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Territorial tensions


trans-Allegheny waters
trans-Allegheny waters

By 1860 West Virginia was a land of small farms and growing industry; it was very different from the Virginia lands to the east, where large tobacco plantations were worked by black slaves. Large numbers of immigrants had come west of the Alleghenies, many of them Irish people who had come to the United States after the potato famine in the 1840s. These immigrants, along with the rugged, hardworking frontiersmen and women, most of whom came from Pennsylvania, were very different from the wealthy planters of eastern Virginia.

The mountain barrier prevented any strong economic ties with the rest of Virginia. The trans-Allegheny waters emptied into the Ohio River, and rail connections were with Baltimore, Maryland. People of western Virginia felt more closely allied with Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio than with the South. Proposals to separate Virginia’s western counties had been made as early as 1820.

During the 19th century western Virginians increasingly resented the political domination of their state by the eastern planters. They complained that they were overtaxed and underrepresented in the legislature. They deplored the lack of public education and felt they were not getting their fair share of internal improvements. Their clamor for reform resulted in a constitutional convention in 1829-1830. Their demands were not met, and talk of separation grew louder. Some westerners wanted to attach themselves to Maryland or Pennsylvania, and others wanted separate statehood for trans-Allegheny counties. Continued western indignation finally resulted in a new constitution in 1851 that corrected some grievances by giving the vote to all adult white men, providing for more equitable representation in the legislature, and making county and major state officials elective.

But major criticisms were directed at provisions giving slaveholders great advantages in taxation, hampering education and internal improvements, and obstructing the creation of new counties.

By 1860 discontent in western Virginia was again high. A further irritant was the fact that the westerners were mostly against slavery and thus did not sympathize with the gathering movement in Virginia and the rest of the South to secede from the federal Union. One of the events that propelled the South toward secession was the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County, by outlawed abolitionist John Brown. Brown intended to establish an independent free state in the Virginia mountains that would be a refuge for runaway slaves.

With 21 men, he captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and waited for black recruits to join him. They did not arrive, and his force was surrounded and captured by local militia and a detachment of the U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried by the state of Virginia for treason and murder and was executed. His action sharply divided the nation into proslavery and antislavery factions, and his death made him a hero to the cause of the abolition of slavery.

In the national election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president as the candidate of the Republican Party, which opposed the spread of slavery. The Southern state of South Carolina had threatened to secede if the Republicans won, and in December 1860 it did so. Other Southern states followed, including Virginia on April 17, 1861. When the westerners learned that the eastern Virginians had taken them out of the United States, they held mass protest meetings and proceeded to create their own state. "West Virginia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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