Saturday, June 30, 2012

To Mingo We Come Creeping

To Mingo We Come Creeping
The Redneck War on Blair Mountain

On a hot summer day in 1921 Clyde Herbert Eastham kissed his young wife and children goodbye and marched out the door of his cramped coal camp cabin to join thousands of other West Virginia miners in a strike that had the attention of the entire country. All day the men walked, bound together by a common cause. “Every drop of blood and every dollar of the union will be spent in the attempt to lift martial law in Mingo County”, swore Frank Keeney, district president of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).1 The rag-tag miners’ army swelled to as many as 15,000 men as they marched on, spread eight miles along Lens Creek, ready to march through Logan to Mingo County and avenge the death of Sid Hatfield.2

      In earlier generations, those “majestic and grand” West Virginia hills had been ravished by robber barons clearing the virgin forests.3 When the trees were gone, the rights to the minerals under those same hills was given away, or stolen, and the quest for coal to power the nation’s surging industrialization began in earnest. This generation, these men, were not going to stand by this time. They were not going to watch outsiders steal their birthright and rob them of their civil rights. They had been controlled by wealthy coal operators all their lives. They worked on their knees and on their backs in wet dark tunnels deep under the ground, unable to breathe, covered in coal dust, alone, breaking the black gold out of the rocks, waiting for the explosions and cave-ins to kill or cripple them. They lived in company houses in company towns; were paid in company scrip to be used at the company store and were buried in company cemeteries. Even the tools they used in the mines were owned by the coal companies who deducted rental fees from the miners’ pay. They were forced to watch as the families of dead and injured miners were evicted from their homes, with no money and no place to go. And they died choking on coal dust, of black lung.4

Clyde Eastham fathered sixteen children in those coal camp houses.5 His leg was crushed in one mine accident; he had a limp for the rest of his life. In the 1930s his children remember the shriek of the siren announcing another accident in the mines at Fort Branch. He had a badly broken arm when they brought him up out of the mine that time. His back was broken in a cave-in and he spent a year in bed in a body cast, unable to work and support his family. All that year, in the evenings after the chores were done, his wife Mary would read the Zane Grey stories he loved, to take his mind off the pain. This tall, gaunt, quiet miner passed his love of reading on to all of his children.6

The Easthams were farmers for generations, raising tobacco in Virginia until the beginning of the 19th century when Clyde’s great-great-grandfather Edward, with his wife Christiana Chandler and five of their ten children, left their home in Halifax County, Virginia and migrated to eastern Kentucky.7 For a time the family grew and prospered, but like many other families in the area, the Civil War took its toll on their prosperity. As a result, later generations of young men entered the coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia to support their families. Clyde was one such young man. He was born in Boyd County Kentucky on 11 November 1893 to David C. Eastham and Lennie Enyart.8 David and Lennie moved their family to Logan County, West Virginia, where David worked as a teamster, and their sons went into the mines.9 In 1916, at the age of twenty-two and already a West Virginia miner, Clyde married Mary Dorcas Forbes, the sixteen-year-old daughter of William Forbes and Mildred Runyon.10 By the time of the Blair Mountain battle, Clyde and Mary had three small children.11

Clyde was a proud man whose ancestors had settled in Virginia. They helped found this country; an Eastham signed the Stamp Act protest in Virginia on October 21, 1765.12 Clyde had an ancestor at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and another fought alongside Daniel Boone at the Battle of Blue Licks.13 Now it was his time to fight for what he believed in.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, West Virginia coal miners made several attempts to unionize the mines. They were fired from their jobs, put in jail, and thrown out of their homes by armed thugs on the payroll of mining companies.14 Since the early 1900s, when miners struck the mines around Charleston, the state capitol, they had to sign “yaller dog” contracts, swearing that they would not join the union or associate with anyone even thought to be a union member or representative. The penalty for breaking the contract was losing their jobs, their homes, and sometime their lives.

