Putnam County straddles the Kanawha River between Kanawha County to its southeast and Mason County to its northwest. Traces of large-scale Native American settlement have been found in the fertile bottomlands that broaden as the river courses downstream.
Patenting of the land into huge, individually owned tracts by George Washington and others hampered early settlement, and it was not until the 1840s, after the extensive fiefdoms had been divided into smaller parcels, that population increases were sufficient to warrant establishment of a new county. Putnam was formed in 1848 from portions of Kanawha, Mason, and Cabell counties and was named for General Israel Putnam, a New Englander who served with distinction in the French and Indian War and the Revolution. A small riverfront settlement near the geographic center was declared the county seat and named to honor General Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War. Buffalo, the earliest and for a time the largest Kanawha River settlement between Charleston and Point Pleasant, was the county's only urban center in the antebellum years, and its town square and attendant buildings still maintain a delightful mid-nineteenth-century ambience.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, coal was mined in the upper reaches of the county. The WPA's 1941 West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain Statecharacterized Poca, Raymond City, Black Betsey, Bancroft, and Plymouth as “a string of coal towns,” although production had almost ceased by then. The guide described Poca's “smudged frame houses [as giving] the impression of having been hastily thrown together by men eager to move on to more remunerative fields.” Some already had, to a new community ten miles downstream. Eleanor, established in 1934, was one of West Virginia's three subsistence homestead projects that sought to provide for out-of-work miners and their families during the Depression.
Putnam is one of West Virginia's few counties that has experienced a consistent population increase since the 1930s. The growth is attributable primarily to the county's strategic location between Charleston and Huntington, the state's two largest cities. In recent years development has shifted from the river valley to Teays Valley, along U.S. 60 and the parallel I-64, which connect the two cities. Small crossroads hamlets such as Hurricane, Teays, and Scott Depot are now bedroom suburbs, their small town centers virtually surrounded by new housing developments. The county's 1990 population was 42,835. By 2000 it had grown to 51,589, a 20 percent increase.
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