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Whose Truth?
The West Virginia Coal Mine Wars

Questions Posted 10/3/00

The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second's more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children's eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight like beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty -- a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window -- for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.
Mother Jones, from her autobiography

There is nothing more certain than that the United Mine Workers will take your properties out of your hands," a speaker told the southern West Virginia [coal] operators, "unless you organize among yourselves a force strong enough to resist them. . . .You must have an efficient organization, opposing them at every point and every angle, and all the public offices will protect both you and your property from assault. . . .If you organize and prepare for war, you will not have labor troubles.
Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields--David Corbin


Responses in progress. Check back for updates.  I have tried to group like questions together when I think I can answer them in a single response. --MAK  

Laura Parrish

What is the time line for these events? For example, how long did the mine workers work without much complaint (before major union involvement), and over how long a period were the revolts, shootings, how long was the march, etc.

Ronald Lewis of West Virginia University provides a useful timeline at

Theresa Young

In reference to the video we viewed, do you think the fact that not many people knew of these conflicts was due to the isolation of the camps. Obviously, communication was not as it is today -- there was no television or "film at eleven" when incidences like these occurred. Do you think if people were aware of the horrendous living conditions, would this have made a difference? Would change have occurred sooner?

Theresa, the question of media coverage is a good one.  My initial response is that based on my reading, even those events getting national coverage did little to change actual conditions in West Virginia.  The question of whether or not television coverage by 60 minutes or Nightline would have made a difference is difficult to know.  I will attempt to follow up with specifics of media coverage for at least the 1920-21 incidents. Think for instance of current labor issues and problems in third world countries (and sometimes in the US).  Revelation of sweatshop production may bring some outcry, but I wonder how significant such outcry is for the short or long-term.

Some further thoughts . . ..  In terms of "horrendous living conditions" it is worth noting Shifflett's assertion that much of the rural South early in the century lacked "running water, indoor toilets, and a system of garbage removal." (Coal Towns, 146)  For many in people it would be decades before such conveniences became available.


 Hannah Watkins
What effect did the West Virginia Mining Wars have on later West Virginia policy regarding unions and strikes?
jason harris
In what ways did the events that took place during the Mine Wars contribute to the creation of federal labor laws.


daniel lupton
Part of the reason that I seemed contrary tonight was my unwillingness to blindly accept the notion of solidarity. Unions seem, to me, to doom the workers to the working class, whereas I was raised with the belief that if you work hard, you would eventually be part of management. I'll be interested to see the role of the individual in this situation. Are the workers suspicious at all of the heroes of their movement? At what point does the acquisition of power within the labour movement put you on the other side?

Daniel, you raised good points tonight.  I certainly have no expectation that you would blindly accept any idea.  Keep asking questions.   Pursue your thinking on this notion that hard work leads to managerial positions.   Is hard work the only criteria?  Is it possible for someone to work hard their entire lives without making this kind of movement?  What does "management" mean in light of the situation for the miners in which there were owner/operators and miners.  If a miner was a supervisor in an unsafe mine, was he any less subject to danger than the other men in the mine?  Were there opportunities for the mining population to make upward moves? 

Your question of the acquisition of power in the labor movement putting you on the other side is one I can't answer, of course, but I'll be mindful to look for period examples.  The following quote by Mother Jones may be useful:   "I am not blind to the shortcomings of our own people. I am not unaware that leaders betray, and sell out, and play false. But this knowledge does not outweigh the fact that my class, the working class, is exploited, driven, fought back with the weapon of starvation, with guns and with venal courts whenever they strike for conditions more human, more civilized for their children, and for their children's children."


Hannah Watkins
To what extent was Mother Jones (a woman!) involved in the union leadership and how did she rise to that position?
Martha O'Dell
How did a woman, (Mother Jones ?), achieve such a high rank in the union at that time in history? Where was she from, and where were the other union leaders from?

Hannah and Martha,
Hawes' online fulltext article "Mother Jones: The Miners' Angel" provides a solid biography which should answer your questions.  

