Bogan Explores History of Welsh Coal Miners in the Knoxville Region
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was
published in the Volunteer Times.
Glamorganshire is a maritime
county in southeast Wales, bounded on the northwest and north by Carmarthenshire
and Breconshire, on the east by the English county of Monmouthshire,
south and southwest by Bristol Channel. It covers 813 square miles and
is known for its coal resources.
An Aberdare (Glamorganshire) native, John
R. Williams, wrote a message home November 10, 1895, describing coal
mining in Pennsylvania. This information is important to the history
of Knoxville-area Welsh miners, since many of them first settled in
Pennsylvania and worked there for a time before migrating to Tennessee.
He emphasizes in his letter that the anthracite
districts in Pennsylvania has been very boring throughout the year of
1895. Laborers had been so abundant that the operators did somewhat
as they pleased. At the time, Pennsylvania was spilling over with foreigners
such as Poles, Hungarians, Slavish, Swedes, Italians, etc. The latter
seemed to be driving the English, Welsh and Scottish miners out of contention.
Quite noticeably, the Poles and Hungarians were a harder working people
and physically stronger than the English and Welsh. Their living was
much more flexible and the cost was about half that the Welsh countrymen.
Mr. Williams writes that before the arrival
of the foreigners, the Welsh were the hardest workers in the mines.
Their foolhardiness and irrational annoyances meant that they at length
became wholly uncontrollable. Consequently, the coal operators sought
out the best and most manageable workers and sent for and received whole
cargoes of the foreigners, which were named previously. Mr. Williams
also notes that these outsiders practically monopolized the business
which in turn disallowed America to hold out a friendly hand to the
British miner and permitted them to stay at home and do the best he
could in the old country or come here and starve.
Mr. Williams states that in 1895 "there
are in America today and especially in the west, thousands and thousands
of our countrymen who would gladly return to England and Wales if they
could do so, but they cannot find the money."
A letter from Mr. Howell Davies of Jellico
(in Campbell County) gives a minute history of the Welsh coal mining
industry in Coal Creek and Briceville, the primary areas of Welsh coal
mining activity north of Knoxville. Mr. Davies then goes on to describe
an incident that occurred in Briceville and Coal Creek, which was uncannily
similar to the uprisings which were happening in the Rhondda and Merthyr
Valleys of Pennsylvania. Mr. Davies wrote to his relatives in Wales
on 11 January 1892:
"Coal Creek and Briceville
are two famous coal villages in the eastern part of the above
state about three miles from each other. There is a bed of excellent
steam coal here, about four feet thick. At the end of the war
in 1865, they started working coal here. Two Welsh brothers, Joseph
and David Richards, opened the first coalmine and built log houses.
Three of the coalmines were opened by other companies soon afterwards.
A large community of Welsh settled in the place and chapels were
built to hold religious services in Welsh. There are very few
of the old settlers left here now. Within a few years Messrs.
Richards sold their interests to the Knoxville Iron Company.
"The wages for cutting coal
now is fifty cents a ton. At the beginning of 1877 the owners
demanded a lowering in wages. The colliers stood firm and the
strike lasted for a long time. In the end, the Knoxville Iron
Company made an agreement with the governor of the state to get
convicts to work in their mines and this agreement was to last
for six or seven years. The agreement was carried out and about
140 to 160 criminals sentenced to hard labor for their wicked
deeds, such as thieves, house-breakers, murderers, etc. came to
work in the valley. This strange migration forced the first settlers
to sell their houses and land and to go elsewhere.
"There was bitter strife in
the district, when the end of the first agreement came. The state
government was approached and a number of major accusations about
the barbaric cruelty used towards the prisoners were brought forward.
A commission was appointed and a great number of witnesses were
questioned, but the end was to legalize the institution of putting
convicts to work in the coalmines. Consequently the convicts were
kept working there until last summer.
"In 1888, the railroad was
extended for three miles to the south of Coal Creek and three
additional collieries were opened in the valley. A village called
Briceville was built containing many hundreds of houses and a
great number of them together with the plots on which they stood
belonged to the inhabitants. One of the chief shareholders and
a governor of the colliery at the end of the railroad is a Welshman,
raised in America. At the beginning of 1890 there was a series
of complaints and misunderstandings between the employers and
employees of this colliery and sometime last summer a stockade
was built and about 120 to 140 convicts were put to work in the
mine with two or three armed guards of the state of Tennessee
to watch over them. This caused bitterness and uneasiness among
the inhabitants of Briceville and in the district for twenty miles
around because of the loss in the trading sense and the notoriety
in the social sense.
