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Debar’s Impression of State Remains

June 20, 2013
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

More than a 100 years after his death, West Virginians are still impacted by the artistry of a Frenchman who came to call West Virginia home.

Joseph H. Diss Debar came to the United States in 1842 and moved to Parkersburg in 1846, working as a land agent. He lived in present-day West Virginia for the next 29 years, dividing his time between Wood and Doddridge counties.

Debar was a bon vivant for the area; a Frenchman with a classical education. He was fluent in German, English, Spanish, Italian and his native French. He could translate Latin and Greek. He was also a talented artist who designed the official seal and coat-of-arms for the state.

Article Photos

This bronze medal features the West Virginia state seal, created by Parkersburg resident Joseph H. Diss Debar.

He was described as a distinguished looking gentleman, wearing a Van Dyke beard, dressed in a cloak and high silk hat, with a cane.

A supporter of the West Virginia statehood movement, Debar was commissioned by Gov. Arthur I. Boreman to design the state's Great Seal in 1863. Seeing the assignment as an opportunity to promote the new state's natural resources and economic potential, Debar created a two-sided medallion whose front depicts a farmer, a miner, the state motto, and other symbols. The seal was adopted by the state legislature in September 1863.

In 1864, Debar was appointed commissioner of immigration and worked in this capacity to recruit labor and landowners from abroad until 1871. He involved the state in the 1867 Paris Exposition, winning a prize for the petroleum exhibit from the West Virginia oil fields. As immigration commissioner he produced "The West Virginia Hand-Book and Immigrant's Guide" in 1870.

Debar met his first wife Clara Levassor in Parkersburg shortly after he arrived. They were married in 1847 in Marietta. He was 30 - his wife, just 17. The couple lived in a house on 12th Street, between Ann and Juliana streets. Clara Debar died in childbirth in April 1849. She's buried in Riverview Cemetery.

Their son, Joseph Henry Jr., was taken by Clara Debar's parents to Cincinnati. He survived to a very old age, according to newspaper accounts, but left no heirs. He had a 6-year-old son who died in 1871, from diphtheria.

Following his wife's death, Debar went to Doddridge county, where he had bought a tract of land and worked to develop the town of Santa Clara named for his wife. He married a second time to Amelia Cain, of Doddridge county, August 3, 1859. They produced five children.

Debar also served in the state legislature from Doddridge County in 1864, and in 1872.

According to an 1941 article in the West Union Record (Doddridge County), from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Debar left the area in his later years, dying in Pittsburgh in 1906. The article list several of Debar's relatives still in the area.

Debar's Parkersburg home remains standing. Dubbed the Carriage House, it sits on Franklin Alley (between Ann and Juliana Streets). It is part of the property at 118 12th St.

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