By Mike Kolhoff
In July of 1914 workers at coal mines in Northwest Arkansas rose up in open rebellion against the boss’s system. They launched an attack on mines held by company guards and armed scabs, and they won – and then they set the mines ablaze and dynamited the shafts rather than see them run as non-union operations.
Happening in the same year as the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado and the start of the 1st World War in Europe, maybe it’s not surprising that this victory in the center of America has gone largely unremembered. Martyrs like the wives and children killed by the National Guard in Colorado are more sympathetic subjects than heavily armed workers shooting it out with company thugs in the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. But the miners of Hartford weren’t interested in sympathy; they wanted justice.
The towns of Midland, Huntington and Hartford are a part of my childhood. I was born in that area (south of Fort Smith). My mother and aunts graduated from Hartford High School. My grandfather worked for years in the coal mines of the area, and his name is on the miner’s memorial in Greenwood, a few miles north of Hartford.
My uncle worked as a construction laborer in the mines in the 1970s, building concrete block walls, and he was the first to tell me about the “miner’s war” in the hills around Midland and Hartford. He’d heard it from his father, who was a boy when it happened. The hills around Midland rang with the sound of rifle fire, he said; the fighting was so bad that most of the population of Midland fled to safety in Bonanza. When my uncle was a boy there were still buildings in Midland where you could see the bullet holes.
A Hotbed of Socialism
The rising of the Hartford miners took place in an area where socialist sentiment was strong and where the working class community was united by a level of solidarity that was rare in early 20th century America, and unfortunately exists nowhere today. It was an area of deep poverty; the kind of poverty that requires a high level of social cooperation for basic survival. It was from this necessary cooperation and the solidarity of shared hardship that a special kind of socialism was born.
The socialism that developed in the hinterlands of America was anything but doctrinaire. An American rural socialist was more likely to quote from the New Testament than Das Kapital, and might be more inclined to describe the end of capitalism in millenarian terms than in revolutionary terms. It was an ideology based on what was considered common sense: it’s better to share than be selfish; you should treat people like you want to be treated; all the money in the world don’t make you no better than anybody else, and evil has to be confronted and fought; just common sense.
This socialist blending of egalitarian politics and millenarianism was spread through the region by dozens of organizers, secular “preachers” who operated in the lumber camps, sawmills, hobo jungles, railroad yards, mines and migrant camps. They also found surprising success among the poor but independent small farmers of the Ozarks.
Agrarian socialism spoke the language people spoke, and didn’t try to make people learn the jargon of politics. It was a socialism that was fundamentally libertarian in character, closer to social anarchism than any kind of orthodox Marxism, a factor that disturbed some leaders of the Socialist Party almost as much as its religious overtones. Jim Bissett sums up the nature of this socialism very well in his book on socialism in Oklahoma: “Oklahoma socialists seized on the deep communitarian components embedded in the Christian tradition. A dominant cultural folkway in the Oklahoma countryside, evangelical Protestantism was a tradition they knew well. Employing this powerful cultural form of Christianity to express socialist ideas, Party members in Oklahoma transformed both the gospel of Christ and the gospel of socialism.”1
Three formal organizations supported this popular socialism in the area: the Socialist Party (SP), which polled significant minorities and even majorities in some areas; the United Mine Workers (UMW), whose local leaders were SP members in most areas; and after the Hartford Uprising, the Working Class Union, an extraordinary group that clandestinely organized thousands of tenant farmers and laborers across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The popularity of the Socialist Party reached its peak in the years between 1912-14. The elections of 1911 and 1912 saw 18 socialist mayors elected across the country, including UMW District 21 President Pete Stewart, who was elected mayor of Hartford, Arkansas. By 1913 there were 32 socialist mayors in the United States, and this did not even include independent, non-party socialists.2 Over a thousand SP members held some sort of elected position in 33 states by 1912, and in the 1912 presidential election almost a million Americans voted for socialist candidate Eugene Debs. In Arkansas, 8153 votes went for Debs, just over 6% of the votes cast in the election statewide. In Oklahoma he took over 16% of the popular vote. Compare that with New York, the traditional stronghold of the Socialist Party, where Debs took less than 4% of the vote. The only state where the socialists polled higher than Oklahoma was Nevada, where they also took over 16% of the vote.
