Wheeling, West Virginia is nestled along the Ohio River. What was once quiet woods became an industrial center in the nineteenth century. Author Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910) documented this change in her realistic writing and journalism.
Although Rebecca was born in Washington, Pennsylvania, she grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, the setting for much of her writing. Rebecca was well-educated, graduating valedictorian of the Washington Female Seminary. At seventeen, she returned to Wheeling just as Wheeling began to grow. The railroad came to Wheeling and so did the Civil War (1861-1865). During this time, Rebecca Harding started her writing career. Her first known publication was in the Intelligencer in 1859. In 1861, her most famous work, “Life at the Iron-Mills” was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Her work is famous for discussing gender, abolitionism, the lives of the working class, and more issues of reform writers. Rebecca described herself as a “patriotic West Virginian.” She supported West Virginia’s creation on June 20, 1863 and its implementation into the Union. She was against slavery. Yet, she also felt her home was the South.
On March 5, 1863, Rebecca married L. Clarke Davis at St. Matthew’s Church in Wheeling, West Virginia. After their marriage, they moved to Philadelphia. She continued to write for the first years of the marriage, supporting her new family. She had three children, one of which became a famous journalist. She published over 500 works in her lifetime, including her autobiography Bits of Gossipin 1904. Rebecca Harding Davis is an important realist fiction writer of the nineteenth century, but her legacy was lost for many years. In the 1970s, Tillie Olsen rediscovered her works, and the importance of Rebecca’s works have been reinstated. Rebecca Harding Davis is an important author sharing stories of nineteenth century life.
Wheeling was founded in 1769 and served as the capital of West Virginia between 1863-1870 and in 1875-1885. The state of West Virginia was created in Wheeling and was known as the “nail capital of the world”. Rebecca’s family lived on 20thStreet in Wheeling, West Virginia. Rebecca’s house has been rediscovered by interested historians. St. Mathews Church, where her family was members, still stands. St. Matthews Church was established in 1819 and is still in use today. Although Wheeling is no longer a bustling town, its history is important in the formation of West Virginia, and Rebecca Davis Harding depicts Wheeling’s historical importance in her writing and her self-proclaimed identity as a “proud West Virginian.”
For more information on Wheeling, West Virginia: https://www.wheelingwv.gov/our-history
For more information on Rebecca Harding Davis: Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis: A Life Among Writers. West Virginia University Press, 2018.