A large majority of West Virginia’s privately held land is owned by relatively few individuals or firms, many of them from outside the state. The largest private landowners are coal, timber, natural gas companies and electric utilities, and railroads. Land ownership is most concentrated in the historic southern coalfields south of Charleston. About a fifth of West Virginia’s 15.5 million acres is publicly owned, mostly by the state and national governments. These land-ownership patterns, deeply rooted in the past, have long influenced the politics, economic growth, and social development of our state.
Beginning in the 1730s, Virginia offered great conveyances of land to those who would explore the West and promote settlement there. A succession of expansionist governors continued the policy. By 1783, western land was being offered as pensions to Revolutionary War veterans. The land was not surveyed first, and estimates of the supply of land were incorrect. The transferrable grants enabled speculators to purchase veterans’ land rights at deep discounts, often amassing large acreages. By 1805, some 250 individuals or interlocking entities each owned at least 10,000 acres of land. A few commanded great empires.
Records of these transactions were kept in the Virginia land office in the state capital, and were by law superior to claims registered in frontier courthouses. Deeds were equalized in 1831, but by then almost all of the land was claimed. At the same time, settlers moved west and established their own claims without regard to absentee owners. More land was conveyed than existed, so claims overlapped. Until the Civil War, the overlap was unrecognized or of little concern.
Industrialization changed the demand for land and revived interest in old claims. Timbering and mining required vast acreages, thus farmers and industrialists competed for control of the same economic resource. Politically weaker, the farmers suffered as state law and policies increasingly favored industry after 1880. When industrialization began in earnest in the mountains, speculators set about asserting long-quiet claims and displacing farmers. Forced sale, duplicity, adverse possession, ejectment, and compromise were commonly used to acquire land.
Land-ownership patterns continue to affect the state’s economy. Critics argue that West Virginia property tax policies discourage improvements to land. Unimproved land is not taxed as heavily per acre as improved land is, making land speculation an attractive investment and sometimes keeping land inactive for decades.
In some counties as much as 70 percent of the land is unimproved and controlled by nonresidents, including the federal government. The Monongahela National Forest was established in the early 20th century on land purchased from former U.S. Senators Henry Gassaway Davis and J. N. Camden and others who previously had timbered and mined the region. The federal government alone owns about 1.4 million acres in West Virginia, and pays no property tax at all. Federal allocations compensate local governments for their revenue losses, but the sum is generally lower than what property taxes would generate. In the southern coalfields, land ownership is concentrated among corporations, with companies owning more than three-fourths of the surface acreage of McDowell County and two-thirds of neighboring Logan County.
State and regional historians generally accept the theory of concentrated and absentee land ownership, and the view was developed for a general readership in an extensive 1974 newspaper series by Tom Miller of the Huntington Herald-Advertiser. Proponents argue that inequitable land distribution has produced a ‘‘colonial’’ economy, operated by and largely for the benefit of people outside the state. Others have challenged these views, including Dale Colyer of West Virginia University College of Agriculture and Forestry in a 1981 report for Mountaineers for Rural Progress.
This Article was written by Barbara Rasmussen
Last Revised on October 07, 2010
Rice, Otis K. The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1730-1830. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.
Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1976.
Rasmussen, Barbara. Absentee Landowning and Exploitation in West Virginia, 1760-1920. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.