Northern West Virginia vs. Southern West Virginia

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Written by Jeremy T.K. Farley

Over the past century and a half, historians have been quick to point out the many differences that existed in the mid-1800s between western Virginia and eastern Virginia.

While the two regions shared undeniable differences, this oversimplification of the State of West Virginia’s early history has led to several grossly inaccurate assumptions that have now been accepted as fact by the vast majority of Americans – and even West Virginians.

Unfortunately, modern-day historians have all but neglected to even mention one of the greatest of divisions that existed in Western Virginia two centuries ago – a disunion that remains very real in present-day West Virginia. Northern West Virginia vs. Southern West Virginia.

Evidence of this disparity may be clearly seen simply by taking a stroll down the streets of Wheeling and Welch, Morgantown and Matewan, and Parkersburg and Princeton. The two regions of West Virginia could not be any more distant in economies, demographics and ancestry – to put it simply, the same divisions that always existed in western Virginia remain today in the State of West Virginia.

Today, just as was the case in the early 1860s, the people of the state’s northern region rule over the people of the state’s southern section — perfect evidence of this can be seen in the fact that only one person in over 50 years from any place south of Charleston has been elected to serve as governor of the Mountain State.

When we look at early Western Virginia’s turbulent history, we must not see things as West vs. East, but as Northwest vs. East and Northwest vs. Southwest.
Sadly, the true culprit of the disruption of Virginia has never been dealt with and the economies and communities of southern West Virginia are worse off today than ever before.

Southern West Virginia’s Early Settlers
Following the French and Indian War, my 6x-great-grandfather, Thomas Buery Farley, moved his entire family to present-day Mercer County and then a few miles east to the banks of the New River, in what is now Giles County, Virginia.

Nearly all of this region, which would become Southern West Virginia, was settled by men whose stories were very similar to Farley’s. They were descendants of early English settlers, whose ancestors had braved the deadly winters of Jamestown.

With adventure in their blood, the frontier their grandparents settled, had, over the course of a century, become too urbanized for their tastes.

Filled with a hereditary zeal to find adventure, these descendants of Virginia pioneers pushed westward, settling the areas south of the Kanawha Valley, being the first white men to call the following counties home: Mercer, Monroe, Greenbrier, Raleigh, Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, Wyoming and McDowell.

In an era where one’s nationality was linked far more to their state or colony than the “united States,” these early settlers were fiercely loyal to Virginia. They saw themselves as Virginians, as much as the modern-day inhabitants of these same places see themselves as Americans. Their grandparents had created Virginia and their drive westward was fueled in part by a desire to increase their homeland’s influence and territory.

Northern West Virginia’s Early Settlers
While the great-great-great grandsons of Jamestown were busy settling the Tug and Kanawha Valleys, what would be seen by many in Richmond as a northern invasion into Virginia’s sovereign territory had already quietly occurred just south of Pennsylvania.

In 1716, a Welsh Colonel who had spent years in Delaware and Pennsylvania, crossed below what would become the Mason-Dixon Line and established one of the first permanent settlements in West Virginia.

The man’s name was Morgan Morgan and his sons would be credited for founding the City of Morgantown.

Unlike the settlers of southern West Virginia, Morgan had no allegiances to the Commonwealth of Virginia, instead, his loyalties were to Pennsylvania. In 1717 he was appointed as executor of the will of the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania. Morgan was a Pennsylvanian and so were most of the settlers who first arrived in areas north of Charleston.

Between 1750 and 1800, small isolated settlements began to dot the borders of the state; but the names of these settlers and their exact location form a matter yet to be determined by research.

Emigration from the north to West Virginia was through Pennsylvania down the Ohio River or up the Monongahela and its tributaries. The movement was gradual and the settlements so scattered that as late as 1787 Jefferson’s map of Virginia shows only two towns, Wheeling and Parkersburg, in the northern part of western Virginia.

After the Revolution, additional settlers began to pour into the state, so that by the mid-1800s, West Virginia was a state whose populace was equally divided — roughly half of which chose to fight for the south, while the other half elected to serve the Union. Contrary to what most history books state, West Virginia was anything but a united state in the midst of the American Civil War and the vast majority of the residents of its southern counties were fiercely opposed to the creation of a new state.

Though northern and southern, early leaders made it very plain that the north was in control — when it came time to establish the state’s first public university in 1867, rather than place the college in a central location, it was founded just ten miles from the Pennsylvania state line, also known as the Mason Dixon Line.

In reality, just as America was a nation at war with itself in the early 1860s, the Mountain State was a state at war with itself.  While the rest of the country has moved on from the scars of this war, West Virginia really hasn’t gotten over these wounds — though we’ve collectively blocked it from our minds.

West Virginia is not a northern state and it is not a southern state. It is the watershed state, where east meets the mid-west and where the thick and rough Pennsylvania accent gives way to the southern drawl.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. It interesting that you compared 3 northern WV cities with a combined population greater than 100,000, to 3 southern WV cities with a combined population of about 9,000.

    Why not compare Morgantown to Beckley? That’s a much better comparison, and if you dropped someone off in the middle of either, they look about the same — except Morgantown is completely built from taxpayer dollars and Beckley stands on it’s own (with some residual help from RCB).

    • I agree also. I’ve lived in WV for the majority of my life. I was born and went to high school in Buckhannon. I spent most of my adult life in Clarksburg. We were always told we were in central WV. I realize there is much WV south of Charleston, but I would hardly consider it central WV. My corporate office was in Charleston and believe me there are cultural differences. It took me a while to understand the accents. Definately southern. No big deal, Be proud of it.

  2. Wow. You kidding? Morgantown and Beckley are nothing alike. I’ve lived in both Southern WV and Morgantown. Morgantown’s economy is booming with a bunch of high paying jobs, great hospitals, Mylan pharmaceuticals, DoE’s NETL, and other major commerce drivers. This is spurred by WVU, but in no way “supported by taxpayer dollars”. Beckley has more reliance on taxpayer dollars with the large amount of folks on government assistance programs and the horrible prescription drug issues that plague the area. There is a night and day difference between northern and southern WV unfortunately. The line bright spot on southern WV is Lewisburg and that’s only b/c they never relied on coal.

  3. I grew up in Summers County my entire life and now I go to school in Wheeling and also spent about 6 months in Parkersburg; these differences are so much more punctuated than I ever expected, even down to the topography of the areas. Northern WV, esp. The northern Ohio Valley portion of the state. One thing I’ve learned for sure is that southern hospitality is most definitely no myth. Not to bust on “Yankees” so to speak, but people up north, more often than back home, tend to act like they don’t have time for anyone else and have no problem looking out for #1 because it’s a dog eat dog world. It’s also much more evident that even small towns along the Ohio Valley are more a result of urban sprawl from areas like Pittsburg and metropolitan cities on the other side of the Ohio river. The North is still nice, though, and the people here have their own unique charm like any other area, but despite the weaker, more cole-dependent economy of the south, and some of the hardships we are sharing with other citizens struggling with addiction, poverty, etc. I’d take the homey solitude and comfort of the backwoods and hollows of the southern coalfields. Not to mention if you’re looking for some scenery it’s hard to beat the numerous breathtaking views along the New River.

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