Early Settlement (to 1774)

In 1669, King Charles II granted land patents, including the eastern part of the present state of West Virginia, to supporters of his family. By 1719, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, had consolidated claim to the entire 5,282,000 acres in his own name. Winning a dispute over the state of Virginia in 1746, Fairfax was officially granted all the land to the North Branch of the Potomac by the King of England. Fairfax had the land surveyed and leased to European immigrants in a manner similar to the European feudal system. He also sold much of it to land speculators.

Over the next two decades, England granted other large tracts of property to various land companies, attempting to copy Fairfax's success, but the Native Americans, French, and scattered settlers complicated their efforts. It would take many years to establish British control over the region.

Dispute over land in the Ohio Valley in the 1740s led to armed conflict in 1754. Treaties between the British, French, and Native Americans in the 1740s failed to clear title to the property in question. The French had laid claim to the territory on the basis of explorations of Robert Cavelier, the Sieur de La Salle and Celeron de Bienville. The British claims were based also on early explorations, as well as the original charter of the colony of Virginia, which claimed all the territory extending to the Mississippi River. Treaties with the Iroquois in 1722 and 1744, and with the Delaware and Shawnee tribes in 1752, gave England a more legal claim. However, under terms of the Native American concept of the land, many tribes other than the Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee claimed rights to the territory. Forced into a confrontational stance with Great Britian, the Native Americans allied with the French, who primarily wanted the territory for trading purposes rather than for settlement, which Native Americans perceived as a threat to their way of life. As a result, much of the French and Indian War (or Seven Years War), from 1756 and 1763, took place in the Appalachian region.

Early defeats in the French and Indian War led Virginia Governor Dinwiddie to construct forts in present West Virginia as defensive positions from attack. These forts became a boundary that approximate the eastern border of West Virginia. Native American warriors attacked Fort Evans in present-day Berkeley County in 1756, and Forts Seybert and Upper Tract in present-day Pendleton County in 1758, as well as sites throughout the Monongahela, New River, and Greenbrier valleys. In November 1758, the British captured Fort Duquesne (renamed Fort Pitt) at the mouth of the Ohio River at present-day Pittsburgh, securing the Ohio Valley. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the French and Indian War, giving England title to virtually all territory east of the Mississippi River.

With the French eliminated, the Native Americans were left alone in their fight against colonial agression. In the summer of 1763, the Delaware and Shawnee tribes decided to attack settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains. Under the Ottawa chief Pontiac, Native American warriors captured most of the trans-Allegheny forts, with the exception of Fort Pitt. On August 6, 1763, British forces, under Colonel Henry Bouquet destroyed Delaware and Shawnee forces at Bushy Run in present-day western Pennsylvania, paving the way for colonial settlement. However, England's King George III's Proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains in an attempt to avoid contact with Native Americans.

In 1768, the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes released their claims to the territory between the Ohio River and the Allegheny Mountains. This nullified the Proclamation of 1763, producing a rapid increase in settlement. Land speculators again became concerned with their legal rights to the land on which white settlers were squatters. One of the speculators was none other than George Washington, who acquired 45,000 acres of present-day Mason, Putnam, and Kanawha counties.

With the incursion of colonial surveyors into the trans-Allegheny region, Shawnee forces once again attempted to defend their property. Colonists attempted pre-emptive attacks which further infuriated the Native Americans. In 1773, land speculator Michael Cresap led a group of volunteers from Fort Fincastle (later renamed Fort Henry) at present-day Wheeling, murdering several Shawnee at Captina Creek. Among many other atrocities, on April 30, 1774, colonists murdered the family of Mingo chieftain Tah-gah-jute, who had been baptized under the English name of Logan. Although Logan had previously lived peacefully with whites, he killed at least 13 settlers that summer in revenge, justifying his actions in a famous letter.

Virginia Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, decided to end the conflict in the Ohio Valley by force. Dummore created two armies, one marching from the North, consisting of 1,700 men led by himself and the other marching from the South, comprised of 800 troops led by western Virginia resident and land speculator Captain Andrew Lewis. Shawnee chieftain Keigh-tugh-qua, or Cornstalk, elected to strike the southern regiment before they united with Dunmore's forces. On October 10, 1774, Cornstalk's approximately 1,200 men attacked Lewis' forces at the confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, present-day Point Pleasant. After the battle, which resulted in significant losses on both sides and a Shawnee retreat to protect their settlements in the Scioto Valley, Lord Dummore met with members of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo tribes. As a condition of the subsequent Treaty of Camp Charlotte, the Native American tribes relinquished all property and hunting claims on land south of the Ohio River.

The Battle of Point Pleasant eliminated Native Americans as a force on the frontier for the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, clearing the way for peaceful settlement of the region. It was the second colonial step in eliminating the elements restricting settlement and successful land speculation, as the Treaty of Paris had removed the French eleven years before. The Revolutionary War would eventually remove British claims from the Appalachian region, leaving the area in the hands of large non-resident land holders such as George Washington, Robert Morris, and DeWitt Clinton.

The white settlement of present-day West Virginia probably began with the first German settlers at Mecklenburg (present-day Shepherdstown) in 1727, despite earlier claims that Morgan Morgan had been the first. By the end of the 1700s, the present-day Eastern Panhandle counties of Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan had well-established towns, while the western part of the state was first being settled. The development of the western regions was delayed due to conflict with Native Americans and land companies disputing property rights. Evidence of this pattern of development can be traced by looking at the oldest homes in various regions. For instance, the oldest surviving houses in Jefferson and Berkeley County date to the 1760s and 1770s while the oldest in western locations such as Charleston date only to the early 1800s.

Settlement in West Virginia

West Virginia Archives and History