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ARCHIVING STATEHOOD: Collection displays birth of West Virginia

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
December 10th, 2012

BY ALEX LANG

The Dominion Post

TO COMMEMORATE the 150th anniversary of West Virginia, The Dominion Post will be publishing weekly columns by Robert O’Connor, a historian, scholar and author of six Civil War books. The first column will appear Jan. 2.

A state is born.

The Dec. 9, 1862, edition of the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer features various reports about the possibility of a West Virginia.

A headline on Page 3 states “The New State in Congress to-day.”

“To day the bill for the admission of the new State comes up in the United States House of Representatives. It is possible, but hardly to be expected, that we shall know before another issue the fate of the measure,” the article reads.

It continues, “We the shining pillar of a prosperous future before us and the sweet hope of deliverance in our hearts, we of West Virginia have followed on, till this morning we stand, as the children of Israel stood up on the Red Sea beach, and look across the only tide that rolls between us and the friendly shore which our feet are eager to press, and whose beauties our longing eyes already faintly discern. Here we stand and yonder is the land of promise, the tide be tween and the dark hosts of a worse than Pharaoh following on our track. Pray God that some Moses this day in Congress smite the turbulent waves and roll them back till we pass through in safety.”

The Dec. 10, 1862, edition continues with a late-night cable from Dec. 9 that the issue of statehood was taken up by the House.

The next day the headline, again on Page 3, details the results.

“NEW STATE ADMITTED: Vote 96 to 55!”

Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. House of Representatives approving the creation of the state of West Virginia. West Virginia wouldn’t officially be admitted to the union until June 20, 1863.

The stories and headlines from the Daily Intelligencer are among other artifacts detailing West Virginia’s statehood movement found in the archives of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection located in WVU’s Downtown Library.

West Virginia’s effort for statehood started in 1861, with a constitutional convention in Wheeling. On Dec. 10, 1862, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the new state and in March 1863 a majority of citizens approved the West Virginia statehood bill.

Creating the new state wasn’t without a bit of “fuzzy math.”

West Virginia and Regional History Collection Curator John Cuthbert said the Civil War was fought over the Confederacy seceding from the Union without its permission . That created an interesting dilemma for West Virginia, as it was trying to secede from Virginia to become a state — and would need Virginia’s permission’s to do so, Cuthbert said.

That is when forefathers, such as Francis Pierpont, came up with the idea to create a new government with the idea that the Confederacy government of Virginia basically abdicated its role in state government. The new government then gave permission for Western Virginia to leave and create its own state.

Secession was hardly the first difference of opinion between the people of western Virginia and Virginia. Cuthbert said western Virginia had an economy and geography that was different from other parts of the state. There were no plantations in the state’s western portion.

Those who lived in western Virginia also supported public education, because unlike their eastern counterparts, they could not afford to hire private tutors.

“The West Virginia people felt their needs were not taken care of in Richmond,” Cuthbert said.

The Civil War was just the event that broke all the tension between the different parts of the state, Cuthbert said.

Newspapers aren’t the only items that provide a glimpse into the mood and mindsets from the period of statehood creation at the collection.

Pierpont along with Waitman T. Wiley, of Morgantown, were the two key figures from the statehood movement, Cuthbert said. Wiley served as a U.S. senator for “loyal” Virginia and then West Virginia.

The collection has Pierpont’s telegrams from 1861-’65. It also has Wiley’s diary, which is about 6 inches thick. The diary consists of newspaper clippings about statehood and thoughts from Wiley as he detailed the events.

In showing off the diary, Cuthbert opened to one page where Wiley discussed West Virginia and creating the new Virginia government.

“West Virginia is a known fact,” wrote Wiley, who introduced the West Virginia statehood bill in the U.S. Senate.

The words, “West Virginia,” stand out from the rest of the passage as they are written in a larger size and placed on its own line.

In total, the history collection offers the most extensive archive of creation of West Virginia, Cuthbert said. But, other states might have done a better job at preserving their historical records. Cuthbert said when West Virginia left Virginia, it cut itself off from traditional record-keeping bodies. It never had a historical society, until the 1920s, when WVU Professor Charles Ambler began to collect state historical documents. The WVU governing board then set aside space in the new library — the Wise Library — to house the documents.

The state also received Works Progress Administration funds to help with record collection, Cuthbert said. There were probably a few dozen people who worked in the library collecting documents the years those funds were available.

The Wiley diary came to WVU in 1930. Pierpont’s correspondences were added in 1932, Cuthbert said.

Today, the collection is trying to make it easier for anyone, anywhere, to look at documents from the period of West Virginia’s creation. The collection has digitized some of Pierpont’s telegrams and made them available online. It has also received a grant to do the same for newspapers. Cuthbert said they were looking at digitizing Wheeling newspapers from the second half of the 19th century. The digital copies will be searchable so someone can find a word in a matter of seconds instead of having to look at every edition.

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