Medieval West Virginia

By:Gracie Golden

Page One

The Coal Mine War of West Virginia was not just a labor dispute. It was a full fledged insurrection of the people against tyranny. It was the largest insurrection this nation has had since the Civil War. It was a series of battles between the mining companies and the workers and the workers were trying to become unionized. The coal companies used every means at their disposal to keep this from happening because the union would break the coal companies’ feudal system and weaken their control of the people in West Virginia. This is the story about people who lived under great hardships and their struggle to survive and to make a better life for their children.
Mary Harris Jones, simply called “Mother Jones” by the people, was from Ireland. She lost her husband and four children in 1867, due to a fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. The poor people died in this plague while the rich were able to save themselves by leaving the city. Because poor people could not afford nurses, Mother Jones was alone nursing her family until they died. Unable to save her husband and children, she was surrounded by the dead and crying people in the city. After the death of her husband and children, she moved to Chicago and opened a dress shop, where she sewed clothes for rich society ladies. She was deeply affected when she compared the lives of those rich people to the poverty, hunger and despair of the common people around her. Her new family became the struggling working class. Eventually, she joined the labor movement as a member of the “Knights of Labor.” She traveled the country as an agitator for the union; from the industries of Pennsylvania and Chicago, to the copper mines in Arizona, to the Coal Fields in Colorado and in West Virginia, to help the people (Jones).
Photo of Mother Jones

Mother Jones

Courtesy of West Virginia Collection, WVU

In 1912, the 82 year old woman arrived at Cabin Creek, West Virginia. The coal operators called her the “most dangerous woman in America.” She was poised and unassuming until it came time to promote a cause for the people and she refused to be intimidated by anyone. When she arrived in Cabin Creek, she coined the phrase “Medieval West Virginia,” and the miners became her “boys.” She said, “Medieval West Virginia! With its tent colonies on the bleak hills! With its grim men and women. When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia!” (Corbin, Anthology 51).
Before the land speculators noticed the coal in West Virginia, it was a place of natural beauty, and was a pastoral, agricultural society. Winthrop Lane, in “Black Avalanche,” describes it as “slumbering in solitude.” He said, “The traveler rode horseback up the stony beds of mountain streams and sought shelter at night in a lonely settler’s hut or on the slope of the inhospitable mountain. Forests of oak, ash, cucumber wood and poplar covered the hills. Bears lumbered through the wilderness and wildcats howl at night……. Life on the whole was simple and devoted chiefly to agriculture. The earth reposed peacefully” (qtd. in Lane).
Howard Lee describes West Virginia as a place of great scenic beauty. “There are regions where lofty, forest-clad mountain ranges parallel to each other like waves at sea, and distant peaks rear their heads among the clouds. In summer, from the highest of these peaks, one looks out upon a circle of mountains on which the rays of the setting sun show gradations of light and color. And in the fall frost paints the foliage into frescoes of livid red, purple, orange, pink, brown, and gold, which blend with the dark evergreens into a panorama of unsurpassed loveliness” (qtd. in Lee).

Cool Water

Published by Paige Creations
Photography by Janet Paige Bonsall

Why were things so different in Southern West Virginia than in other states that had labor disputes? Were these people different or were the circumstances different? Louise Jones Du Bose, in an article about the Allen family in 1948 for the “Virginia Record”, depicted mountaineers as a race of self-reliant loners because; "… the mountains challenge a man in ways different from those of the level land. There's an inviolate eternity that all the railroads, highways, power plants, telephones, radios, and even good schooling can never overcome. A man who makes a success in the hills feels a superiority to his outlander counterpart who never had to wrestle with thin soils on hard granite or farms and pastures so steep that the dumb beasts are likely to tumble down to death at any moment. A man among the crests and coves has few of his sort around him. He thinks long thoughts but has no one for discussion and by force of necessity becomes less communicative than his compatriot of towns and villages and cities. The hills take hold of a man with more force than the flat acres beyond. A man against the powers of the mountains is not like a man against a man. When he has wrested a small living from stony slanting fields he has won against nature and winning against a man is less than that. The laws of the hills and the laws of the level land are different. When a man's family has lived among remote peaks and valleys for generations and has become well fixed according to the material standards of his neighbors, he feels that his and his foreparents' achievements give him privilege and power” (Hall, Courthouse). This article can also be applied to the West Virginia miner, as they were men of the mountains.
When the land speculators did notice the coal, they began buying up the land for ten cents to a dollar an acre from the land owners in West Virginia, who did not know about the vast wealth of coal underneath their feet. Millionaires from the East sent engineer scouts to find the richest land and buy it. They then leased that land to coal operators, individuals and corporations. If the owners were unwilling to sell their land, they used the law to force them to sell (Lee).
In Virginia, after the Revolutionary War, the state gave land grants on their western border to the veterans and sold some of the rest to land speculators. Most of this land was forfeited back to the state because the original title holders had failed to pay their taxes or register their land. The state then sold this land to people who lived there, but the current capitalists purchased those original deeds, knowing they were invalid and sought help from the courts to take away the land from the people who lived there. Twice, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those deeds were invalid and that the local inhabitants legally owned their land. The capitalists then found federal judges who were “friendly” to them, probably due to bribery, and the land was declared as belonging to the land speculators. This enabled them to take over the land and entitled them to the coal profits. It no longer mattered whether the locals wanted to sell their land or not, and it planted the seeds of mistrust for the court system and the government (Corbin, Rebellion).
Next came the railroads, bringing in the coal operators and the supplies to build the mines. The early coal operators had no rules to go by, but were experienced in mining. They were a hard group of men, and ran the mines and the people with an iron hand. They set the stage by becoming involved with politics enabling them to pass laws to keep them in control. They also owned the local law enforcement, even importing men from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency to rule over the miners. On Election Day, the miners would be handed ballots to turn in that had already been marked with the name of the men the company chose. The operators owned the land, the town, the schools and churches. The workers had to live in company shanties and were paid in scrip money. This scrip could only be spent at the company store. This feudal system allowed the company to be in complete charge of every facet of a man’s life. Food, clothing, doctor fees, house rent, tools they used in their work, even blasting powder was deducted from a man’s pay. This left very little, if any for the miner and his family (Corbin, Anthology).
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