On June 20th our great state will mark its 149th birthday, and many West Virginians will gather to celebrate this important day in our history.
In 1861, our nation was on the precipice of civil war. The stakes were high, passions fueled and emotions charged by differences of opinion and dreams versus nightmares. It was North versus South, brother against brother, and the wealth and ideals of an industrialized North versus the genteel traditions of a region rooted in agriculture.
A citizen in 1861 Virginia could only speculate how the Civil War might affect the South, and especially within one’s own state. Nevertheless, the young president of this still new and evolving union of the people, pondered the fate of a nation and the lasting imprint his decisions would make on the history of our United States – the greatest democracy on earth.
West Virginia is the only state in the history of our nation to have acquired its autonomy by proclamation of the President. Ours is also the only state formed by seceding from its parent state.
Western Virginia became “West Virginia” – the 35th state in the Union – on June 20, 1863. The pioneer spirit of the many who had settled in the western region of the state of Virginia was soaring high and strong that day. “Mountaineers” had longed for this independence since 1769.
West Virginia with all of our beautiful mountains, huge rivers, and vast wildlife makes it such a unique and wonderful state. Some visitors to our state might ask what it means to be a West Virginian.
Our state motto, “Montani simper liberi” – Mountaineers are always free – is a reflection of our dedication to family, friends and neighbors, and our commitment to deeply value life and liberty.
Many have come to our state a “stranger” and welcomed by the many wonderful West Virginians who staff the Visitor Centers throughout our state as travel and tourism ambassadors. Each traveler has one resounding impression following a visit to our state, genuinely saying that West Virginians are honest and hard working people who embrace our distinctive and fun loving culture.
West Virginia Day is often a time for family celebrations of some sort, like a family picnic or barbecue, with hiking and swimming, but we should also take time to reflect on the historical side of our great state.
As our state grew and grappled with its new sovereignty, we savored our freedom but wrangled with where to locate our state capitol – the physical and ideological center of our state’s government. Over twenty years, and six times in all, our state capitol moved between Wheeling and Charleston.
It was a political tug of war between cities and lawmakers. With steamboats Mountain Boy, Emma Graham, Chesapeake and the Iron Valley, packed with state officials and state archives travelling along the Ohio and Kanawha rivers so often, many West Virginians of the time described the journeys as “The Floating Capitol.”
I encourage all my fellow West Virginians to visit our state capitol in Charleston – one of the most beautiful in the world – to experience the magnificence and majesty of this symbol of our freedom, designed by the world-famous architect, Cass Gilbert.
Happy Birthday West Virginia, and may God continue to bless our beautiful and bountiful state.