Most people tend to forget this, but in 1860, we were still Mason County, Virginia. West Virginia didn’t exist yet, and there were 15 states that still permitted slavery. One of these states was Virginia, Mason County included, and like the rest of the country, our county would debate the issue of slavery.
Slavery had been in Mason County since our beginnings. By 1820, there were quite a few sizable plantations in Mason County, with the 4 largest being owned by the Lewis and Waggener families. The three Lewis plantations were just north of Point Pleasant. The fourth plantation, owned by the Waggeners, encompassed everything from Hartford to Clifton and numbered 450 slaves. By 1860, these were mostly split up to create towns.
In 1860, the Virginia census gives a population of 9,138 for Mason County, with 4.2 percent (or 386) of that number being slaves. That’s one of the highest percentages west of the Alleghenies, with only Fayette, Putnam, and Kanawha being higher. Among the slave owners were prominent businessmen and politicians such as John Hall, James Henry Couch, A.G. Eastham, James Madison Hite Beale, Charles Beall Waggener, R.C.M Lovell, Asa Musgrave, and Daniel Polsley. You may recognize some of these names from my previous articles, but what does all this mean? Let’s take a look at Mason County just prior to the Civil War.
Antebellum Mason County was, for its time, extremely diverse. At the far northern end of the county, in Hartford, you had a town run by a New Englander and staunch abolitionist. At the southern end and along the Kanawha Valley, you had the slave plantations of the Eastham and Beale families. In the center, at Point Pleasant, you had an urban center where every culture met and mingled. Now, I paint relatively clear boundaries, but it wasn’t nearly that simple. Daniel Polsley’s plantation was above New Haven, R.C.M Lovell used slaves in his salt furnace at Mason, and small farms covered most of the county.
When it came time to face the issue of slavery, Mason County choked. Sure, many in the southern end of the county vocally supported the Confederacy, but just as many slave owners sided with the Union. Why in the world would they side with someone who wanted to destroy their livelihood? The answer is relatively simple. They had another job to support them. Polsley was a lawyer, Lovell was a salt furnace owner, and Hall was a politician. They didn’t need slavery like those along the Kanawha River.
This resulted in a power struggle between the northern half of the county and the southern half, but in the end, the northern half won and many of those former slave owners became our first representatives in Wheeling. However, this power struggle was not the only effect of slavery in Mason County.
As a border county to the free state of Ohio, we had a sizable abolitionist presence, as well as stops on the Underground Railroad. Slaves escaping from central Virginia often made their way along the Kanawha River to Point Pleasant, and from there, either to Gallipolis or Pomeroy. There were confirmed Underground Railroad “stations” in both Gallipolis Ferry and Hartford, but those are stories for another article.
From being tied to our county’s original settlement to the chaos during the Civil War, nobody can deny that slavery was practiced in Mason County and, locally, led to a power struggle that would eventually help decide the fate of West Virginia.
Today, little remains of Mason County’s plantations. A few of the “big houses” remain, like Roseberry and Eastham, but little else. Even the slave cemeteries have been neglected and forgotten, but no longer. For at its core, history provides us with the means to tell the stories of those who were forgotten.
Information from the United States Census and writings of Mildred Gibbs.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society. More information on the organization found on Facebook at Mason County Historic Preservation. The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be tonight, Sept. 23, at 6:30 at the Mason County Public Library.