The Mine Wars, Rewriting History


I’m such a slacker. On Wednesday night, The Mine Wars premiered on the PBS series American Experience, and I have to admit I missed it. (If it’s any comfort, PBS, I was binge watching Downton Abbey at the time!) Luckily, this groundbreaking mini-series is streaming on, and it’s an event we all should see.

In the earliest days of the 20th century, our region was being transformed. Newly established coal companies, almost always owned by outside interests, offered steady work in our mountains, an area that, until then, had relied mostly on subsistence farming. But regular pay came at a price.

“In our town we have many good things, good churches and schools,” one miner summarized, “but there is another thing of much more importance that the coal operators have intentionally overlooked — our freedom.”

While coal companies provided housing for miners and their families, they also turned Appalachian natives into the capitalist equivalent of serfs. Following a feudal model, they created coal towns with no elected officials, no democratic process or even local police forces. Instead, companies hired private guards armed with rifles and machine guns to police the towns, a practice miners detested. Thy even paid in their own currency, called scrip, which could only be used at company-owned stores.

As awareness of this exploitation grew, union leaders focused their attention on coal country, and miners faced a difficult choice—live in steady subjugation or fight for their rights.

Over the next several decades, violence erupted, a war that has been all but forgotten. Schools have rarely taught about it. No books or films on the topic have seen wide distribution. Appalachia’s mine wars have barely been a blip in the telling of U.S. history…at least, until this week.

American Experience is the nation’s most-watched history series, one that reaches millions of viewers and even influences classroom conversations through popular teacher guides. By airing The Mine Wars, the show is moving this bloody Appalachian story from the fringe to the mainstream, taking us a big step closer to rewriting history.

Do you feel like this is a story worth telling? Is coal part of your family story? And if you’ve seen the show, what did you think?

Please leave a comment below.


  • Maggie Louden

    What is such a shame, the coal wars, the feudal structure, the disregard for the health & well-being of miners, their families, & their communities is not taught in 8th grade WV History in West Virginia classrooms, at least where my grandkids went, go – Hedgesville High School. Applaud PBS for telling America’s story.

  • Erin

    This is definitely worth telling! I was very lucky to receive high school credit for most of my college English classes, but I had the opportunity to fill the remainder of my English requirements with a class focused on Appalachian studies. We read most of Denise Giardina’s works on this subject and I found it quite eye-opening and relevant to our country’s current obsession with selling out to become an oligarchy. Americans can definitely learn quite a bit from this.

  • Bridget Kelley-Dearing

    This is CrAZy Mark but my great grandmother was the sister of the Baldwins of the infamous Baldwin Detective Agency. As a person that has been on the frontlines of many a mountaintop removal protest for God knows how many years, I find this piece of my history to be ironic and shameful.

    When I first began my protests to save our mountains, I didn’t realize my connection to the Baldwin brothers and the horrible massacre that happened in Matewan, West Virginia in 1920.

    My father’s family is from Bluefield, West Virginia, which is of course where the Baldwin Detective Agency was headquartered. As it happens, my mother’s father was also a detective on the trains, although I haven’t researched him enough at this point to determine in what capacity. Her family was from Princeton, West Virginia.

    My great grandmother’s name was Virginia Baldwin and to her credit was known by most everyone in the town of Bluefield as a kind and charitable woman. Here is clip of a newspaper account of her death:

    DEATH OF MRS P. J. KELLEY SHOCKS ENTIRE CITY (Good Friend of the Poor Passes to Her Reward After Illness of Only One Week.)

    Mrs. P. J. Kelley, after an illness of just one week, quietly passed away yesterday morning at 2:25 o’clock at her home on Wyoming Street. The news of her death came as a shock to the entire city, for no more popular nor more beloved woman was there in Bluefield than Mrs. Kelley. A few days after she was taken sick, her condition became critical owing to a complication of diseases setting in and the end came before specialists coming from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington could arrive.

    Mrs. Kelley’s happiness was in making her home an ideal one. Those who knew her most intimately speak of her as a most devoted wife, mother, daughter and sister. In the matter of charity, she recognized neither creed, nor color. None of her relatives or closest acquaintances knew to the full extent the almost unbounded generosity of her heart, and many of her deeds of charity and works of kindness among the poor are unrecorded save in the writing of angels in the world beyond this earth whither she has gone. Unassuming, sweet and cheering in the home of the lowly as well as in the hearts of those she loved most dearly, Mrs. Kelley’s place in the community will not be an easy one to fill.

    Mrs. Kelley was before her marriage, Levicia Virginia Baldwin, third daughter of Capt. Denison B. Baldwin, oldest resident of the city, and Mrs. Sallie Barnes Baldwin. On both her father’s and her mother’s side she was connected with the grand old aristocratic families of Virginia that played such an important part in the early history of that immortal commonwealth. She was born on May 15, 1875 in Tazewell, then the home of Capt. and Mrs. Denison Butler Baldwin. She came to Bluefield with her parents in 1888 and has since resided in this city. On May 31, 1899, she was received into the Catholic church by Rev. Father Olivier. On Jun 15, 1899, she was married to Patrick J. Kelley and to their union three children were born, two sons and one daughter.

