West Virginia State Research Guide

By Emily Anne Croom Premium

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The outbreak of civil war in 1861 presented the final straw for western Virginians. But the rift that caused their break from Virginia began much earlier. Taxation and slavery were long divisive issues in the state. During the 19th century, frictions developed between its eastern planter-based society and settlers west of the mountains who, for the most part, worked small farms and weren’t slaveholders. As early as 1829, western Virginians called for independence when a new state constitution upheld land ownership requirements for voters. April 17, 1861, western delegates marched out of Virginia’s Secession Convention, vowing to form a pro-Union government.
After Virginia seceded May 23, those delegates set up a state government in Wheeling and began the process that ended with West Virginia statehood in 1863. This contentious beginning often leads to genealogists to wonder: Where should I look for records? Let our answers guide your search for West Virginia ancestors.

Paths to the past

Not until the American Revolution ended in 1783 did large numbers of settlers migrate to western Virginia. American Indian hunters, as well as European and Colonial explorers and fur traders, traversed Virginia in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but the densely forested Appalachians and Alleghenies—which later gave West Virginia its Mountain State nickname—slowed settlement. Pioneers tended to avoid the mountains by entering from Maryland and Pennsylvania, rather than from eastern Virginia. Early settlers in the 1730s included German, Scots-Irish and English immigrants. Later, rivers including the Kanawha, Cheat, Monongahela, Ohio and Potomac became corridors for people and goods.
Though West Virginia has always been mostly rural, it saw railroad expansion and industrial development in the late 19th century. Its citizens echoed the nationwide migration from farms to towns and cities. New immigrants came, too, from Eastern Europe and the US South.
From the earliest years, West Virginians have used the forests for timber, game and other necessities. The woods and mountains made logging and tourism major industries. Below the surface lay coal, natural gas, oil, iron ore, other minerals, stone, salt and clay—the foundations of mining, steel, chemical, glass, brick, nail and related industries that have defined the state’s post-Civil War economy.

Divide and conquer

West Virginia history and genealogy parallels that of Virginia until 1863. For state-level records before that, use the Library of Virginia’s (LVA) online aids and indexes.
When West Virginia attained statehood, counties retained the records they’d created under Virginia. Records of your ancestors might be in their county or in its parent, derivative and neighboring counties—including those in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. (See the resources for references with details on county formation.)
Identify microfilmed county records by running a Place search of the Family History Library’s (FHL) online catalog on the county name. You can rent FHL film through your local branch Family History Center (see our downloadable directory for locations). Or use the West Virginia State Archives (WVSA) guide to county court records on microfilm. WVSA doesn’t lend film, but staff can make copies of documents if you provide a citation. Most county clerks also can fill specific record requests.
Besides the usual vital, land, probate and court records, county courthouses may have pre-1906 naturalizations and local residents’ military discharge papers from World War I and later. For help with research in West Virginia counties that have experienced record losses due to fires and floods, see <>. You can get more articles on WVSA resources by clicking its Archives and History News link (then use the subject or title index).

Rounding up records

You’ll find all kinds of records at WVSA, but these will get you started:
•  Tax rolls: Virginia land and personal property tax rolls are important for researching early West Virginians. Available on microfilm at both states’ archives, the FHL and Houston’s Clayton Library, these annual lists began in 1782 to tax land, livestock, slaves, luxuries such as carriages or pianos, other personal property and free “polls” (adult men). The 1787 roll is especially useful because it names all taxable males over 21, including those who weren’t listed in other years because they lived with parents or other relatives. Some rolls name slaves, too. Although unindexed, tax lists are loosely alphabetical by surname within each county or district.
Track ancestors year by year in these records for clues to their location, landholdings, economic status, occupation, death date and widows’ or heirs’ names. Both the LVA and WVSA sites offer more information.

•  Censuses: Federal censuses count West Virginians from 1870 through 1930 (except for the 1890 census, which was ruined in a fire). Remember, ancestors born before 1863 likely named Virginia as their birthplace in these censuses.
Schedules are missing for Virginia’s first two US censuses in 1790 and 1800, and incomplete for 1810. Use tax rolls as substitutes. Look for census records on microfilm at large libraries, the FHL and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facilities; and online through ($155.40 per year) and HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries).

•  Vital records: Luckily for genealogists, Virginia mandated birth and death registration in 1853, although compliance often was lax. After statehood, many West Virginia counties continued recording births and deaths, some sporadically, until statewide registration began in 1917. Many counties recorded marriages from their formation, though the earliest records may not survive.
First, try requesting vital records from the county clerk’s office where the birth, marriage or death took place. Descendants can order birth and death certificates from the state vital registration office. Or for a small fee, WVSA can supply copies from its microfilm, including delayed birth certificates. For holdings, use the Quick Guide links on the WVSA Web site. Check the FHL catalog, too.
You can view early birth, marriage and death records from a growing number of counties, plus most statewide death records from 1917 to 1956, at WVSA’s Vital Research Records Project.
Before 1851, only the Virginia legislature could grant divorces. After that, circuit courts granted them; you can get copies of files more than 50 years old from the county’s circuit court clerk. WVSA also has a card index to burials in many cemeteries. See the resources for links to online transcriptions.
•  Land: Like its mother state, West Virginia is a state-land state. For abstracts of Colonial land patents and grants to early settlers, see LVA’s online land records guide and the Cavaliers and Pioneers books (various editors and publishers). Also consult two sources from Genealogical Publishing Co. largely covering what’s now West Virginia: Sims Index to Land Grants in West Virginia by Edgar Sims ($50) and the four-volume Northern Neck Land Grants by Gertrude E. Gray (prices vary; volume four is out of print). Petitions submitted to the Virginia General Assembly from 1776 to 1865 sometimes pertained to land or military service. See LVA’s database of petitioners and requests.
Both before and after West Virginia statehood, land transactions subsequent to the initial grant are generally recorded in county courthouses.
•  Military: More than 600 Civil War military actions took place in the counties that became West Virginia, from which thousands of men served in Union and Confederate units. See <> for a name index. West Virginia, a Union state, didn’t authorize pensions for residents who fought for the Confederacy. Request service records and copies of Union pensions through NARA’s Order Online service.
WVSA holds reference books and collections on the state’s military personnel and units. For WWI soldiers, for example, you can request copies of the service cards held at the state adjutant general’s office. These may be the best WWI data available, since numerous federal WWI service records burned in 1973.
With these records and resources, distance and uncertainty need not deter you from researching your Mountain State ancestors.

From the January 2009 Family Tree Magazine