As many modern Americans know, West Virginia was originally part of Virginia. Prior to the Civil War, historical accounts refer to our state as Virginia, making history more difficult to decipher. However, the Charleston area has a clearly documented history as far back as the mid-1700’s. The wilderness surrounding the Elk and Kanawha rivers was slowly tamed and inhabited, making Charleston an important part of West Virginia history, and eventually leading it to become the booming business center of today.
Charleston’s rich history goes back to 1774, when the Bulitt family settled near the Elk River’s mouth. Fort Lee, the first official settlement in the area, was founded a few years later in 1786. This area is currently in downtown Charleston, at the intersection of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard, proving how quickly human settlements develop! The area was popular with pioneers as they migrated from Virginia into other parts of the United States. Many, however, decided to just settle down in the Charleston area, and a small town began to grow. By 1794, there were seven houses and over thirty residents, making the town of “Charles Town” an official settlement.
In 1794, the town was officially established, and the name was changed to Charleston to avoid confusion with Charleston Town – the present day city of Charles Town, WV. The confusion persists to this day, however, with many non-natives getting the two towns confused. If you aren’t familiar with West Virginia geography, Charles Town is in Jefferson County, in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia, while Charleston is in Kanawha county, near the Kanawha and Elk River.
A jail was the first official structure in Charleston, dug out of the bank of the Kanawha river. Residents quickly established other buildings, however, and the town began to grow. Daniel Boone, a famous resident of what is now West Virginia, was actually a Charleston area resident, and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the county militia. Historical rumor has it that when elected to serve in the Virginia house of delegates in 1791, he walked from Kanawha county to Richmond, Virginia.
Many rivers, streams, and towns throughout West Virginia have Native American origins. The Charleston area is no exception. In fact, Kanawha county (and the Kanawha River) takes it’s name from Arawak word for dugout, because the town was literally “dug out” of the river bank.
If you’re a visitor to Charleston, be sure to check out the variety of historical landmarks and sites. Whether you’re taking in a museum, visiting a landmark, or learning about the Native American roots of the area, you’re sure to find something interesting about the history of Charleston.