The socialist movement in the Arkansas and Oklahoma area was built on the foundations of popular reform movements of the late 19th century, perhaps none more that the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union (NFAIU). This was the southern section of the National Farmers Alliance, which counted the majority of its members in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. The platform the NFAIU called for public ownership of the railroads and communications industry, as well as major banking reforms to limit the power of capital. Many in the Populist movement gravitated to Eugene Debs and the SP after the Populist Movement ceased to move.
The Socialist Party regularly sponsored picnics in the rural communities, events that inevitably included speeches by local socialist candidates and union leaders. In the isolated villages of the area, where entertainment was hard to come by, these events were a big draw. By this kind of activity the socialists were able to establish themselves as members of the core community of working people in the region.
Union Man’s Country
The labor movement in Arkansas had been limited to weak craft unions up to the 1880s, when the Knights of Labor began to organize workers on an industrial basis. Railroad workers, agricultural workers, and miners formed the basis of the KOL organization in Arkansas, and the crushing of the Great Southwest railroad Strike of 1886 severely reduced their numbers and influence. The Knights (in diminished form) continued in Arkansas up until the Cotton Pickers Strike of 1891, in Lee County, where they joined with the Colored Farmers Alliance in a failed attempt to organize a national strike of tenant farmers and laborers. Armed conflict erupted between the landowners’ hired thugs and workers, and the strike was defeated after the murder of over a dozen strikers.
The United Mine Workers began organizing in Fort Smith in 1898, and by 1903 they had won union recognition in all of the major coal operations in Western Arkansas. It became the most powerful union in the state and was instrumental in organizing the state federation of labor (ASFL) in 1904. Unlike many American Federation of Labor organizations of the time, the ASFL did not deny membership based on race, and included multi-racial unions such as the UMW and Teamsters as well as segregated “Jim Crow” unions. At the first convention a black man, N.M. Thomas, was elected to a vice-presidency, not an insignificant event in state so officially committed to “white supremacy”. In 1914 The ASFL was able to place a child welfare initiative on the ballot addressing the issue of child labor, and the voters approved it. This was the first such law in the nation (the federal law wasn’t passed until 1916). The national situation seemed so promising that Eugene Debs wrote:
“The spread of Socialist doctrine among the labor organizations of the country during the past year exceeds the most extravagant estimates. No one has had better opportunities than the writer to note the transition to Socialism among trades-unionists, and the approaching election will abundantly verify it.”3
District 21 of the UMW included the mining regions of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, with over 100,000 affiliated members in 1914, and the events that precipitated the miners uprising were pretty clear cut. The owners of several mines in southern Sebastian County decided that they would end their contract with the mine workers union. They would close their mines, do a paper ownership shuffle, and then resume operations as “open shops”. There are areas where this would have worked. There are areas where this did work. But the area around Hartford wasn’t one of them. The following brief description is from the Samuel Gompers Papers project:
“In April 1914 the Bache-Denman Coal Co., which operated eight coal mining firms in western Arkansas, abrogated the union contracts of two of its subsidiaries–the Prairie Creek Coal Co. and the Mammoth Vein Coal Co. When union miners at another Bache-Denman firm, the Coronado Coal Co., struck in protest, the parent company replaced them with nonunion workers. Union miners rioted at Prairie Creek, shutting down the operation, and in July Bache-Denman went into receivership.”4
The “Hartford Miners Riot”, as the national press termed it, involved an armed conflict between several hundred workers and several dozen Bache-Denman gun thugs and armed scabs. Understanding the impetus for the rising requires understanding the political leanings of the people in the area, the local organizations at their disposal, but it also requires recognizing their relationship to events several hundred miles away in Colorado known as the “Ludlow Massacre”.
The Miners War in Colorado
The capitalists’ rejection of union recognition in the coal fields of Colorado had been answered by a strike by the UMW in September of 1913. The coal companies immediately evicted miners and their families from company housing, forcing the miners to erect tent villages on land leased by the UMW. The hired thugs of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency set up searchlights that they shined into the tent camps at night, firing at anything that moved. They also improvised an armored car with a machinegun that they used to patrol the perimeter of the camps, firing bursts into the tents. When the miners took up arms and fought back, the governor of Colorado called in the National Guard. The Guard commander was a rightwing anti-union General named John Chase, who had participated in the murder of other miners at Cripple Creek just ten years before.
On the morning of April 20, 1914, the soldiers set up machine guns on a ridge over-looking the main miner’s camp near the village of Ludlow. Two companies of Guardsmen also took up positions along a rail line just south of the camp. The miners, seeing this, took up their own guns and moved to out-flank the Guardsmen’s positions. Fighting soon began. During the battle two women and eleven children were suffocated and burned to death when the tent where they were hiding went up in flames from the machinegun fire of the Colorado National Guard.
