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Kanawha pre-Civil War Salt Makers

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Location: Kanawha, West Virginia, United Statesmap
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While the following includes some post-War history of Kanawha County's salt works, this is the companion space page for Category: Kanawha pre-Civil War Salt Makers, which covers those associated with salt making in the Kanawha Salines from the 1790s through 1860. Those involved in salt making outside the scope of that category (including colonial salt makers) can be found under Category: Salt Makers. See also the Salt Makers companion space page.

Joseph Ruffner purchased land in the Kanawha Valley from John Dickinson in 1794. The 502 acres included the famous salt spring at the mouth of Campbells Creek. "The Ruffners settled on the former Clendenin lands and leased the salt property to Elisha Brooks."[1]

In 1797, Elisha Brooks erected the first salt furnace in the Kanawha Valley at the mouth of Campbell's Creek. He produced as much as 150 bushels of salt a day and sold it to settlers to be used for curing butter and meats.[2]

"Upon the death of Joseph in March 1803, his estate, including the salt property that was destined to become the most valuable land in the Kanawha Valley, descended to his sons"[1] - David, "Joseph, Jr., Samuel, Tobias, Daniel and Abraham. The only daughter, Eve, [had married] Nehemiah WOODS, who settled in Ohio".[3][4]

"Of all the Ruffners, Joseph's son David (1767–1843) most strongly influenced the development of the Kanawha Valley. He and brother Joseph devised methods and tools for drilling the first salt well into the Kanawha bedrock, pioneering the industry that would produce within the Kanawha Salines up to 3.2 million bushels of salt annually."[1]

By 1808, David and Joseph Ruffner succeeded in drilling to 59 feet, where they secured a good flow of strong brine. Also in that year, the first salt was shipped west, by river, on a log raft. A younger Ruffner brother, Tobias, suspected that a vast saline reservoir existed under the Kanawha Valley and, drilling to a depth of 410 feet, tapped an even richer brine. This discovery set off a veritable frenzy of drilling and by 1815 there were 52 furnaces in operation in the "Kanawha Salines." In 1817, David Ruffner experimented with the use of coal in his furnaces, and soon all saltmakers had switched from wood to coal.[2]

By 1808, brothers David and Joseph Ruffner drilled a well and hit a good flow of strong brine. Not satisfied with their accomplishment, their younger brother, Tobias, sank a deeper well to draw from a richer source. By 1815, up to 20 wells tapped the brine with 52 furnaces boiling it down to make that "Red Salt from Kanawha."[5]

The saltmakers formed a "trust," the Kanawha Salt Company, in order to regulate the quality and price of salt and to discourage foreign competition. This was the first "trust" in the United States. This cooperative helped the salt industry grow until it reached its peak in 1846, producing 3,224,786 bushels that year. At that time, the Kanawha Valley was one of the largest salt manufacturing centers in the United States.[2]

The History of Kanawha County, published in 1876, offers the following description of salt works in Mason County, which was formed from Kanawha County in 1804:[6]

"Along the Ohio river, in Mason County, are a number of manufacturing towns, which add much to the wealth and enterprise of the county. For a distance of perhaps five or six miles along the shore of the Ohio, opposite Pomeroy and Middleport, the tall chimneys of salt furnaces and rolling-mills blacken the air with volumes of coal smoke which constantly pour forth from their towering summits. The sound of the mechanic's hammer, the hum of the engine, and the whistle of the steamboat, all evidence the fact that there is life and vitality in that section of the State."

One of those salt works was the firm Dickinson & Shrewsbury, founded by William Dickinson (1772-1861) and his brother-in-law Joel Shrewsbury (1779-1859).[7]

"Then came the fall", says Eric J. Wallace, in an article about the area's salt-making history. "In 1861, the Kanawha River flooded. The catastrophe was followed immediately by the Civil War. Crippled by back-to-back blows and competition from more efficient operations in the western United States, by the late 1800s, the Dickinson’s Malden furnace was the lone survivor of the great Kanawha salt industry."[8]

"The Shrewsbury & Dickinson partnership became acrimonious by 1857, with a messy lawsuit ending in the firm's dissolution in 1861; John Q. Dickinson led the salt works after the war."[9] J.Q. Dickinson & Co. closed its doors in 1982.[10]

When William Dickinson's 4x-gr-grandchildren, siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, re-established their ancestors' salt works in 2013, "they became not only the last remaining salt-makers in Malden, but all of Appalachia."[8]

Salt Makers

The shores of the Kanawha River have been home to many salt makers who chose that line of work, and many others who did not, including captive, indentured, and enslaved peoples. From Mary (Draper) Ingles, captured by the Shawnee in 1755 to the slaves working for Dickinson and Shrewsbury prior to the firms dissolution, hundreds of salt makers labored without profiting from the salt industry.

As of this writing, the best resource found are the records of Dickinson and Shrewsbury that were apparently bought at auction. See this webpage.[9] Also as of this writing, there is not a separate category for unwilling salt makers, just the Kanawha (1790s-1860) category and the Salt Makers category for everyone else. ~ Noland-165, 26 March 2022

As noted by Nancy Bruns, descendant of William Dickinson and co-owner of today's J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works:

"Like much of the nation, our heritage is not without its troubling episodes. The salt industry, like many industries in our young country, relied heavily on slave labor. Our ancestors were no exception. They owned slaves, and it is necessary and right to acknowledge that the industry was built on the backs of the enslaved. People rarely think of West Virginia, the very heart of Appalachia, as once having been slaveholding country, but it was.
"We may disagree with and even abhor some of the choices we made as a family and as a nation, but we love them both anyway. We draw strength daily from our family. It drives us to work hard in reviving the salt industry here and give back to the Kanawha Valley that means so much to us."[11]
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ratliff, Gerald S. "Ruffner Family." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 October 2010. (Web, accessed 14 March 2022).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Information originally posted on the category page, source not known.
  3. Article by Dr. William Henry Ruffner (1876 - 1908), written in May 1901, West Virginia Historical Magazine, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1910), p. 38
  4. See also the WikiTree profiles Nehemiah Wood (1770-1824) & Eve (Ruffner) Wood (1777-1821).
  5. "Kanawha Salines Foundation", History of Kanawha Salt (accessed 31 December 2022).
  6. George Wesley Atkinson, History of Kanawha County (West Virginia Journal, 1876). Google Books, page 3.
  7. Records of the Dickinson & Shrewsbury salt works (accessed 13 March 2022).
  8. 8.0 8.1 Eric J. Wallace, Making Salt From an Ancient Ocean Trapped Below the Appalachians (8 January 2018; accessed 13 March 2022).
  9. 9.0 9.1 Records of the Dickinson & Shrewsbury salt works (accessed 13 March 2022).
  10. J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, Timeline (accessed 25 March 2022).
  11. Blog post by Nancy, "Heritage Is Our Guide," 21 November 2014 (accessed 26 March 2022).


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