West Virginia: The story of a state that got bought

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The existence of coal in West Virginia had been known by European colonists since the mid-1700s. Early settlers to the region were even said to have extracted ground layers of the soft rock for use in heating their homes.

Still, the first large scale mining of coal in West Virginia did not begin until the early-1830s and existed merely as a support to the region’s booming salt industry.

West Virginia’s first true coal miners were slaves who extracted the mineral for use as a fuel to fire nearby salt furnaces. These furnaces were mostly located along the Kanawha River.

According to Ronald L. Lewis, professor of history emeritus at West Virginia University, “The erection of salt furnaces in Kanawha County beginning in 1797 provided the initial stimulus to coal mining. By 1840, 90 furnaces produced a million bushels of salt annually and consumed 200,000 tons of coal.”

Prior to the American Civil War, the demand for salt began to decline; however, bituminous coal (soft coal) had proven itself as being an economic alternative to burning wood.

In the days leading up to the Lincoln Presidency, western Virginia coal was being used to power steamboats floating along the Ohio River, in coal oil lamps and in factories scattered across the northeast.
The outbreak of the Civil War severely crippled the region’s coal industry, as western Virginia soon found itself at the epicenter of a tug-of-war game being played between the ruling elite in Richmond and Wheeling.  In the end, the State of West Virginia was formed in June 1863.

As the nation entered into the industrial revolution, the limitless resources of West Virginia’s coal and timber seemed irresistible to many of the nation’s wealthiest companies.

The late Matewan resident, Joseph P. Garland, stated that his grandfather, who was illiterate, was tricked into giving up 1,666 acres of the family’s land for a single shotgun.

“They’ve [southern West Virginians] been robbed, raped and cheated out of their land,” stated Garland.

Despite the state’s incredible wealth, few natives were ever able to enjoy much gain from the rich resources abounding in the area, as outside corporations quickly gobbled up much of the territory of southern West Virginia.

Aided by the natural transportation route provided by the Tug River, outside loggers moved into the area and cleared many of the county’s most valuable woodland.

The arrival of the N&W Railroad allowed for the timber to be shipped east, further accelerating the rate of the state’s deforestation.

At the turn of the century, non-residents owned over half the land in Mingo County, West Virginia; as was the case in several other coalfield counties.

Observing this problem, William MacCorkle, West Virginia Governor, warned the state legislature in his inaugural address on March 4, 1893, that “the state is rapidly passing under the control of large foreign and non-resident landowners.’’ He cautioned that ‘‘the men who are today purchasing the immense acres of the most valuable lands in the state are not citizens and have only purchased in order that they may carry to their distant homes in the North the usufruct of the lands of West Virginia.’’

MacCorkle, the son of a Confederate Major and sixth consecutive Democratic governor of West Virginia witnessed his dire warning prove true.

Within seven years, destructive logging techniques had removed half of the state’s forests. Nearly all of the state’s timber resources had been exhausted within two decades.

For the first time in history, West Virginia was viewed as an eyesore. One visiting writer described the state as, “a monotonous panorama of destruction.”

Ronald Eller, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky describes the effects of ‘absentee landownership’ in the following way:
“Because of absentee ownership of the state’s resources, the dollars that could have built better schools and better roads and better health services in the early part of the century flowed out of the region and we got what we call ‘growth without development.’ We got a short period of immense growth and expansion and boom period and jobs, but we didn’t get the development of those aspects that will sustain a community over time and provide a quality of life.”

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27 COMMENTS

  1. It is a shame of what the coal industry could have been for the benefit of the West Virginia residents. Still today coal companies give us nothing. They dig beneath our land and homes without having to give anything in return. Sure u get insurance for when your house falls in. By then they already took millions of dollars, and it will take the home owner many years to get back what was taken from them.This state and country needs to think a little more of its people. We after all are what keep both going.

    • You are so on point, that’s what happen to my parents property. First the coal company blew the bottom out of my folk’s well, & nothing was done. Then later years the coal companies,That’s when Peabody & Eastern merged, under mined all of their property, now years later all of their land is just “Honey Combed” , as it’s not worth anything.

  2. And now the Fracking industry is trying to do it all over again. WAKE UP MONUNTAINEERS !!!!!!

  3. What has happened in the past to West Virginia is now happening to the entire nation. Overseas companies taking our resources, then selling us cheap goods. All of the monies from the cheap goods enrich them and not Americans.

