WV Genealogical Research

Genealogical Research in West Virginia

Examining county lines becomes important in performing genealogical research in many states because most records are still kept at the county seat. Knowing when a county was formed or broken up into smaller counties is essential when trying to locate particular individuals. Often, I have been unable to locate ancestors in counties in which they lived, and so I have been forced to delve into materials relevant to county formation to determine where these “vanishing” ancestors were. If you encounter similar problems, be sure to visit websites for your state and/or county to discover similar information. The details presented here pertain to West Virginia, but the rationale can be employed for other states as well.

Formation of western Virginia counties that became West Virginia (1863)–By Year

Year of Formation

From This County

To New County

1743

Orange

Frederick

1745

Orange

Augusta

1754

Augusta, Frederick

Hampshire

1770

Augusta

Botetourt

1772

Frederick

Berkeley

1772

Botetourt

Fincastle

1772

Augusta

Monongalia

1772

Augusta

Ohio

1772

Augusta

Yohoghany (Yohogania)

1777

Fincastle

Kentucky

1777

Fincastle

Montgomery

1778

Botetourt, Montgomery

Greenbrier

1778

Augusta

Illinois

1780

Kentucky

Fayette

1780

Kentucky

Jefferson

1780

Kentucky

Lincoln

 

Formation of western Virginia counties that became West Virginia–By County

From This County

To This New County

Year of Creation

Augusta, Frederick

Hampshire

1754

Augusta

Botetourt

1770

Augusta

Monongalia

1772

Augusta

Ohio

1772

Augusta

Yohogany

1772

Augusta

Illinois

1778

Botetourt

Fincastle

1772

Botetourt, Montgomery

Greenbrier

1778

Frederick

Berkeley

1772

Fincastle

Kentucky

1777

Fincastle

Montgomery

1777

Kentucky

Fayette

1780

Kentucky

Jefferson

1780

Kentucky

Lincoln

1780

Orange

Augusta

1745

Orange

Frederick

1743

 

In 1792, Kentucky county became the state of Kentucky. Illinois included all the lands of Augusta County that were north of the Ohio River and this property was ceded to the Federal Government in 1784. It is also significant that the State of Virginia claimed extensive tracts of land that became the basis of boundary disputes for years. You should keep in mind that contemporary histories or public records reflect which county and state had jurisdiction at the time the records were produced, so a relative in PA might be in VA, for instance.

Virginia claimed land in present-day western Pennsylvania by right of charter, and had a presence at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers by 1754. Many of the earliest residents considered themselves Virginians, having previously lived in the Potomac River watershed. Ohio County originally included a western segment of Greene and Washington Counties in Pennsylvania. Monongalia County included the remainder of Greene County, a southern section of Washington County and a western slice of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Yohogania County, which became extinct less than a decade later, encompassed those parts of Beaver and Allegheny Counties south of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers, the remainder of Washington and Fayette Counties and all of Westmoreland County. Residents of this area may appear on Pennsylvania and Virginia military records, as units were recruited from the area. Virginia regiments departed for operations on the western frontier from bases at or near Fort Pitt (today’s Pittsburgh, PA). The pioneers in southwestern Pennsylvania, northwestern Virginia and West Virginia considered themselves Virginians even a century after Ohio and Pennsylvania, for example, had control and dominion over those areas.

After the Revolutionary War, veterans who had served three years or more were awarded bounty land warrants. Most of western Virginia had already been given away, so Revolutionary War vets received land grants in the Virginia Military Reserve areas in Ohio and Kentucky (called the Western Reserve). The Library of Virginia preserves original documents such as testaments from superior officers and fellow soldiers, most of which are available in microfilm or fiche, or may be digitized. Also of interest are ‘public service claims’ made by civilians who assisted the Patriot army with food, horses, mules, weapons, and ammunition.

James Mullenax Bounty

James Mullenax Bounty

For Civil War records, try to establish whether your ancestor was in the Union or Confederate forces. Only Union veterans and their widows were eligible for pensions. West Virginia is especially difficult because, despite the new state’s creation when it refused to secede with other southern states, those who fought were equally represented on both sides, blue and gray. For Union soldiers and sailors, search theWest Virginia Adjutant General’s and National Archives records, For decades, it was assumed that in WV Union soldiers outnumbered Confederates by about 3 to 1, but we now know that the ratio was about 50/50.

James Plum 15th VA Infantry

James Plum 15th VA Infantry

Once you have located your ancestor in the alphabetized indexes, determine his regiment, whether he was in the infantry, cavalry, artillery, or navy. You can then determine the company letter, age, enlistment date, muster-out date, and even enlistment and/or discharge papers listing the soldier’s physical characteristics and home county. The muster rolls may indicate illness, whether he was wounded or killed, and the battles in which he and his regiment fought. You may also discover charges against his pay for losing a canteen or whatever. If he died during service, his death notice may show his parents’ names and other details. Officers’ records are more extensive. You can search these materials online, and you can order photocopies of your ancestor’s military records from the NARA (National Archives) website for a fee (NATF form 85). If he has unclaimed medals, you can claim them by proving you are a direct descendant.

15th WV Infantry

15th WV Infantry

Confederate records can be accessed in the same way, although these tend to be incomplete. For Confederate ancestors, you might find an Oath of Allegiance which all rebels had to sign after the end of the war. These may offer invaluable information. Most Confederates did not receive pensions, but you should check the Library of Virginia‘s website anyway.

You can then proceed to examine regimental histories (available online and in printed form), which have specific information about troop movement and battles fought, casualties, and so on. Don’t forget to look for manuscripts collections, wartime newspapers, and even local histories. More histories have been written about Confederate regiments than for Union outfits, but you should still search. I found a detailed history of my great-grandfather’s WV regiment which helped me picture its activities and locations.

The 45th US Colored Infantry  was the only black regiment assigned to West Virginia. Most of these men were from Virginia, West Virginia, or Pennsylvania. These soldiers were either escaped slaves eager to serve to establish their “free” status, or “freedmen” from different states placed together near the conclusion of the war after African-American troops had proven their effectiveness in battle.

Many soldiers began their service in local militia units and remained there, being called Scouts or Home Guards. Regular army soldiers tended to look down upon these home-grown militia, yet they were often the first line of defense, protecting railroads and fighting Rebel guerillas. There is scant information about these individuals and you may find that an ancestor who applied for a pension after the war was denied such because the government which used these men did not choose to recognize them as legitimate claimants. This is true for the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.

James Plum 1890 Vets

James Plum 1890 Vets

Stone Walls—the regular 1890 Federal Census was burned, making our trek through the past more difficult. However, there remains the 1890 Veterans’ Census which contains material on Union soldiers as well as some Confederates. Search the alphabetical index and then access microfilm or fiche. Note that many of these records are being digitized and may soon be available online.

When in doubt, search your favorite genealogical website (ancestry.com or familysearch.org, for example), but also Google everything. Remember, too, to search the Library of Congress website, for they hold zillions of original records, manuscripts, and even photographs and other images relating to our country’s history.

Sources for further assistance

A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787.

Jack L. Dickinson,Tattered Uniforms and Bright Bayonets. (Confederates)

Michael F. Doran, Atlas of County Boundary Changes in Virginia: 1634-1895.

Howard L. Leckey (Greene County historian), The Tenmile Country and Its Pioneer Inhabitants.

Tim McKinney,West Virginia Civil War Almanac.(Union)

Reddy, West Virginia Revolutionary Ancestors.

The Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-1865 (Broadfoot Pub).

 

 

 

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