Miners' Insurrections / Convict Labor

Black and white photo of a man with his back turned to the camera watching prisoners in black and white jumpsuits digging a hole.

Jack Delano/FSA

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 1 No. 3/4, "No More Moanin'." Find more from that issue here.

Among the most dramatic events in the history of the Southern Appalachian coal fields were the East Tennessee miners’ insurrections of the 1890’s, still known as “the wars” by many people around the coal camps of the area. In a series of massive armed confrontations, the coal miners of Tennessee rose up against the state convict leasing system to defend their jobs which the coal companies were trying to fill with convict laborers.

As with so many of the significant battles of the South’s working class, the story of this rebellion is little known to younger people in the area today, although there are several songs which have survived the years, and scholarly information about it is stored away in city libraries.

We will not be able to tell the full story of the miners’ insurrection here, but we would like to share some pieces of a “history-in-progress.” They are important both for the new light they shed on events from the perspective of actual participants, and because the interviews, done in the 1930’s, are a lively example of the concern with oral history shared by many progressive people who became politicized in that period of mass upsurge.

Most of the interviews were conducted by Jim Dombrowski in 1937-38 while he was with the Highlander Folk School. They provided much of the material for Dombrowski’s unpublished manuscript “Fire in the Hole,” a history of the people of Grundy County (the area where Highlander was located and with which it was actively involved at that time). The interviews and Dombrowski’s commentary we think speak for themselves.

The last interview in the collection is a current one with a young man who comes from the area in Anderson County, Tennessee, which was at the heart of the insurrections. He is greatly concerned with the nearly-lost history of his home, has spent afternoons walking through the woods to locate old gun emplacements, and scouting through libraries for information. He hopes that someday he will be able to pull together the full story and to help bring it back to life among the people whose heritage it is.

This collection of interviews is not an analysis of the events, and we lack the information to do such an analysis now. But there are several issues raised by the miners’ insurrection which we’d like to touch on briefly before going on to the interviews.

For instance, some day we would like to see this story told as part of the history of prison labor, not simply as part of the history of trade unions. The convict lease system first began in Tennessee in 1866, as part of a wave of such legislation which swept through the South and Midwest after the Civil War.1 A Nashville furniture company built workshops on the grounds of the penitentiary, fed and clothed the men, and paid 43c a head per day to the state. One year later, the prisoners burned the workshops to the ground in protest over the treatment they were receiving. From that time to this, prisoners have waged battles to win decent working conditions and fairer wages.

Meanwhile the labor movement has often agitated for an end to convict labor, but usually on the grounds of unfair competition rather than of justice for convicts. For example, the Mechanics and Manufacturers Association of Tennessee began agitating against convict leasing very early, saying it was unfair to labor.2 And in fact, the bulk of convicts were shortly switched to the coal and iron mines and to farms in order to avoid competition with the mechanical trades.3

When the Tennessee legislature abolished the convict lease system in 1896, they didn’t stop working the prisoners, they simply bought a piece of land and set up a state-owned coal mine at Brushy Mountain where convicts continued to mine coal until the mid-1950’s. (Despite this fact the Nov. 1, 1938, UMW Journal ran an aricle entitled “Historical Rebellion Brought End to Convict Miners in Tennessee.” The rebellion eventually brought an end to convict leasing, but not to convict miners.)

Of course it was no easy victory getting convict labor out of the hands of private companies. By the time of the miners’ insurrections all of Tennessee’s convicts were leased by the Tennessee Coal Iron & Railroad Co. (TCI), a New York-based corporation. They leased about 1600 men from the state for $101,000 per year. [That comes out to about $63 per year per man.] Part of these men they worked in their own mines in Grundy County; part of them they sub-leased to other companies in that area and north of there in Anderson County around Coal Creek and Briceville. TCI already had a monopoly on coal in the North Alabama fields (where they also used convict labor). They were a highly successful company, becoming a subsidiary of US Steel in 1907.4 It was the convict lease system which built TCI’s fortune.

Besides the outright super-profits TCI made off its convicts, they were also able to use the convicts as a club against free miners. A TCI official told the New York Times:5

One of the chief reasons which induced the company to take up the system was the chance it offered for overcoming strikes. For some years after we began the convict lease system, we proved that we were right in calculating that the free miners would be loath to enter upon strikes, when they saw that the company was amply provided with convict labor.

So it is clear why TCI fought so hard to prevent the end of the convict leasing system. The state, though, had quite an interest in the system as well. Between the years 1870 and 1890, Tennessee made a total net profit of $771,000 from its convict leasing system. This was only $176,000 short of repaying the state for all expenditures on all its penal institutions since the first penitentiary had been built in 1829 under Governor Sam Houston.6 So, of course, they kept working the prisoners and selling their products even after they were forced to stop leasing them to private industry. Then in the 30’s, federal legislation was passed making it illegal for any prison-made goods to be sold in the free market.7 But the states, including Tennessee, still work their convicts and still pay them scandalous wages; it’s just that they have them manufacture goods directly for the state. Prisoners, however, are still fighting.

Another issue raised by the insurrection is that of racism. The state prison system began to take on its modern character immediately after the close of the Civil War, when the percentage of blacks in the prisons began to rise astronomically month by month from the tiny percentage they had comprised in the days when plantations took care of their own.8 (Then as now, the majority of prisoners, black and white, were convicted of crimes against property. Dombrowski says that over half of all convicts in Tennessee at the time of the rebellion were imprisoned for larceny.) Blacks made up two thirds of the convict miners in East Tennessee.

Evidence of what role racism played in forming the attitudes of East Tennessee miners toward the convicts is scant. One woman told Dombrowski that “free niggers” had been forcibly driven from the Tracy City area some years before, but that there were free blacks who worked at the coke ovens at the time of the rebellion. Another man related that years later when they finally succeeded in forming a union, “We took the niggers into the union and gave them a union of their own.” (There is no evidence that free blacks were similarly run out of the Anderson County area.)9

On the other hand, many comments in the interviews show that among rank-and-file miners and their families there was substantial sympathy for the convicts, black and white. Archie Green quotes “an early observer” as saying, “Whites and Negroes are standing shoulder to shoulder.” He also reports that a black man was shot by militia, and several thousand fellow-workers and neighbors attended his funeral.10

It seems likely that the ambiguity of the evidence reflects a mixed situation and an ambivalence on the part of the miners toward blacks which was similar to their ambivalence towards convicts as a whole. What would be interesting would be more knowledge of what the Knights of Labor and the UMW (both involved in the insurrection) said and did about racism. Also, of course, first hand testimony from blacks themselves would be invaluable.