Laura Parrish
Did other people employed by the companies (besides the miners) also live in poverty? For example, if the pastors were willing to ignore the poverty issue, were they not facing the issue themselves?

The following information from Shifflett's Coal Towns on salaries doesn't directly answer your question, but it might be start if you look at this data against the average monthly salary of a miner in the same period.

Usually, miners interested in forming a congregation would agree orally to deductions from their wages to support a minister.  The company would then contribute another small sum to guarantee a monthly wage.  In 1904, Stonega guaranteed a Presbyterian minister $60 to $75 a month to serve a congregation of miners and the following year offered to contribute $25 monthly toward the salary of a Catholic priest.  (p 192)

Shifflett goes on to cite evidence that rural pastors in 1913 averaged a salary of $378, with some making less than $30 a year.  But these figures don't necessarily describe coal camp pastors.

Wages, it seems, were not the key issue for miners.  David Corbin in Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coalfields writes

While the southern West Virginia miners were not, as one Logan county coal operator claimed, "among the economic aristocrats of labor," neither were they starving to death because of low wages, not, at least, until the 1920s.  The wage scales of the southern West Virginia miners generally may have been the lowest in the United States . . .but softer coal and larger veins allowed the miners to earn more money in less time than miners in states with higher wage scales.  The greater frequency of work in southern West Virginia gave miners a larger annual income than miners in other fields who worked more but were paid less. (p 30)

Corbin  suggests  that more at issue was the scrip system and the company store, which frequently increased prices within a day or two of a wage increase for miners.  

. . .During the Paint Creek--Cabin Creek strike of 1912 - 13, the first major effort on the part of miners to bring unionism into the area, a reporter noted than an increase in pay "the miners regard as the least vital to their demands." . . .The miners' demands were, in order of importance (1) recognition of the union; (2) abolition of the mine-guard system; (3) reform of the docking system; (4) a checkweighman representing, and paid by. the miners; (5) trade with any store they pleased; (6) cash wages; and finally (7) an increase in pay.  (p 31) 

Tamara L. Harris
Has there been any poetry written about the mine wars, the people involved, etc. I am very interested in pursuing some sort of creative writing project for this module and this may be of some help to me.
Sarah Skeen
I am always curious about what artistic forms human history and struggles produce... I know that lots of songs were written during the West Virginia coal mine wars, because I've found transcripts of lyrics, but I have never read any poetry generated out of this time and these battles. Do you know of any poets writing from West Virginia about the coal mine wars? How about painters? 

Tamara and Sarah, I can cite numerous example of poems about work.  Philip Levine's industrial landscapes come to mind as does  Robert Pinsky's fine poem "Shirt."  But I don't know of an specific poems about the mine wars, although I seem to remember a book of poetry on anthracite mining in Pennsylvania.  That doesn't mean they aren't out there.  I'll ask my colleagues for adivice on titles. 

Now, having said that, I do remember an online review of Matewan that mentioned Louis Untermyer's "Caliban of the Coal Mines" as being based on the the historical character of Few Clothes Johnson, the character played by James Earle Jones in Sayles' Matewan.  I have read the poem and will make it available to the class, but I don't know anything further about Untermyer's interest in the events of the surrounding Matewan.  This might be worth pursuing. mak-10/03/00

It would seem that the uncited reference mention above   regarding this poems connection to the historical "Few Clothes" does   not bear out since the poem appears in a 1914 volume.

Caliban in the Coal Mines

God, we don't like to complain;
    We know that the mine is no lark.
But--there's the pools from the rain;
    But--there's the cold and the dark.

God, You don't know what it is--
    You, in Your well-lighted sky--
Watching the meteors whizz;
    Warm, with a sun always by.

God,  if You had but the moon
    Stuck in Your cap for a lamp,
Even You'd tire of it soon,
    Down in the dark and the damp.

Nothing but blackness above
    And nothing that moves but the cars. . . .
God, if You wish for our love,
    Fling us a handful of stars.

