Several images might come to your mind when you think of West Virginia: moonshine stills, coal mines, or the Hatfield-McCoy feud. But there’s another, less-obvious topic that should some to the genealogist’s mind: the state of Virginia. “Old Dominion,” as it’s called, once claimed parts of many states. Modern West Virginia only split in 1863. As such, much of West Virginia’s history and genealogical records are tied up with its eastern counterpart. Here’s what you need to know about researching in West Virginia, the Mountain State.
“Various indigenous communities lived or migrated through what is now West Virginia in colonial times: notably, the Shawnee, Delaware, Monongahela, Iroquois and Cherokee. From the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the 1730s, most of Virginia’s population lived east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After the French and Indian War, King George III forbade all settlement west of the “proclamation line of 1763,” which followed the Appalachian Mountains. That constraint didn’t much hamper immigrants, however, who flocked to British North America. Many who came through Philadelphia to Virginia were German Palatines and Scots-Irish. The latter brought with them their fierce independence and cultures of clans, and tended to migrate down the Great Wagon Road to the northern Shenandoah Valley. Many researchers cite differences over slavery as the main historical distinction between Virginia and West Virginia. (Indeed, many “Mountaineers” worked small farms and didn’t own slaves.
MOUNTAINS OF RICHES
Indeed, those mountains made West Virginia resource-rich. Settlers found bituminous coal along a tributary of the Kanawha River as early as 1742, and a mine opened in 1810 near Wheeling. West Virginia holds an estimated 62 individual seams of coal, with deposits in all but two of its 55 counties. Coal initially fueled just local businesses and homes, but river travel and railroad expansion allowed the industry to grow throughout the 1800s. Other major resources include salt and natural gas.
Cultural, economic and political differences between the “two Virginias” came to a head in 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union over heavy opposition from its western counties. West Virginia was admitted as the 35th state, and provided some 32,000 soldiers to the Union during the Civil War. (About 9,000 West Virginians served for the Confederacy.)
Given the danger of mining, West Virginia has often found itself at the center of both safety regulations and passionate (even violent) labor disputes. Unionized mine workers clashed with coal companies throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in 1921’s “Battle of Blair Mountain” (in which dozens were killed). The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum curates exhibits of stories, photos and other artifacts from the era.
West Virginia History Timeline
1609 A second charter of
Virginia encourages settlement on the
western frontiers 1624 Virginia becomes a royal colony
1731 Morgan Morgan, recognized as the first white settler in the region, builds a home in modern Berkeley County 1763 French land west of the Appalachians is ceded to Great Britain; a royal proclamation forbids white settlement west of
the Appalachians 1776 In a prelude of things to come, settlers in the western Virginia region lobby for a new state of “Westylvania”
1788 Virginia ratifies
the U.S. Constitution 1810 The first coal mine in modern West Virginia
opens near Wheeling 1859 Abolitionist John Brown tries to start a slave revolt by raiding the US armory at Harpers Ferry, W.V.
1863 The western counties
of Virginia secede and become the 35th state, West Virginia 1895 Mingo County is created from Logan County, the last major change to West Virginia’s county boundaries
Any pre-1863 West Virginia vital records were created in the state of Virginia. Fortunately, Virginia mandated county-level record-keeping in 1853, and counties retained their records when the states separated 10 years later. As a result, you can expect to find birth, marriage and death records for West Virginia counties from 1853, if not sooner. County-level marriage records were kept even earlier, usually from a county’s founding. The state didn’t begin keeping copies of birth and death
records until 1917, and marriages until 1964. Access to birth and death records is restricted by year; only direct descendants of those mentioned in records can request copies of records less than 100 years old (birth) and 50 years old (death) from the Health Statistics Center. A fire destroyed state copies of records for 1917 to 1921, so you’ll need to request documents from those years from the county clerk.
West Virginia first appeared in a federal census in its own right in 1870. From 1790 to that year, West Virginia settlements would have appeared as part of Virginia.Federal censuses are widely available at sites like FamilySearch, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage, though its records for the 1790, 1800 and 1890 censuses have been lost or destroyed. Certain West Virginia counties would have also been part of Virginia colonial and state censuses, taken between 1782 and 1786. These are available at Ancestry.com and the Internet Archive .
Tax records can be used as substitutes for censuses. Virginia created tax lists of land and personal property as early as 1782, and they may include ancestors who lived in what is now West Virginia or those who would eventually move there. Learn more at the Library of Virginia.
In colonial times, the Virginian government offered as many as 1,000 acres per family to settlers in western Virginia—in total, more than 2.5 million acres by 1754. The Virginia Land Office also began awarding military bounty land warrants in 1782, though many were later sold to speculators. FamilySearch has land records, some of which must be viewed at a local FamilySearch Center or an affiliate library.
West Virginia was born from the Civil War, and you can find records of soldiers who fought in it through the Soldiers and Sailors database. West Virginians also fought in later conflicts, including World Wars I and II. Find draft registrations cards from those conflicts on FamilySearch, Ancestry.com or Fold3.
*FamilyTreeMagazine.com is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program. It provides a means for this site to earn advertising fees, by advertising and linking to Amazon and affiliated websites.