Happy 156th birthday, West Virginia! Thursday was West Virginia Day, and I thought for this week’s article, I would introduce to you one of the people that made our great state possible.
First is Mr. Daniel W. Polsley, Esquire. Born in 1803 near Fairmont, Polsley got his education and read law while working on his family’s farm. Following his father’s death, he moved to the Northern Panhandle, where he was admitted to the Bar and gained quite a reputation as an excellent lawyer. He practiced there until 1845, when he retired from law and sold the newspaper that he had operated as a side venture.
From the Northern Panhandle, Polsley moved to a 1,200-acre farm located just above what in a few years would become New Haven. I specify plantation because Polsley was a slave owner. A minor slave owner compared to the plantations along the Kanawha, but a slave owner nonetheless. In 1850, the census records two slaves in his household, likely servants in the main house as they are an adult woman and a child. In 1860, there are five slaves. The two eldest are likely the same as those recorded in 1850, with the addition of three more children.
His reputation as a lawyer preceded him; however, and he was called out of his retirement to represent Mason County at the First Wheeling Convention. Polsley was relatively quiet for much of the convention, at least until the third and final day, when John Carlile of Clarksburg reintroduced his proposal for the creation of New Virginia. Carlile had spoken at length the previous day, as had his opponent, Waitman Willey of Morgantown. On the third day, Willey continued his argument that a new state was double treason, against Virginia and against the United States. Polsley spoke next.
His lengthy speech was entirely in favor of a new state, and drawing from his experience in law, Polsley used everything from the U.S. Constitution to the creation of California as support. His now infamous remark that “if there is any treason in the matter, we have already committed it,” echoed the millennia-old quote from Julius Caesar, “the die is cast.” In other words, simply by holding the convention, they had marked themselves as pro-Union separatists and should rightly continue down that path. That speech swung many hesitant delegates closer to the idea of statehood, and following Virginia’s secession and the Second Wheeling Convention, it propelled Polsley into office as Lieutenant Governor of the Restored (Union) Government of Virginia. As Lt. Governor, he presided over the Unionist Virginia Senate that authorized the creation of West Virginia and legally paved the way for Congress’ statehood bill.
After the creation of West Virginia, Polsley returned to law. He practiced in Point Pleasant, served on our region’s judicial circuit from 1863-66, and as our district’s congressman from 1867-69. He continued his practice until his death in 1877, the same year that an Atlas of the Ohio Valley showed his office located on the east side of Viand Street, nearly opposite where the historical sign honoring him now stands.
Contrary to longstanding tradition that the former Kayser, Layne, and Clark office was Judge Polsley’s as well, the 1877 Atlas makes it clear that his office was actually just across the street. I believe, though it remains to be confirmed through deed research, that the building currently standing at 706 Viand Street is the same shown on the Atlas. It is on the same lot, is roughly the same dimensions, and occupies the same footprint. Though, the most telling clue is the building itself.
It is a true brick building, laid in Flemish bond for the best strength and looks. That alone dates the building to before 1880, as most brick homes built after that are simply brick veneers or are laid in much simpler bonds. The 12-pane “6-over-6” windows date the building to before 1870, as glassmaking had by then advanced to make simpler 4-pane “2-over-2” windows possible. Finally, the square shape, shallow hipped roof, and especially the large brackets supporting the eaves all suggest the Italianate style of architecture, which was popular from 1840-70.
Simple logic says that if the building was built before 1870, and Polsley’s office was on that same lot in 1877, it must have been in this building. I’ll confirm it through deed research, but I’m confident that this was Polsley’s office. We still have a few homes of men active in the founding of West Virginia, but to think that we’ve had Judge Polsley’s office this whole time and hardly anyone knew it!
Information from the West Virginia State Archives, West Virginia Encyclopedia, U.S. Census Slave Schedules, and Eli Hayes’ 1877 Atlas of the Ohio Valley
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.