One of the most intriguing aspects of the occult in America is that it truly has enjoyed a regional expression. New England witchcraft, for example, looks very different from West Coast witchcraft which looks very different from Midwest witchcraft. This trend also applies inter-regionally as well. Tennessean witchcraft looks different than Georgian witchcraft which looks different from West Virginia witchcraft and on and on it goes.
But a personal favorite of mine is Appalachian witchcraft. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that I’m from the mid-south originally or maybe it’s because this particular strain of the esoteric still lingers somewhat in obscurity, even to me.
So today I’d like to explore one of the more emblematic and representative states of Appalachian folk magic: West Virginia. First, some background.
The Early Days of West Virginia
West Virginia has always been a bit of an oddball in the cultural fabric of the United States. It’s location alone seems to beg for paradoxes. It’s not quite southern and not quite northern. But it’s situated against some of the more representative states of these respective cultures (Kentucky and Maryland, for example). And this tension between opposing ideologies is actually a part of what led West Virginia to break way from Virginia in the first place. In the lead-up to the Civil War (1861 to be precise), West Virginia became the only state to form by breaking from the Confederacy and was also one of only two states admitted to the Union during the conflict (Nevada was the second).
So, from the early days of West Virginia being West Virginia there was a rugged individualism which will become very important to the rest of this story. And the tension between exactly where West Virginia’s ideology falls extends even to the state’s regional positioning (the Census Bureau designates it as being a southern state, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics places it in the mid-Atlantic region). But the story of witchcraft in West Virginia extends back even further in time than the state’s official formation.
The First Stirrings of Witchcraft in West Virginia
The region’s earliest settlers were just as concerned with the threat of witchcraft as their New England cousins. In the same era of the Salem Witch Trials, accusations also flung in the burgeoning Virginia hills. Crucially though, they never escalated to the same degree as those in Salem or elsewhere in New England. Actually, Virginia has those trials beat, in terms of chronological placement, by some decades. In 1626 (only 19 years after the founding of Jamestown, but 66 years before the outbreak of the Salem Witch Trials), a grand jury attempted to determine if a woman named Joan Wright was indeed a witch. While the outcome of the trial has been lost to the ages, one could relatively safely hazard a guess that the verdict was in Wright’s favor.
Because, even though the threat of witchcraft was as ever-present in Virginia as it was on every other front of the early American settlements, there are actually a number of key differences that kept any Salem-esque, hysterical outbreaks from occurring in early Virginia.
Separation of Church and State
For starters, early Virginians maintained a much more distinct separation between ministers and the legal processing of accused witches than their New England counterparts. In Salem, for example, one could make the argument (and plenty have) that you can really lay the entirety of the Salem Witch Trials at the feet of over-zealous, ambitious ministers (Samuel Parris, and Cotton/Increase Mather spring to mind, but they’re not alone). But in Virginia, congregation leaders rarely participated in witchcraft hearings. Perhaps this is due to the fact that one of the key differences between New England and early Virginian witchcraft is that while 1692’s Salemites viewed witchcraft as inextricably linked with Christianity (the actual offense latent in witchcraft to the Puritans wasn’t the practice of magic, it was being in league with the devil), Virginians viewed it as much more rooted in folklore and therefor essentially outside the realm of organizaed religion.
So, with the possibility of salvation or damnation not on the table, the ministers rarely got involved. But it wasn’t only this religious separation that kept the tide of hysteria at bay. The courts themselves were also hesitant to even hear cases of witchcraft. A perfect illustration of just how true this is can be found in the fact that only 19 known cases of witchcraft were brought to the Virginian courts in the 17th century and all but one ended in acquittal. The final case of witchcraft in Virginia took place in 1802 and was also dismissed.
But what accounts for this hesitation on the part of the courts and the religious leaders of Virginia? Well, the answer to that question leads us to a giant, looming, key player in this story that has yet to appear: The Appalachian Mountains.
Those Dark Hills
To the degree that West Virginia is, “southern,” a whole lot of that cultural relation comes from the secluded mountain-dwellers. Some of these mountaineers have been in those dark hills since the very beginning. As someone who grew up in Tennessee, I’m intimately aware of the folklore that still comes from those Appalachian peaks. This is the land of moonshine and outhouses, completely secluded communities out of reach of the law or government. The early settlers in what became West Virginia were a rugged people. They farmed what they could around the mountains (the state is actually entirely mountainous). They fended for themselves outside of the emergent American government. And this spirit led to a state motto that perfectly captures the essence of the people it canonizes. It reads, “Montani Semper Liberi” (Mountaineers are always free).
The practitioners of witchcraft that emerged from this way of life were different than many others outside of Appalachia. West Virginian communities and religious leaders didn’t despise these “Granny Witches.”. In fact, it was the exact opposite.
The mountain state’s witches tended to be sole practitioners. These typically older women were sometimes alone themselves, sometimes not. But they maintained by in large a coveted spot in their communities. In regions where medical care was harder to come by (due to geographical isolation), West Virginia’s witches were healers. They oversaw the physical, mental, and spiritual health of their communities. And they did it all with near total support from their churches and community members. In West Virginia, witches aren’t a threat to Christianity.
While I can’t find too much proof of this off-hand, I believe that the First Nations peoples of the region are a huge part of the reason why there was such a positive reaction to witchcraft in West Virginia. The state contains a large population of Shawnee descendants. And their ancestors were among the first people that Virginia’s European settlers encountered. The Cherokee (who may have used southern Virginia largely as hunting ground) are also still quite present to this day.
While I can only offer anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I heard many tales growing up of peaceful interaction and sharing between the secluded mountain communities of European and First Nation descendants. Perhaps it’s the case that a bit of the First Nation ethic in regards to what Europeans might deem, “satanic” rubbed off on the settlers. Maybe this is part of why witchcraft in West Virginia doesn’t carry the religious or social baggage it does in other parts of the country.
Granny Witches and Pagan Integration
Regardless, West Virginia offers one of the most successful examples of the integration of witchcraft into the cultural fabric of a state. To this day the, “Granny Witches” are doing their good work in the mountain state. They offer the communities they serve a shoulder to cry on when times are tough. They offer a plethora of folk remedies to help community members avoid the crushing downward spiral of the pharmaceutical industry. And they offer and a through-line for the region’s distinct cultural heritage.
The witches of West Virginia are vital members of their respective communities. And those interested in the craft could do far worse than to look to West Virginia’s witches to learn how to provide occult value to their own communities.