- What Did the Miners See?:Archaeology, Deep Mapping, and the Battle of Blair Mountain
In September 1921, the last gunshots echoed in the hollows of Blair Mountain. The US Army occupied the town, demanded that the miners surrender, and confiscated many of their weapons. Thousands of miners retreated from the battlefield, some dropping their guns, some crawling along the creeks to elude capture. The battle was over, the miners lost, many faced prosecution, and few were interested in preserving a detailed historical record of the event.
For decades, scholars have tolerated brief descriptions of the Battle of Blair Mountain available in a handful of sources. Miners who participated in the battle feared criminal charges, and industry and state officials actively worked to keep the events out of official histories and textbooks and the site off the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, the battlefield sprawled along fourteen miles of ridgeline with thousands of irregular troops on both sides improvising supply lines and tactics along roads, creeks, and the steep and heavily wooded slopes of the mountain. It is unlikely that any of the participants had knowledge of the entire battlefield and troop movements, let alone historians reading the few anecdotal accounts that remained.
In the late 1960s, labor historians took interest in radical politics at the same time that new memoirs of the Mine Wars were published, and studies of the miners' living and working conditions, strikes, and class consciousness emerged, but few efforts were made to construct a comprehensive account of the Miners' March and the Battle of Blair Mountain. David Corbin's 1984 book Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coalfields: The Southern West Virginia [End Page 97] Miners, 1880–1920 devoted its final two chapters to the events, and Lon Savage's Thunder in the Mountains provided a narrative account of the events of 1920 to 1921 that culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain.1 In 1991, a team from West Virginia University's Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology surveyed the battlefield and surrounding area for archaeological finds, but details of the actual events of the battle remained largely unknown.2 After the 1991 survey, local resident Kenneth King began to explore the battlefield and collect artifacts, refining his methods over time. Another survey began in 2006 under the supervision of Appalachian State University, and Brandon Nida joined these efforts in 2009, performed another survey beginning in 2010, and decided to base his doctoral dissertation in archaeology on data gathered from the battlefield.3
In this article, we summarize some of Nida's findings and consider the potential of emerging methodologies and technologies to reveal an even greater understanding of the battle. Nida's archaeological survey focused on two areas: 1) Blair and the surrounding area and 2) the Crooked Creek area. His study resulted in new observations and conclusions about the battle. Among other things, he concludes that previous accounts have overestimated the number of rounds fired in the battle, that less than half of the marchers reached the frontlines and participated in the shooting, and that the coal operators' forces had more access to military weapons. Perhaps his most significant finding is that the miners' army used effective military strategies and was in the process of breaking through the line of the "Logan Defenders" at Crooked Creek Gap when US Army regiments arrived to the battle. Despite Nida's new findings, he has identified many questions that remain unanswered. In this article, we explore the possibilities presented by the new methodology of deep mapping, which combines the precision of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with a humanistic analysis that embraces multiple subjectivities and complex realities. By creating deep maps of the Battle of Blair Mountain using three-dimensional mapping, we would have a better understanding of what the miners saw on those bloody days in 1921.
Historians and the Battle of Blair Mountain
Most historians agree on the causes of the Battle of Blair Mountain. The organizing efforts of the United Mine Workers of America had stalled because of state and local government cooperation with the coal operators. The governor declared...