Louis Untermeyer
from Challenge, 1914

Do you think Untermeyer's poem is deserving of the praise from The Boston Transcript that the poem showed "a fresh and lyrical sympathy with the modern world. . . . [Untermeyer's] vision is a social vision, his spirit a passionately energized command of the forces of justice." ?

I found the book I refer to in the previous post.   Jay Parini has some poems about Pennsylvania  coal country  in Pennsylvania from his book Anthracite Country.  mak-10/05/00

David Shepherd
Could you give a description of the everyday life of the average coal miner in West Virginia in the time just previous to the strikes?
Rachael Taft
What was the quality of life for the miners in WVA in comparison to the quality of other miners?

Just in general for the time period how was the quality of life, their wages, housing, etc.?

I'm in the process of scanning in some text from  Winthrop Lane's 1921 Civil War in West Virginia to give you one perspective on your question regarding living conditions..


Rachael Taft
Now there are numerous safety laws, regulations, were there any then, were union related mines safer?

Below is some general commentary on safety in this period.  I'll try to add some more specifics on safety laws and regulations.

According to David Corbin's Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coalfields

The miner who lived in the southern West Virginia company towns worked in the most dangerous coal mines in the United States.  Between 1890 and 1912 the mines of West Virginia had the highest death rate among the nation's coal-producing states; its mine-accident death rate was five times higher than that of any European country.  Indeed, during World War I the southern West Virginia coal diggers had a higher proportional death rate than the American Expeditionary Force. (p 10)

Randall Shifflett writes in Coal Towns

Dangerous accumulations of coal dust and the odorless methane gas might go unheeded and be ignited by a single careless act.  [In 1920] Stonega reported cases of slate falls cause by cutter bars striking the roof.  In another case a miner got ten detonators from the supply store and put them in the same pocket with a shooting battery. (p 101)


Martha O'Dell
I was wondering how the leaders in Charleston communicated and stayed so involved in the events in Mingo County.

This is speculation on my part, but I imagine by post, telegraph, and telephone.  Despite the remote locations, I believe the railroad brought with them telegraph and telephone wires.  Regarding the mail, it is worth noting that post offices were usually located in the company store.

David Corbin, in Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coalfields, writes

Because the post office was usually located in the company store with a company official serving as postmaster, a miner's mail might be scrutinized for political or union propaganda.  One such censoring postmaster sent a letter addressed to a miner in his town to the attorney general of the United States with a cover letter:

The writer is also Postmaster at Thayer, West Virginia, as I am also employed as Superintendent for the Ephriam Creek Coal and Coke Company.  When the enclosed letter was observed coming thru [sic] the Thayer post office we had reason to feel that its contents were suspicious.  By holding the enclosed letter before an electric lamp you will observe the contents of the letter can be read very distinctly.   As postmaster I took possession of the letter.

(p 11)

Martha O'Del
I was also wondering if the people who went to the "hollows" in that period are some of the people who are still there today.

Martha, I'm sure they are and I know people whose families came there and stayed, but  I'll look for texts to support this. 

Laura Parrish
Just wondering--is this where the term 'rednecks' came (from the marchers)?

The first use of redneck noted by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1830, some 90 years before the march on Blair Mountain.

redneck. Also red-neck, red neck.
1. U.S.

a. A member of the white rural labouring class of the southern States; one whose attitudes are considered characteristic of this class; freq., a reactionary. Originally, and still often, derogatory, but now also used with more sympathy for the aspirations of the rural American.

1830 A. Royall Southern Tour I. 148 This may be ascribed to the Red Necks, a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians in Fayetteville.

1893 H. A. Shands Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi 53 Red-neck,..a name applied by the better class of people to the poorer inhabitants of the rural districts.

1904 Dialect Notes II. 420 Redneck, n., An uncouth countryman. `The hill-billies came from the hills, and the rednecks from the swamps.'

1913 J. Davis Life & Speeches iii. 42 If you red-necks or hill billies ever come to Little Rock be sure and come to see me-come to my house.

