The father of West Virginia finally gets the appreciation he deserves.
There’s a good chance that, even if you’re a West Virginian, you’ve never heard of Francis Pierpont. There’s also a good chance that, if not for Francis Pierpont, you wouldn’t be a West Virginian at all, because West Virginia wouldn’t be a state. Today Pierpont is sometimes called the father of West Virginia, but he’s actually one of the lesser-known figures in West Virginia’s rich history. Traveling around the state, you’re much more likely to see a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the famous Confederate commander, than the man who engineered the creation of the state. In fact, until recently there weren’t any statues of Pierpont in the state at all.
In the 19th century Pierpont was a prominent attorney and entrepreneur in western Virginia, as well as an outspoken defender of the Union before and during the Civil War. When it became clear Virginia would secede from the United States, he vehemently opposed the idea. Of course, a lot of people in western Virginia didn’t like the idea of seceding from the Union with the rest of Virginia—they just couldn’t find any way around it. “Francis Pierpont was the man the with plan,” says Travis Henline, the manager of West Virginia Independence Hall, in Wheeling. One night, before the famous Wheeling Convention in 1861, Pierpont was at home in Fairmont. “And he’s reading through the Constitution,” Henline says. “He reads through a couple clauses that give him the idea and the plan for how they could do it, and when he goes to Wheeling he brings those ideas with him.”
At the Wheeling Convention Pierpont argued that western Virginia should delay a vote to create the new state, which he believed was unconstitutional. Instead, delegates voted to create the Restored Government of Virginia—a new government over Virginia that was loyal to the Union. Pierpont became the governor of the Restored Government in 1861 and raised troops to fight for the Union in the war, trying to keep as much of Virginia as possible under Union control. He also pressed the United States Congress to form the new state of West Virginia, a request lawmakers finally approved two years later, in 1863. “None of them, Pierpont or any of the other folks who formed this government, none of them knew if it would work out. None of them knew if the United States would recognize them. None of them knew if the Union was going to win the war,” Henline says. “That’s what made it so courageous.”
By taking on that job, Pierpont made himself an enemy in the eyes of Confederacy, and was loathed by most people in Virginia. There was a raid on his home. There were plans to assassinate him. He once received a telegram that was the stuff of nightmares. “It says, ‘Governor Pierpont, did you see my carriage by your window earlier today? Because I saw you and I can get you easy,’” Henline says. “Who during those circumstances would want to take on those responsibilities? But he had courage and the faith—somebody had to do it and he took up the mantle.”
Pierpont was a beloved figure in West Virginia for the rest of his life. “He was one of our darlings,” Henline says. “It was said that there was not a fair or festival or college commemoration that Francis Pierpont was not invited to speak at.” But after his death Pierpont somehow fell out of the public eye, even though his contributions were historic enough to remember for centuries.
This summer, to remedy that offense, the Wheeling National Heritage Area unveiled a new statue of Pierpont at Independence Hall. “This is the father of West Virginia and the gentleman who was able to see through the legislative language to create the state,” says Jeremy Morris, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area. “It seemed fitting that we should honor him here.” The group put out a national call for proposals and slowly whittled the field of 20 applicants down to one from Gareth Curtiss, a sculptor from Montana.
The selection committee felt that his statue of Pierpont captured the essence of the man who dedicated his life to West Virginia. Curtiss’s rendering of Pierpont has him standing, addressing a crowd, clutching a rolled up document—it calls to mind the way Pierpont must have looked when he spoke to the delegates of Virginia about forming their new state. “He’s not just sitting there,” Henline says. “He’s doing something.”
Written by Shay Maunz
Photo courtesy of West Virginia Division of Culture and History