A substantial portion was subdivided from Fayette County to form Raleigh County in 1850. Fayette was one of 50 counties that broke off from the rest of Virginia and formed the new state of West Virginia during the American Civil War. In 1871, an Act of the West Virginia Legislature severed an small portion was taken to form part of Summers County.
There were 18,945 households out of which 29.00% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 52.10% were married couples living together, 13.20% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.70% were non-families. 26.90% of all households were made up of individuals and 13.40% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.41 and the average family size was 2.89.
In the county, the population was spread out with 21.70% under the age of 18, 9.60% from 18 to 24, 27.10% from 25 to 44, 25.10% from 45 to 64, and 16.40% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 40 years. For every 100 females there were 98.20 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 94.70 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $24,788, and the median income for a family was $30,243. Males had a median income of $28,554 versus $18,317 for females. The per capita income for the county was $13,809. About 18.20% of families and 21.70% of the population were below the poverty line, including 31.90% of those under age 18 and 13.70% of those age 65 or over.