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. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, the largest private landowners were coal, timber, natural gas companies and electric utilities, and railroads. More recently, land ownership has shifted toward resource management investment firms, and in 2013 there were two such firms among the top three private land owners in West Virginia. 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.
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 moving west had established their own claims without regard to absentee owners. More land was conveyed than existed, so claims overlapped. Through the mid-19th century, the overlap was unrecognized or of little concern.
Meanwhile, West Virginia was created from the northwest part of Virginia in 1863. Industrialization, which began in most parts of the new state in the late 1800s, 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, 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 previously owned by former U.S. Senators Henry Gassaway Davis and J. N. Camden and others who 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 Wyoming County and more than 60 percent of McDowell County and neighboring Logan County.
State and regional historians generally accept the theory of concentrated and absentee land ownership. The view was developed for a general readership in an extensive 1974 newspaper series by Tom Miller of the Huntington Herald-Advertiser, and similar findings were reported by the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force in 1981. Some 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.
A 2013 study revealed significant changes in West Virginia land-ownership patterns. While the state’s private land is still held disproportionately by absentee owners, concentration of ownership has declined somewhat. The type of owner has changed as well, with a shift from energy-industry companies toward wealth management firms specializing in natural resource investments. One such firm, Heartwood Forestland Fund of North Carolina, was West Virginia’s largest landowner in 2013, while another, Plum Creek Timberland of Seattle, was the state’s third largest landowner.
This Article was written by Barbara Rasmussen
Last Revised on December 16, 2013
Rice, Otis K. The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1730-1830. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.
Rasmussen, Barbara. Absentee Landowning and Exploitation in West Virginia, 1760-1920. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Beth Spence and others. Who Owns West Virginia?. Report. Charleston: West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy and The American Friends Service Committee, 2013.
Tom Miller. "Who Owns West Virginia?". Huntington Herald Advertiser, December 1974.
Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force. Land Ownership Patterns and Their Impacts on Appalachian Communities: A Survey of 80 Counties. Washington, D.C.: Appalachian Regional Commission, 1981.
Cite This Article
Rasmussen, Barbara "Land Ownership." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 16 December 2013. Web. 30 March 2017.