In some areas, union miners and their families were forced to live in tent cities under the most primitive of conditions. Verna Justice, Clyde's second wife and mother of his two youngest sons lived in one of those tent communities in Mingo County, near Matewan, where the residents lived in constant fear for their lives. Mine operators sent bands of thugs to harass the miners and their families day and night. They never knew when armed men would show up, firing guns all around them, even shooting into the tents.15

Neill Burkshaw, an attorney for the union, giving testimony before a Senate Investigating Committee, described the fate of union miners this way. “These people were driven like cattle from their homes, and their goods were thrown out into the roads. … I was down there last November and saw barefoot children, women with a single garment, and men barefooted with nothing but overalls living in the cold. … They suffered tortures that I have never seen before in this or any country.”16

Sid Hatfield grew up in this southern part of West Virginia and entered the mines as a young man, like most young men in the area. He was so well liked that he was offered the job of sheriff of Matewan, in Mingo County. Sid was obviously sympathetic to the miner’s cause, and did what he could to ease their plight.
For years mine operators used heavily armed detectives of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, commonly known as thugs, to control the miners. In Mingo County, in 1920, nearly 2,800 miners were fired from the mines and evicted from their homes by thugs as soon as they joined the union.
On May 19, a dozen or so detectives were back to evict six more miners from the Stone Mountain Coal Company property. Sid and his best friend Ed Chambers went to arrest the thugs, to put a stop to the evictions in Mingo County. When they confronted the detectives in the street gunfire erupted; when it stopped, the street was littered with dead. Seven detectives, including two Felts brothers, two miners and the mayor of Matewan died that day. At least five others were wounded. Sid was the miners’ hero for standing up to the thugs who had been harassing them for the last twenty years. Tom Felts, the surviving brother, swore he would get even. Sid Hatfield and twenty-two other men were quickly indicted for murder.
          Meanwhile the mine owners were bringing in “transportations”, scabs recruited from eastern cities, many of them recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, along with their wives and children, to take the union miners’ jobs. Mingo County was under martial law, controlled by mine operators and detectives, and hundreds of miners and their families were living in the cold.
          Warren G. Harding took the oath of office during the murder trials for the deaths in Matewan. The jury acquitted all seventeen defendants (charges had been dropped against the others), and the area quieted down for the rest of the winter. In May, martial law was still in force, but only enforced on the striking miners.
And the Violence began to escalate.
On August 1, 1921, Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers went to the town of Welch, in McDowell County, to answer to more charges relating to the deaths of the detectives. Neither man was armed as they left the hotel, their young wives on their arms. They were gunned down on the courthouse steps by Baldwin-Felts detectives. The detectives were arrested, then immediately freed on bond paid for my mine operators, while hundreds of striking miners were still in jail, without charges and without bond.
          Angry miners began arming themselves, calling for revenge. By late August, two hundred miners guarded the mouth of Lens Creek, an arterial route from Charleston, the state capital, to the southern West Virginia coalfields. Behind them, a line of men stretched down the creek, with more covering the hills on both sides, waiting for the march to begin to avenge Sid’s death. They went up the creek, over the ridge into Boone County, headed toward Logan and Mingo Counties, singing

Every little river must go down to the sea
All the slaving miners and our union will be free
Going to march to Blair Mountain
 Going to whip the company
 And I don’t want you to weep for me.17

