Why West Virginia Owes Its Existence to a Bank Robbery


West_Virginia_Flag_1922By late-June 1861, the Wheeling Convention had found itself in a unique legal conundrum.

On one hand, the convention was declaring itself to be the legal and sovereign government of Virginia.

On the other hand, the convention had received only limited recognition from the President – the Secretary of War had corresponded with the convention’s “Governor,” but the Secretary stopped short of fully recognizing them as being the sovereign authority of Virginia.

Though the Lincoln Administration appreciated their loyalty to the Union, the constitutional crisis their very existence presented was a battle the administration was not prepared to engage in nor desired.

The vast majority of the “representatives” had not even been elected and more than four out of five Virginia counties were not awarded any type of representation in the body, therefore any claims to be the true government of Virginia could not be legally substantiated.

 Lacking any true legal authority, including the power of taxation, the convention, which was by this time claiming to serve as the Government of the Commonwealth of Virginia, found itself in desperate need for funding – after all, the assembly had voted to pay themselves for their “service” to the people of Virginia, but had no treasury from which to move forward with this act.

To establish a state treasury, Governor Francis Pierpont (the unelected “governor” of the Restored Government of Virginia) and delegate Peter Van Winkle secured roughly $10,000 in a loan from Wheeling banks on their personal endorsement.

Despite this loan, the newly created government would require a lot more capital than that to ensure its survival.

Officials in Wheeling began to actively liquidate tangible property which belonged to the Virginia government in Richmond – claiming authority over the property, due to being the “Restored Government of Virginia.”

Despite their claims of sovereignty over the entire state, the reality was that Western Virginia was a lawless land in the summer of 1861 and the sitting authority in each town often the army with the most infantrymen nearby.

As the Restored Government continued to suffer from insufficient funds, Presley Hale, a representative from the community of Weston in Lewis County, approached the appointed governor and told him of a massive stockpile of gold that was presently being housed in a bank back in his hometown of Weston.

The gold belonged to the Commonwealth of Virginia and had been placed in the bank by the Richmond government to pay workers who were building the Trans-Allegheny Asylum, later known as the Weston State Hospital.

Hale argued that this money belonged to Virginia and since the Wheeling Convention was now the Restored Government of Virginia, the gold belonged to them.

The total amount of the stockpile was $27,000, equal to roughly a quarter-million dollars in 2014 money.

Under Governor Pierpont’s order, the Seventh Ohio Infantry drove deep into the state and marched into the town of Weston early in the morning on June 30, 1861.

After having marched 25 miles from Clarksburg the night before, the Ohio Infantry entered the town at the break of dawn and immediately began rousing the townspeople from their beds with a deafening rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

As residents, nearly all of which were still in their bedclothes, ran into the streets in a panic, the invading army marched straight to the bank where the gold was being stored and demanded the money.

Robert McCandlish, the bank’s teller, was driven from his bed and ordered to turn over the gold immediately.

McCandlish asked if some money could be kept to pay the workers, as it was intended, but his request was denied by the invading Ohio army.

Realizing any resisting would be futile, the teller then reached into the vault and handed over twenty-seven leather pouches to Union Army officials, each of which contained $1,000 in gold.

From the community of Weston, the gold was loaded onto a heavily guarded wagon and carried to Clarksburg, where it was transferred to a train that took it to Wheeling.

Though the gold proved valuable in the establishment of the Restored Government’s treasury, the manner in which it was taken from the people of Weston remained a source of contention for decades to come.

In addition to robbing the countless number of working West Virginians who had been laboring in the construction of the facility, the foreign invaders – under the Restored Government’s command ignored the rights of the free citizens.

Commanding officer Colonel Erastus Bernard Tyler ordered his troops to sweep through the town and seize any individuals suspected of Confederate sympathies.  Fathers, sons and community leaders were separated from their homes and deprived of their basic constitutional rights — the same rights the invading army arresting the free citizens of Lewis County were supposedly fighting to protect.

The events of this early summer morning in 1861 set a dangerous precedence in the history of America and that of West Virginia – the nation, founded by freethinking men like Jefferson and Franklin, had entered into an era where one’s own personal sympathies could be reason enough to be seized by Federal authorities.

Sadly, this terrible precedence which would eventually lead to the arrest of media members in the months to come by officials in the Lincoln  Administration, as well as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans less than a century later, simply due to their ancestry, all had its origins in a command issued by Governor Francis Pierpont of the Restored Government of Virginia – the forerunner of the State of West Virginia.

In the decades ahead, as the Wheeling Convention’s “Restored Government of Virginia” would evolve into the State of West Virginia, the state government’s officials would continue down this terrible path – siding with big money over their own working citizens’ interests. 

This appalling misalignment of priorities would serve as the root causes for horrific events of bloodshed in the generations to come.

Events such as the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Matewan Massacre and the bloodshed at Paint Creek can all be traced to government officials placing their own personal interests above the will of their citizens.

Sadly, these ghastly tragedies could have been easily avoidable, if only the people of the mountains had an honest government – sadly, the plant that was the state’s government throughout the turbulent 1920s was corrupt to its root – owing its founding on the lies of the Wheeling Convention.

Though the state’s motto may boldly proclaim that “Mountaineers are Always Free,” in reality, thanks in large part to the unlawful precedence set by the 1861 assembly, West Virginia’s mountaineers have historically been the most oppressed people in the nation.

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  1. Very interesting, sadly oppression of the citizens by big business is becoming the norm in most states today.

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