What does seem clear is that in the course of their fight against the convict leasing system, the miners were forced by the logic of the situation to ignore more and more the distinctions between themselves (as law-abiding, predominantly white citizens) and the convicts (as law-breaking, predominantly black criminals). And it was to the extent that they ignored these distinctions, in a massive and popularly-supported way, that they succeeded in winning their demands.

We hope that these and other issues will be dealt with in greater depth and on a firmer factual foundation sometime in the future. In the meantime, we present these interviews as one piece in that process. The first two interviews with the Scoggins of Coal Creek were conducted by Grace Roberts. Subsequent interviews were conducted by Jim Dombrowski in Grundy County, and include his original commentary. The last interview with Johnny Burris was done in August, 1973, with Fran Ansley and Brenda Bell.

* According to Archie Green, Grace Roberts was a relative—probably a niece—of Eugene Merrill of the miner’s insurrection. She was apparently still living in the Coal Creek area at the time these interveiws were conducted in the late 1930’s. She later moved to Clinton, Indiana.


Chronology of Convict Labor Wars

 1871    First convict miners brought to Tracy City and Sewanee.

1876    First strike of miners at Coal Creek.

1877    First convicts brought to Coal Creek.

1884    The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) signed a five year contract for all Tennessee convicts

1887    Law guaranteeing miners the right to elect a checkweighman passed in Tennessee.

1889    TCI signed a second six-year contract.

1890    United Mine Workers of America founded.

April, 1891       The Tennessee Coal Mining Company at Briceville fired their men's checkweighman and demanded that they sign an "ironclad" agreement promising never to join a union. When the men refused, the company locked them out.

July 4, 1891      The company announced it had signed a contract with TCI for convicts to work the Briceville mine. (There had been some convicts at Coal Creek before, but never at Briceville)

July 14, 1891    First Insurrection. Three hundred armed miners and citizens marched on the Briceville stockade, walked the convicts to Coal Creek, and put them on a train for Knoxville. They sent a telegram to the governor explaining their action and appealing for his help in ridding the state of the convict lease system, not only at Briceville, but in all of East Tennessee.

July 16, 1891    Governor arrived with the convicts and with state militia to install and protect them. He addressed a mass meeting, urged law and order.

July 17, 1891    Lots of public support for miners appears, including from the militia units.

July 20, 1891    Second Insurrection. Miners poured into Anderson County from all over, marched quietly and with discipline to the Briceville stockade. Two thousand armed men lined the surrounding ridges. Sent convicts again to Coal Creek and then Knoxville. Then marched on the Knoxville Iron Company mine at Coal Creek, sent those convicts off too. Not a shot fired. Women gave out sandwiches to miners and soldiers as they marched that night; governor mobilized all fourteen companies of Tennessee militia. 

July 24, 1891    After negotiation, governor says the convicts must return. But he will call special session of legislature to consider taking action on convict lease law.

August, 1891   Legislature met, and rather than repealing the law, reinforced it by increasing the governors' "emergency powers," making it a crime to lead a protest group or to interfere with the work of a convict.

Miners and their committee tried various tactics in the courts. Failed.

October 28, 1891         Miners' committee resigned, saying they had done all they could.

October 31, 1891         Third Insurrection. Meetings held in mines at Briceville and Coal Creek in the dark for secrecy. That night 1500 men marched on the stockades, the leader disguised in a 'kerchief. They set the convicts free and burned the stockade at Briceville. At Coal Creek they spared the stockade because the warden's wife was sick, but burned everything else, and released the prisoners. Citizens helped convicts escape by giving them food and clothes.

November 1, 1891       Men marched for first time to Oliver Springs where convicts were also being worked. They released them and burned the stockade there. Governor offered cash rewards for leaders and participants. For a month or so, things were quiet. Miners met with companies, agreed on terms, and went to work.

January, 1892   Convicts returned to Coal Creek with a company of militia, and a military occupation was established. They built a fort and set up Gatling guns.

The Tennessee Coal Mining Company at Briceville refused to take convicts back, despite pressure from TCI. The company at Oliver Springs also tried to refuse, but TCI bought them out and returned the convicts.

Spring, 1892     At Coal Creek, Tracy City and Oliver Springs, work is slack for free miners, but convicts work full time. Briceville had no convicts but discriminated against strikers and men in the Knights of Labor.

July, 1892         Tracy City miners, who had suffered under the convict system the longest, but had not yet rebelled, were cut to half time work.

August, 1892   Fourth Insurrection. A committee at Tracy City got keys to stockade at cunpoint and put convicts on train to Nashville. Intercepted a trainload of guards sent to Inman (where TCI also had a mine) and disarmed them. Unrest in Coal Creek at this news. People there already upset by the arrogant and high-handed soldiers. A black man had been shot, and another young man lynched. Unsuccessful attack on stockade at Oliver Springs.

Governor ordered more troops; called for volunteers, too, but the response was slow. For Coal Creek's final showdown, miners poured in and put Fort Anderson under siege. Soldiers and prominent citizen-type volunteers had many setbacks in the strange terrain. But finally enough soldiers got through that the miners knew they were beaten.

Ten day reign of terror began, with 300 arrested. Militia stayed to occupy town. Men in Briceville forced to sign "iron-clad" agreement.

April, 1893       Fifth Insurrection. At Tracy City, 50-100 men staged unsuccessful attack on stockade. Troops were sent in to hunt for leaders. Eventually most went back to work, but had to sign disclaimer of any involvement in release of convicts.

1896    Despite appearance of miners' defeat, when the TCI contract expired, it was not renewed and convict leasing in Tennessee was abolished by the legislature (twenty years before it was ended in neighboring Alabama). Same legislature buys land and sets up state-run convict mine near Petros, Tennessee, as alternative.


Mr. W.M. Scoggins

This is the story of the labor trouble and battle between miners and militia at Coal Creek as told by Mr. W.M. Scoggins, a participant.

I lived in front of the Shamrock Store at Coal Creek and there had been trouble in the mine on account of a lockout, I believe over something about the checkweighman. You see I am an old man now and can't remember every little thing as well as I used to, but I shall never forget that terrible time.

