In the 1760’s, the east coast of our continent was traced with the hand-drawn lines of thirteen colonies. Settlers hacked into the landscape and carved out industries and economies to rival those of our progenitors. For politicians and merchants, both American and British, the success of the colonies filled their coffers.
The minds of these economic artists turned in time: if thirteen colonies were profitable, wasn’t it logical that a subsequent fourteenth colony would also be successful?
While conflict broiled between their two populations, British and American merchants collaborated on the idea of a fourteenth colony—Vandalia. The proposed colony’s boundaries edged the modern-day lines of West Virginia and Kentucky.
For many potential investors, the Ohio River Valley was an untapped payload. Land speculators requested land grants for the area, but found their efforts thwarted again and again. In the late 1760’s, joined by influential heavyweights like Benjamin Franklin and British Thomas Walpole, the group of speculators formed the Grand Ohio Company and applied for a charter for a new two-million-acre colony. To appeal to the sentiments of the reigning royals, they named the colony Vandalia, in honor of Queen Charlotte’s German Vandal heritage.
In the early 1770’s, it seemed Vandalia would come to be. The British Privy Council preliminarily approved the colony in 1773, but as the broiling American conflict turned to boiling in the middle of the decade, plans for the colony were abandoned.
Future settlers of the would-be colony, however, adopted the agnomen as their own. Even modern residents of West Virginia claim “Vandalia” with stubborn gusto. The state is dotted with cafés, societies, and even a brewery that bear the name.
In Charleston, West Virginia’s capital, they pay tribute to Vandalia and their state’s heritage with an annual festival, the Vandalia Gathering.
The festival, held every Memorial Day weekend, will celebrate its 41st anniversary in 2017 (May 26–28). It’s not just a tribute to the colony that almost was; it’s a celebration of what came instead. The Vandalia Gathering celebrates the art of West Virginia, both today and throughout history.
Music is the main event of the festival, and listeners can catch the picked sounds of all sorts of instruments and styles. Traditional Appalachian musicians take to the stage, compete in competitions, and throw their sounds into spontaneous, unscripted jam sessions around town. Folks of all ages and experience levels bring their fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and guitars to play during the festival. The stage may be home to more seasoned musicians, but sometimes the greatest surprises come in the smallest—and youngest—packages, spry musicians playing alongside old-timers on the lawn.
Dance is also a popular draw at the Vandalia Gathering. Dancers shuffle, swing, and hop across stages and dance floors over the long weekend. Traditional dances with roots in other countries are on display, including Irish, Scottish, Morris, Swiss, and Croatian. The Great Hall is home to Appalachian dancing, where the audience is invited to join in if they know the steps—or even if they don’t (someone’s on hand to help with learning them).
Outside you’ll find the oldest dance in the area as Native Americans demonstrate their traditional moves, while nearby you’ll find square dancing and flatfooting. The various cultures and histories of West Virginia become one during the festival. Attendees can also check out craft demonstrations and nibble delectable bites, all with ties to the rich heritage of West Virginia.
Vandalia may not have become a colony, but what came instead was even better. The Vandalia Gathering celebrates the rich history and cultural milieu of West Virginia, today and yesterday.
SEE MORE VANDALIA GATHERING PHOTOS HERE