Perhaps as many as half of the early settlers in the region were only temporary residents. These pioneer farmers hunted, grazed livestock, and cultivated crops to eke out a subsistence, but as the population density increased after a few years, many moved west. Permanent settlers, however, worked to improve their farms and communities. There was little industry yet in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so most every family was engaged in farming. Because of West Virginia's rough terrain and the scarcity of sophisticated farming implements, the average farmer cleared and cultivated only twenty-five acres. Sometimes trees were removed by setting the forest on fire. Another method of clearing the forest was known as girdling, where a band of bark was removed all the way around a tree, causing it to die. Corn was the biggest crop, although other grains were grown for cash. Cattle, hogs, and sheep were raised in large numbers, as they could be herded across the mountains to market.
Farming on this relatively small scale could not make economical use of slave labor, but it required the contribution of every member of the family including women and children. Women raised children, cooked, cleaned, preserved food, and made garments for the entire family from homespun flax. They also raised poultry and dairy cows in order to sell eggs and butter. The farm woman's income was essential to the family. Not only did it provide food to carry the family through hard times, the added income brought in cash to purchase goods that could not be made at home.
Settlement in West Virginia
West Virginia History Center