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Businessman and entomologist William Henry Edwards (March 15, 1822-April 4, 1909) was born in Greene County, New York. He graduated from Williams College in 1842 and was admitted to the New York bar in 1847.

Edwards came to the Kanawha Valley to inspect lands his family had purchased sight-unseen from promoters. A very early pioneer in the southern West Virginia coalfields, he opened the first coal mines on Paint Creek in 1852, erected the first cannel coal oil works in 1856, and opened mines at Coalburg in 1863. After the Civil War, Edwards had a steam towboat built in Wheeling at a cost of $30,000. The towboat, used to transport coal from Cannelton to Cincinnati, was capable of handling 12 barges, each one carrying 10,000 bushels of coal.

In addition to developing large business interests and building a sizable fortune, Edwards immersed himself in the study of natural history. Building on his experiences during a trip on the Amazon River as a young man in 1846 and the travel book he wrote about this adventure (A Voyage on the River Amazon, 1847) Edwards spent increasing amounts of time studying butterflies. Through collecting, personal experience, and correspondence, he obtained eggs and caterpillars of at least 165 species. As the specimens developed, he wrote detailed descriptions and sketched the butterflies in their many stages. The culmination of this effort is found in his three-volume work, The Butterflies of North America, published in 1879, 1884, and 1897, which remains a standard. In addition, Edwards wrote papers on entomology for scientific journals, including 160 separate articles on Lepidoptera for the Canadian Entomologist.

Edwards gave up butterflies at the age of 75 and turned to the study of Shakespeare. He produced a book on the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays in 1900, and in 1903 produced a book of Edwards family genealogy. William Henry Edwards died at his home in Coalburg, Kanawha County.

This Article was written by Debra K. Sullivan

Last Revised on October 18, 2012


Conley, Phil, ed. West Virginia Encyclopedia. Charleston: West Virginia Publishing, 1929.

Conley, Phil. History of the West Virginia Coal Industry. Charleston: Education Foundation, 1960.

Miller, Thomas Condit, and Hu Maxwell. West Virginia and Its People vol. 3. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1913.

Leach, William. Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 2013.

Cite This Article

Sullivan, Debra K. "William Henry Edwards." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 18 October 2012. Web. 18 May 2024.


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