Mountaineers Always Freemen

On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the thirty-fifth state in the Union. The land that formed the new state formerly constituted part of Virginia. The two areas had diverged culturally from their first years of European settlement, as small farmers generally settled the western portion of the state, including the counties that later formed West Virginia, while the eastern portion was dominated by a powerful minority class of wealthy slaveholders. There were proposals for the trans-Allegheny west to separate from Virginia as early as 1769. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, the residents of a number of contiguous western counties, where there were few slaves, decided to remain in the Union. Congress accepted these counties as the state of West Virginia on condition that its slaves be freed. “Montani semper liberi,” “mountaineers always freemen,” became the new state’s motto.

Harper’s Ferry, W. Va.. Albertype Co., printer; Walter E. Dittmeyer, c1912. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division
Giant Poplar of the Williams, W. Va.. William Henry Jackson, photographer, ca. 1892. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

In the last quarter of the century, railroads began to penetrate even the most densely mountainous regions, making large-scale coal-mining and lumbering operations practical by connecting the state’s coal and timber resources to distant markets. Coal and timber company representatives fanned out across the state, using a near-fraudulent legal device known as the Broad Form Deed to obtain mineral and timber rights that left farmers only the surface of the land and only insofar as farming did not interfere with mining and timbering.

In a very few years, West Virginia changed from an agricultural to an industrial society. Many new workers, including large numbers of African Americans and European immigrants, came to find work in the new industries. Many longtime state residents joined them, finding that they could no longer support their families sufficiently by farming. Economic power in the state shifted permanently to mining and other industrial corporations, many of which were not based in West Virginia. And much of the land was transformed as upland forests and farmlands were replaced or interwoven with landscapes of mining, lumbering, and related industries.

For much of the twentieth century, West Virginia led all other states in bituminous coal production. Miners protested their difficult and dangerous working conditions with a series of bitter strikes between 1912 and 1921, a time known as the “mine wars.” During this period, the National Guard and the U.S. Army separately intervened a total of six times to quell violence. Federal legislation passed in the 1930s granted workers the right to organize unions, which improved labor relations in the industry. Despite these reforms, coal production declined between the end of World War II and the 1970s and many workers left West Virginia in search of better economic opportunities.

Striking Miners Drawing Rations, West Virginia. Miners ration line II. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

A resurgence of the coal industry in the 1970s and West Virginia’s new popularity as a retirement destination beginning in the 1980s resulted in renewed population growth for the state. Its wealth of natural resources attracted retirees to West Virginia, which is the highest state east of the Mississippi and the only one completely within the Appalachian Mountain system. Although the controversial new coal-mining technique known as “mountaintop removal” continues to alter the landscape more radically than ever, approximately three-fourths of the state is now forested, while farms cover many of the ridges and fertile valley bottoms. West Virginia boasts thirty-three state parks, and is considered one of the best spots in the world for white-water rafting, an important part of the state’s growing tourist industry.

The same rugged terrain that attracts new residents to the state today isolated earlier generations of West Virginians in the era before modern transportation and communication. Such isolation fostered distinctive and still-vibrant cultural traditions, including music, quilt-making, and furniture making. Today, the state’s many festivals and fairs celebrate these arts.

West Virginia. Hill Farm Scene. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division
West Virginia Rag.” Henry Reed, fiddle; Watha Reed, guitar; Reed Family home, Glen Lyn, Giles County, Virginia, November 26, 1966. Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection. American Folklife Center

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