It was a common practice to work convicts in the mines and though the miners had asked the repeal of the law and it had been promised for several years, yet this had not been done, and the miners organizations were seething over it, and at the same time the convicts were released at Coal Creek, there had been a concerted understanding that they would be released all over the state at the same time. A number of mines in the vinicity of Coal Creek had them, but only two very near. They were leased by the state to the owners of the mines to dig the coal when the men came out on strike.

The miners at Coal Creek had been out quite a time and were getting quite worried as to where the next meal was to come from, and were angry and meeting in groups and talking things over. Some were for violence, others held back until all patience became exhausted, for their families in many instances were in want. Not only were the miners angry, but the business men of Coal Creek as well; for when the miner of a mining settlement has no money, the merchant suffers as well. The state does not buy in small quantities of the small merchant, but in large quantities of the wholesaler and when the battle of Coal Creek came, there were merchants and professional men in the ranks as well as miners.

I knew there was going to be trouble for there was a dangerous stillness, and one night men gathered by two’s and three’s or in larger groups and went to the Tennessee Iron and Coal Company where there were convicts and guards, and demanding their surrender, lined up outside while the guards and convicts passed through the line of two’s, turned over their guns, were escorted to Coal Creek, put on a train and sent to Knoxville. Not a shot was fired for the guards, recognizing the futility of resistance over such overwhelming numbers, offered no resistance.

They were sent back, accompanied by militia and the trouble really started. For two years, there was discord and brutality. Homes were entered on the slightest pretext and not only food but many valuables were taken. A fort was built on the mountain overlooking the stockade and the militia installed in that. The militia men seemed to think that brutality was necessary to make an impression but they failed to understand the men they were dealing with.

One afternoon, as I was sitting on my porch an old Negro named Jake Whitson waved at a trainload of militia men. He was shot down in cold blood. Jake was a good old darkey and never did anyone no harm.

Another time a young man named Dick Drummond was in a gathering of young men. A militia man was there and someone shot him through the window. The shooter could not be found, so Dick was made the scapegoat. He was hanged on a bridge and his body left hanging as an example to the rest.

Any man that did not please them was in danger of being arrested and court-martialed. Andy McClure was taken out by a militia man but Andy’s wife went along with a pistol under her apron. She said, “I will go with him to his death,” but he was turned loose in a short time.

One evening I was lying on the floor at home when I saw men going down the railroad in groups. I asked one fellow, “Where are you going.” “Get your gun,” he said. “We’re going to Oliver Springs to burn the stockade and turn the convicts loose." I borrowed firearms and went along, but in going over the hills some fellow fired a pistol and gave the alarm so we were turned back, but the next day trains come in from all over the district and the work was accomplished. This was just a few days before the stockade was burned at Coal Creek.

Then one night the crowd came again to the Tennessee Iron and Coal Company. The stockade was burned and the convicts were turned loose. Some of the miners took off their own clothes and

gave to the convicts. Even the stores took the clothing from their shelves and put it outside where the convicts could get them. Some because they thought they would be entered and robbed anyhow, others because they were in sympathy with the miners.

The militia fired from the fort overlooking the mine but the men being so familiar with the locality got behind a rock as large as a house and not many were hit. There were hills or mountains on three sides of the fort and the miners were on the southeast side, but they gradually encircled it and demanded its surrender. Colonel Anderson’s answer was, "I’ll die game, tell my daughter that my last words were I will not surrender.” He was taken to Coal Creek where some of the hotter heads demanded that he be killed, but Brother Masons among the crowd got hold of him and spirited him out of danger.

A company of 125 men were organized at Knoxville and sent to help the men in the fort. They came over the mountain by pulling each other hand over hand. And as they were dressed in civilian clothes, the militia did not know they were friends and fired into them with a Gatling gun, killing three. Next day the papers were full of the fact that the miners had killed three of them when the facts were the miners were still half a mile away from them. The leader of the company men at Knoxville was found in a farm house not far from the trouble next day and he is said to have remarked that it was about 19 miles coming but about 30 going back over that mountain.

The governor was to speak to the miners from the bridge the next day, Thursday, but things were so turbulent that someone sent him a message not to come. This angered the men for they were expecting him to give them some promise of action by the legislature on taking the convicts out and they were in an ugly mood and when some militia men grew arrogant a miner took a whack at him and the battle started. This was on Thursday morning and it lasted until Friday evening.


Mollie Scoggins

The women’s side of the labor trouble in Coal Creek by Mollie Scoggins as told to Grace Roberts.

I am the wife of W.M. Scoggins and we lived in front of the Shamrock store a short distance from Coal Creek. I kept a boarding house and had several small children. I did not know anything about the real trouble until it really happened, for the men did not tell anyone what they were going to do until it actually transpired. But I saw the convicts and guards on the train when they were sent to Knoxville and when the militia came to Coal Creek I was scared for they were so brutal. But through the night the stockade was burned, and I lived real close to it everything was done so quietly that I did not even waken.

The convicts did not do any damage when they were turned loose though some people were afraid they would, and when one came to my door for food and picked up my little boy I was scared and just troubled. But he petted and talked to him and I thought, “He probably is a married man with small children of his own.”

I clothed two of the convicts myself so they could get away and so did a number of the neighbors but as the state paid a bounty of $85 a head for them, most of them were recaptured, though I don’t think any citizen of Coal Creek gave them any information. An English woman that lived close to me that had just lost her husband by death gave the convict her dead husband’s clothes and as she had intended to keep them it was a sacrifice on her part. But we were all ready to do anything we could to help our husbands.

John Brown came to my house and said, “Mollie, I must have a place to hide for they are going to hang me.” I said, “But my little children, what if I get into trouble?” He said, “But where will I go?” I tore some boards off the attic and he stayed there all night.

While the battle was going on the women were in the streets in groups, some were praying, some were crying and every once in a while one would faint. I never want to see such a scene again. Every time a cannon or a gun would go off, some one of them would say, “Oh, I know that is my son or husband,” and others would scream. I never want to see such a scene again.


