Gaining a state, losing records

Records loss in West Virginia

One hundred and fifty-one years ago today, voters in 41 counties of what was then Virginia went to the polls to cast ballots on an extraordinary question: should those counties secede from the then-Confederate State of Virginia and form a new, pro-Union State under the proposed name of the State of Kanawha?

The date was October 24th, 1861. The Civil War had been underway for six months. Battle lines between north and south were drawn.

Just going to the polls that day — regardless of which way an individual vote was cast — had to have been an act of extraordinary courage.

And it had profound effects on the records that researchers may find today in that part of what is now West Virginia.

The winds of war that blew the counties of western Virginia into a newly-created state reached gale force on 17 April 1861 when the Virginia Ordinance of Secession was adopted:


To Repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under said Constitution:

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention, on the 25th day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eight-eight, having declared that the powers granted them under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding States.

Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain that the Ordinance adopted by the people of this State in Convention, on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying or adopting amendments to said Constitution, are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid, is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong to a free and independent State. And they do further declare that the said Constitution of the United State of America is no longer binding on any of the citizens of this State.

This Ordinance shall take effect and be an act of this day when ratified by a majority of the votes of the people of this State, cast at a poll to be taken thereon on the fourth Thursday in May next, in pursuance of a schedule hereafter to be enacted.

Done in Convention, in the city of Richmond, on the seventeenth day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and in the eighty-fifth year of the Commonwealth of Virginia.1

But the passage of the Ordinance of Secession by the Virginia Convention on 17 April 1861 was not widely accepted in the counties of western Virginia. On 13 May, 430 representatives of 25 western counties met in Wheeling at what was called the First Wheeling Convention in opposition to secession. A Second Wheeling Convention met in June, with 93 members from 32 counties present. On 19 June, it adopted “An Ordinance for the Reorganization of the State Government,” calling for a temporary government to form with the ultimate intent of forming a new State and seeking its admission to the Union. Further meetings in July and August led to the adoption of an ordinance for the State of Kanawha; the boundaries and name were changed thereafter. The ordinance called for popular elections in October.2

Turnout was light on 24 October 1861. Only about a third of the voters cast ballots, and those that voted did so overwhelmingly in favor of the new state: the vote was 18,408 to 781. And they elected delegates to a constitutional convention to set up the new State.3

The State didn’t end up being named Kanawha: after the Constitution was ratified in 1862, it was admitted to the Union in 1863 as West Virginia, the 35th state.4

In part, the light voter turnout in the fall of 1861 had to have been due to the conditions prevailing at the time. In Calhoun County, for example, those loyal to the Union attempted to hold an election on the proposed new State and to select a delegate to the West Virginia Convention in Wheeling but couldn’t:

There is neither Sheriff, Clerk or Justice in said county, and no court has been held in said county since June, last [1861]; all the county officers are or have been engaged in the rebellion so that there was no one to hold an election.5

What that means for us as researchers is a gap — a big gap — in the records in many West Virginia counties. In Calhoun and other counties, civil government all but ground to a halt. The Calhoun County Court adjourned on 13 April 1861, and didn’t meet again until the September term in 1865.6

Exactly one birth was recorded in Calhoun County between 1861 and 1865, and that record may well have been created after the war.7 In all of 1862, only four marriages were recorded in the county. In 1863, only seven marriages were recorded. In 1864, two.8

The same is true in many of the counties that became West Virginia, where loyalties were bitterly divided between Union and Confederate. As late as 1864, after the new State of West Virginia was admitted to the Union, a report by the Governor noted that “it was still impracticable to organize civil authority, and that in fourteen counties there were no sheriffs or other collectors of taxes ‘because of the danger incident thereto.’”9

So when you’re researching legal records in West Virginia, remember the vote of 1861. The United States gained a State, but lost in the turmoil were years of records.


