What’s in a name? The origin of ‘West Virginia’ … and what the state might have been called instead
“Mr. President, I have no particular objections to the word ‘Kanawha.’ They have a very beautiful river down there, a very beautiful valley, and I suppose they are very clever people; but I think, sir, we may get a more proper name for this new State than Kanawha. I think that we can find a name that will identify us so that everybody will know who we are and where we are and the material out of which we are made.”
Thomas Trainer, Delegate, Marshall County from the Debates and Proceedings of the First Constitutional Convention
In late 1861, lawmakers gathered in Wheeling to create a constitution for the “Restored Government of Virginia” that had been formed after Virginia’s western counties rejected the state’s vote to secede from the Union.
But what to call this new state? Turns out that West Virginia was not the first name proposed — or even the second or third. Check out some of these proposed names for the new state. Which name would you choose?
Kanawha was the first name lawmakers considered. But western Virginia already had a county named after the Kanawha River. The river, in turn, got its name from an Indian tribe that lived in the area. This name was tabled when some delegates expressed concern that having a state with a county of the same name would create confusion. (Not to mention the difficulty outsiders have always had in pronouncing this name. Hint: The accent is on the second syllable.)
There was discussion of naming the state Vandalia, after what almost became the country’s 14th colony. In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, English settlement began to spread rapidly in the west. Benjamin Franklin’s land company proposed creating a 14th colony, named Vandalia, to honor the family of King George III, whose wife Queen Charlotte was said to be a descendant of the ancient Vandal tribe. The Vandalia Colony would have included nearly all western Virginia, with its capital at Point Pleasant. Alas, political unrest led to the Revolutionary War, and the idea for the colony collapsed.
The location of the Constitutional Convention inspired some lawmakers to suggest the name Augusta. Ohio County, where Wheeling is located, had originally been part of Virginia’s District of Augusta, named for Augusta, Princess of Wales. Eventually the Mason-Dixon Line sliced through the middle of Augusta, carving it into Ohio and Monongalia counties.
Lawmakers also considered naming the state Allegheny, after the Allegheny Mountains that run through the eastern part of what would become West Virginia. The rugged Alleghenies are part of the Appalachian Mountain range that runs up the Eastern Coast, from Alabama to Canada. The Alleghenies were named for the Allegheny River, a Delaware Indian word said to mean “fine river.”
New Virginia, Western Virginia or West Virginia
Despite their break from Virginia, residents of the western half of the state retained a fondness for the original name, as Virginia was where many of them had been born and raised. Virginia was named after England’s Queen Elizabeth I, also known as “The Virgin Queen.” In the 1600s, the earliest colonial expeditions to the new land had been sent by the Virginia Company of London. As a result, many lawmakers were reluctant to give up this important historic connection.
And the winner is …
When it came time for the final vote, the nominees were Kanawha, Western Virginia, Allegheny, Augusta and West Virginia — the last of which won in a landslide, receiving 30 votes out of the 44 cast.
On June 20, 1863, by Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, West Virginia became the nation’s 35th state. The other proposed state names were not forgotten, however. Just thumb through a state travel guide or browse through a list of annual festivals and you’ll see some familiar names.
Take, for example, the Kanawha Players, who have been bringing their live theater productions to the Kanawha Valley since 1922. Then there’s the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College, which is dedicated to preserving folk culture through music, dance and other artistic expression. And who could forget the Vandalia Gathering, the old-time music and dance festival that takes place every spring on the grounds of the State Capitol Complex.
Those are all great names that reflect the Mountain State’s rich heritage, but it’s probably for the best that we ended up with the name West Virginia. After all, can you imagine singing, “Almost Heaven, Vandalia?”
This post was last updated on March 17, 2022