           In the town of Logan, Sheriff Chafin, long in the pay of the mine owners, vowed, “No armed mob will cross Logan County”, and the miners knew they would have to fight.18 Their numbers kept growing, with men arriving from northern West Virginia and other states. On Wednesday, August 24, Mother Jones, a colorful ninety-one year old union organizer, arrived at Lens Creek and urged moderation. She read a telegram from the President of the United States, asking the miners to return home and promising the weight of the presidency to help alleviate some of the problems in the West Virginia mines. She almost had them stopped, until the miners found out the telegram was a fake. Frank Keeney, president of local United Mine Workers District 17, said to ignore her, “it's too late to turn back now”19 All night the miners’ army moved through the “hollers”; when they finally made camp, they stretched for twenty miles along Indian Creek.
          At 2:00 a.m. Thursday the fire siren went off in the town of Logan. Sheriff Don Chafin’s army, which included numerous Felts detectives and hundreds of his special deputies, paid for by the mine companies, was called out to stop the miners march. Chafin’s standing army of Logan, as it was commonly called, had already dug trenches, blocked the roads, and built breastworks stretching ten miles from Crooked Creek to Blair Mountain. By daylight, hundreds of men manned the breastworks.
          With all of Southern West Virginia in rebellion, Governor Morgan began to pressure the White House for federal troops. Brigadier General Harry Bandholz was sent to Charleston, the state capitol, to monitor the situation. He called in Frank Keeney and other union leaders and told them federal troops would be called to stop the miners, if necessary. Keeney moved along the lines of men telling them it was suicide to continue, they had to stop, the might of the United States army would be used against them if they did not. The men slowly began to disperse and General Bandholz caught a train for Washington.
          Chafin’s army was disbanded and almost immediately recalled. Once again, violence erupted in the coal camps. For reasons never fully explained, Sheriff Chafin chose this time to call in the State Police to settle a score with the miners. They were ordered to Logan County to go to the towns of Sharples and Clothier and arrest twenty miners who had humiliated the state police in an incident two weeks earlier. Police Captain Brokus, with 70 state police officers and 230 other men, headed up Blair Mountain after dark to make the arrests, alarming miners and families in coal camps along the way. Brokus’ men began taking prisoners at Number 4 camp. Two armed miners confronted the column at Number 2 camp and the shooting began. The state police began sneaking away with their remaining prisoners leaving dead and injured miners lying in the road. People all along the creek were frightened, sure that the thugs had come after them, that they were not safe in their homes. The story spread down the creeks and into the mining camps, where men were still returning from their march. Now there was more to do than avenge Sid's death, they were needed at Sharples. They were furious.
Blair Mountain, a brush covered mountain not far from the town of Logan, became the battle line. Sheriff Chafin’s men on one side with machine gun nests and on the other side the miners, wearing their uniform of bib overalls and red bandanas armed with whatever weapon they could find.20 A dirt road through Blair Mountain Gap provided direct access for the marchers through Logan and on to Mingo County. There were thousands of men along a 10-mile front, with guns firing all along it. Shots were fired all day and all through the night. There was so much noise and smoke in the air that both sides thought they must be suffering heavy losses. One miner described the battle this way “Well, one crowd climbs up one side of a hill and the other crowd climbs up on the other side of the hill, and they both shoot at the top of the hill.”21
          Reporters continued to pour into the area. The revolt was front-page news all over the country. The reporters were constantly on the lookout for the leader of the miners’ army, because they seemed so well organized, but for the most part, so they said, there was no one leader, they were just loosely organized by their union locals. “We was all just leaders, in a manner of speaking,” one miner replied when ask.22 The miners used passwords like redneck and redbird, or “to Mingo” and “I come creeping to identify themselves to each other”.23 They were a band of rough angry men, held together by a common emotion, determined to see justice done once and for all.
          Fourteen fully armed bombers landed at Charleston on Thursday, September 1. A chemical warfare unit with 150-pound teargas bombs had been deployed. On Friday morning, Federal troops were dispatched from Fort Dix to West Virginia. The troop trains pulled into Logan at 1:00 p.m. and then moved on to Blair Mountain and Crooked Creek.
          When that moment finally came, to fight the federal army, to be labeled as traitors to their country, there was no decision for the miners to make. The men, many of them descendants of founding fathers, others recent arrivals in the United States with hopes of a life of freedom and equality, could not turn their guns on their own military no matter what abuse was heaped on them by mine operators, thugs, and local government. They could not fight their own country, the country many of them had fought to defend in World War I.