    • It isn’t just overseas. Brooklyn and Chicago based “globalists” would sell out our country’s middle class in an instant for a buck.

  4. King Coal is right. Those who own and run coal treat the people here like peasants. We are currently mining only 3% more coal than we were in the early 1970’s. Most of the coal being extracted today is out West. However, the coal here is being mined with 75% less manpower than in the 1970’s. So although not much more coal is being extracted, King Coal pays less and therefore makes a bigger profit. People in this state need to wise up.

  5. Well, really its not much different today. We have all these wind-mills that clutter up the mountain side, where once stood a magnificent view is now a bunch of steel that not only kill the view, but the Bald Eagles and Golden Eagle’s and other birds that happen to fly into them. Do West Virginian’s benefit from these eye sores,hell no. We don’t get a discount for our electric or any thing else. It is all powered out to the east coast and again we are screwed ! Politics at their best !

    • The wind farm are not killing of birds maybe few bats you need to research what your saying and just where in West Virginia are you seeing these wind turbines
      What’s happens to West Virginia past is the past . Laws taxes need updated for logging mining I mean I know for fact land owner is paying five cents on thousands of acres sense the coal boom in 70 and the airs log the land when they need money they are making huge profits with no tax on timber leaving state.

      • You sound like you don’t believe there are wind farms in WV. Beech Ridge Wind Farm is in Greenbrier County, and Mount Storm Wind Farm is in Grant County. There may be others, I’m not sure. And yes, birds do fly into the turbines.

  6. Throughout West Virginia, there are numerous signs and billboards to protest Obama’s supposed war on coal (because air pollution, black lung, sterile streams, meth wars and pervasive poverty are all a good thing). I can only ask, WTF? What did West Virginia(ns) do that was so bad to justify the abuse, neglect and theft dished out by the coal, timber and now the gas industries? Why do West Virginians continue to take the abuse and why are they increasingly proud of being abused? King Coal started the war on West Virginia and West Virginia rarely fights back.

  7. “All of these windmills”? How many are in the whole state? Like 40? That’s the kind of power we need to be for, not against. Burning/mining coal concequences versus windmills!? Come on now, use your head moron.

    • You log on to a site and leave a disparaging comment about another user….and you don’t leave your name? I would say you are the Moron. Everyone has a right to express concern about the conditions in their home state. They should be able to do that without being attacked by a troll with no name. Moron.

  8. I agree 100% My grand father was a coal miner and he died very young from Black Lung, It is also called “miner’s asmatha” Not sure if I spelled that correctly. However; the point is the coal companies robbed my relatives blind and they didn’t get anything but poverty and poor health for it. Now its starting up again. Thanks for nothing,
    Paul B

  9. This is a great article and this information should be included in every West Virginia history class mandated by the school system. Instead students are re

  10. This is a great article and this information should be included in every West Virginia history class mandated by the school system. Instead students are required to memorize a lot of irrelevant facts, none of which explain why WV is one the richest in resources states with one of the highest poverty rates. When I was growing up it was the checmical industries that ruined our air and water, but we were supposed to ve silent because those jobs paid good money. Most of those companies relocated but left behind tons of contaminants and the former “good employers” like Monsanto left behind a legacy of dioxin that has poisoned and sickened generations. Our political system follows the money and sells us out to industries that continue the tradition of spreading cancer and death to us.
    It breaks my heart to see how their smart, savy public relations experts use lies and propaganda to convince many that coal is “good” for WV. Whenever I see a “Friends of Coal” sign in someones yard I know that the owner of that home is a participating exploiter of his neighbors. I’ve read that the people of Iraq pay less than 20 cents for a gallon of gasoline because it’s their oil. I don’t know about you but my electric bill is in excess of $200.00 per month for a modest house, We don’t even get a break there yet most of the coal stripped from our mountains is not used for us, but for other places that think we’re stupid and less than they are. I don’t have any answers and I worry that time has changed nothing and never will. Still I value those who speak out, who strive with love our home to save us from total ruin.

