You may have heard of the Mine Wars of Southern Appalachia, but do you know why the war was fought? If so, it’s probably not the whole story. The common narrative is that this was a war between miners and the companies they worked for. While that may have been true in previous strikes, that was not the case on this day. Matewan was a small town tucked away in the West Virginia mountains. Much like the Wild West, Southern West Virginia was still a new frontier in many ways. Order was newly forming. In 1919, the West Virginia State Police were formed. Prior to this, private detective agencies such as the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency were commonly used to enforce the will of the mine operators at all costs. The newly formed state police force included many police chiefs who were placed in populated areas to maintain law and order. Sid Hatfield was one of these chiefs and Matewan, WV was his town.
On a damp grey morning in mid-May 1920, the Stone Mountain Coal Company crossed a line never to be crossed again. As hired goons skulked from house to house evicting families, tears poured off the dirt-streaked cheeks and chins of displaced children, watering the seeds of discontent that had been sewn in those same hills a decade prior. The thundering of shattered furniture on the cold, wet ground echoed in the heartbeat of the people who were fighting for the right to live. Matewan, West Virginia was about to follow in the footsteps of their parents at Cabin Creek and Paint Creek, and their Revolutionary forefathers before them, ready to pave the path toward progress with their own lives. “Remember the dead, and fight like hell for the living” would once again echo through these mountains, as the Mother Jones rallying cry would be relevant yet again.
This was a particularly dark time in the history of not only workers rights, but human rights as well. The Southern West Virginia coalfields were essentially an industrial police state. Eight out of every ten coal miners in West Virginia worked in a company-owned town. Matewan was the exception. Armed guards and private police forces were commonplace in company towns. The workers were paid in company script, rather than legal tender. Script was only accepted at company stores. Workers were also required to “pay” for their own tools and blasting powder from the company store that were necessary to do their jobs. When it was time to collect their pay, the foreman would arrive with company script and a checklist. He would go down the list, checking off items as pay deductions: How much food they got that week, the amount of blasting powder they used in the mine, anything that they or their families used that week, including tools. Often, they would end up “owing” more than they made. This struggle was recorded in the song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. “Sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…St. Peter, don’t you call me, cuz I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”
Boys as young as nine were sent to work underground, even though the law at the time said twelve was the legal age to work. Workers were paid just 40 cents per long ton, which is 2,200 lbs. There were no scales available in the mines, so it was left up to the mine operator to decide how much you were getting paid for. Cribbing was also a regular practice, which meant building the sides of the carts up to hold more coal, which the workers were not compensated for.
Southern West Virginia was already rife with conflict. These same conditions lead to strikes almost ten years earlier. Mother Jones led battles that won more pay and better living conditions for miners and their families. The cost was high, but worth it, they were assured. The battle for miners then went on hiatus as WWI ramped up. Once the men returned from war, there was another battle to be fought. January of 1920 saw a UMW victory including increased wages across the county. Except for in the Southern coalfields. The mine operators were facing a decreased coal demand following the war. Worker’s wages got cut to try to compensate. When the operators at Matewan refused to approve better pay, the workers went on strike.
This was risky, because when you live in company housing and go on strike, you run the risk of eviction. In coal run towns, it was common for private detective agencies to be hired goons, in lieu of actual law enforcement. However, as mentioned before, Matewan was different. Rather than mine operators and coal barons, Matewan had a mayor and police chief. Both of whom were pro union. When they received word of these evictions taking place at the hands of hired goons who had no jurisdiction, Chief Sid Hatfield and Mayor Testerman took a stand. Under the authority of the WV State police, Hatfield called out their illegal actions. Felts insinuated that they would do as they please because there were more private detectives than lawmen. One section of WV state code gave Hatfield the authority to deputize “…any able-bodied citizen of the United States to assist and aid in accomplishing the purposes expressed in this act.” Any person called upon became “for all purposes, a member of the department of public safety.” Which is what he did. Hatfield and his new deputies returned to town so that he could secure warrants for their arrest from State Police headquarters, as he did not have jurisdiction at the coal camp just outside of town limits.
Upon arriving back in town to catch their train, the detectives were met by Hatfield and Testerman. When Hatfield announced that warrants had been issued for their arrest, they countered with their own “bogus” warrant for the arrest of police chief Sid Hatfield. The order of events that followed is hotly debated, but there are certain truths that cannot be ignored by history any longer. Every miner in town with a gun that day was there as an authorized deputy of the law. The Baldwin Felts Detective Agency did not have jurisdiction to perform those evictions or to arrest the police chief. These Appalachian warriors were defending their home, upholding the law, and embodying their constitutional rights. 12 men died that day, along with the government sanctioned serfdom that coal companies had been allowed to run in the past. On this day, the law and workers stood together against the tyranny and oppression that made unionization necessary in the first place.
This was not a battle between individuals or even against a company or industry. This was a battle for democracy against Plutocrats. All 23 of the men who stood with Hatfield that day were acquitted of all charges because they were fighting on the side of the law, not against it. It is time to stop getting our history through the filter of profit margins. The legacy of rebellion you often hear about coming from these hills is true. But not for the reasons you have been told.