Willey. Credit: e-WV

Despite having owned slaves, Willey was instrumental in crafting the compromise known as “gradual emancipation,” which led to the formation of West Virginia. Willey had been a delegate to the 1850-51 Virginia Convention that debated secession, and spoke eloquently against secession, though unsuccessfully. He then turned his efforts, with others, to form a new state. He was chosen to represent the Reorganized Government of Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the time had arrived to seek statehood for the western counties. The First West Virginia Constitutional Convention, which had convened in November 1861, settled on the name West Virginia for the new state and held contentious debates over slavery. So, as Bailey writes, “The matter (of slavery) went before the U.S. Senate. Radical Republican Charles Sumner of Massachusetts proposed to free all slaves in West Virginia as of July 4, 1863. His proposal was defeated, and Reorganized Government of Virginia Sen. Waitman Willey suggested that children born to slave mothers after July 4, 1873, should be freed. This proposal in turn was not acceptable to senators wishing to eliminate slavery, a concept for which they felt the North was fighting the Civil War. Willey then managed to strike a compromise which was acceptable to a majority. The Willey Amendment to the West Virginia Statehood Bill provided that all slaves under 21 years of age on July 4, 1863, would be free on reaching that age.”

On Feb. 17, 1863, the Convention adopted the compromise, opening the door for West Virginia to become a state on June 20, 1863. And, while the compromise was hardly favorable to slaves, that became a moot point when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect on Dec. 18, 1865. It proclaims, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

While it was an imperfect process involving imperfect people, in the end this is a historic day. For various and personal reasons, West Virginia’s founders cast aside the chains that bound them and her people to the racist economy of the Old Dominion – an economy that was defended, unsuccessfully, to the death.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2022.

Sources: Bailey, Kenneth R. “Willey Amendment.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 26 April 2021. Web. 17 February 2022; Grimm, Jeanne “Waitman Willey.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 December 2015. Web. 17 February 2022.

2 comments

  1. Interesting article, however no mention of economics. Unfortunately,
    they are important in any war, often a prime mover.  Unmentioned in this
    story is the fact that there were a number of coal mines in Northern
    Virginia that were not connected to the Confederate States by railroad,
    but were to the North.  I have read the five gentlemen who went to
    Wheeling to form West Virginia very much had in mind selling the coal of
    these mines. Also not mentioned is the Planters who came to vacation in
    the mountains of what became southern West Virginia brought black women
    who were essentially mistresses and enjoyed a much more open relation
    with them than on their plantations.

    I once took a college course on the Civil War and learned the North had
    five times as much railroad, fiver times the population, and five times
    the manufacturing capacity of the South.  There was a steady stream of
    immigrants from Europe that could be shuttled in to the Army.  Slaves in
    the North had to wait 2 years after the war was over to be freed.  They
    had little advantage economically, they lacked the skills to travel,
    find employers, protect themselves against people on the road, and no
    cash reserves to go any where.  The only option for many of them was to
    go back their their old owner and accept what he was willing to pay.

    They badly needed reparations then!  Segregation lasted indefinitely. 
    The military was integrated at the time of the Korean war!  The US was
    getting beaten by the Chinese, and US had to integrate Blacks with white
    troops.  The Blacks proved their worth!

    • Tom, thanks for reading and your additional insight. Stay tuned for that history that is missing or omitted. Omissions are not intentional; this is intended as just a snapshot of the state’s formation. All that you mentioned — and more — remains to be covered in an extensive, expansive and updated history of West Virginia, in particular the economic and political forces at work throughout its formation and, indeed, entire history. That is a product on my radar, so you will be among the first I contact for thoughts. In fact, the reference you make to Southern plantation owners vacationing in what is now southern West Virginia is alluded to in the caption under the Sweet Springs Hotel. I am currently working on that topic for a chapter in a book I am writing about the history of Sweet Springs, W.Va. My best wishes to our friends in North Central West Virginia!

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