WEBSTER SPRINGS, W.Va. (WBOY) — Legend says that during the Civil War, Webster County, West Virginia, which had just been created, didn’t have time to establish a county government, so instead, it created an independent government and voted in a governor. But is that actually true?
According to Kent Walker, who is a member of the Webster County Historical Society, the “folklore myth” of the “Independent Free State of Webster” is well known among Webster County natives but has not been proven. It’s even listed as a factoid on the Webster County Tourism website.
Rumor says that George M. Sawyers of Williams River was appointed governor of the Free State and a full cabinet of state officials was put in place. People are said to have called Sawyers “governor” up until his death, but according to Walker, the only account of the Free State is in “Webster County History” by R. L. Thompson from 1942, which admits that it may not be true. “Thompson himself notes that, ‘the story, while amusing, is without foundation,'” Walker told 12 News.
People recall that the county clerk at the time Albert Baughman hid the county records under a floorboard of a home in the country and fled the area, never to return. The records have not been found, so there is no way of proving if documentation of the Free State ever existed.
Webster County had just become a county in 1860 and had only held six meetings when the Civil War began, and historians believe that instead of establishing a new independent government like rumors suggest, the county was left with virtually no government.
Even if Webster County did have now-destroyed documentation of independence, neither the Union or the Confederation recognized it, and most people fled the area or used the unofficial anarchy to fulfill personal vendettas.
“The reality is that civil government as such ceased to function in Webster County with the secession of Virginia from the Union,” said Walker. There are hardly any records of government at all, much less functional government, in the county during the war, Walker said.
Records show when Webster became a Virginia county in 1860, there were approximately 246 households, and the county voted for the first time in the 1860 election. Once the war started, there was only documentation of one civic government activity: The election of 1863 where nine votes were cast by Union soldiers who were on patrol in Fork Lick (later known as Addison and Webster Springs).
After the war, civil government had to be completely reestablished in Webster County because the records from its first few years were lost in the war. Additionally, two of the people elected to office in Webster County “could not meet the new proof of loyalty requirements for the new State of West Virginia,” according to Walker, and had to be replaced.