Kanawha we hardly new ye

Saw this post the other day on Strange Maps, a great site for the cartographically inclined.

The map is dated prior to Dec. 1861, when part of what is now West Virginia (where I was born and raised) seceded from Virginia to join the Union. It shows proposed borders that are pretty different from the way they ended up, when it became a state officially in 1863, the only state borne of the Civil War.

From the article:

Possibly to annoy the Virginians even more, the first name proposed for the new state wasn’t West Virginia but Kanawha, after the river of the same name (1). But since the delegates to the state’s constitutional convention thought that to name the state thus would unnecessarily raise confusion with the county of Kanawha within the state, a new name was sought. Vandalia, Columbia, Augusta, Allegheny, New Virginia and Western Virginia were a few of the alternatives that bounced around the room. The delegates finally settled on West Virginia, in part also to reflect their Virginian heritage.

It reminded me of the first couple graphs in “Affilicting the Comfortable” by the late investigative journalist Thomas Stafford. He articulates the geographic oddity of the state:

West Virginia’s eastern border extends nearly to Washington, DC.  Its northern border pushes north of Pittsburgh. Its western border goes longitudinally beyond Cleveland. Its southern border is latitudinally south of Richmond…West Virginia, in other words, was and is a hybrid with ties to no particular region. Mapmakers, textbook writers, and congressional committees have ever been quite certain how to categorize it geographically. West Virginia is neither northern, southern, nor mid-Atlantic; it is certainly not a Great Lakes state, nor is it Midwestern. It is an American original with all the problems of the original colonies when they tried to merge their interests, aspirations, and resources into a single federation.

Stafford explains that these Western Virginians were quick to take advantage of Virginia’s secession from the Union, even if it was unconstitutional:

Since colonial days, the inhabitants of Virginia’s mountainous western region had grumbled that the government in Richmond treated their section of the state like a poor stepchild or colonial outpost, sucking out resources and taxes while returning little in the way of financial support…Western Virginia — where slaveholding was neither popular nor widespread — seceded from Virginia and declared itself loyal to the Union.

As someone commented in the Strange Maps post, I don’t know how many times after I’ve mentioned I was from West Virginia someone has replied “Oh! I love Virginia Beach,” or, “I have a friend from Richmond.” Well, that’s super, but W.Va. is a different state. We’ve got maps to prove it.

About the Author

grant smith
Hi. I’m a freelance journalist and data specialist living in NJ/NYC. I like to play outside.

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