Thursday, May 31, 2012

Penningtons to West Virginia

When you first start out researching your family lines, it seems like there are endless possibilities for your unknown ancestors.  At that point all you usually have to go on is perhaps a few family stories that might have a kernel or two of truth.  As you do more research, your start to learn the history of the locations that you are researching because it helps you gain more knowledge about the families that you are tracing.  The Penningtons of Ashe Co., NC are an interwoven bunch that incorporates several named family groups in the Pennington Research Association’s list of families.  They all most likely have common ancestor several generations back – but they share something else in common as well  - the challenges of living in the New River area.

The New River area encompasses parts of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.  The group of Penningtons that I am speaking of lived in the mountains in the corner where these three states meet.  It seemed like many of these families were quite large and the simple facts of economics were enough to force the younger members to go elsewhere for work.  Opportunity for land or work was probably why the first groups of Penningtons left Ashe Co., NC and went over to Smyth Co., VA.  It was just one family but rather groups of families.  There are pockets of families in Grayson Co., VA, Washington Co., VA, Lee Co., VA, Johnson Co., TN as well as Kentucky and West Virginia.  Kentucky must have seemed like new territory by the time the early 1800’s came about with the opportunity for many to buy land and have their own homes.  By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, many Pennington families were going to West Virginia for jobs – mostly in the coal mines.

If you were poor and needed a good paying job to support your family – I don’t suppose that there was a better chance for work than the coal mines.  These men with young families would move to places like Mercer or Wyoming Co., WV.  I’m sure that some farmed…but most probably worked in the coal mines.  When coal was discovered in Mercer Co., WV in 1882, thousands of men went there to find work.  These men would work long hours in the coal mines in what was terribly dangerous work.  There was always the danger of gas pockets that would explode, cave ins that would trap the miners and starve them of oxygen.  If they survived all that, many died of the black lung that was caused by years of inhaling coal dust – in many ways, they doomed their sons to the same fate as they also worked in the coal mines.

So, if you are researching a family from the New River area and they disappear and perhaps show up in a later census – check and see if they are in West Virginia.  I have seen several families go to West Virginia and stay there and live out their lives and others who come back to live at their old home.  There is actually a great online resource of archives for West Virginia at that can be quite valuable.


  1. Many folks came to Southern WV to cut trees. A book, The History of Konnarock, VA, explains this in detail and even mentions several families that came here from that area. Every tree in Logan (including what's now Mingo) county was cut with only a handful of exceptions. The book even points out where in Konnarock to locate virgin timber. In all of Logan County, WV I know of only one location that has virgin timber. Timber was big here and my ancestors like Devil Anse Hatfield and William Chapman Browning were big players in the lumber industry.

  2. I know that my Penningtons left Ashe Co., NC for Johnson Co., TN for lumber...I suspect that was also what drove them to Washington Co., VA and the other VA counties. Always in search of better opportunities...the story of our pioneers.

  3. In addition to WV Culture I've found the following site useful for research in the New River Valley area: Do a quick search for Pennington and you'll find plenty of references.

  4. Carly you are quite correct that New River Notes is a fabulous resource - I've been using it for 15 years. I've spent a lot of time on the site on numerous families and have actually submitted data and corrections.