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  • The Historiography of the West Virginia Mine Wars
  • A. P. Duafala

Between 1900 and 1922, the coalfields of Southern West Virginia witnessed some of the most intense labor violence in US labor history. This violence twice escalated into what can only be described as war, during the 1912–1913 Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike and the 1920–1921 Mingo War. Both state and federal troops were dispatched to the area on multiple occasions to quell the violence, and the state's coal miners lived under some of the most authoritarian conditions in the country. In August 1921, a force of approximately ten thousand union coal miners began an armed march on Logan and Mingo Counties, vowing to depose Logan sheriff Don Chafin and free their imprisoned union brothers. This incident resulted in the week-long Battle of Blair Mountain and comprised what has often been described as the largest armed insurrection on US soil since the American Civil War. Despite the sensational nature of these events and significant press coverage at the time, the West Virginia Mine Wars have largely disappeared from the nation's collective consciousness.

Over the years, there have been numerous interpretations and revisions of the history of the Mine Wars. While contemporary accounts of these events in West Virginia attributed this violence to the degenerative effects of "mountain culture," historians have found that they resulted from a more complex blend of cultural, social, political, and economic forces. The mid-century institutional labor historians largely accepted the "mountain culture" narrative and cast the region's inhabitants as incapable of shaping their own destiny, requiring outside intervention in the form of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). This conceptual model was challenged by the New Left historians, whose focus on bottom-up history attempted to restore agency to the West Virginia coal miners. The New Left interpretation of the Mine Wars as a liberation struggle continues to define the historiography of the topic to the present, with important exceptions. In recent decades, a new generation [End Page 71] of scholars, composed of historians, community activists, and Mine Wars descendants, have contributed in their own way to a broader understanding of the topic by connecting events at the community level to the wider themes of labor history. This article is intended to provide a thorough guide for those wishing to undertake further study of the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Newspaper and magazine articles in many ways set the tone for early narratives of the Mine Wars. Publications as diverse as the Huntington Socialist and Labor Star, the New York Times, Nation, Survey, Literary Digest, Atlantic Monthly, and the International Socialist Review all ran articles chronicling events in the coalfields.1 The majority of these articles, written by muckraking journalists, were designed to "titillate their readers and to inspire support for industrial reform."2 This approach led to an oversimplification of the conflict and its root causes and fueled the mountain-culture stereotypes. This image of Appalachian culture, built on sensationalized coverage of the late-nineteenth-century Hatfield-McCoy Feud, cast the region's inhabitants as prone to violence and outside of the American cultural mainstream. That narrative not only advanced the cultural "othering" of the Appalachian people, allowing the exploitation of the region's population and natural resources, it also permitted the nation to turn a blind eye to Appalachia's problems and the external forces that exacerbated them.3

Since the late nineteenth century, while the popular press regaled the American public with accounts of the violent manifestations of mountain culture, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have been trying to define just what this culture is, with equally harmful results. At the turn of the century, William Goodell Frost, president of Berea College, pointed to the region's geographic, sociocultural, and economic isolation to explain the inhabitants presumed backwardness. Frost believed the Appalachian people possessed the characteristics of the original American colonists, both at their best, exemplified by fierce independence, and at their worst, represented in the violent streak displayed in hillbilly feuds. The writers of the day emphasized the role of the mountains in the development, or lack thereof, of the Appalachian people. In 1901, geographer Ellen...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5057
Print ISSN
0043-325X
Pages
pp. 71-89
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-01
Open Access
No
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