Uncle Jessie James

William Ely James (Uncle Jessie James), March 27,1937, Palmer, Tennessee, 66 years of age, gave me the Lone Rock convict song [which he had learned from a black convict—ed.]*

This morning Teffie and I drove over to the mining village of Palmer. Drab, unpainted cabins, in sharp contrast to the beautiful white house of the superintendent. His wife is president of the garden club. But miners’ wives do not have the time or the money to go in for landscaping on the scale enjoyed by the superintendent’s family. Just before coming to the company store you turn sharp left and continue to the Miners Hall, a large bare room over a store. It is cold. We ascend the dark stairway and knock. The warden says for us to remain downstairs until the local business is over. A latecomer passes us, whispers the password in the ear of the warden and is admitted. We sit around the stove in the store below until a messenger asks us to come above. We are asked to speak. We talk about the Highlander Folk School, the CIO campaign in the South, the April 1st rally in Palmer. There are questions about the recent broadcast,** do we endorse John L. Lewis, there has been some criticism recently of the president of Local 5881 and a member of the Grievance Committee, for their visit to Highlander. There is a great deal of interest in the recent broadcast.

Following the meeting, old Uncle Jessie James gives us some “dots” on the early days in the miners’ struggle for a union. He is a small, explosive, little man, small head, flashing black eyes, talks quickly and with lots of gestures. Now 66 years of age. Started to work in the mines of Grundy County on January 20, 1890. Outside of strikes and lockouts has worked in the mines ever since.

I worked five days this week. Yesterday I loaded five cars. For 47 years I have worked in artificial light. My eyes are not so good close up. But I’ve a squirrel rifle at home. And Buddy if you put a cross on a stick at 80 yards, and I don't hit it, you'll know I’m ahittin’ right around it. I've worked in the saw mills, cut timber, in the mines, and I've never scabbed yet, and [hitting Teffie a blow on the shoulder for emphasis] by God I’ll never be a scab if I go to hell for it. Organized labor brought switches instead of tables [turning tables when the men had to use a stick for a level to turn the cars by hand], it brought them iron tracks, instead of wood. It brought freedom. It used to be that I was told, if you don’t like your job, leave it.’ But they can’t do that now. No sir! I’ve seen it come, and I’ve seen it go, I’ve seen it come again, and I’ve seen it go again; and now I’ve seen it come, and if it goes, I’ll help to bring it again.”

* Archie Green met two of Uncle Jesse’s chldren in the Fall of 1970 and describes their conversation in his book, Only A Miner, p. 214.

** A BBC broadcast about Highlander done in January, 1937.


I.H. Cannon

I.H. Cannon, Tracy City (born January 24, 1859); Sunday, March 28, 1937.

A man of slight build, thin hair, a drooping mustache, which at one time he could twist back of his ears, fine sense of humor, a sparkle in his eye that 78 years, all but 16 of them spent underground, has not dimmed. He has three nephews and a brother-in-law who were in the Ludlow massacre. In 1875 at the age of 16 he started to work in No. 1 mine at Tracy City.

The first time I ever heard of a labor organization in the Southland was from a man named Powderly [Terrence V. Powderly, president of the Knights of Labor]. It must have been somewhere between 1880 and 1890. Powderly was not here, but Old Tom Carrick was a Knights of Labor organizer. A man named Gotchaulk, called by us “Gutshot” was another organizer. He was a furriner and left for the north. The Knights of Labor did not have a majority of the miners. The Company had its thugs join the Knights of Labor and when they found out the leaders, they were fired. I belonged to the Miners’ Craft, affiliated with the Knights of Labor, about 1880. It reigned for about a year. We met in a building, on the railroad to White City east of Tracy. Conditions were bad. We worked eleven hours a day. Drivers got 80 cents a day; coal diggers 20 to 25 cents a car according to the thickness of the seam. Later this got down as low as 12 1/2 cents. We had no organization and the Company had severed hundred convicts to whip us down with. We never had no success with the organization so long as convicts were here.

The year before trouble broke out in Tracy there had been severe fighting in Coal Creek. On August 13 the miners ran the convicts off the mountain at Tracy. On the 15th the same thing was done at the iron mines at Inman, on the 17th at Oliver Springs coal mines, and on the 18th at Coal Creek. (Commons, History of Labor in the US, v. 2, p. 498)

When the trouble started we had no organization. The convicts got all the work. I was a guard in the mines for a while. Convicts would be punished for not gettin’ their tasks. The warden and deputy warden would do the whippin’. I never did task anyone more than six cars a day. The whipping was done with a two ply strap as wide as your three fingers, tied to a staff. The convicts were face down with their pants off. They were whipped on the hips and legs from 5 to 12 lashes. Ordinary offenses were punished with a few lashes. If they tried to kill a man they were whipped more.

We miners were about half-starved and we got up something like the sitdown today. We met on Sundays in a holler back of that hill. A time was set when we would run the convicts off the mountain. It rained all that night. I spent the night out in the rain. About the third morning after that about 80 people started from East Fork Holler. When they got to the stockade the crowd numbered about 200. Tom Carrick was to be the leader but he backed down at the last minute. Berry Simpson volunteered and took the lead. This was between eight and nine o’clock after the convicts were out in the mines and coke ovens, and the guards were scattered.

The night before the men had been out notifying the miners, but I did not know about it. I was in No. 2 mine and as soon as we heard about it we left. Franz Nunnally, Plais Grantham and about eight others come out. We come by the tipple and spoke to the bank boss and to the blacksmith, Franz Crabtree, but they refused to join us. Our men had guns, sticks, and nothing. I came home for my gun. On the way back I passed E.O. Nathrust, superintendent. “Good morning,’’ I said. He smiled, “Good morning." By this time the stockade was burning!

We went to the coke ovens and asked the guards for their guns. Part of them were with us, being from our community. Some asked us to take their guns and we wouldn't do it, saying we had no use for ’em. The convicts were rounded up and marched to the Tracy depot. Captain Burton, warden, begged for their guns. He was a mighty fine man. He said they would take ’em to Nashville. All this time the railroad was trying hard to get the engines off the mountain. They was four or five and all but one had gone. The last engine was run by Bill Bolton, engineer, and Levi Sitz, my nephew by marriage. The engine was moving. I threw the switch, and George McCullough threw a Winchester on Bolton and said “Stop." The engineer asked Thomas, railway superintendent, what to do. He said, “I say, sir, the miners are running things today. Go to them and get your orders." We had a string of flat cars, about ten or twelve, and put about 60 convicts in each car. By that time all of the miners and most of the county had joined in. We must have had about 300. About ten o’clock the train set off. On a curve this side of Sewanee some convicts jumped and made a break. I was not there, but I heard two were shot and some got away.