Oxford English Dictionary (VCU access) see full entry.  See also rooinek  



I am quite interested in the role of the wives and children of the coal miners.
I would like to know more about their condition/role in regards to this situation. Is this something we may touch upon at some point?
Julia Imholt
I was wondering about the specific role of women in the battles. I know that there was the one woman who helped to lead the union but where there a great deal of women who participated in the marching ranks of the coal miners?

Julia and Heather, for a starting look at the role of women in the labor movement, it is worth noting the Knights of Labor did not discriminate on the basis of race or gender.  See "When Women Were Knights."  See information and lyrics on Joe Hill's "Rebel Girl."   Denise Giardina depicts a raid by women on a company store in Storming Heaven.   See also questions above on Mother Jones.   

Robert Fagge, in his book Power, Culture, and Conflict in the Coalfields, which examines West Virginia and south Wales coalfields, writes, speaking to race and gender: 

The greater unity across race lines, had . . .precedents dating back to the 1880's.  The Paint Creek strike saw a resurgence of this tradition with black, white, and immigrant miners fighting side by side.  R.L. Lewis has show the prominent role played by black miners in the strike, including Dan Chain, a member of the notorious 'dirty eleven', famous for this ability at turning back strike breakers.  The importance of the black strikers was revealed when the UMWA sent in their leading black field representative, George H. Edmunds, to aid in the prosecution of the strike.  As Lewis suggest, 'at a time when the southern States were enshrining racial segregation, West Virginia miners were apparently marching to a different drumbeat."

The Paint Creek strike also reinforce the importance of women in collective action.  Throughout this period, and especially in the larger conflicts, women were integral to the prosecution of the strikes.  In West Virginia, the US coalfields generally and, as we shall see, in south Wales, women marched, harassed those who opposed strikes, and tried to generate wider support for their communities.  While the vast majority were denied access to the control and direction of the strikes, there were exceptions to this rule, most notably in the shape of Mother Jones, who . . .rewrote her gender role to encompass strong leadership position in West Virginia and other parts of the U.S.  However, along with their involvement in the more obvious manifestations of struggle, women were vitally important within the tent colonies which sprang up with the mass eviction of strikers.  Restricted within the domestic sphere, most of the important tasks of creating a community under canvas fell on the shoulders of the women.
(pp 127-128)


Randall Shifflett, in his book, Coal Towns, writes;

Life and work in mining settlements in some aspects resembled life and work on the farms, especially in the division between "a man's work" and "a woman's work" and the tradition of mothers and fathers training daughters and sons to enter this world of work. . . .

The separateness of the labor of men and women increased in coal towns.  Women did not work beside men in the mines as they had on the farm.  Views about work and a woman's place, together with certain economic and social conditions, excluded women from underground work.  This practice differed from British mines, where women worked underground until 1842.  In that year, after an investigation produced sketches of women and boys chained to heavy tubs of coal which they pulled through the mines, Great Britain passed a law to forbid women working underground.

In the United States, women did not enter underground mining until 1973, according to government records, although a few apparently worked underground during WW II.

. . . .Industrial work opportunities for women in factories near the bituminous fields were almost nonexistent.  Lacking employment opportunities for women outside the household, miners' families found other ways to supplement the family wage.  According to an investigation in the 1920s, taking in boarders and lodgers was the primary source of secondary income.  (pp 81-82)

The 1911 text below from the US Bureau of Labor is useful for thinking about attitudes and social context.

The low wages at which women will work form the chief reason for employing them at all....A woman's cheapness is, so to speak, her greatest economic asset. She can be used to keep down the cost of production where she is regularly employed. Where she has not been previously employed she can be introduced as a strike breaker to take the place of men seeking higher wages, or the threat of introducing her may be used to avert a strike. But the moment she organizes a union and seeks by organization to secure better wages she diminishes or destroys what is to the employer her chief value.
US Bureau of Labor, Report on Conditions of Women and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, vol. 10, 1911 