    The deceased is survived by her father and mother, Capt. and Mrs. D. B. Baldwin; her husband, P. J. Kelley; three children, Helen, William Denison and Patrick Ward Kelley, aged 8,5 and 2 years respectively; four brothers, William G. Baldwin of Roanoke, D. O. Baldwin of Bluefield, R. M. Baldwin of Raleigh, N. C. and A. H. Baldwin of Portsmouth, Va; three sisters, Mrs. W. J. Jenks, Mrs. C. G. Duy and Miss Bettie Lyde Baldwin all of Bluefield. The death of Mrs. Kelley is the second to occur in the immediate family , the first being that of her brother, J. M. Baldwin in 1903.

    Mrs. Kelley will be missed by many who have been ministered to by her when in sickness and trouble and by those who by her beneficent acts of charity have had the need removed and those whom her kindness cheered.

    Among the relatives who have arrived to attend the funeral are Robert M. Baldwin and daughter, Louise, and son, Frank of Raleigh, NC; A. H. Baldwin of Savannah, Ga; Mr. and Mrs. William Baldwin of Roanoke; Capt. and Mrs. W. T. Baldwin and son, W. T. Baldwin, Jr. of Radford; John Copenhaver of Johnson City, TN; Elizabeth Barnes, wife of the late Robert Barnes; Mrs. Nellie Barnes; Mrs. Peggie Barnes, wife of John Barnes, Sr; Ora Daily, Barbara Moss; A. J. Copenhaver; Elizabeth Copenhaver and Joseph Barnes.

    My great grandfather and husband of Virginia, Patrick Kelley, was a first-generation American, born to Irish immigrants who settled in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania at the tail end of the potato famine. Patrick’s father was a coal miner in the anthracite mines and Patrick was a slate picker when he was a very young boy. He could see his destiny was down in the dark mines and made a decision to escape it as a young man. He became a tailor’s apprentice, moved to Bluefield and became one of the leading citizens there. At one time he owned a creamery, a brewery, was President of a bank and the list goes on and on. He lost everything in the great depression.

    I’m sorry for my family’s connection to the mine wars. I know in many ways the Baldwin family were good people but there is nothing that can save them or their reputation from their unspeakable acts of violence on the miners and their families during the time of the mine wars.

    When I read the accounts of the Matewan and Ludlow massacres, I am filled with sadness for these people who were struggling for basic rights and wages and I’m horrified at my family’s prominent and evil place in the history of it.

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    Bridget, thanks for such a thoughtful post. Many of us have shameful parts to our family histories, but it sounds like Virginia Baldwin worked hard to right the scales.

  • Joy

    I watched this twice, great story. My father got killed in Red Jacket, Wv. I was 2 years old. We lived in the coal camp. i have pics from there.

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    Joy, this is such a moving comment I shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you.

  • Ken Kukovich

    My grandparents and relatives also suffered in the mines, were union activists, and were ultimately blackballed from the mines.

    I deeply appreciate the Baldwin acknowledgment of your family’s transgressions. It cannot undo the past, but it may help make a better future.

  • Marilee Bowles-Carey

    Dr. Rebecca Bailey, one of the historians featured in the film is my first cousin. Her dissertation became a book, Matewan Before the Massacre, which is a very thoughtful unpacking of the political, economic and social factors that created the unique labor culture of Mingo, McDowell and Logan counties. Anyone interested in digging deeper into the Mine Wars should read this book.

    I was relieved that the film presented the story of the miners in such a respectful light. And I was delighted that Rebecca shared the story of my grandfather Thomas Allen Romans witnessing the murder of Sid Hatfield on the steps of the Welch County courthouse.

    Here is a little more background: ‘Daddy Tom’ had recently moved to McDowell County with his mother and two of his brothers, from Marion VA, to find work in the coal mines. They were destitute. He was only 17 years old.He had to wait a year to get hired because he was underage. But he worked in the mines there for the next thirty years, rising to the position of foreman. He died of black lung disease in 1982.

    My mother left West Virginia in the early fifties, when she was 21, moving to Detroit to find work, marry and raise a family. She tells stories of living in Hensley Holler, in a house my grandfather built himself on rented land. No plumbing. No electricity. No heat but a wood-burning stove. At one point the landlord evicted the family in the middle of the night. My grandfather found shelter for my grandmother and his girls (four or five of what would ultimately be nine) and then returned to burn the house to the ground.

    Daddy Tom refused to live in company housing and insisted on being paid in cash, not scrip, even though it meant his paycheck was reduced some percentage. Despite their poverty, my mother never went hungry. My grandmother kept a large vegetable garden. Daddy Tom hunted. During hard times in the thirties, he made moonshine and sold it to buy food and necessities. When my mother was about 7, her job was to run up into the woods where my grandfather’s still was, and sound the alarm if the revenuers showed up. He would go into hiding until they left the area. He was fiercely independent, canny, and quietly charismatic. He was amazingly good with horses, and no surprise, with his grandchildren.

    Where I live, ‘hillbillies’ are the last remaining minority group that one can disparage in public without recrimination. It is likely that someone might read this and think, “Oh that is a typical hillbilly story.” But that would be missing a deeper truth, which is that the Appalachian experience is about resilience, about finding meaning in shared suffering; and about a cultural identity that is comfortably at odds with the mainstream and the source of a rich artistic heritage. I am proud to be a coal miner’s (grand)daughter and pleased that PBS presented this story with such compassion and insight.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will never be published or shared, and required fields are marked with an asterisk (*).