At the iron mines in Inman, Sequatchie, the TCI Company had about 100 convicts. They sent a trainload of guards to Inman but the whole train was captured at the bridge on Big Sequatchie River, the guards were disarmed. My brother was detailed to the bridge and was there. The bridge was three or four miles from the mines. The convicts at Inman were sent also to Nashville, but the stockade was not burned, although the press said it was. Also the stockade at Tracy was not burned by the miners but by the convicts. They thought we was going to give ’em clothes and set ’em free. I saw the convicts pouring on coal oil from a gallon bucket. We made a lot of money that morning for the TCI because the state paid the company $20,000 for the stockade that was destroyed.

The convicts come back and stayed two years. The stockade was rebuilt. Gun openings six inches square and three feet from the ground were built in, and guard houses set up on top of each corner.

Since this was written, Brother Cannon has passed on. His request to be buried with his UMW badge on was carried out. He was out hunting when he passed away, a hunter all his life, hunting for justice. He loved his fellow workers and served the union faithfully over 50 years. He kept his faith in the union, in his brothers, and his good humor until the end. [JAD, Summer, 1938]


Mr. Thompson

Visit with Mr. Thompson, Tracy City, Tennessee, July 5, 1938.

At the end of a long road the old man’s cabin faced the road. Sitting in his doorway, he could see anyone coming down the road for half a mile. No screens, lots of flies. A deaf woman for a wife, tough on one who evidently likes to talk as much as he does.

When the convict trouble came we was only gettin’ one day work a week. And the convicts was workin’ full time. My brother was a guard. I used to visit him no tellin’ how many a Sundays. I heard ’em beating the convicts. You could hear the strap from clear over as far as that cabin. I heard ’em holler. Yes,Lord. It was a sight to behold. I saw ’em kill ’em in the mines. The mine boss that is, for not getting their tasks. And maybe they was sick. It was shameful.

For two or three months before the first attack right on through the second one we was drilling out on Reid Hill, two or three hundred of us after dark. There was some funny things happened. Bless your life, yes. One night a horse got loose and liked to scared those men to death. I bet I saw six or ten men fall in a water hole. I laughed and laughed.

After we sent the convicts off the first time and burned the stockade, they built another one better than the first one. It had a block house on each corner and portholes about four inches square all around the wails. There was a mule barn up the hill and I saw portholes in that too and reported it.

We were to report on Bivens Hill, about 250 of us. They told us to black up so nobody would know us. I blacked myself up with gunpowder melted up. Just the finest kind of a nigger with my gun, and started up to the hill after dark. There was too much whiskey and I begged them to wait until morning. I knew there would be some killing that night. Good heaven and earth. There was about 20 shot and Bob Erwin was killed. Shot in the back from the left-hand corner of the stockade.

I shot an old man. I hate it but we was under orders. They say all is fair in love and war, you know. I had my gun poked in a porthole. Not far enough so they could grab it. Shooting at anything I could see. I was holding one of the rear portholes. I was using BB’s in a double barrel shotgun. The old man said to me, “What’s your name?” “Here’s my name,” I said and let him have it. He was only 20 feet away. It caught him right in the middle. If he had been 50 feet away it would have cut him, too. I followed that fellow. Kept asking after him for a long time after that shooting. I finally found out where he was. And by George, he got well. I was glad.

We had two cases of dynamite planted under the office building on the corner of the stockade. But a heavy storm come up, and what with all the shooting and the rain we could not get it to go off. We used up two boxes of matches.


Mrs. Sarah L. Cleek

Mrs. Sarah L. Cleek, Laager, Tennessee (July 28, 1938 interview).

Started to Tracy late this afternoon to return a bundle of newspapers borrowed from Mr. Wright. Stopped at Henry Thompson’s cafe for a bottle of beer and met Charlie Adams, John Cleek and Millard Hall. The three were politicking about the county. Charlie is the union candidate for road commissioner and apparently has the job sewed up. We talked about the old days of the union and John mentioned that he had an old diary at home belonging to his grandfather that covered some of the convict warfare days. This sounded most promising and I drove him home to look at it. We passed through Tracy, Coalmont and Gruetli post office to the crossroad known as Laager. His old mother lives in a little shack just off the highway. I had often observed her sitting on her porch when we passed on union business. The house is a poor excuse for a home, just a two-room shack, but it is the best that $2.00 a week old age pension money will afford. The yard was a blaze of color, petunias, zinnias and red sage. John introduced me and Mrs. Cleek went into the house and returned with a small gray canvas folder stamped “Monthly Time Book” and in large printed pencil letters “C.G. Tate, 1894.” It contained a lot of loose pages from the time book of her father, who had been a guard in the mines during the convict trouble at Tracy City.

With a question or two from John to help, she talked freely about the old struggles of the miners to make a living.

Me and a widow woman used to carry pies to the stockade and sell them to the convicts. They were treated cruelly. With my own eyes I saw where they was buried. Their thighs or shank bones were not buried deep enough or something. They used to dig there for clay to daub the coke ovens with. The bones stuck out of the ground. I could see where the coffins was buried. Nigger Hill, the convict burial ground was called. They sent them out to work sick or not.

My Daddy said the warden and the doctor sent one man out to work one morning. He lay around the ovens during the day. A white man found him dead.

They used to cry out to my Daddy to let ’em out. The lice and chinch bugs were eatin’ ’em up. 

But I saw a line of men a quarter of a mile long with shotguns on their shoulders one night. They marched and told ’em what to do and they did it, and they never had no more convicts. But they shot some of ’em. My uncle John Tate was shot through the shoulder. They’re still holding the laboring class of people down.

“About how old were you, Mrs. Cleek, when you were married?” I asked. John spoke up, “You were nineteen, weren’t you, mammie?” “No sich thing,” she said quickly, “I was sixteen” and she went inside to get some papers to verify it.

I was born in 1869 and married in 1885. Gettin’ married is the biggest piece of foolishness. I’m not sorry ’cause I got a good man, a fine man. But children come along and you can’t raise 'em like you want to. I had ten children.

