Since this weekend honors both Father’s Day and West Virginia’s birthday, it seems like an apt moment to look back at the time when the state’s founding fathers found themselves in quandary about what to name the soon-to-be-born state.
Eighteen months before West Virginia Statehood Day, delegates to the state’s First Constitutional Convention met in Wheeling, where, on Dec. 3, 1861, a vote was taken on a standing committee’s recommendation made three months earlier to name the state “Kanawha.”
“The State of Kanawha shall be and remain one of the United States of America,” according to the first line of the first section proposed for adoption, read aloud by the convention clerk. “The Constitution of the United States, and the laws and treaties made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land ...”
Before the clerk could begin the next sentence, Harmon Sinsel, a delegate from Taylor County, moved to strike the word “Kanawha” from the report, saying he was opposed to leaving “Virginia” out of the new state’s name. He said he was proud of being a Virginian, even though “many Virginians in this rebellion have disgraced themselves.” His objection was followed by one from Granville Parker of Cabell County, who observed the proposed name did not exactly roll off the tongue, and had no particular historic importance, though allowing “there is a very pretty river of this name.”
While stating the name Kanawha represents “a very beautiful valley” populated by “I suppose, very clever people,” T.H. Trainer, a delegate from Marshall County, suggested that “a more proper name that would more fully present the state to the world” should be chosen. In the debate that ensued, the names Columbia, Augusta, Allegheny, New Virginia, Western Virginia and West Virginia were suggested.
Delegate Daniel Lamb of Ohio County said while he held “no particular fancy” for naming the state Kanawha, it was better than including “Virginia” in the new state’s title.
“We have been denied by the state of Virginia for many long years our proper share in representation, public improvements and public buildings,” Lamb said. The government in Richmond, he added, “did not hesitate on our account” to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy, acting instead in the interest “of the conspirators who had been the leaders in eastern Virginia. They would have transferred you, without asking your consent, at once to the Confederate states,” according to Lamb.
Why rebel against a government “in every respect in which it is possible to do so and still retain its name?” Lamb asked. “I want to have a new state, in substance and in name ... If you are so attached to Virginia that you are unwilling to lose the name, you are creating the impression that Virginia policy still governs. Let that impression go through the land and you will prevent hundreds and thousands from coming within your borders.”
In the end, the delegates narrowed the list of possible names to Kanawha, Allegheny, Augusta, Western Virginia and West Virginia, and voted. West Virginia drew 30 votes, while Kanawha collected 9. Allegheny and Western Virginia each tallied 2 votes while only a single vote went to Augusta.
While the vote favoring West Virginia apparently mirrored public opinion at the time, having a state name with no attachment to Virginia may have had its benefits in establishing a unique identity and an independent brand.
It would also have made it possible to avoid some of the confusion history-impaired and geography-impaired folks have in discerning differences between places with somewhat similar names, like the state of New Mexico and the nation of Mexico. Or mentioning to a West Virginian that they have a cousin in Richmond.
Thankfully, Kanawha was not a finalist, preventing the establishment of the most mispronounced state in the nation.