On June 20, 1863, West Virginia gained admission to the Union as the country’s 35th state. In honor of the sesquicentennial of West Virginia’s statehood, learn eight surprising facts about the Mountain State.
1. West Virginia was born out of sectional differences during the Civil War.
The schism that split the United States in two during the Civil War did the same to Virginia. From the state’s earliest days, slave-holding plantation owners in the eastern part of Virginia dominated the state’s economy and politics, leaving the self-sufficient farmers who lived in the rugged western counties, where slavery was far less prevalent, feeling ignored. Although Virginia joined the Confederacy in April 1861, the western part of the state remained loyal to the Union and began the process of separation.
2. Kanawha was originally proposed as the state’s name.
In the wake of Virginia’s secession, a convention of delegates from western Virginia met in Wheeling in 1861 for the purpose of forming the “State of Kanawha,” which incorporated 39 counties. The name honored a Native American tribe and a major state river of the same name. When the constitution for the proposed state was finalized in 1862, however, the name had changed to the more generic West Virginia.
3. Wheeling was West Virginia’s original capital.
The delegates from the western counties seeking statehood gathered in Wheeling to begin the process of joining the Union. After West Virginia achieved statehood, the capital remained in the city. In 1870, the capital shifted to Charleston, but it returned to Wheeling in 1875. The capital’s location was ultimately put to a statewide vote in 1877, but Wheeling was not among the choices. Voters selected Charleston over Martinsburg and Clarksburg, and the capital finally moved to its permanent home in 1885.
4. Western Virginians had attempted to form the state of Westsylvania after the American Revolution.
Sectional differences brewed inside Virginia for decades before the Civil War. In 1775, a group of 2,000 residents signed a petition asking the Continental Congress to create a 14th colony called Westsylvania, which would have encompassed all of today’s West Virginia along with portions of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress ignored the petition along with another plea in 1783 to make Westsylvania the 14th state. (In 1769, land speculators attempted to establish a colony called Vandalia on much of the same footprint as Westsylvania.)
5. Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was inaugurated in West Virginia.
While city dwellers began to receive free mail delivery in 1863, the same was not true for the majority of Americans who lived in rural areas. Farm families needed to travel to distant post offices to retrieve their mail or hire private companies to deliver. When RFD service began in 1896, Postmaster General William Wilson introduced it first to his home state. The first five RFD carriers began service on October 1, 1896, out of post offices in Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla.
6. For 30 years, West Virginia was home to a top-secret bunker for Congress to use in case of a nuclear war.
During the height of the Cold War in 1958, a top-secret project began to construct a bunker 720 feet beneath The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. The bunker opened in 1961 and remained on constant alert as a nuclear fallout shelter and emergency relocation facility for the U.S. Congress. After the Washington Post revealed the secret in 1992, the bunker was decommissioned and is now open for public tours.
7. George Washington’s brothers built estates that still stand in West Virginia.
George Washington wasn’t the only member of the family to have a town named in his honor. His youngest brother Charles moved to western Virginia and in 1780 built an estate called Happy Retreat, out of which he set aside 80 acres for the creation of Charles Town, which was founded in 1786 and named in his honor. Another Washington brother, Samuel, constructed another nearby estate, Harewood, which was the location of James and Dolley Madison’s 1794 wedding. (George Washington himself surveyed the lands of western Virginia as a youth and purchased land along the Bullskin Run in present-day Berkeley County.)
8. West Virginia claims to be the birthplace of Mother’s Day.
Two years after Grafton, West Virginia, native Ann Jarvis passed away in 1905, her daughter Anna invited several friends to her home to commemorate her mother’s life. There she announced her idea to establish a national day of honor for all mothers. On May 10, 1908, Grafton’s Andrews Methodist Church, where Ann Jarvis taught Sunday School for two decades, hosted the first official Mother’s Day service. West Virginia issued the first Mother’s Day proclamation in 1910, four years before a joint resolution in the U.S. Congress designated the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. The church is now home to the International Mother’s Day Shrine.