This story was originally published on June 20, 2013, in a special tabloid released to commemorate West Virginia’s 150th birthday.
Delegates at the constitutional convention found themselves in a state of confusion.
On October 24, 1861, voters in 41 western Virginia counties overwhelmingly voted to break away from the Old Dominion and form a brand-new state called “Kanawha.”
Representatives at the 2nd Wheeling Convention, held the previous summer, had agreed on the name. And voters, by casting their vote for secession, also had adopted “Kanawha” as the de facto name for their new home state.
It appeared Kanawha soon would take its place on Union maps alongside other Native American names like Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.
But then came December 3, 1861.
Delegates had again convened in Wheeling to craft a constitution for the new State of Kanawha. On this particular Friday, representatives were set to adopt a resolution declaring the U.S. Constitution, as well as all other federal laws and treaties, the “supreme law of the land.”
The clerk read the first section of the code.
“The State of Kanawha shall be and remain one of the United States of America. The Constitution of the United States, and the laws and treaties made in pursuance thereof…”
He paused at the end of the first paragraph, waiting for delegates to approve, amend or strike down the language.
Harmon Sinsel of Taylor County took the floor.
“Mr. President,” he said, addressing convention leader John Hall, a delegate from Mason County. “In the first section I move to strike out the word ‘Kanawha.’”
Sinsel, an architect from Pruntytown, wanted the new state to be called “Virginia.”
“I am a Virginian. I was born and raised in Virginia, and I have ever been proud of the name,” he said. “I admit that Virginians have done wrong, that many of them in this rebellion have disgraced themselves. But that has not weaned me from the name.”
Other delegates rose to support Sinsel’s motion.
Cabell County Delegate Granville Parker was worried calling the state “Kanawha” would create confusion, since there was already a large county with the same name
J.M. Powell, of Harrison County, said his constituents asked him to urge the convention to strike out Kanawha and call the state “Western Virginia.” Delegate Elbert Caldwell said Marshall County voters expressed similar wishes.
“It was not because of any particular objection to the name of Kanawha, but because they desired (the state) should bear the name of Western Virginia,” Caldwell said. “Western Virginia is the most proper name for this new state.”
Delegate Edward Mahon said everyone he’d talked to in Jackson County had “great objections” to the name “Kanawha,” preferring “Western Virginia” or even “New Virginia.”
Waitman Willey, of Monongalia County, said he opposed “Kanawha” for different reasons.
“It is a very hard name to spell,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Willey, who would later become a U.S. Senator, said “West Virginia” was the only name that made sense.
“We are known and recognized as West Virginia, on the continent, over the sea, in Europe, and everywhere. We are spoken of as ‘West Virginia,’” he said.
But “Kanawha” also had its supporters.
Peter Van Winkle ridiculed the delegates wishing to keep ties with Virginia. He compared them to the Children of Israel, opining for the land of Pharaoh even while on their way to the Promised Land.
“As of old, the cry is going up ‘Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and when we did eat bread to the full!’” he said.
Van Winkle said if delegates named their new state “West Virginia” or “New Virginia”—he mockingly added “Little Virginia” to the list of suggestions—it would always be subordinate to the original Virginia.
He argued “Kanawha” would be a more suitable, more attractive name.
“I think it is one of the most euphonious words with which I am acquainted. Almost every letter in it has a soft and musical sound,” he said.
The debate dragged on for hours, beginning shortly after members convened in the morning and lasting into the late afternoon.
Daniel Lamb, a retired lawyer and bank clerk from Ohio County, pointed out that voters had already approved the name “Kanawha.” He asked his colleagues to remember the injustices western Virginians suffered at the hands of the Old Dominion.
He reminded delegates that western Virginia had little representation in Virginia’s government and, even though they paid taxes to the state, received little in the way of public improvements or public buildings.
“I have been an inhabitant of western Virginia for thirty odd years. During that time, what have we received here but oppression and outrage?” he said. “We have been denied by the state of Virginia, for many long years, our proper share in the representation and government of the State.
“I want to cut loose from these recollections. I want to have the new state, not merely in substance, but even in name. If Kanawha is stricken out, I do not want to see anything that has Virginia to it inserted in the blank.”
Lamb would not have his way, however.
Delegates eventually agreed to put the names up to several rounds of votes, where the name with the lowest amount of support would be dropped until one option gained a majority vote.
Although they received little discussion, the names “Allegheny” and “Augusta” entered the fray. Caldwell suggested “West Virginia.” James Hervey of Brooke County offered “New Virginia.”
Wetzel delegate R. W. Lauck recommended “Columbia,” which he considered “a beautiful name.” A parliamentary error kept it off the ballot, however.
Finally, it was time for a vote.
Augusta received one vote, from Preston County Delegate John J. Brown.
Western Virginia garnered two votes, from Powell and Upshur County Delegate Richard Brooks.
Allegheny also received two votes, from William Stevenson of Wood County and Joseph Pomeroy from Hancock.
“Kanawha” received nine votes, with supporters including Van Winkle, Lamb and both Kanawha County delegates.
There was no need for another round of votes. “West Virginia” received overwhelming support, with 30 delegates voting in favor of the name.
“So it was determined,” the clerk wrote, “to fill the blank with ‘West Virginia.’”
It’s now 152 years later, and some of our forefathers’ predictions have come true.
As Van Winkle guessed, some still view this state as “Little Virginia,” or “the Other Virginia.”
Worse, other people don’t even know West Virginia exists.
Last year, ESPN announcer Brad Nessler described the Mountaineers as “another team from the state of Virginia.” More recently, a Midwestern television channel placed Williamson in “West Virginia County, Va.”
Hunter Lesser, an archaeologist who serves on the state’s Sesquicentennial Commission, said West Virginia’s name probably has given residents somewhat of an identity crisis.
“It seems like West Virginians are hypersensitive about our state, in defense of West Virginia,” he said.
That’s nothing new. Lesser said people from western Virginia have always had an underdog mentality, ready to defend their home at the drop of a coonskin cap.
David Javersak, a professor emeritus at West Liberty University, said naming the state “Kanawha” might have eliminated some of the confusion among geographical know-nothings.
“Maybe we’d have better recognition. Because once you heard it, ‘Oh, you’re from that strange sounding state.’ They wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it, but they would remember it,” he said.
Still, Lesser and Javersak agreed it is difficult to imagine this fair state with any other name besides “West Virginia.” It’s strange to consider that, had history turned out just a little differently, there would be no “West Virginia Hills,” or “Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia.”
Even Peter Van Winkle would have to admit, “Kanawha Mountaineers” just doesn’t have the same ring.