Years prior to the United States declaring independence and becoming a sovereign nation, the settlers of the far western edge of the many colonies felt underrepresented in their colonial legislatures.
In some cases, such as Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, these regional animosities eventually led to the creation of separate states altogether; however, had one particular proposed state been authorized in 1776, the American map and American history, as we know it, may very well have been forever changed.
Though the American colonies were unified in their Declaration of Independence, they were far less in agreement concerning internal matters and the colonial governments of Virginia and Pennsylvania were embroiled in a heated dispute as to possession of the strategically important location of Pittsburgh; both colonies proceeded as if the distant mountain territory belonged to them with Virginia administering the area as the District of West Augusta, while Pennsylvanians considered the territory part of Westmoreland County.
Further complicating the matter were various colonial companies, including the Grand Ohio Company, which was in the process of petitioning the Crown for a charter to colonize what is now West Virginia when war abruptly erupted.
Feeling as though neither far-eastern government in Virginia nor Pennsylvania truly had their best interests in mind and inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution earlier that summer, settlers of the region east of the Ohio River – stretching from Pittsburgh to what is now the Tennessee state line – petitioned the Second Continental Congress to recognize “Westsylvania” as the fourteenth state.
The proposed state would include southwestern Pennsylvania, western Maryland, most of modern-day West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and portions of what is now Southwest Virginia.
The petitioners argued that the dispute between Pennsylvania and Virginia would “in all Probability terminate in a Civil War” and that the creation of a totally new “province” would ensure such a breakdown of the union did on occur.
Hoping to create order out of this chaos, the petitioners therefore asked that:
“The Said Country be constituted declared & acknowledged a separate, distinct, and independent Province & Government by the Title and under the name of — ‘the Province & Government of Westsylvania,’ be empowered and enabled to form such Laws & Regulations & such a System of Polity & Government as is best adapted & most agreeable to the peculiar Necessities, local Circumstances & Situation thereof & its inhabitants invested with every other power, Right, Privilege & Immunity, vested, or to be vested in the other American Colonies, be considered as a Sister Colony & the fourteenth Province of the American Confederacy….”
Unfortunately for the State of Westsylvania, the petition was akin to a hen requesting a fox who was guarding her henhouse for a favor, as the measure required support from the very governments they were attempting to break from. Opposed by both Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as other states with western land claims who were fearful that recognizing the independence of frontier regions would create a ripple effect, the Continental Congress chose to simply ignore the petition for statehood.
In an effort to strengthen its control over the region, in November of 1776, Virginia divided their western territorial claims into three separate counties: Ohio, Monongalia and Yohogania counties.
In 1780 Virginia and Pennsylvania reached a settlement in their territorial dispute, with Virginia giving up their claims to Yohogania County, which encompassed what would become modern-day Pittsburgh.
The border dispute settlement outraged many self-considered Virginians who awoke one day to discover they were now living in Pennsylvania — which led to a renewed push for the creation of Westsylvania movement among Virginians who were outraged to find themselves now living in Pennsylvania.
Outraged at the increasingly vocal opposition of living in Pennsylvania by former Virginians, the Pennsylvania Assembly declared support for the state of Westsylvania to be a treasonous act and subjected guilty parties to the death penalty.
According to historian Jack Sosin, these efforts, including the state sending spies into the region, and “the threat that the settlers’ land might be sold [and] the cool reaction to the proposed new state by Congress finally quieted the Westerners.”
Though the Virginians who were forced to accept the fact that they were now living in southwestern Pennsylvania never achieved their goal of creating a mountainous state in central Appalachia, their neighbors to the south would see this goal multiple times over, as Kentucky, Tennessee, and ultimately West Virginia, would all manage to achieve their goal of breaking free from the colonial rule of governments positioned far to the east near the Atlantic coastline.
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