What we now know as West Virginia and the western parts of Virginia was once a formidable frontier: vast, wild, and completely unknown. In 1780, the colonial capital of Virginia was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond to provide a more central seat of government but also to shield the capital city against the British during the Revolutionary War. A mere few years prior, Thomas Bullitt—a noted solider—was deeded land on the Elk River near where Charleston stands today, forming the groundwork for the first settlement there. In 1787 the first permanent settlement, known as Fort Lee, was established under the command of Colonel Savannah Clendenin as a military outpost. The fort, though small, was located near what today is the heart of the state’s capital city, and the town which grew up around it was named Charleston, in honor of Colonel Clendenin’s father Charles.
By 1794 there were about thirty-five people inhabiting this fledgling township, but since census figures suggest they were located in only seven households, we can postulate many were children. To get a true sense of the remoteness of Charleston, its isolation, and its role on the frontier, it is best to look at the overall context of the time as well as geography.
Fincastle, Virginia, was the county seat of Botetourt County which stretched westward as far as man could know—in theory Botetourt included most of what is now West Virginia, about all of Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee. Botetourt was established as a legal entity in 1770 and was named for the colonial governor, Lord Botetourt, who died that same year, suddenly, while in office. Fincastle, though nowadays a small, rural county seat, was the effective administrative center of all of Virginia’s westward frontier, providing services, such as they were, that Williamsburg and later Richmond could not administer directly.
It was from here that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set forth to explore the territory ahead and also where another bold explorer, the surveyor and military officer Andrew Lewis, based his surveys of western Virginia—the city of Lewisburg, West Virginia was among the lands he surveyed and is named in his honor. Basically, if you were planning on exploring, trading in, or leading a military expedition through the western portions of Virginia (which would mean Kentucky or forays into Ohio as well), your first stop was Fincastle—like a modern-day hiker leaving Clingman’s Dome to set off on the Appalachian Trail, the enthusiastic pioneers embarked from Fincastle to many parts unknown.
This was all crucially important because the growth of what would eventually become West Virginia the state began here as well, and the importance of Lewisburg was in both its distance and also relative proximity to Fincastle. The mountains of the area are not only rugged but rough and difficult, nearly impassable come winter, and even today their roads—a feat of incredible engineering—weave and wind around their steep sides, and no one but a bird or plane can go as the crow flies. What might seem like a reasonably short distance may take over an hour by car due to the routes roads must conform to on account of these mountains.
As the agrarian southeast of western Virginia grew slowly but steadily, Charleston lacked for relevance and also was too distant to matter much—that is, until salt reserves were found. The entire city rests upon some of the richest deposits of salt in the nation, and certainly the most viable prior to the discovery and mining of those in Louisiana. The production of salt, combined with the strategic military usefulness of Charleston as a northern outpost (Native Americans in Ohio at this time were a very serious worry on the minds of settlers) led to the growth of the city. In 1815, natural gas was discovered in the process of salt mining, and two years later coal was found. The coal quickly became a very handy fuel for the various needs of the salt industry and also the real entry of West Virginia into what would become its largest and most famous economy.
In 1862 Confederate and Union forces fought the Battle of Charleston, and the Confederates won, yet due to the remoteness of Charleston and the fact that many locals sympathized with the Union, the CSA forces could not hold on to the city. On the twentieth of June, 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation making West Virginia its own state and part of the Union, a contentious move that upset many in the southern portion of the state who sided resolutely with Virginia and the Confederacy, but one that pleased the residents of Charleston and its environs.
The reason was more economics than anything else: Charleston was never deeply agricultural, and its residents were not slaveholders nor did the states’ rights issues so dear in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia resonate with them much. Their concerns instead were that if they remained part of Virginia it would be difficult to sell the coal they mined—quickly becoming the area’s key industry—to industrial buyers such as steelmakers in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Southern counties however—the area around Lewisburg especially—continued to sympathize with the South and sent many men to fight in the Confederate cause.
Both Charleston and Wheeling were considered as West Virginia’s new state capital, and an earnest effort towards Wheeling was made with the city conducting some of the state’s early official business. Wheeling, however, was too far north, away from the contentious southern part of the state and seemingly unable to serve as a capital to all citizens. So this geographic reasoning, coupled with the mighty importance of coal to the economy, secured Charleston’s place as the state capital, a distinction it still holds today as well as being the state’s largest city and center of business and industry.
This was something of an extraordinary transformation of fortunes: less than a century prior to West Virginia’s statehood, Fincastle, Roanoke, and Lewisburg all seemed better positioned to become leading cities and perhaps even future state capital. After all, Fincastle essentially administered the largest territory of what was then the fledgling United States, for a brief period anyway. But of these cities, only Roanoke remains a bona fide regional center and city of any size, although both Fincastle and Lewisburg are county seats, and Lewisburg has built up a tremendous tourism economy as well.
Aside from its focus on industry and government, Charleston is also a leader in health care for West Virginia and the state’s de facto guardian of history. A massive chemical industry also grew up in Charleston with its original basis in the salt mines as well: chemicals for munitions during World War II were manufactured here due to need for sodium chloride to produce those chemical components. Challenges both new and old greet the city daily: Will the coal economy recover? Will emerging industries instead supplant it? How will Charleston help cities such as Beckley and Princeton that grew due to King Coal and now have faltered as coal has taken a dip in its fortunes? Despite stereotypes, West Virginia actually has long been a leader in innovation, and despite the challenges of today, that looks to continue.
Perhaps most notable of all is that Charleston is not simply a capital city but indeed the city which basically brought about West Virginia’s independent existence as a state of its own. Without the city’s commitment to coal and to supplying the Yankees with it during the Civil War, it’s entirely possible that the state would not have applied to Washington for independence and would still be part of Virginia today. While “Northern” by alliance, perhaps, West Virginia is unmistakably Southern and a dynamic part of the South today.
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