          They put down their guns, this time for good. All week long, they surrendered in large numbers. Hundreds of miners were arrested; over 1.200 men were indicted on various charges, 325 men were charged with murder and 24 for treason, many just arrested and not charged at all. Federal troops were instructed to seize the weapons of any man without a permit, which meant that the thugs, Chafin’s men, and anyone else who stood against the striking miners would still be armed, while the miners’ weapons would be confiscated, so even more miners hid their guns in the woods and went home. The last shot was fired Saturday evening.
          What had they accomplished, what good had they done? Absolutely nothing, or so they thought at the time. Sid's death had not been avenged, hundreds of miners were still in jail and even more families were living in tents. Miners were still denied honest pay, and they certainly were denied their civil rights. Thugs had more power than ever. The union effort was in shambles.
But they had made the country pay attention to them, at least for a little while.
          It is difficult to imagine the heartbreak those hard-working men felt. In a war of survival, their own government refused to support them, instead it had turned against them. Local governments and the press labeled the uprising another hillbilly feud. Governor Morgan claimed the revolt was caused by “moon-shining, pistol-toting and automobiles”.24
          Clyde Eastham was black listed from the mines for years for being a part of the union effort. The family moved from Fort Branch to the community of Blair at one point, perhaps to get away from the detectives and spies in the coal camps. Okey, one of Clyde’s oldest sons, remembered groups of miners gathering at his house at night. Men quietly approached the house and were admitted only after using a secret knock. Dark green shades were pulled down, covering all the windows, and only one small lantern was left burning in the room where the miners gathered.25 As a child, Okey didn’t understand what those gatherings were all about; he just knew they were secret, and scary. Now we know they were union meetings.26
Clyde eventually went back into the mines. Although he had always had a reputation as a good worker, it was a long time before anyone would hire him, because of the blacklist. Finally, one day while in a mine office looking for work, along with his brother-in-law Arnold Cook, some papers slid off the desk into a wastebasket. The mine supervisor, who did the hiring, looked around and said, “I can’t find that list anywhere so I guess I can hire you”.27
           The family was living at Fort Branch Coal Camp, at the foot of Blair Mountain, in a tiny coal company cabin, being paid with company scrip to be spent at the company store down by the railroad tracks, when my mother was born.
          Clyde was still in the mines when they were finally unionized during the Roosevelt Administration. In large part due to the Battle of Blair Mountain and the revolt of the southern West Virginia coal miners, after forty years of strife, the “New Deal” National Industrial Recovery Act was enacted in 1933, giving U. S. workers the right to join a union. That year membership in UMWA grew from 100,000 to 400,000. While the new laws and the union by no means solved the problems of the miners, it was the beginning of new health, safety and financial standards for the mining industry. As anyone who watches the news knows, a coal mine is still a dangerous place to work, but thanks to those men who fought on Blair Mountain and the other labor uprisings early in the twentieth century, countless miners receive the benefits for which those “rednecks” sacrificed so much.
To many miners, President and Mrs. Roosevelt were heroes for making the unions available to them. One day, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the area. It had long been considered bad luck for a woman to go into a mine, but no one protested as the First Lady donned a miner’s hat and descended into that West Virginia coal mine. My grandfather was present that day and was thrilled to meet her and shake her hand.28
Clyde Herbert Eastham remained a staunch union man throughout his life. He was a local union representative after the mines were finally unionized. His children remember miners frequently coming to their home to discuss their grievances.
After he retired from the mines, Clyde did share some stories about the union and the mines with his children, but we have no detailed accounts of his union activity. It has been said that the miners involved in the Blair Mountain revolt vowed never to discuss details of the march, in order to protect those involved from further repercussions. As a result, these events remained relatively unknown moments in history, except among union activists. While our family has managed to piece together some part of the story of my grandfather’s involvement in the struggle to bring the union into the southern West Virginia coalfields, most of the details remain obscure. The UMWA will tell you they have no records of individual roles in union activity so the story of the brave fight of most of those thousands of West Virginia redneck miners is lost to time.
          Clyde Herbert Eastham, my Grandfather, died of black lung on May 16, 1965.29
          Montani Semper Liberi - Mountaineers are always free!30