Fagge writes

. . .poor social and health conditions were particularly hard on women.  Coal mining communities are orientated around male labour and, usually, male needs.  This was particularly true within the primitive company towns, where there were few opportunities for women to work outside of the home.  Some took in boarders, or washing, some cleaned for company officials, and a few gained positions as nurses or teachers, but the vast majority were restricted solely to domestic labour.  And, indeed, even those who were able to find outside work , still bore the weight of domestic responsibility on their shoulders.  This was particularly arduous within the poorly provisioned company house and company town, where everything from food preparation to child rearing required both initiative and hard work. (Coalfields, p 53)


Although the info below isn't about women and  West Virginia Coal, I think the Lawrence Mass. Textile Strike of 1912 popularly known as the Bread and Roses Strike may be of interest.  Many of the striking employees were women immigrants.   (Note this is the same year as the beginning of the Paint/Cabin Creek Strikes in the southwest fields of West Virginia.)   Here is a link to an online article on the strike by Mary Spicuzza.  Be aware that at least one historian disputes that the phrase "Bread and Roses" was ever used at the strike; other historians disagree.  There is a wonderful song about the strike from James Oppenheim's 1912 poem "Bread and Roses.".  You can hear a version of it on Utah Philips' We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years.  An online recording by Mimi Farina and Joan Baez (with a different tune than Philips) is available at

Oppenheim's poem (lyrics) and a link to a thesis questioning the use of the historical accuracy of the term "bread and roses"  at


Julia Imholt
I also wanted to add to the discussion about the Felts law enforcement men. Is it possible that their view point was not taken because people see them as having a choice in the matter? The coal workers lived there and once they moved there, it seemed as though they were not allowed to leave. Was there some force keeping the Felts workers in the area? I would think that if they were able to leave and they didn't that this would be a cause for the lack of sympathy for these men.
Tamara L. Harris
I guess this may be more of a statement, but what about the Felts detectives. I mean they were just doing a job. Everyone does not always like their job. Can we really view them as bad guys 100% of the time? 

John Velke certainly doesn't in his self-published book Baldwin-Felts Detectives, Inc.

In a time when state and national police agencies had not yet been formed, William Gibboney Baldwin and Thomas Lee Felts created a firm of private detectives that became widely known and respected among law abiding citizens, and despised and feared by criminals and rabble rousers of all sorts.

The hundreds of men in the Baldwin-Felts agency were thorough and fearless. Ready to go on a moment's notice, they responded instantly whenever a train was robbed, a coal mine strike erupted into violence, or a murderer fled the scene of a crime. More often than not, they conducted their investigation, got their man, and protected him from angry mobs until a jury delivered its verdict.

Baldwin-Felts detectives carried out many dangerous and thankless tasks, the
worst of which usually surrounded coal mine strikes. Often they would be asked
to peacefully evict striking miners from company-owned houses which the
miners rented, and which the miners had agreed in writing to vacate when they
stopped working for the mining company. These evictions often resulted in
violence. The most notable eviction occurred in Matewan, West Virginia on
May 19th, 1920, when seven unarmed Baldwin-Felts detectives were shot and killed by citizens under the control of chief-of-police Sid Hatfield.
See for more on Velkes' book.

Try replacing the question "Can we view them as bad guys," with "how were Baldwin-Felts agents depicted by the union and by the press of their day?  How have they been treated by historians?"  And then ask yourself why there is a broad negative characterization if that proves predominant.   Where there, for instance, multiple events in labor history in which private guards were associated with violence against workers and/or their families.  So the answer to your question is "no," but there is a complex subtext and history underneath your question. 

See The Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, 1914.

Did the miners hate the guards?  See the following from Corbin's Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields.

On a train carrying wounded miners and mine guards to a hospital following a gun battle, a railroad conductor found a miner spitting tobacco juice in the eyes of a dying mine guard and heard the coal digger say, "You'd better die, you son-of-a-bitch, for if you don't I'm going to kill you the minute you get out of the hospital."  [Mother] Jones, who, according to a biographer, " never before and never again would . . . be so blatant in her appeals to violence," held up the bloody coat of a wounded mine guard and screamed: "This is the first time I ever saw a goddamned mine guard's coat decorated to suit me."  The coat was then cut into pieces, which the miners wore as souvenirs. (pp 90-91)