In 1790, the year of the first U.S. Census, the population of the territory now comprising West Virginia was 55,873. The nation’s population in that first census was 3,929,214. West Virginia’s population grew from 1790 until the 1950s, peaking that year at 2,005,552. According to the 2010 Census, there were 1,852,994 West Virginia residents, compared to 309 million residents for the United States. West Virginia’s share of the U.S. population has fallen from 1.4 percent in 1790 to 0.6 percent in 2010.
This implies that the state’s population growth has fallen well short of national growth during the last 210 years. This was not always so. From 1900 to 1950, West Virginia’s population growth exceeded national growth, as the expansion of mining and manufacturing boosted economic growth. However, the strong population gains registered during the first half of the century were not repeated during the last half.
After reaching a high of two million in 1950, the number of West Virginians has risen and fallen with the state’s economy. With increasing mechanization in the coal mines and increased economic opportunity elsewhere, the population dropped by 261,000 residents from 1950 to 1970. The energy crises of the 1970s brought a resurgence in coal mining, which contributed to a rebound in the state’s population to near the 1950 level by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, a global recession during the 1980s, coupled with economic restructuring in the state’s major manufacturing and coal mining sectors, pushed the number of residents down to 1,793,477 by 1990. West Virginia’s population has increased modestly during the past two decades, rising by 3.3 percent from 1990 to 2010. However, that growth was well below the national rate of 24.1 percent.
The reasons behind the slow recent population gains are related to the state’s demographic structure. Population change depends primarily on two factors: natural increase and net migration. Natural increase is the annual difference between births and deaths. Since the number of births during the past two decades was very close to the number of deaths, West Virginia’s population got little boost from natural increase. This means that population growth in the state was dependent on net migration, which is the difference between the number of residents moving into the state and the number leaving the state. Due to the state’s sluggish economic growth, West Virginia had trouble attracting many more migrants than it lost to other states.
West Virginia’s population levels have always differed significantly in the various counties. In 1900, Kanawha County, with the largest population in the state, had 54,696 residents, compared to Hancock County with 6,693 residents. However, during the last 100 years the population gap between larger and smaller counties has risen dramatically. The largest county in 2010 was again Kanawha County, with 193,063 residents, compared to Wirt County with 5,717 residents.
County population growth tends to follow regional economic performance. None of the major southern coal-producing counties, Boone, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, or Raleigh, ranked in the top 10 in population size in 1900. With the expansion of the coal industry during the first half of the century, McDowell, Raleigh, and Logan counties all ranked in the top 10 in population in 1950. But due to changes in the coal industry and the lack of diversification in these counties’ economies, only Raleigh remained in the top 10 in 2010. The experience of McDowell County is a good illustration. In 1900, the Census Bureau counted 18,747 residents in McDowell. By 1950 that number swelled to 98,887 residents, while the 2010 Census found just 22,113 residents, a decline of 19.1 percent from 2000.
Overall population growth during the post-World War II period has favored counties with larger cities and the ‘‘bedroom’’ counties from which cities draw commuters. By far the fastest growing regions of the state during the last 50 years were three counties in the Eastern Panhandle (Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson) and Putnam County. These four counties have benefited from the expansion of nearby metropolitan areas. Indeed Berkeley and Jefferson are now classified as part of the Washington Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area, while Putnam County is now part of the Charleston Metropolitan Statistical Area. Counties registering the largest population losses during the last 50 years were the coal-dependent counties, particularly in the southern part of the state, and the manufacturing counties in the Northern Panhandle.
Population change has also had an impact on West Virginia’s cities. In 1900, the largest city in the state was Wheeling, with a population of 38,878, followed by Huntington, Parkersburg, Charleston, and Martinsburg. By 2010, the top five cities were Charleston, with 51,400 residents, Huntington, Parkersburg, Morgantown, and Wheeling. In addition, during the last 10 years, West Virginia’s incorporated places have lost population, in contrast to population gains registered by the state’s unincorporated areas.
West Virginia remains a rural state with mostly small cities. In 1900, 86.9 percent of the state’s residents lived in sparsely populated rural areas, compared to 60.4 percent nationally. West Virginia was not unusual in this respect at the beginning of the century, as 10 other states registered larger shares of residents living in rural areas. By 1990 though, 63.9 percent of West Virginia’s residents lived in rural areas, compared to 24.8 percent nationally. Only Vermont was more rural, with 67.8 percent of its residents living in rural areas in 1990. Most other states have seen their residents concentrate in urban areas during the 20th century. West Virginia has participated in this trend, but the state’s rugged topography and dependence on resource extraction have meant that a large share of residents live in rural areas.
This Article was written by George W. Hammond
Last Revised on March 27, 2013
Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Lego, Brian. "West Virginia: A 20th Century Perspective on Population Change." West Virginia University, 1999.