  1. Virginia Ordinance of Secession: April 17, 1861,” A State of Convenience: The Creation of West Virginia, West Virginia Archives & History ( : accessed 23 Oct 2012).
  2. “How West Virginia Became a Member of the Federal Union,” Southern Historical Magazine, 2 (July 1892): 14-21.
  3. Statehood Referendum,” A State of Convenience: The Creation of West Virginia.
  4. “How West Virginia Became a Member of the Federal Union,” Southern Historical Magazine, 2 (July 1892): 14-21.
  5. Norma Knotts Shaffer, transcriber, “Credentials of Delegate Job Robinson, Constitutional Convention 1862, January 7, 1862,” Calhoun Chronicle, 27 June 1927, reprinted in “Calhoun County in the Civil War from 1927, Part IX,” Hur (West Virginia) Herald, 13 June 2001 ( : accessed 28 April 2011).
  6. Calhoun County, West Virginia, Law Order Book 1: 93, 13 April 1861, and Book 1: 94, September Term 1865; Circuit Court Clerk, Grantsville.
  7. See Calhoun County, West Virginia, Birth Register 1: 19, Perry L. Collett, 16 July 1863; County Clerk, Grantsville.
  8. West Virginia Vital Research Records – Marriage Records Search, West Virginia Archives & History ( : accessed 23 Oct 2012).
  9. James Morton Callahan, History of West Virginia, Old and New, vol. 1 (Chicago : American Historical Society, 1923), 1: 15.
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8 Responses to Gaining a state, losing records

  1. Concetta says:

    Every time I see this, I cry, Judy… Kanawha County in West Virginia is where my family is from, and there are big, big holes that hover around this time period. Simple tasks like death records are even a challenge with many records saying name, an approximate age, and no other identifying information.

    Add onto that the widening of a major federal road throughout WV (US Route 60) and you have another layer of complication to figuring out the how, when, and where of most records.

    Thanks for a great column on this issue and spotlighting that challenges in the South are not just the legendary “court house fires”.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Not every county suffered the same degree of loss, Concetta, but an awful lot of them did. It’s definitely enough to make you cry when you come up against it.

  2. JoF says:

    All of my mother’s father’s family came from WV and lived there for at least 4 generations. I’ve been to the Archives in Charleston and the WV Collection at WVU in Morgantown several times for a couple of weeks each visit. My mother’s mother’s family was all VA and I’ve been there for weeks, too. At the WV Archives, I was told that the VA method of keeping records continued after WV was formed. If so, we have to remember that the VA vital records which started in 1853 were voluntary. People were not required to record births and deaths. Therefore, these records are somewhere between incomplete and scanty. Also, I heard at both the WV Archives and LVA that in some counties, so few people registered these events that the county officials stopped even trying to keep them. All of this means that the lack of birth and death records is not necessarily connected to the formation of the new state. Far more important would be the lack of court records although there were district courts which may fill in somewhat. Deeds can be recorded later and would have to have been before the land could be sold or inherited. Maybe I have just lucked out but I haven’t noticed any unusual lack of records in that period. My folks were in Monongalia, Pendleton, Lewis, Upshur, Ritchie and Fayette counties. So many VA and WV records have been lost that I don’t cry over them. Sometimes, I get angry when I consider the fire at John Evan’s farm (the Monongalia Co clerk) in the building he’d built to hold his records. I think it was 1794, I’d have to look it up to be sure. When we consider how few records there were at that time, the loss of most of them is awful. Thankfully, the county did work hard to get land deeds re-registered. Also, there are a lot of court records (not the minute books and such but the files and misc papers) not at the Archives but at WVU. So, there are ways around these things. VA researchers always have to deal with “ways around” as so many court houses were burned by Union soldiers. Pretty much all of us have these black holes.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re sure right that we all have to find our work-arounds, Jo, but knowing what was and wasn’t recorded in the Civil War time period (and why) can often at least stop us from spinning our wheels!

  3. Jeff says:

    What a history lesson! I’ll betcha not too many people would know what you are talking about if you were mention the “State of Kanawha!” You might get a huh?

  4. Sharon Meeker says:

    Thanks for the article on the split of West Virginia from Virginia in 1861. Maybe now will believe that all those counties were once in Virginia. I have not been able to convince them of that so far, so I’ll send them a link to your article.

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