My husband had his ankle busted and we went to Huntsville to live. I put my children in the Merrimac mill to make a living for the family. The two girls made $5.00 a week each. I was treated like a red-headed step-child by those mill people. I want to tell you how dirty they done me. I didn’t think they was that kind of men in the south. My children worked on and on. Business got bad and they let some go. I took in boarders to help along. We was in a company house. My one girl left in the mill was making five dollars and they took it all for rent and deductions.

My children come home at night all pale and almost dropped. They sweated blood. They drained me down. Kept nudgin’ me for rent. Threatened to put me out. The super Joe Bradley ended it. And Sheriff Ben Giles tells me to vacate or he’ll set me on the street. I tell him, “You’ll have it to do.” I had no money and they finally did set me right out on the street, me and my crippled girl and a boarder with a five-month-old baby. That boarder was Charlie Adams (now running for road commissioner).

John spoke up. “The trouble was there was too much union talk around that house.”

“That’s right, my girl joined,” she said. “There ain’t a drap of that scab blood in my veins. I’m a socialist from the crown of my head to the end of my toe.”


Mrs. S.O. Sanders

Mrs. S.O. Sanders, “Aunt Tut,” 69 years old, Tracy City, Tennessee, April 1, 1937.

Union has had hard times because there is not enough “stickability.” People here are “like hot weather mushrooms.”

Her two brothers were union men. She learned “right smart” about the union from them as a young girl. They were blacklisted. “The Knights of Labor come in here. It crops out a little in ’86 or ’87.” Her younger brother, J.C., was a member of the Knights of Labor. “That’s how come he came to be blacklisted.” They had very few members, only 10 or 12. Company thugs joined and as fast as they found out the members, they would be fired. All meetings were in secret.

After the burning of the stockade “I fed men right off my own table and never saw a face.” Miners were “lying out in the woods” being hunted by the company. “I called ’em by a white flag run up on the fence. Our house was in the woods near old Burrow’s Cove. The men would come up out of the woods in the back of the house. I fed 8 to 10 men a day, some of ’em boys I grew up with.”

Free niggers were run out in December, 1882. The people here were just about starving to death. Franklin and Marion County joined in. The crowd had to come through where father had a mill to get to Nigger Hill. They never left a hoot of 'em. About 30 houses for free niggers were burnt on Nigger Hill, later called Hobbs Hill and Kennedy’s School House, just above the ice plant.

Then they brought in seven or eight hundred free niggers to run the coke ovens. White men could not stand the heat to pull coke. Paid 10 cents an oven. A good hustlin’ nigger would pull four or five a day. Seventy-five cents a day the best any of ’em made. Convicts were here at the same time, seven or eight hundred convicts. White men could not get jobs. No Lawd no.

After I was 14 year up to time I was married I made stripes. That's convict clothes. One woman had a contract and we worked for her. Fifty cents a day and made from 12 to 16 shirts a day, worked from 6 to 6. The lady did the cutting and we did the sewing. Made caps, coats, shirts, pants.

Toughest time I ever heard after the convict trouble. Lawing and punishing citizens. Lots of ’em had to sleep out in woods. People who lived in the woods would feed 'em while we were gettin’ up a purse to get ’em away. Some went out toward Whitwell, some toward Jasper and Monteagle. High Sheriff Alec Sanders got shot and some miners got little scratches.

In April during the time of the first attack on the stockade there was an awful storm passed over and they lost one man in the attack (the rain made it impossible to shoot the dynamite). In August they captured the stockade.

Everything was done behind closed doors. What we got we had to sketch it. My old man and two brothers was in that convict trouble. My old man was victimized from 1893 to 1918. He did not even try to get a job until they got a union.

A.M. Shook, general manager of the mines, never gave a dollar on the school building that bears his name. He docked the miners' pay a dollar every month, and they was only getting about a dollar a day. If they did not have the dollar to their credit at the end of the month their children were not permitted to go to school.

After that we moved to Alabama in Walker County 30 miles west of Birmingham, Horse Creek was the old name for it. In 1908 there was a strike. Four hundred thugs lived 200 yards from my house. The president of the local, my old man and a young man was with me in the house. The company got an injunction and no men were allowed on the streets at all. Women could not go to the post office or the grocery store. Guards paraded the whole community. I fed and cared for these three miners. I shifted ’em around each night. First in one room, then another, to keep ’em from finding ’em. I guarded the house at night. Slipped around in the grass, and behind trees finding out what was going on and carrying messages. Another woman and me did most of the messenger work and we scarcely saw each other. We was about one mile from the station. One night four guards was out on the trestle waiting for the union officers to come from Birmingham. They thought they was in Birmingham but they was safe in my house all the time. They come outside of the house and stood by the gate talking, not thinkin’ anyone was home. But I was lying scrootched up underneath the porch. They aimed to take the president out and do away with him, I heard it every bit. I slipped around to the president’s house and got the family and brought ’em to my house and put ’em to bed.

I’ve looked down the muzzle of guards’ guns, several of ’em. I wouldn’t trust ’em as far as I could throw a mule. I’ve seen so many of their tricks. I’ve seen ’em haul women and children out of their homes and throw ’em in the woods. I expect there’s beds now in those woods.


Dolph Vaugn

Interview with Dolph Vaugn, October 3, 1938.

Dolph has been a leading spirit in the Hodcarriers Union of WPA workers. Since the 1924 strike he has been blacklisted. He could renounce the union and get along, but he prefers poverty and self-respect. He has a two-story cabin that once was a substantial home. Now time has made it merely a rough wall against the weather. The floor is worn and several boards are loose or out entirely. Boards will do to repair windows when there is no money for glass. This week he sold his cow to pay the grocery bill. He wore a pair of pants that loving hands had mended until nothing remained of the original cloth. His youngest girl, Helen, 5, eyes like saucers, blonde curls, loves to sing union songs with her mother. She corrected mother when the latter sang a new union song composed by her daddy. There are three other girls, the oldest just graduating from the eighth grade and a boy of about 12. The mother is a lovely woman, and still sings the old mountain ballads with a high pleasing voice. She sang Little Mohea on the British broadcast at Highlander Folk School. There is never a word of complaint from any of them. Nothing but the finest family unity. Children well-behaved, considerate and lovely. Surely there is no defeating such spirit. Sooner or later these people will win for themselves a decent world where they can lift up their heads like men and women, free from the terrible fear of hunger and want for themselves and family, and know that their children will have the opportunity to develop, and to enjoy the beauties and good things denied to them. Old Uncle John took a liking to them, naturally, and they make his bed and cook his biscuits. He takes care of himself otherwise.

