West Virginia: Early Inhabitants and European Settlement

Early Inhabitants and European Settlement

The Mound Builders were the earliest known inhabitants. When the first Europeans arrived, however, the region was for the most part unpopulated, serving as a common hunting ground (and therefore a battleground) for the settlers and Native Americans. This part of Virginia, which later became West Virginia, was penetrated by explorers and fur traders as early as the 1670s. It was cut off from the eastern regions by rugged mountains and remained uninhabited for more than a century after Virginia had thriving colonies.

What is now the Eastern Panhandle attracted the first settlers. They were Germans and Scotch-Irish, and they came not over the Blue Ridge Mts. from Virginia but rather down the valleys from Pennsylvania. German families established (c.1730) a settlement on the Potomac and named it Mecklenburg; now called Shepherdstown, it is the oldest town in the state. Homes sprang up along the rivers, but the formidable Allegheny Plateau barrier was not crossed until after the British government, concerned about French claims to the Ohio valley, granted (1749) the Ohio Company large tracts of land in the trans-Allegheny region.

Settlers began laboriously making their way over the mountains, and they eventually came into conflict with the French; this conflict was the direct cause of the French and Indian War (1754–63; see under French and Indian Wars). During the war, most settlers fled the area. They returned after the English captured Fort Duquesne in 1758 and broke the French hold on the Ohio valley. Great numbers poured back over the mountains, ignoring the British proclamation of 1763, which, in the hopes of avoiding conflict with the Native Americans, forbade settlement W of the Alleghenies.

The Native Americans resented this encroachment on their hunting grounds, and their hostility was fed by the often unjust treatment they received at the hands of settlers. The brutal murder of the family of chief James Logan provoked a series of attacks that resulted in Lord Dunmore's War (see Dunmore, John Murray, 4th earl of), in which the Native Americans were decisively defeated (Oct. 10, 1774).

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. Political Geography