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West Virginia Coal Strike of 1921 newspaper collection

Identifier: COU:1685

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of 4 oversized folders containing newspapers from across the world. The Collection is divided into 3 sections. I. COLORADO takes up 2/3rd’s of the first folder and contains newspapers from the state of Colorado. It is organized alphabetically by the name of the city the newspaper was published in. II. NATIONAL takes up the remainder of the first folder and the majority of the remaining folders. It contains newspapers published in other states. The papers are also organized alphabetically by the first letter of the city they were published in. III. INTERNATIONAL contains only two newspapers, one from London and one from Montreal. Both are found in the fourth folder.


  • 1921

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for access.

Conditions Governing Use

Limited duplication of materials allowed for research purposes. User is responsible for all copyright compliance.

Historical Note

Resentment towards mine operators had been building for decades among West Virginia coal miners, before finally erupting into the largest armed rebellion in the United States since the Civil War. Miners complained of: low pay, long hours, being forbidden to unionize, a dangerous work environment, and the mine companies’ use of the Baldwin-Felts agency as a private army to enforce their laws among their employees2. After the Great War miner’s wages were up 30%, but skyrocketing inflation meant there was no real gain in miner’s income, especially compared the mine owner’s 600% pay increase3. Miners were paid per ton of coal they managed to dig up rather than hourly, making it easy for them to be cheated out of the full value of their labor by company checkweighmen who weighed their coal, and often fixed the scales. The miners were also not compensated for dead work, or the extra work they did to get to the coal. In addition the miners were paid in scrip; money which was only accepted at company owned stores, allowing the companies to charge exuberantly for goods and services. Miners had to work long hours in order to get by under these circumstances and were not able to agitate for a shorter work day with because they were not allowed to unionize, or they would lose their jobs, and quickly be replaced by scab labor imported from around the world. The work of a coal miner was particularly dangerous, in part because of the companies’ refusal to improve working conditions. Miners often lost life and limb in mine collapses and workplace accidents. Miners who worked in the mines their whole lives often developed black lung, a lung disease caused by inhaling coal dust. The Mines employed private-contractors, often from the Baldwin-Felts Detective agency, to spy on the miners and make sure the miners were not planning to unionize2.

Decades of simmering dissatisfaction among the miners of Mingo, Logan, and other southwestern West Virginia counties finally began to boil over in 1920. Men were being fired, and evicted from their company-owned homes because they joined the United Mine Workers union. The local government of Mingo County was friendlier to labor than many of its neighbors. Mingo County Mayor Cabell Testerman, Sherriff George T. Blankenship, and Police Chief Sid Hatfield challenged the legal authority of Baldwin-Felts agents to evict workers and arrested 28 of them, including Albert Felts, the brother of Baldwin Felts boss Tom Felts. The detectives were released after agreeing to let the local police handle the evictions, but the local law enforcement took their time with the evictions, so on May 19th 1920 Albert Felts and his gang were sent back to speed things up. They were confronted, at Matewan station in Mingo County, by Hatfield and Testermen who attempted to arrest them. Albert Felts pulled out a warrant of his own, calling for the arrest of Sid Hatfield on trumped up charges. Mayor Testerman looked over Albert’s warrant. After reading the document the mayor declared it a counterfeit. Felts pulled out his gun and fired. His Baldwin-Felts agents followed suit, and their fire was returned by the police and several of the local miners who were watching the confrontation. The exact events of the shootout are unclear, but by the time the last gunshot was fired, two miners, six Baldwin-Felts agents, Albert Felts, and Mayor Testerman laid dead4. Mr. Hatfield was found not guilty in the ensuing trial5, and later gained more popularity among the miners when he testified before the Senate about labor unrest in the West Virginia Coal fields becoming a working class hero6.

Freed from their fear of the mine owner’s private thugs thousands of miners flocked to the UMW in the wake of the ‘Matewan massacre’. The local heads of United Mine Workers union, Fred Mooney and Frank Keeney had their hands full with the flood of new members, but union gains after Matewan were soon challenged by mine operators whose deep coffers, gave them all the ammunition they needed to wage a war against the UMW. Keeney and Mooney called a strike in an attempt to address the complaints of West Virginian miners, but they were ignored. Mine operators brought in hundreds of immigrant strikebreakers to replace the newly unionized miners. Using scab labor, mine operators were able to reopen virtually all their mines shortly after the Strike was called. General unrest among idle miners occasionally erupted into violence. Mine guard Bernard Hatfield was found murdered in early July. Local police sometimes choose to side with miners rather than enforce the law. Sherriff Blankenship refused to protect strikebreakers from picketers during a strike against the Red Jacket Coal Company7. West Virginia Governor John J. Cornwell declared limited martial law at the behest of mine operators on November 20th 19208. On May 19th 1921, his successor Governor Ephraim Morgan declared full martial law9. Things finally passed the point of no return when, on August 1 1921 Sid Hatfeild was murdered10. He was shot dead by Baldwin-Felts agents who were later set free on bail posted by the mine operators11. More than 2,000 people attended Hatfield’s funeral, where Sam Montgomery a veteran labor organizer gave a passionate eulogy, railing against the coal operators and the Baldwin-Felts agents they employed. Several hundred miners trekked to Mingo County to demand an explanation. The situation was quickly getting out of hand. Mooney and Keeney, took advantage of the growing unrest, and presented a petition to Governor Morgan on August 7th demanding measures to improve the working conditions of miners; if he refused they threatened to flood Mingo County with thousands of idle miners, with the intention of jamming up the courts. 10 days after receiving the petition Morgan gave his reply. He rejected all the Union’s demands. All the while, anger and resentment slowly increased among the miners. The men took up arms and began to patrol the streets. When the news of Morgan’s reply reached their ears, they began to plan an armed assault on Mingo County. Their intention was to march across Logan County, home to Blair Mountain which gave the ensuing confrontation the title of “The Battle for Blair Mountain” by which it would later be known, to free the union organizers held in a prison there12.

On August 31st 1921, about 9,000 coal miners took up arms against local coal companies, and their force of roughly 2,500 vigilantes and Baldwin-Felts agents1 But, to the dismay of Communist organizers across the USA, who saw the strike as the start of a working class revolution, the miners disbanded after the US Government sent in federal troops on September 2nd. The miners had no desire to fight Uncle Sam. Many of the rebels who surrendered waved American flags as they rode the train to Charleston where they would stand trial, believing that now that the Feds were involved they would see what dire straits the miners were in and be forced to address their poor working conditions. They were mistaken however, the rebellion backfired; the situation of the miners would hardly improve until Franklin Roosevelt’s new deal reforms in the 1930’s.13


6 linear feet (4 boxes)

Language of Materials



On August 31st 1921, about 9,000 coal miners took up arms against local coal companies, and their force of roughly 2,500 vigilantes and Baldwin-Felts agents, in Logan County, West Virginia. The rebellion was the largest armed uprising in the United States since the Civil War, and garnered international media attention. The miners disbanded after the US Government sent in federal troops on September 2nd. The Battle for Blair Mountain, as the uprising later came to be called, resulted in 985 arrests, between 20 to 50 casualties, and cost the state 125,000 dollars in damages.1


This collection is arranged in the following series: Series 1: Colorado, 1921 Series 2: National, 1921 Series 3: International, 1921

Processed by: Staff Reformatted by: Noah Crocker, January 2014
January 2014
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Rare and Distinctive Collections Repository

1720 Pleasant Street
184 UCB
Boulder Colorado 80503 United States