West Virginia Research Guide

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West Virginia, United States



Western Virginia was explored by fur traders by the 1600s. The land remained American Indian hunting and battle grounds into the 1700s. Permanent settlement was thwarted by conflicting English and French claims, mountain barriers, and resistance by original inhabitants. A royal proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement beyond the ridge line of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Virginia created the West Augusta district in 1775. This district included all of West Virginia and part of western Pennsylvania. In 1779, most of the northern part of the district was ceded to Pennsylvania for relinquishing their claim on the rest of the county.

Pioneers of western Virginia were perceived as an eclectic group from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other areas of Virginia. The 1790 census list 55,000 residents.15,000 of these residents are of German descent. The immigrants from England mostly settled in Greenbrier, New, Kanawha, and Mononghela valleys. The Scotch-Irish settled in remote locations.

Due to West Virginia’s hilly terrain it was limited agriculturally, thus this reduced the need for slavery. In 1790, only 1% of the population were slaves. Congress admitted West Virginia as the 35th state on June 20, 1863 upon one condition that all slaves in its jurisdiction were emancipated.


Census records are helpful because they often list family members and relationships, origin information and occupational information that is not easily found in other sources.

Since West Virginia was officially admitted as a sovereign state on June 20, 1863, the federal census records of Virginia prior to 1870 will hold the information of your ancestors of that era.

Population Schedules Indexed - 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860 (see Virginia-Census Records), 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930).

Sounded - 1880. 1900. 1910 (Microcode), 1920, 1930 (partial).

Industry and Agriculture Schedules - (1850, 1860 (See Virginia-Census Records), 1870, 1880.

Slave Schedules - 1850, 1860 (See Virginia-Census Records)

Union Veteran Schedules - 1890

Microfilmed census records can be located at the Archives and History Library in Charleston, West Virginia; West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia; and the FHL. All abstracts of census records can be located at local libraries. The census records are all indexed, with images, and are included in online databases.

The following counties of Fayette, Harrison, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, and Raleigh have a 1930 Soundex.

Mortality Schedules

A mortality schedule is a list of deaths for the year before the census was taken. West Virginia statewide registration of deaths began in 1917.

(1850, 1860 (See Virginia-Census Records), 1870, 1880.)

Vital Records

West Virginia began to register marriages and births in 1853.

You can write to the following address to locate information on your ancestors.

  • Birth and death records, Division of Vital Statistics, State Department of Health, State Capitol Complex, Building 3, Room 513, Charleston, West Virginia 25305.

West Virginia has begun putting their vital records online with more being added frequently. It is not yet complete but is a good start. Their server is old and often down. Most of the time, one gets better results by searching for last name only in a specific county and scrolling through the results.

City Directories

Church Records

In 1740, Quakers and Presbyterians were the dominant religions. The Baptist movement settled Berkeley county in 1743. Jefferson and Berkeley counties cultivated the Methodist faith in 1778. The state of West Virginia has one of the highest number of diverse religions. The following societies are only a few.

  • West Virginia Baptist Historical Society, Rt. 2 Box 304, Ripley, West Virginia 25271, wvbhs.
  • Methodist Historical Society, West Virginia Wesleyan College, Annie M. Pfeiffer Library, College Avenue, Buckhannon, West Virginia 26201.
  • Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling/Charleston, PO Box 230, Wheeling, West Virginia 26003.
  • Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, 4032 MacCorkle Avenue SW, Charleston, West Virginia 25309-1510.
  • Church of the Brethren (Multi denominations), Historical Library, 1451 Dundee Avenue, Elgin, IL 60120.

Cemetery Records

During the Great Depression, the historical records survey was created in response to massive unemployment. The HRS (Historical Records Survey) compiled the largest collection of West Virginia tombstones. The collection includes inscriptions prior to 1940. Cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions can be found in local, regional, and genealogical libraries in West Virginia. and the FHL (Family History Library). These books were compiled and published by the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).

  • Daughters of the American Revolution (West Virginia), Genealogical Collection, Microfilm, Salt Lake City Utah, Genealogical Society of Utah, 1970.
  • Family History Library, 35 North West Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150, familysearch.
  • The West Virginia Cemetery Preservation Association works to "document, gather information, increase public awareness, raise funds, organize projects, and network with other organizations and tradesmen to preserve, protect, and maintain our historical cemeteries and churches in West Virginia." As a result of their work, they have made available a list of cemeteries in West Virginia as well as some inscriptions.


Obituaries are secondary sources, often reported by poorly informed or stressed family members. However, obituaries are a good source of basic information.

  • Obituaries from Newspapers of Northern West Virginia, 2 volumes, by W. Guy Tetrick, Clarksburg, West Virginia, 1933. (This is catalogued under Harrison county in the FHL (Family History Library) but includes valuable information about residents in other counties).