Dolph’s father, Bob Vaugn, was one of the members and leaders of the first local in Tracy.

Bob Vaugn, Hughes Cannon (I.H. Cannon’s brother) and Jim Frazier were the three men that threw their guns on the super and demanded the keys to the stockade at Tracy City. After it was all over they sent marshalls in to Tracy to try and find out who was responsible. They agreed that if they would let the convicts come back until their contract was up, they would drop all charges and would take the convicts away at the expiration of the contract.

Agreed. All of the men were put back. But in a short time Wiley asked all of the men to sign a paper saying they had nothing to do with the convict trouble. They all signed it but Daddy. He said, “Now Mr. Wiley, I can’t sign it, you know that I was one of the men that drew a gun on you and demanded the keys.” “Yes, I know,” said Wiley, “but if you don’t sign it I can’t give you a job.” Papa refused and he could not get work. He sent his wife and son to relatives and went about in other coal fields but could not keep work. Sooner or later they fired him, telling him he had been a leader in the convict trouble and they could not use him. So he came back to Tracy and decided to use drastic measures. “I’d just as soon be in the penitentiary as starve to death,” he said. He went down to a place on the road where there was a bank on one side and a branch on the other. He waited there until Wiley’s carriage was about ten feet away. Then he stepped out and grabbed the bridie. Wiley tried to back off. He was shaking like a leaf. “I’m not going to hurt you, Mr. Wiley, but I just want my job back. You know that every doctor, lawyer and merchant in Tracy had something to do with that convict trouble. I did no more than the others who signed.” “Yes, I know,” said Wiiey, “you were the only person that was fair about the paper. You come up to the office tomorrow and I’ll see what I can do about your job.”

They put him to work driving a team of mules outside. It was a bitter winter and Papa didn’t have any clothes to amount to anything. And the job did not pay much. They would not give him anything better. And he could not afford to quit.

Papa’s old job was running an endless rope for hauling coal. He was the only man on the job who knew how to splice the rope when it broke. Several times that winter the rope broke and they came to him to fix it. Finally he told Wiley that the next time it broke they could buy a new one. He would not splice the rope again unless they put him back on his old job. Nathrust came running out and threatened to fire him if he did not do it. He stood his ground and was put back. Sometime later Bob Vaugn was a leader in organizing the first UMW local in Grundy County.

The following is a letter from Bob Vaugn to his son Dolph:

Shiloh, Ill., Dec. 9, 1936

My greatest ambition has been and is now for the working people. I have undergone lots of hardships for the upbuilding of organized labor. I trust you will establish the same record. ... In organization there is strength and without that the working people can not expect any benefits for their labor. . . . We have never been able to reap the benefits of the wealth that we have produced. We as the working people have the right to enjoy the same life as the employers do because we are the one that produces the wealth of our country. .. . The greatest thing now days as I see it is to educate the young generation as to how the older people gained these benefits because of the hardships we had to fight in the early days for every inch of ground.


Johnny Burris

The following is a conversation with Johnny Burris from August, 1973:

Tell us about your family and about growing up in the Coal Creek area.

My mother’s family came to the Coal Creek area around 1920, from Fentress County, Tennessee. My paternal grandfather was John “Paddlefoot” Burris. He was a miner-farmer-hunter as most of the mountain people were. He settled with his family about three miles back in the mountains northwest of Briceville, a place called Seicer’s Flats. That’s where my mother and father met, married, and settled down. My father was Albert “Sog” Burris. He worked in the mines until he became too sick to work—he had Hodgkin’s disease. This was the cause of his death in 1948. I was born a few months later in the same log cabin where my older brothers and sisters were born. After about five years the family moved down to Briceville to be closer to schools, stores, etc.

Mining is still in the family blood, although now it’s a different type of mining. Two of my older brothers and a brother-in-law are heavy equipment operators in strip-mines. They are paid as good or better than they would be at any other type work available in the area.

While I was growing up what little I knew about the Coal Creek insurrections I heard from my mother. She remembers her relatives and old folks telling her about how dangerous it was when the militia was in town. They were always drunk, and arrests were bad. The soldiers would pick people up on the streets, anyone that looked like a miner. So people ran from the militia. But I didn’t know much about the whole situation, exactly why the militia was occupying the town. A lot of labor troubles happened in the area from 1890 through the 1930’s and 40's, and people around here have a tendency to run them all together when talking about them. They are mostly pro-union, so I grew up with that feeling, but didn't know about individual labor troubles.

What about in school?

One thing that had impressed me was that the history books ignored Coal Creek. Just skimmed over it. I can’t understand it. Maybe there’d be a paragraph, if anything at all. The teachers passed it by. Kids only knew what their parents told them. So miner's children knew more, but they didn’t have an understanding of the whole thing. I didn’t really know much about the wars, and why they happened, until a year ago.

How did you learn more?

A friend, Boomer Winfrey, and I got to talking about it. His grandmother used to tell him about his grandfather fighting the militia and how he would come in to rest up and have some dinner, fill up an old coffee can with more shells, and go on back out to fight some more. Boomer got me interested. He took me up to where Fort Anderson stood and showed me the trench lines. So then I got to reading, trying to fit things together. But I couldn’t find much to read, and that got me even more interested. I went to the Lake City library and asked for material on the Coal Creek war. The librarian said, “The what?” They didn't have anything about it! She called the public library in Knoxville and they sent over an article they had. There are references to the war in several books and articles, but no one has ever written the complete story. So mostly I’ve been talking with old timers and trying to find the sites of the stockades and all.

After the fourth insurrection, a battalion was sent in from Clinton over the mountain to Coal Creek, to surprise the miners who were gathered at the depot. They came by a place called Fatal Rock. Now as a boy I’d been camping at a place called Star Rock. There's an old road that goes by there, and it’s a picnic spot now. I got to thinking, and figured it was the same road the militia came over. The miners met the militia, killed two and wounded three. The militia left in such a hurry that they had to send back some prominent citizens from Knoxville the next day for the bodies. And I didn’t know that when we’d go camping there.