"At last, at the end of July,
the colliers and their supporters gathered together in a band
of about twenty-five hundred. They surrendered the stockade of
the Tennessee mines and sent a deputation to the officer of the
guards ordering him to leave and to take the convicts in orderly
fashion with him to the state prison. If he refused to obey, the
men would attack and let every convict go where he wished and
the stockade would be smashed to pieces. The officer of the guards
saw that it would be foolish to stand out against such a daring
band and left in peace for the railroad station in Coal Creek,
keeping watch on the prisoners. The collier army followed them
"After going three miles and
coming by the Knoxville Iron Company coalmine, the miners split
into two parts, one half to follow the Briceville convicts to
the station and the other to order the convicts at Coal Creek
and their guard to follow their fellow convicts. Those in charge
at this settlement also obeyed without opposition and soon two
groups of convicts and guards could be seen on the railroad coalcars
and the engine taking them safely to the prison in KnoxviIle.
"After that the colIiers met
in counciI and twenty were put to guard the Knoxville Iron Company
property so that there should be no damage done to it. Everyone
else went home without firing a shot. No drinking was permitted
and no one lost a pennyworth of his possessions. The governor
called out the state militia and headed for Coal Creek but fortunately
he left the soldiers in Knoxville and boldly went among the citizens
whom he considered mob leaders and rebels against the government.
He came to Coal Creek and a crowd gathered to meet him. His reception
was polite but not enthusiastic. It was decided to have arbitration
on the matter and within a week it was decided that the arbitration
should last sixty days on condition that the governor should summon
the legislature immediately to discuss the matter. In the meantime
the convicts should return to the coalmines.
"The legislature met and sat
for four weeks in September. A deputation of colliers went to
Nashville to plead the injustice of the convict law but the members,
two thirds of whom were farmers, would not give them a hearing.
The state senators encouraged the governor to use every means
to compel obedience to the law although the press throughout all
the states demanded that the complaints of the colliers should
"When the deputation returned
from Nashville it was obvious that loyalty to the government had
declined rapidly but to stop the trouble, the colliers raised
the legal issue that the present agreement on convict labor was
contrary to the laws of the United States and they won their case
in the county court; but an appeal was lodged with a higher court
in the state and judgment was given against the colliers. The
Supreme Court's decision was published in the last week of October.
On Thursday night of the same week, armed bands gathered around
the two prisons in Coal Creek and BriceviIle firing sticks of
dynamite and holes were blown in the stout wooden walls. The guards
were frightened and the convicts were allowed to go where they
wanted and Briceville prison was burned to the ground. It is said
that the reason why the Knoxville Iron Company's prison was saved
and not burned was that the works manager's house was attached
to the prison and the convicts that were released pleaded that
the kind wife of the manager should not be frightened or put in
danger. She is a gentle and kind Welsh woman.
"The following Sunday they
attacked in the same fashion the Olive Springs [this should be
"Oliver Springs," a town located at the junction of
Morgan, Anderson, and Roane Counties] prison, a coal village about
fifteen miles south of BriceviIle. The convicts were set free
and the prison burned. By the beginning of spring, Briceville
was again free of convicts. After these disturbances, the governor
offered large rewards for evidence against anyone who took part
in the disturbances but not one accuser has come forward yet.
The coalmines were run excellently in the last two months of the
year by employing free labor. Everyone was fully and regularly
employed. The only uneasy people were the owners of the two collieries
and the government officers.
"The week before Christmas
it was judged that harsher measures were being prepared by the
government and on the morning of the last day of the year, twenty-two
fully armed soldiers, one cannon, one Gatling gun and tons of
equipment together with balls and powder arrived on a special
train at Coal Creek station. Nobody knew of their coming. They
went quickly into camp on top of the hill near the convict prison
of the Knoxville Iron Company coalmine. On Saturday morning the
second day of the year, a band of 125 convicts together with twenty-five
armed guards were moved in railroad carriages near to the coalworks.
The colliers and their supporters were angry and threatening.
The following letter was distributed among the people of the neighborhood:
'The convicts shall not stay here again. We pray for blessing
on our people, destruction on the convicts, destruction on the
instigators, destruction on the militia. We must attack. It makes
no difference what the consequences may be, death, destruction,
anarchy! One hundred and sixty-seven people think they can frighten
us! Will we put up with this? No! never! The time has come to
rush to the defense of our families and our homes!"
A special thanks goes to Billie R.
McNamara for submitting the material for this article. Web site: http://www.korrnet.org/welsh