Land and Property Records

Sometimes placing an ancestor in a particular area can be very helpful. You may not know the birth date or death date, but placing him or her will help you find other records. For instance, if you can place a grandfather in a particular area and era, you would then know what church records to search in for vital information.

Land companies formed after 1744 primarily settled western Virginia. After 1779, patents were issued by the Virginia Land Office. Bounty Land Warrants were awarded to Revolutionary War Soldiers. Many sold their warrants while some settled on the land. Original grants, surveys and sales of land can be found at the Office of the State Auditor.

  • Office of the State Auditor, Capitol Bldg., West Wing 231, Charleston, WV 25305.
  • Records on file at the Library of Virginia, accessible through Library of VA, Land Records.
  • Index to Land Grants in West Virginia, by Edgar Barr Simms, (1952, reprint Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003).

County deed books will record patent sold land or land grants. Most deed books for West Virginia counties have been microfilmed. You can search these at the Archives and History Library in Charleston and the FHL. (Family History Library). The West Virginia and Regional History Collections includes West Virginia Court Record Index (which is a list by county filmed at the courthouse), this can be found at WV County Court Records.


Military records often contain lots of helpful information. They may list nationality, birth place and date, next of kin, address, occupation, age, even a physical description. West Virginia shares its vivid military history with Virginia.

  • Lewis, Virgil, The Soildery of West Virginia (1911, reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002) . This book has rosters of West Virginians that served in the French and Indian War, Indian Wars, Lord Dunmore’s War, the Revolutionary War, Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the War of 1812, Mexican War, and the Civil War.
  • The Roster of Union Soilders, 1861-1865, Volume 4, Wilmington, North Carolina, Broadfoot Publishing, 1999. Includes alphabetical listing of West Virginia soilders.
  • Berckefeldt, Paul, ed. Index to the Soildery of West Virginia, Pueblo, Pathfinder Books, 1985.

In the Virginia secession convention in 1861, the western delegates felt it would be an illegal attempt at overthrowing the federal government. The delegates later met in Wheeling and declared that the Confederate government at Richmond to void of authority. They voted to restore government and elect new officers. Congress admitted West Virginia as the 35th state on June 20, 1863 upon one condition that all slaves in its jurisdiction were emancipated.

Due to its locality and division of it’s citizens; West Virginia can not be declared a Confederate or Union state. Historians estimate that 23,000 fought with the Union army while 10,000 served in the Confederacy. The Archives and History Library, West Virginia and Regional History Collection, and FHL have published military records and indexes in their West Virginia collections.

Immigration and Naturalization

Another way of locating your ancestors from foreign lands is to research your country's immigration and naturalization records.

  • Newman, John J., American Naturalization Records, 1790-1990: What They Are and How to Use Them, (North Salt Lake, Utah: HeritageQuest, 1998.
  • Chalkley, Lyman, Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish, Settlement in Virginia: Extracted from the Original Court Records of Augusta County, 1754-1800, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980).

Newspapers and Periodicals

Old newspapers and periodicals can help you know your ancestor. What did they contribute to the community? What legacy did they leave behind? If it is pre statehood (prior to June 20, 1863) see the Virginia section . West Virginia newspaper collections are located in the Archives and History Library, and the West Virginia and regional history collections.

See Barbara Mertin, Newspapers in the West Virginia University Library (Morgantown, WV, West Virginia University Library, 1973.)

Probate Records

Probate records besides recording wills (refer to family members’ names and relationships) also record affidavits, case files, letters, calendars, dockets, claims, accounts and judgments. Any of these may help you understand some of the major events and relationships in your ancestor’s life. Before West Virginia became a state these records were recorded in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

  • Virginia Wills and Administration 1632-1800, Clayton Torrence, (1930; reprint Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000).
  • West Virginia Estate books dated prior to 1968 can be located in the Archives and History Library in Charleston, the West Virginia and Regional History Collection in Morgantown.
  • Johnston, Ross, West Virginia Estate Settlements, 1753-1850, (1969; reprint Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003).

Bible Records

Many settlers kept recorded vital information in the cover pages of the family bible. These documents are of great value to the genealogist. You may find the names and information about family members not recorded anywhere else, such as those of children that died in infancy and spouses of siblings. Oft times, due to remoteness of some homesteads, the family bible may be the only documentation available.


You may find your ancestor or related persons in biographical collections. Reading a few biographies can also help you understand what life was like, as well as the interests, concerns and ideas of the times. A few sources of interest are listed below.

  • Atkinson, George Wesley, Prominent Men of West Virginia, (Wheeling, West Virginia: W.L. Callin 1890).
  • Miller, Thomas and Maxwell, Hu, West Virginia and It’s People, (New York: Lewis Historical P:ublishing Co., 1913).

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