Most slaves from present-day West Virginia lived in the Eastern Panhandle counties, but a substantial slave population existed in the Kanawha Valley. Due to the decline of plantation agriculture in the 1800s, slavery was no longer as profitable in the east and slaves were frequently hired out or sold. The salt industry was driven by poor white transients and slave labor, often leased from eastern Virginia. This was the first significant introduction of slavery into western Virginia because salt was the first major industry to develop. In fact, by the 1800s, slave labor was rarely used in areas that did not rely heavily upon industry. Similarly, industrialization in the late 1800s and early 1900s would later bring many transient African Americans into the state.
Of the slaves in the Kanawha Valley, half were owned or hired by salt firms. Forty percent of these slaves were used to mine coal for the salt works because they could be hired from their owners for much lower wages than white laborers demanded. These slaves were usually leased and insured rather than bought due to the risk of death or injury in the coal mines.
The failure of slavery to become as vital and profitable to the western Virginia economy led many to the opinion that the existence of slavery actually harmed the economy and discouraged immigrants from settling in the region. Abolitionists such as Henry Ruffner based their beliefs on economic and political ramifications rather than moral arguments.