History of Campbell County, Tennessee

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Bogan Explores History of Welsh Coal Miners in the Knoxville Region

By Dallas Bogan

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 shouting victoriously.

     "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 be heard.

     "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

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