  11. Most people don’t know that only 4% of the population of WV actively work in the coal mines today, yet coal is still King. My husband and his father and siblings worked in the coal mines. My children and grandchildren don’t. As a matter of fact, some of them had to leave the state to survive. We need to change our image to attract people and business to our beautiful state. Being known as a state that has sold out to the energy industry at the detriment of our own people and environment leaves people around the country thinking that we are either ignorant or don’t care. We need to see the hand- writing on the wall. Our economy cannot survive if we depend solely on coal. We must also be careful about how we embrace fracking in this state. We need to look at the far-reaching consequences of this practice on our environment and people and not just our immediate economic gains. What will our legacy be for our children?

  12. Just keep voting for the democratic ticket and your butt will continue to stick out. In the early 50ties the state of Ohio collected sixty cents for each mine bar cut in their state and WV could collect anything because the didn’t own any of the land. The land owners have a chance to profit from fracking if they do not permit the politions take their ownerships away from them. Remember Clive Bundy and talk tough to YOUR congress people!

    • WV hasn’t voted Democratic in the last four President elections. Out of state Republicans have sold out the state.

  13. Wilber, keep listening to Fox phony news and keep voting against your best interest. What nonsense! The Democratic party wants to make this land free of black lung disease and promote modern green energy. These companies are owned by Republican backers.

    Billionaires paying millionaires to brain wash you.

    • “The Democratic Party wants to make this land free of black lung disease and promote green energy”? ARE YOU KIDDING?

      Do you not realize that the Democrats boasted the governorship, BOTH US senators, and the majority of state legislators for DECADES? WHY do you suppose they didn’t “make this land free of black lung disease and promote green energy” WHILE THEY WERE IN CHARGE THIS ENTIRE TIME? Now that the GOP is in charge of the state legislature for the first time in eight decades, NOW the Dems make this claim? Words are cheap, but most WV voters seem to fall for them every time.

      This belief is DELUSIONAL, and is the reason West Virginia is in the shape it’s in. Our people will NEVER see improvement as long as people continue to support EITHER major political party.

      To be clear…I am NOT promoting the GOP, I am merely recognizing that the Democratic party is GOP light…the more effective evil.

      VOTE GREEN
      VOTE MT. PARTY

  14. My Dads moms double first cousin stole her land deeds in mingo, trading them for the Boss, position and free home, with a life time job. For Allen creek coal. There has been over 15, mines and millions in timber stole from us, on the same land, dad passed this August he was 89, Black Lung from 44 yr wrkn for these same type of thieves. My dads ,moms dad was Blackburn Sturgell, she was carri Floyd, and if ya wondering any kin, didn’t get the land, because shortly after the thief, Alcoholic double first cousin took sick, and coal company doctor put over him, well he died, and the land deeds disappear. Yrs later after dads, mom went to get them she realized they were gone. And took yr s to figure out what actually happened, she passed in 72, so im assuming you thief s , are still stealing the coal, from my family.

  15. Not counting the KY salt works land, and timber, gas, oil, rights were stolen, , from Logan, to KY up both sides of Nugatuck, lenore, over, all stolen, , from 3rd grandfather George Rogers Clark Floyd. . The son of 25 US VA. Governor John Floyd. My 4th grandfather. Seems all that land was gone after civil war, some how or another in funny round about ways, because Govnor Floyd was only my 4th great grandfather. So your telling me they go from the most prominent, to the most poor today, without someone being shady, ok ill take the blue unicorn, when you get him, too….

  16. How tragic for the people of West Virginia that we have allowed both the coal industry and our political leaders to paint our state into this economic corner. They have convinced the people that economic diversification simply is not possible. Case in point is the stirring refrain at the end of every coal industry commercial: “COOOAAL is West Virginiaaaaaaa!” Well, coal most certainly OWNS West Virginia, from the people (who do the industry’s advertising for FREE, by way of those “Friends of Coal” stickers on the back of their pickups and SUVs) to the media (who get huge amounts of ad revenue from the coal industry) to the very politicians who are wined and dined and had their campaign pockets lined by the coal industry.

    Of course, there was a time when the coal industry tried to portray their product as the environmentally-friendly fuel of the future. Most people in West Virginia and Kentucky can remember all those old Walker Machinery billboards that read, “Yes, COAL, Clean, carbon-neutral COAL.” The whole idea was that new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could cut greenhouse gas emissions and allow coal to remain the backbone of West Virginia’s economy … which of course it still is. But you don’t see those billboards anymore, because implementing CCS will cause electric bills to go up by 40%. The one CCS pilot project up in the northern panhandle was shut down, and the carbon continues to be sequestered … straight UP into the atmosphere.