See the "Do you Love the Mountains" page for information about the status of Blair Mountain today.

1. Lon Savage, Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-1921 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990) 4.
2. Reports differ on the exact number of miners involved, although all agree it was several thousand men. Estimates vary from 5,000 to 15,000 even 20,000 miners.
3. “West Virginia Hills”, official state song. Words by Mrs. Ellen King, music by H. E. Engle. 
4. An occupational lung diseases caused by prolonged breathing of coal dust. Silicosis, pneumoconiosis. Called black lung because they are just that.
5. Logan County, West Virginia, Register of Births 1917-1947, v 1-16, Eastham births; County Clerk’s Office, Logan.
6. Interviews of children of Clyde & Mary Eastham, West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina & Florida, by Judith Scott, 2001-present; transcripts held by interviewer, Portland, Oregon, 2007.
7.Halifax County, Virginia Marriage Register, Edward Eastham and Christiana Chandler. 28 September 1792; County Clerk’s Office, Halifax. Number of children born in Virginia based on family Bible records, death and census records.
8. World War II Draft registration, # U334, Clyde Herbert Eastham, 1942; digital image, ( : accessed 26 March 2011) from  U.S. Selective Service Registration Cards, World War II: Fourth Registration, NARA microfilm M1937, roll 15.
9. 1900 U.S census, Lawrence County, Kentucky, population schedule, Twin Branch, Dist 78, 12B, dwelling 52, family 54, David Eastham; digital image, ( : accessed March 2006) citing NARA microfilm T623, roll 537. David is listed as a farmer. 1920 U.S. census, Logan County, West Virginia, population schedule, Fort Branch, ED 27, sheet 10B (penned),dwelling 195, family 195, David Eastham; digital image, ( : accessed 2009); citing NARA microfilm T625, roll 1955. Clyde and Mary are dwelling 194, family 194. David is a teamster and Clyde is a miner.
10. Logan County, West Virginia, Register of Marriages Within the County of Logan, 104-105,line 17, Clyde Eastham & Mary Forbes, 16 May 1916; County Clerk’s Office, Logan.
11. Logan County, West Virginia, Register of Births 1917-1947, v 1-16: Lucille 1916, David William 1918 (he died soon after birth), Okey Douglas 1919, Olive Louise, March 1921.
12. Claude Lindsey Yowell, A History of Madison County Virginia (Strasburg, Virginia; Shenandoah Publishing House, 1926) 62-63.
13. Ruth Eager Moran, Compiler, “The Three John McGuires.” Lee County Historical & Genealogy Society Newsletter 42 (January 1995). Blue Licks Battle Monument, Blue Licks State Park, Rt. 68, Robertson Co., KY Officers Killed include Lt. James McGuire.
14. So-called union busting “detectives” of the Baldwin-Felts Agency hired by mine owners and operators to block the union. Called thugs or gun thugs by the miners.
15. Harold Eastham, West Hamlin, West Virginia, interviews by Judith Scott, June-July, 2005; transcript privately held by interviewer, Portland Oregon, 2007.
16. William C. Blizzard, When Miners March, The Story of Coal Miners in West Virginia: (Gay, West Virginia: Appalachian Community Service, 2004) 113-114.
17. Robert Shogan, The Battle of Blair Mountain The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising (Boulder, Colorado; Westview Press, 2004), 190.
18. Robert Shogun, The Battle Of Blair Mountain, 173.
19. Lon Savage, Thunder in the Mountains, 79
20.  Miners work uniform was commonly bib overalls and red bandanas.  There are several versions of the original usage of the term redneck (before it became a slur.)  One story is that striking miners were not used to being in the sunlight and got sunburned necks while on strike so they used the bandanas to keep from being sunburned and identified as a union man. Another story is that the miners used the bandanas around their necks and the term redneck, or redbird as a password for their union activities. 
21. Lon Savage, Thunder in the Mountains, 127.
22. Lon Savage, Thunder in the Mountains, 136.
23.  Robert Shogun, The Battle Of Blair Mountain, 177.
24. Robert Shogun, The Battle Of Blair Mountain, 177.
25.  Letter from Velma Eastham McClung and Thelma Eastham Corley, Cleveland Ohio.  January 2007.  Letter  in  possession of Judith Scott, Portland OR  as of March, 2007.
26. The UMWA says there are no existing records on individuals involved with the union, so there is no way we know of to confirm this.
27. Letter from Velma Eastham McClung & Thelma Eastham Corley.
28. Letter from Velma Eastham McClung & Thelma Eastham Corley.
29. Register of Deaths Raleigh County, 1965, p 66, line 41, Clyde Herbert Eastham; digital image, West Virginia Division of Culture & History ( : accessed 2009).
30. West Virginia State Motto.


  1. Judi, I was delighted to find your blog via GeneaBloggers. I heartily agree with your goal of seeking to discover and share the stories behind the names in our (endless) genealogies. I love what you are doing through these posts regarding your own family!

  2. Hi Judi

    Welcome to the GeneaBlogging community. You have put so much work into these posts and have annotated them very carefully which is such a boon to fellow researchers. Well done!

  3. My mother (now 85) remembers Clyde and Mary. She said Mary was hit by a car and killed. Mom said she went to school with their daughter Velma. Clyde sounds like a fine man.