The Red Neck War of 1921
The Miners' March and The Battle of Blair Mountain
By: Michael M. Meador
One of the most hated tools of the mine owners was the "yellow dog"
contract which many miners were forced to sign. In the contract the
miner agreed not to join the union under penalty of losing his job and
company house. These contracts, upheld in court, were a powerful weapon
in the hands of the operators and much resented by the miners.
In the early 1900's the majority of West Virginia's mines were owned and
operated by individuals or a few investors, rather than large corporations.
Many of these operations were tiny by today's standards, although they
employed more workers than might be expected, since coal was mostly
mined by hand labor. Owners of these mines found it difficult to absorb
financial losses. They feared the union because of its insistence upon
such costly practices as higher wages, safer working conditions, and
In spite of this fear of unions, roughly half the mines in the state
had accepted the UMWA by 1910. But most of these mines were north of
the Kanawha River. South of the Kanawha the mine owners and their
hated guards ruled. To assure complete control over their operations and
to keep the union away, mine owners in West Virginia gradually gained
control of local and state government through the use of coercion, wote
buying, bribery and fear. The frustrated miners soon realized that no
help for their grievances would come from courts or elected officials,
and turned to use of strikes and violence to settle their disputes.
This made their cause feared and unpopular with the general public.
in 1912 the first major strike in the West Virginia Mine Wars occurred
on Paint and Cabin Creeks in Kanawha County, when 7,500 walked off the job
over a wage dispute. The operators, refusing to negotiate, fired the
miners and evicted them from their company-owned homes. Thousands of
people were forced to take shelter in the woods and slopes above
the two creeks.
Mother Jones, the fiery, foul-mouthed union organizer, arrived and
encouraged the miners to take up arms. The union provided guns and
ammunition, and for weeks the two creeks were a bloody battlefield.
Only when the enraged miners seemed likely to wipe out the mine guards
did the governor declare martial law and send in the state militia to
end the strike. The violence, however, continued into the next year.
In 1917 America's entry into World War I brought a short truce to
the continuing struggle between union and industry in the coalfields.
The market for coal was good and most of the younger labor force was
fighting overseas. But tension surfaced again as soon as the war ended.
In 1919 an armed band of pro-union miners marched through Boone County
in an attempt to organize the Logan and Mingo county mines. They were
stopped at Danville in Boone County when word reached them from the
governor to either disband peacefully or face the state militia.
The march ended without incident.