Immigrants from Europe flowed into what is now West Virginia from the early 18th century onward. These settlers were largely from the British Isles and Germany, with minority representation from many other places, and that population mix prevailed for more than a century.
In the latter decades of the 19th century and especially the first two decades of the 20th, West Virginia experienced another major wave of immigration. The newcomers came from different places than the early settlers. From 1880 through 1920, tens of thousands of individuals came from all parts of Europe, but especially the south and east, to work in the state’s burgeoning industries, including railroads, timber, coal, steel, and glass. Among them were immigrants from Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Italy, and Greece.
People migrated to West Virginia for various reasons. Many were recruited. Companies sent representatives to Europe and the American South to find workers. For many years the state employed a commissioner of immigration to encourage workers to come to West Virginia. Others came to avoid religious persecution or military conscription. Many came for economic reasons, especially toward the latter part of the 19th century when many European countries suffered hard times.
Once here, immigrants often joined with their compatriots to form tight-knit communities where they maintained native customs, food, music, language, and religious practices, even as they assimilated into America. Social groups sprang up to sponsor activities dedicated to preserving customs from the old country.
Today, immigrants continue to come to West Virginia, and for largely the same reasons as did their counterparts in times past. Again they come from different places than their predecessors. The vast majority of the new immigrants come from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands. They come for economic opportunity, and as before, many are recruited, though now for professional skills rather than as laborers. Many are doctors, others engineers. Once in West Virginia, they often send for relatives and colleagues.
And as before, they often form associations to continue the ethnic and cultural traditions of their native lands. For example, in the Charleston area Asian Indians number more than 2,200. This group formed the India Association and built a handsome India Center. Filipinos likewise form a close community in the capital city, and a son of a prominent Filipino family served as one of Kanawha County’s most popular state legislators. A thriving mosque on the outskirts of the city serves southern West Virginia Muslims.
But West Virginia now attracts relatively few immigrants, both as compared to its earlier history and to other parts of America today. In 2008, the estimated population of West Virginia was 1,814,468. The largest group, 93.5 percent, was native-born white. African-Americans made up the second largest group at 3.5 percent while the remaining 3 percent of the population were Hispanic (1.1 percent), Asian (.7 percent), American Indian (.2 percent), and small numbers of other ethnic or national groups. The Asians were primarily Indian with smaller numbers of Chinese and Filipinos.
Located throughout the state, often clustered according to the original industry that drew them here, many long-established ethnic communities still flourish. Some have dispersed as industry ebbed and flowed, but other such communities still exist, and are joined by other, newer, ethnic groups to contribute to the culture of West Virginia.
This Article was written by Cathy Pleska
Last Revised on October 12, 2010
Fones-Wolf, Ken & Ronald L. Lewis, eds. Transnational West Virginia. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2002.
Schwarz, Bob. Muslim in America. Charleston Gazette, 12/7/2001.
"An Introduction to West Virginia Ethnic Communities." Charleston West Virginia Division of Culture & History, 1999.
"Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: Geographic Area West Virginia 2000." U.S. Census Bureau.
Cite This Article
Pleska, Cathy "Ethnic Life." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 12 October 2010. Web. 24 February 2017.