Charleston: History

Fort Leads to Founding of City

Centuries before the first white frontiersmen explored the area that is now Charleston, the Adena, a Native American tribe, inhabited the Kanawha Valley. The Adenas were mound builders, and one of West Virginia's largest examples of their unique earthworks is located in downtown South Charleston.

The influx of traders and land surveyors—most of whom were Virginians—into the Kanawha Valley region began in the mid-1760s. In 1773, Colonel Thomas Bullitt and a group of surveyors on their way to Kentucky briefly established a camp there. Bullitt again visited the valley in 1775 and, in return for his military service during the French and Indian War, he was allowed to stake a claim of more than 1,000 acres. Upon his death the claim went to his brother, Cuthbert Bullitt, who in turn sold the land to Colonel George Clendenin in 1787.

Just a few weeks after the deal was finalized, the governor of Virginia instructed Clendenin to organize a company of soldiers to protect the Kanawha Valley from native raiding parties. In 1788, the colonel erected a fort on a portion of his land that ran along the river. The completion of this stockade—known officially as Fort Lee but often referred to as Clendenin's Settlement—and the security it represented attracted a number of pioneers to the area in just a few years. So many people had settled there by 1794 that some of the other Clendenin land holdings were divided into lots, and the Virginia Assembly authorized the creation of a town, named Charles Town in honor of George Clendenin's father. (Common usage eventually shortened this to Charleston, the name of record on January 19, 1818, the day the town was officially established.) Drawn by reports of abundant game in the valley, Daniel Boone and his family were among Charleston's early residents, but the region grew so quickly that they soon left for the Kentucky wilderness.

Economy Grows Around Natural Resources

Salt manufacturing was the first industry to gain a foothold in Charleston. In 1797, a salt furnace was constructed in nearby Malden, and by the mid-1800s Kanawha Valley salt was being shipped from Charleston to all parts of the country. Throughout the first half of the century the city also grew in importance as a transportation center, primarily as a point of transfer for east-west travelers who arrived by wagon or on horseback and continued their journey by boat.

The Civil War divided Charleston. Some citizens fought for the Confederacy, but most sided with the Union. The conflict also hastened the decline of the salt trade (which had already reached its peak around 1856) and forced the development of alternative industries, particularly those involving coal, oil, and gas. The city grew rapidly after the war, aided in part by the relocation of West Virginia's capital from Wheeling to Charleston in 1870. The coming of the railroad in 1873 and improved navigation on the Kanawha River opened up coal mining on an even larger scale, and Charleston prospered as a market and wholesale center.

Between 1885 and the beginning of World War I, Charleston grew slowly but steadily, its economy bolstered by increasing demand for the natural resources it processed and sold throughout the country. Around 1913, however, a new era in the city's development began when the first chemical company was established. Others soon followed and were eventually joined by glass manufacturers. With America's entry into the war, some of these new factories switched over to producing munitions, but coal and chemicals continued to attract the most foreign capital and new residents.

In the years since World War I, Charleston has come to rely more and more on the manufacture of synthetic materials as the basis of its industrial economy; during World War II, for example, the Kanawha Valley was a center for synthetic rubber production. Thus, as has been the case since its earliest days as a frontier town, the fortunes of the city are inextricably linked with the demand for the natural resources it has in such abundance.

Charleston, as well as most of West Virginia, was affected by recession in the early 1980s. Moderate growth followed, and between 1985 and 1990 personal income grew due to Charleston's industrial growth. According to former Mayor Jay Goldman: "The year 2000 marks a period of potential growth and rebirth for Charleston. Downtown revitalization has brought pride and enthusiasm back to those who live and work [in] Charleston while maintaining our small-town ambience." Today's Charleston prides itself on its friendliness to visitors. The city's commitment to revitalization is evident throughout beautification and quality of life projects throughout the early years of the 21st century.

Historical Information: West Virginia (State) Department of Education and the Arts, Division of Culture and History, Archives and History Library, 1900 Kanawha Blvd. E., Charleston, WV 25305; telephone (304)558-0230