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Nickname: The Mountain State
Statehood: 1863; 35th state
Population (as of July, 2016): 1,831,102
Biggest City: Charleston
State bird: cardinal
State flower: rhododendron
After archaeologists discovered spear points used to hunt extinct species such as mastodons and mammoths, they realized that people have lived in what’s now West Virginia at least 10,500 years. Many thousands of years after these ancient people lived, Native American tribes including the Cherokee, Iroquois, Manahoac, Meherrin, Monacan, Nottaway, Shawnee, Occaneechi, Tutelo, and Saponi populated the land.
After the British arrived in the 1600s, the area that now encompasses West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York was all called Virginia. In 1730, Virginia’s British-controlled government offered a thousand acres free to each European family willing to move to the area that would become West Virginia. As a result, Native Americans’ homelands were taken, and tribes began supporting the French in a land war against the British (often called the French and Indian War) from 1756 until 1763.
The British won that battle, so West Virginia was still part of Virginia during the Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783. But at the beginning of the Civil War (1861-1865), West Virginia refused to secede (withdraw) from the Union along with the rest of the state. John Brown, an abolitionist—someone who wanted to abolish slavery—staged a famous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown hoped weapons gained in the raid would be used in the fight against slavery, but his raid failed. West Virginia separated from Virginia in 1861, and two years later, it became its own state.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
West Virginia was originally going to be called "Kanawha," a name that honors a Native American tribe. However, even though the region separated from Virginia, officials still wanted that as part of its new name. (Virginia was named after a nickname of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled in the late 1500s.)
West Virginia is called the Mountain State because it’s the only state completely within the Appalachian Mountain region, and its average elevation is higher than any other state east of the Mississippi River!
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Some people think this state’s shape looks like a leaping frog, with its nose in the southwestern corner. It’s bordered by Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland in the north; Maryland and Virginia in the east; Virginia and Kentucky in the south; and Kentucky and Ohio in the west. Its wiggly western border is created by the Ohio River, while its winding eastern border is created by the Appalachian Mountains. It can be divided into two geographical regions.
The Appalachian Ridge and Valley Region includes the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, which start in the northeast and run southwest. This region is known for its parallel ridges that were cut by streams, as well as canyons called “water gaps.” Forests, caves, and high peaks dot this area, including the state’s highest point, Spruce Knob.
The Allegheny Plateau spreads across the rest of the state, and has flat-topped hills and rounded peaks. Deep, stream-cut gorges and a wall of mountains called the Allegheny Front separates the state’s two regions.
At least 70 kinds of mammals inhabit West Virginia, including Virginia big-eared bats, West Virginia northern flying squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and black bears, the state animal. Wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, barred owls, bald eagles, cerulean warblers, and ruby-throated hummingbirds are among the 300 species of birds that live in the state.
Cornsnakes, mountain earthsnakes, fence lizards, stinkpots (a kind of turtle), and five-lined skinks are some of the reptiles that slither and skitter through West Virginia. Amphibians such as tiny cricket frogs, mountain chorus frogs, Allegheny Mountain dusky salamanders, and West Virginia spring salamanders also live throughout the state.
Some of West Virginia’s most common trees include hemlock, red spruce, cedar, ash, pitch pine, hickory, and cucumbertree, which has cucumber-shaped fruit. The state also has a large number of native wildflowers such as Virginia bluebells, Virginia buttonweed, Virginia potato (which has edible roots), and Virginia strawberry.
As the United States’ third most-forested state, West Virginia is known for its timber and protected woodlands. It’s also famous for its salt: Wild buffalo and deer gathered to lick natural salt deposits, and Native Americans and colonists gathered salt to cure butter and preserve meats. Today salt deposits are still mined for rock salt, which is then used to create chemicals such as chlorine.
Coal, oil, and natural gas are also important to the state’s economy.
- The New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville is the longest steel-arch bridge in the western hemisphere. Built in 1977, it turned a 40-minute mountain drive into a one-minute crossing. It’s even pictured on the West Virginia quarter.
- Visitors to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park can learn about life in the 1800s, including old-timey trades such as dressmaking, blacksmithing, and dairy making. Tour guides in period dress hang out around the historical buildings and homes. Hiking trails take you to places such as the Point, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet for a view of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia at the same time!
- Pedestrians and cyclists can follow the Wheeling Heritage Trail System along old, no longer used railway tracks for more than 13 miles.
- Wild onions called ramps are grown in West Virginia in spring. They’re so popular that they have their own annual festival called the Feast of the Ramson!
- Author and civil rights activist Pearl S. Buck, Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and pilot Chuck Yeager (the first person to break the sound barrier in flight) were all born in West Virginia.
Text by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh
Photos: Juergen Priewe, Dreamstime (flag); Pancaketom, Dreamstime (quarter); Maya Bunschoten, Dreamstime (rhodondendron); Wildphotos, Dreamstime (cardinal); Daveallenphoto, Dreamstime (black bear)
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