Monday, September 10, 2007

West Virginian Identity

Original proposal for the New State of West Virginia

Periodically, I hear people argue, often vehemently, about whether West Virginia is part of the South, or was ever part of the Confederacy. Listening to the various opinions, I began to wonder if I understood the issue, and was pleased to find an "online exhibit" from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, entitled A State of Convenience: The Creation of West Virginia. It's well-written, and contains source material and illustrations.

As I understand it, Virginia seceded from the Union and was part of the Confederacy. Then a group of counties seceded from Virginia to become West Virginia, a new state in the Union. The map above shows the original proposal for the new state of West Virginia, while the map below shows the final boundaries, still in place today. Pocahontas County, along with several other counties along the current border with Virginia, were not included in the original proposal for the new state.

It looks as though the rest of West Virginia wasn't anxious to claim Pocahontas (or Greenbrier or Monroe) counties.

I've heard people from the South claim West Virginia is not "really" part of the South, and people from other Southern mountain states claim it's not "really" part of Appalachia. People from eastern West Virginia claim the Ohio/Kanawha River valleys are not "really" West Virginia, and people from the western part of the state say the eastern counties are not "really" West Virginia. These discussions always end with someone angry.

It was the same thing when I lived in Iowa. People in Des Moines tried to disavow southern Iowa (where I grew up). "If you annexed the two southernmost rows of Iowa counties to Missouri, you would double the IQ of both states."

I'm not sure why calling someone else's identity into doubt should strengthens your own sense of identity, but it happens all the time.

Final version of the state of West Virginia


Rick Lee said...

I started to write a comment about the confederacy in the Charleston area (I live in Charleston and I've read a good bit of Kanawha Valley history) but then I Googled it and found this big long article:
So now I feel like I must actually read this article before putting my foot in my mouth.

I WAS going to say that the Charleston area was a pocket of the slave-owning Confederate Virginia. Many land owners and salt-works owners had slaves. They created several regiments of Confederate troops and tried to defend the Valley for the Confederacy, but Union troops from Ohio marched through early in the war and then occupied the area for the rest of the duration.

It'll be interesting to read this article for more detail.

You often here the saying "WV is the southern-most northern state and northern-most southern state... etc, etc. I guess it's a fact that WV is the cusp of the eastern US. The state as a whole simply cannot be categorized by the usual regional types. It's ridiculous to call Wheeling a southern city, but surely not ridiculous to call Beckley a southern city. I've always thought that Parkersburg seemed like the midwest to me. Surely Martinsburg is eastern.

Brett said...

I grew up in Arkansas, which is clearly a southern state, at least to me but never to a friend of mine from Selma, Alabama). But we were in the northern Ozarks, long time Republican stronghold in the Yellow Dog south. The economy there was never based on chattel slavery, which is certainly not to imply that it is somehow more enlightened, but different in character than much of the south. It is so interesting to look at regional identities and why these things are so important to people.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Rick, that's an interesting (and long!) article. I didn't know much at all about the war in Charleston before. Thanks for the reference. West Virginia is a fascinating place because it's so heterogeneous. Every place is very different from every other place.

Brett, I've heard people (including folklore scholars) call Arkansas part of Appalachia. Geographical impairment happens, I guess, but they are probably thinking about "mountain culture" being different than the lowland South. I think that has been overplayed, at least with regard to "Our Southern Mountains."

bobilee said...

I'm familiar with that State of Convenience article. While it is good, it still written from the perspective of Wheeling. You will not find on that site that 24 counties of WV voted for Secession, and those counties made up two-thirds of the state. You will also not find that half of WV soldiers were Confederate. I found that on the WV History and Archives site hidden in an unrelated article. If you want the true story of WV you need to read Richard Curry's "A House Divided". West Virginians, and everyone else, have been taught a false history of the state.

It would surprise a lot of Tennesseans to learn that Eastern Tennessee asked the state govt. for permission to form their own Union government.

That game Southerners play I call "Southerner Than You" and West Virginians are a favorite target, but I don't take it seriously because I know that they know nothing about WV. It's a shame that West Virginians have been brainwashed for so many years to believe that they aren't of the South. But that is the fault of bad history.