I talked to an old miner named Alex Carroll who used to live up in Tennessee Holler, where the Tennessee Coal and Mining Company had its mine. He used to live three or four miles up in the head of the holler. He didn’t know about the rebellion, but he told me where the stockade was, and the old mine. The first part of that mine was worked by convicts. He said he’s never seen prettier work. The company didn’t allow the convicts to use explosives of any kind, so the walls were straight, not curvy like when dynamite is used. It was all hand work.

Why do you think the miners’ rebellion at Coal Creek has been “forgotten”?

Well, this area and the Harlan-Hazard, Kentucky, area have always been so violent. Then there were all the different complicated relationships people got into during that time. There was a lot of bad blood. Probably the insurrections were talked down locally for those reasons. And the state was such a villain! That’s got to be the reason it’s not in the state text books.

Still today no one wants to recognize what happened there. The East Tennessee Development District is authorized to catalogue historical sites in a five county area, and they're not doing anything about Coal Creek that I know of. Places are being destroyed—there’s a dump now where Fort Anderson was. All the openings of some of the most famous mines in this country are grown over. I’ve looked and can’t find the opening to the Fraterville mine where 170 miners were killed in the early part of the century. Eighty or ninety men were killed in the Cross Mountain mines and I don’t know where that was. Surely those places are historical enough to be marked. They are the history of the miners who died in them.

What would you like to see done to preserve that history? How can it be given back to the people?

I’d like to see a good, readable, accurate account, with local color. Something people from this area would enjoy. I’d like to see places marked. I’d like for children growing up now to have a chance to study the local history in school. You see all kinds of Appalachian museums, living mountain villages, etc., but I never have seen a museum about mining. I'd like to have one around here. Then a movie could be made about the rebellion. Seems like something the AppalShop* would be interested in. Also, I’d really like to get people from East Tennessee interested in this kind of thing. It seems like all the people I meet who are working for change in the mountains are from somewhere else.

What is Coal Creek like today?

First of all, the name of the town was changed to Lake City in 1933 when Norris Dam was built, forming Norris Lake. The central business district shifted from Creek Street to Highway 25W. 25W was the main route north-south for a long time; now the interstate by-passes Lake City. The main industry is strip-mining. Some deep-mined coal comes through from Clairfield, but just about all the coal you see is strip-mined. The train still runs to Briceville about twice a month, to get strip-mined coal. Most people have to work in Oak Ridge or Knoxville; some in little local industries. Briceville’s population has shrunk from 4,000 to about 1,100 now. The majority of the people have an income under $3,000. At one time there were three or four doctors, several dentists, stores, and all. Now in Briceville there are only one or two little grocery stores, and no doctor. There were no public services until the People’s Health Coalition was started. I’m involved in a citizens group trying to get better water service.

Young people don’t stick around unless they have a college degree or can learn a skill they can use in this area. Most graduate from high school and get a job, go to Cleveland, Detroit. That’s what most of my friends did. I worked in a steel mill in Cleveland two years ago.


*The AppalShop is a group of young mountain film makers in Whitesburg, Kentucky



1. Folmsbee, pp. 404-405.

2. Folmsbee, p. 406.

3. Hutson, ETHS, No. 7, p. 105.

4. Green, p. 164.

5. Quoted by Green, p. 164.

6. Hutson, ibid. For an example of the conditions under which they extracted those profits, here is an excerpt from the Commissioner of Labor’s “Special Report" on Tennessee prisons in 1891. It describes a mine that worked both convicts and free miners at the time:

A sickening stench is met with showing the air to be so contaminated that it is a wonder human beings can exist therein; and in passing through some of the entries, a person has to pass through so much mud, slush and stagnant water that any man with a proper regard for his cattle would hesitate to keep them in such filthy quarters. . . . It is shameful to think that any class of men, whether free or convicts, are compelled or allowed to work therein.  quoted in Fire in the Hole, p. 98.

7. The Haws-Cooper Act enabled states to pass laws restricting or prohibiting the sale of prison made goods. Tennessee did so in 1937, fearing that otherwise it would become a dumping ground for other states.

8. One small example turns up on the front page of the Knoxville News-Sentinel of August 16, 1933, where it is reported that the anniversary of the fourth miners’ rebellion is being marked that day by a strike of convict miners at Brushy Mountain Prison at Petros, Tenn.

9. According to Folmsbee, ibid., p. 404, “Negroes who before the war seldom composed more than 5% of the prison population, made up over one half of the inmates by 1866.

10. Green, p. 167.



Clinton Gazette. 1891-1893. Nearly complete file on microfilm at the Tennessee State Archives.

Dombrowski, James. Miscellaneous papers at Tuskegee Institute. Includes unedited interviews, notes and research. Invaluable.

Dombrowski, James. Fire in the Hole. Unpublished manuscript. Copies at Tuskegee Institute, Ala. Ca. 1941.

History of Grundy County. Gives good sense of the successive waves of struggles and their continuity.

Folmsbee, S. J., R. E. Corlew, and E. L. Mitchell. Tennessee: A Short History. Knoxville: Univ. of Tenn. Press, 1969. Includes a short section on convict leasing in Tennessee. A standard state history.

Foner, P. S. History of the Labor Movement in the U.S. Vol. 2. New York: 1955. Includes section on miners’ insurrection. Reprinted with section from Archie Green’s book (below) by Appalachian Movement Press in an inexpensive pamphlet.

Green, Archie. Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs. Urbana: Univ. of Ill. Press, 1972. Has one chapter on the miners’ insurrection with good background on TCI, and another chapter on convict songs including material on the “Lone Rock” song which Dombrowski learned from Uncle Jessie James, and which originally came from an East Tennessee convict miner.

Hutson, A. C., Jr. “The Coal Miners’ Insurrection of 1891 in Anderson County, Tennessee,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications. No. 7 (1935), pp. 103-21.

Hudson, A. C., Jr. “The Overthrow of the Convict Lease System in Tennessee, ETHS. No. 8 (1936), pp. 82-103.

Page, Myra. With Sun In Our Blood. Citadel Novel set in East Tennessee coal camp several years after the insurrections.

Roy, Andrew. A History of the Coal Miners of the U.S. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, ca. 1905. Reprinted 1970. Written by an early UMW leader. Has a brief mention of Coal Creek along with Coeur d’Alene. Reflects a feeling that Midwestern coal mining is where it’s at: Appalachia is the boondocks.