This is the introduction to the 1998 edition of West Virginia: A History for Beginners by John Alexander Williams. I am still proud to have been the editor and publisher of this fine book, now out-of-print. – Topper Sherwood
People are the same, everywhere you find them. They have to eat. They need fresh water, food, clothing and shelter. If they’re very young – or, sometimes very old – they need someone to care for them. These are basic human needs. They are the same for someone living in West Virginia, in Oregon, or Delaware. They are the same today as they were twenty years ago, or two centuries.
People are the same, yet they are different. Our differences exist in the ways we act to meet our basic needs. Some people hunt for their food; others grow it. Most people you know likely get it from the store. All of these are differences in human behavior, and they exist in the ways we buy and sell, work and play – the ways in which we live. Differences exist in languages, customs, housing, styles of art, as well as in the institutions we establish to express our hopes and meet our goals – our governments, schools, and religious organizations.
The list can be as long as you make it. But the point here is that the differences and similarities we find among people are important. They are important to understand, because learning about them is an essential part of learning about ourselves and the world in which we live.
You are about to study the differences and similarities among the people of West Virginia as they have acted as individuals and in groups – in families, communities, societies, corporations and government. Understanding the group- or social behavior of human beings is what social studies is all about.
Studying history helps us understand the social behavior of people who lived in the past. By observing the changes which affected their lives, we can also observe the ways in which our society came to be the way it is today. Thus, studying history is how we learn to observe and understand social change.
West Virginia is a relatively large place that has nurtured a diverse population for a long time. The varieties of human behavior occurring in its history make it well worth studying. This is easier than it sounds. The state is not so large – nor the historical figures so far-removed in time – as to make it hard for us to imagine what life was like for them, the people who live here years ago.
Even today, we can still observe the interaction of a variety of cultures, each within its own distinctive natural environment. In studying the history of our own state, we can develop skills for observing social behavior. With practice, we can learn to organize our observations into general explanations of how societies change over time. Studying a society “close to home” gives us a command of skills, methods and concepts that we can apply later to other, broader areas.
There is still another reason for studying West Virginia history – a more philosophical reason. It was nicely summed-up by an old mountain man, whose granddaughter questioned the value of learning the family history: “Why, girl” he said, “how can we know where we’re going, if we don’t know where we’ve been?”
You, the student reading this book, are likely to spend at least part of your adult life in West Virginia. As a citizen of the state, you will be called upon to make judgments and choices for the future, no doubt involving others who live here. Your knowledge of West Virginia’s resources – including its institutions and cultural values – will help you make more intelligent decisions about our future.
Simply put, you should be better able to decide where your state should go if you know where it’s been.
– John Alexander Williams