On August 25, 1921 the biggest labor insurgency and largest civil uprising since the civil war began as more than 10,000 union coal miners took up arms (often small squirrel rifles!) in a battle at Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia.
They were up against over 3000 members of law enforcement and “strike breakers” armed with wickedly state of the art weapons (even bombs dropped from airplanes.) Over a million rounds were fired in 5 days, killing up to 100 people. The US Army was called upon via presidential order. Nearly 1000 arrests were made. UMWA membership went from 50,000 to 10,000 after the suppression of the uprising. It was brutal on all fronts.
Now the battle is about preservation of the site verses the interests of mining industry. But as is always the case in labor disputes and environmental battles, there is nuance – real lives are involved, jobs are involved, but it’s not just “Jobs versus environmentalists” or “Jobs versus archaeology.” Since all archaeology is political, we have a fascinating and complicated story at this site. Some seem to want it covered up and forgotten. Others see it as being oversimplified, ignoring the individual stories of sacrifice. Some want to provide “token” preservation assistance short term to make the whole thing go away long-term.
While my initial interest was on the cooperation element of metal detecting and archaeology professionals, there was more to it for me. I come from a coal mining family, and witnessed family members involvement in often violent labor struggles and prolonged, financially difficult labor strikes, so I was even more drawn into this story. If you should find I’m in error on any parts, I’ll gladly update, so comment away!
A site, and its story lay undisturbed… and at risk. Here’s a thumbnail:
Kenny King, history-minded citizen and metal detectorist had been metal detecting in the area of Blair Mountain for years saw the value of the site (not just the artifacts) in telling the story of the battle in the broader context of labor struggles in the United States. He first petitioned West Virginia’s Historic Preservation Office to designate this area a national historic landmark (they rejected him then, but are involved now) and eventually went to the Sierra Club and other groups to move the effort forward.
“It was assumed that the physical evidence of the Battle of Blair Mountain had been collected, scattered, or disturbed—an assumption that seemed to be confirmed by a coal industry–funded survey in 1991. Around that time, a history-minded local resident, Kenny King, began exploring the battlefield, collecting artifacts, and teaching himself about archaeology. King’s grandfather fought with the miners, and two of his uncles with the defenders. He found widely dispersed sites, showing that the battlefield was larger than anyone had thought, and he began working with historic preservationists to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). However, early efforts stalled because no official archaeological work confirmed his finds.” – Archaeology magazine
King helped enlist Harvard Ayers, a professor emeritus at Appalachian State University, to conduct a survey to support a fresh NRHP nomination for which a listing was granted, and later removed citing a clerical error. Everyone involved in the advocacy felt this was a very suspicious development, and took legal action against the NRHP for shoddy listing and delisting protocol on the site. The coal industry offered Dr. Ayers funding for some token preservation efforts, including a 3-year funded excavation (money,) which he rejected on his understandable distrust of their truer motivations – once the preservation project ended, mining would begin having “satisfied” the archaeologists and the site would be destroyed. Dr. Ayers’ principal-mindedness, openness to cooperation with Kenny King served as one catalyst to understanding the importance of preserving and studying the site in the context mining labor’s history. At this point, Archaeologist Brandon Nida took over the site’s analysis and has contributed endlessly to the progress at the site despite many hardships and adversaries (his contributions are detailed in the story from 2014, and you should read his posts on the topic.)
[Ayers and King] Then they delineated the sites, documented the locations of surface artifacts, and collected representative samples.
Fourteen of the 15 sites they examined appeared to be largely intact and undisturbed. In some cases—such as the site with the .32-caliber pistol shells—they found casings together on the ground that weren’t found anywhere else nearby, suggesting strongly that they had lain in situ since 1921. “There doesn’t seem to have been much disturbance up there, which is totally counter to the folklore that everything had been disturbed,” says Ayers.
NRHP listing (which, truth be known, only truly makes permitting a bit more difficult) was granted in 2009… then removed under questionable circumstances….
On the basis of King and Ayers’ work, the NRHP listing was approved in March 2009. Just nine months later, however, the battlefield was removed from the list. According to Susan Pierce, director of the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office (WVSHPO), it was removed because landowner objections had been inadvertently overlooked. Much of the battlefield is owned by Natural Resource Partners, and portions of it are leased for mining by companies including Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources. Many of the preservation advocates believe that attorneys representing these companies were responsible for the challenge to the listing. “It was a human error of overlooking objections in an addendum to a document,” counters Pierce. “There’s no skulduggery.” A group including the Sierra Club, Friends of Blair Mountain, the National Trust, and other organizations has since sued the Keeper of the National Register and the Department of the Interior for not following procedure during the complex listing and delisting process. “We’re playing a waiting game,” says Rasmussen. “The people who want to blow up that mountain are working hard to make it impossible for this to go forward.”
The additional cooperation between metal detectorists and archaeologists may yield even more important sites such as these. For it to happen, trust must be earned and built between groups. Detectorists should be involved with research design, not just as technicians for remote sensing, and detectorists need to embrace the rigor in methodology necessary to piece together these stories. Recently, National Geographic’s Diggers program filmed a piece at the site with George Wyant and Tim Saylor doing their thing with local historians and digging important clues.
We as detectorists and archaeologists would likely benefit in continuing to bridge the “trust” gap between our two endeavors. Archaeologists should trust that we’re not slipping artifacts into our pockets at dig sites and we must embrace rigor in data collection, mindful assistance in site location and post-dig preservation and documentation work. There’s such potential here, especially in Archaeology at threatened sites (with wolves at the door, such as the Blair Mountain case) Our relationships should be nurtured, allowing skills to aid the team to be as efficient as possible while still preserving high research standards.
The Battle of Blair Mountain itself lasted five days, and was a conflict where machine guns, airplanes, bombs and other apparatus of modern war were fully engaged. Striking coal mining families who had undergone a generation of brutal labor and living conditions in the southern coalfields of West Virginia fought a private army backed by coal operators. Federal troops were the only force that was able to stop the coal miners from overrunning the anti-union forces entrenched along the ridges of Blair Mountain. – Brandon Nida
The story continues, and some of that story remains hidden away in the ground, here and on other sites. I’m hopeful to play a small part with my Archaeologist friends in continuing to bring these stories’ elements into a broader narrative – not just in Kentucky but around the country.
- National Geographic Diggers -“Coal Miners at War”
- The Battle of Blair Mountain
- West Virginia Public Radio: “August 24, 1921: Miners March to Protest Martial Law in Mingo County”
- Blair Mountain Battle on Flickr Blair Mountain Struggles on Flickr.
Map of Blair Mountain: