West Virgina's Flag History
After what is now West Virginia broke away from Virginia in the midst of the Civil War and was admitted to the Union as a separate state in 1863, a committee of the state legislature commissioned Joseph H. Diss Debar, a local artist and political figure, to design a state seal. Debar's design was approved by the legislature on 26 September 1863 and is now enshrined in the state constitution.
The coat of arms is essentially the pictorial design of the obverse of the seal transplanted onto the field of a shield, with the colors of the foreground and sky filled in. The description of the seal and its symbolism offered by the committee in its report is therefore the closest thing to an official blazon:
"In the center a rock with ivy, emblematic of stability and continuance and on the face of the rock the inscription, "June 20, 1863", the date of our foundation [admission to statehood], as if graven with a pen of iron in the rock forever. On the right of the rock a farmer clothed in the traditional hunting garb, peculiar to this region, his right arm resting on the plow handles, and his left supporting a woodman's axe, indicating that while our territory is partly cultivated, it is still in the process of being cleared of the original forest. At his right hand a sheaf of wheat and a cornstalk. On the left hand of the rock, a miner, indicated by a pick-axe on his shoulder, with barrels and lumps of mineral at his feet. On his left an anvil, partly seen, on which rests a sledge hammer, typical of the mechanic arts, the whole indicating the principal pursuits and resources of the state. In front of the rock and the hunter, as if just laid down by the latter and ready to be resumed at a moment's notice, two hunters' rifles, crossed and surmounted by a Phrygian cap, or cap of liberty, indicating that our freedom and liberty were won and will be maintained by the force of arms."
The one significant difference between the seal and the coat of arms is that the arms include a scroll in the base of the field with the state motto, Montani semper liberi (Mountaineers are always free).
I have seen at least three different color combinations and treatments of the ground on which the boulder rests in official state websites; the depiction in Smith's Flag Book of the United States offers yet a fourth. I have followed the version on a photograph of an actual flag flying in front of the state capitol, in which the field of the shield is white and the rock rests on a green mound floating in the center above the scroll with the motto. This is also the style used on the state seal and, as we have seen with other states, legislators have become sticklers for ensuring that coats of arms conform exactly to seal designs-notwithstanding the flexibility inherent in authentic heraldic tradition.
The more traditional approach, at least concerning colors and artistic treatment, can be seen on West Virginia's earliest use of the arms (or seal) on flags. A little more than four months after adopting the seal, the legislature enacted Joint Resolution No. 7 of 8 January 1864, which directed that "the coat of arms or great seal" be placed on the state flag (regimental color) to be presented to the 4th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. As with most Northern states (and before the war, most of the Southern states as well), this became the standard pattern for state regimental colors. This website, which belongs to a group that reenacts the 7th West Virginia Infantry, gives a detailed description of the color scheme and several close-up photographs of an early West Virginia state color.
The citizens of the mountainous western parts of Virginia had long thought themselves neglected by the Virginia State Government and pushed the issue in the initial days of the Civil War. When Virginia decided to secede from the Union, representatives from the western counties saw an opening and stormed out of the Virginia Convention of 1861.
A few months later, the residents of the western counties voted for statehood.
West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a Free State with the agreement that current conditions of slavery would be phased out. President Lincoln approved the statehood bill for West Virginia on January 1, 1863. On April 20, 1863, West Virginia was proclaimed a State, effective 60 days later on June 20, 1863.
In the midst of the Civil War, turmoil was everywhere and it wasn't until September that West Virginia adopted its official State seal, its coat of arms the most prominent component of the State flag.
Another prominent component of the State flag is West Virginia's State flower, big laurel (Rhododendron maximum), adopted in 1903.
The following year, 1904, St. Louis, Missouri staged an exposition, "The Louisiana Purchase Exposition," also know as the Saint Louis World's Fair.
West Virginia needed to send a flag to the exposition to represent itself. A white flag with blue borders that featured the State flower on the obverse side (front) and the West Virginia coat of arms on the reverse side (back) was created. This flag was not an official representative of the State of West Virginia when it appeared at the exposition, but on February 24, 1905, the West Virginia Legislature made it so.
Evidently, this design sparked some discontent and, two years later on February 25, 1907, changes were officially approved. The coat of arms was moved to the obverse side (front) of the flag and the big laurel was moved to the reverse side (back)of the flag. Additionally, a red ribbon, reading "State of West Virginia" was added below the coat of arms.
Of course, it was found that producing a flag with a difference between the obverse side and the reverse side was not practical. It was expensive. To remedy the situation, big laurel, the coat of arms and the red ribbon were combined to create a suitable display to appear on both sides of the flag.
The West Virginia Legislature approved Senate Joint Resolution No. 18 on March 7, 1929. Resolution No. 18 described the West Virginia State flag the flies over the Capitol today.
Link here to the West Virginia State Historical Society for facts, figures and history of West Virginia.