    In West Virginia the coal industry employs only about 1/8th the number of miners it did 60 years ago, and that is most certainly NOT because of regulations by the evil government, but because of the profit motive, pure and simple. As underground coal seams become thinner, it has become more cost-effective to blow up mountains, fill in the streams, and sort the coal from the dirt. Fewer miners, more explosives and heavy machinery, huge amounts of coal-washing detergents like MCHM (which gave our drinking water that delightful licorice smell not too long ago), and vast tracts of moonscape utterly unsuitable for commercial development.

    In the next few decades, humankind will need to double, or even triple energy production as billions of people in the developing world lift themselves out of poverty and begin to live modern lives. Unless the source of this new energy is clean and non-CO2 emitting, the risk of triggering a devastating global climate catastrophe is all but certain. We coddled the coal industry, preferring cheap electricity and short-term “prosperity” over long-term environmental protection for future generations. Now we have to deal with the environmental consequences, which are coming back to bite West Virginia on the ass.

  17. Coal is no longer king, and in one election we can replace all the coal baron lackeys, both Democrats and Republicans. We need new candidates who represent the people, not the out of state corporations who have killed and maimed WV workers for nearly 150 years – and are still stealing pensions. Vote for the Mountain Party and for Bernie Sanders-type candidates who support workers. Support candidates who support you.

  18. The “Mountaineer Xpress” pipeline will apparently be going through our property. My husband is from Indiana and really doesnt understand why I am so concerned about this. I have seen people living in poverty my whole life on farms where there were gas wells. They got free gas which is something, but all of the destruction the inhabitants of WV have had to endure just for a few dollars here and there so that someone else could make the big bucks has always concerned me. People do need money and jobs and occasionally in a conversation with family members it will be pointed out to me that “so and so works for the coal mines” and how bad they need that income. Admittedly, I do not have a solution. I just hope that West Virginians will be be able to shift gears and that the people can enjoy the natural beauty that is West Virginia and still prosper as communities and individuals.

  19. During the years from 1959 thru 1970 I worked for a surgeon in Radford, VA, Dr. Blake Fawcett from Alderson, WV and a graduate of Duke University. Patients were referred routinely to our office from the WV representative to be checked for Black Lung.
    During that time your representative worked very hard to help the men working in the coal mines to be able to receive Black Lung benefits. Our office filed all the paperwork to see that all these patients were cared for. I know because I am the one who filed the paperwork. Maybe you need to check and see who your representative was at that time and remember to have respect for him.

  20. My Brother in law pushed, and started the Black Lung association, was first President, my Dad, and him both went to Washington alot on trips to push for Black Lung benefits for the state, both hard working coal miners, dad had over 42 yr, or more, and his son in law, retired miner as well, he passed away because his new lung rejected his body, very sad event, and dad just passed because of Black lung, im pretty sure they both had multiple court appeals, and delay of any help from that organization, im almost positive neither were fully paid, and I’ve herd many many families say, there loved one didn’t get a dime, until they had passed away. Listen being nice has got us nowhere, nor our loved ones, they delay you, put you off till your dead, and cant fight any more, in almost every case, they ask so many loop hole questions, and mess with the old timers, with such red tape, that they force them to stop the fight almost every time, its time we take back the state, stop letting other countries mine our coal. Also the ones saying its bad for the environment are the ones, spraying round up, on everything, and killing millions with cancer, stop buying round up weed killer, if you concerned about the environment,. thats a lie, if that’s the reason why do they not pay you until you die, if these are caring people. they bit the hand that feeds them with lies, and theifs getting fat pocket s, then go home and make fun of WV, well its time to make fun back, because killing our loved ones without payment, and respect, is something nobody should let happen. Being nice has done nothing but say hey push me around, to the hungry thief s. Blair mountain was the last stand for anything or anyone, so lets start by blaming ourselves, unless you fought at Blair mountain, like my dads, dad did. Then you shouldn’t be complaining same as myself should not be, we all are sitting down and letting them kick us in mouth for decades, what should we expect?

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