This was the Ludlow Massacre, which became a rallying cry for armed rebellion among the union men of Colorado. For ten days armed workers attacked and destroyed coal mines across the state. The fighting continued until President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops who disarmed both sides. The death toll estimates ranged from 50 to 200. Over 300 miners were arrested and indicted for murder. Only one was convicted, and that conviction was eventually overturned by the state Supreme Court. Twenty-two National Guardsmen were court-martialed. Only one was convicted, and he was only given a light reprimand. No company thugs were charged or even arrested.
The Ludlow Massacre was very current in the minds of the workers in Hartford when the events began to unfold in 1914.
The Miners War in Arkansas
The contract abrogated by Bache-Denman had been signed in 1903 and had resulted in a decade of relative labor peace in the western Arkansas coal fields. By ending the contract Bache-Denman was in effect ending a truce, and they knew the results would likely be war. But just as the miners were inspired by the courageous struggle in Colorado, Bache-Denman saw only a defeat for the UMW in an attempt to organize the Colorado mines. If the Colorado mines would operate without a union, so would the mines of Arkansas. If the miners thought about fighting back, they would have the dead children of Ludlow to ponder as well. And that they did; only it didn’t make them fearful, it made them even more ready and willing to fight.
Bache-Denman’s plans were not unknown to the leaders of District 21. They had been informed of the intention to run the mines non-union in March of 1914. Talks between local leader Pete Stewart, the leaders of District 21, and the national UMW leadership had been going on well before the mines were closed. Plus, a shipment of 200 rifles, pistols and ammunition was sent from Oklahoma to Fort Smith, and then to Hartford, where a company of over 100 Union Guards was formed. This force was supplemented by another 200 or so armed workers and farmers from the area. While the Union Guards would have been armed with the best rifles they had, the remainder would have probably had only assorted “squirrel guns” (.22s), shotguns and pistols.
Bache-Denman had also made their preparations. A crew of hired gunmen from the Burns Detective Agency had arrived in early April to fortify the mines. These were equipped with high-powered Winchester rifles. They also recruited thugs from among the scabs, hiring men who were willing to shoot other workers for a few dollars pay; in April the company had 15-20 armed guards at the mines around Prairie Creek.
On April 6, 1914, Stewart and other union leaders, along with Dan Hogan and his daughter Frida, who were prominent socialists in the area, addressed a large meeting of miners and their supporters. At the time the district president allegedly said that “he would rather die than see a mine run open shop” and that he would “arm every miner in the Hartford Valley if necessary to prevent it.” Stewart and his socialist comrades then led a crowd of a thousand people to Prairie Creek mine number 4 where they tried to “persuade” the nonunion miners to quit work. A pro-union sheriff accompanied the crowd. When the company guards at the mine refused his order to disarm, “several clashes” occurred in which the Bache-Denman employees were routed. A banner was then hoisted over the coal tipple which read: “This is Union Man’s Country.”5
Bache-Denman immediately set their lawyers to work obtaining a federal injunction to reopen the closed mine. To protest this injunction, over two thousand miners, farmers and local townspeople marched from Hartford to Prairie Creek school house where a rally was held. Local support was so strong for the miners that law enforcement officers refused to protect Bache-Denman property, and federal marshals had been sent in to enforce the injunction and protect company property. But before the end of the month the federal marshals were withdrawn. Bache-Denman then hired more Burns detectives and gun thugs, bringing their number of guards to between 40 and 50 men.
Charges had been filed against Pete Stewart and the pro-union sheriff from the April 6 “riot”, and the trial was scheduled to begin in July. On the night of July 12, near midnight, a fusillade of bullets tore into the shacks occupied by union miners and their families in the village of Frogtown, about a mile from Prairie Creek Mine number 4. Miraculously no one was killed or injured in the attack. Miners and their families fled in terror toward Hartford. Alerted Union Guards grabbed their guns and reported to the town over the rest of the night in anticipation of an imminent attack.
Charges were later made by Bache-Denman attorneys that it was in fact Hartford constable James Slankard and another unnamed union miner that had fired the shots into the shacks of Frogtown in hopes of rousing hostility against the scab miners at Prairie Creek. This was based on the written statement of an unnamed “eye witness” whose identity was concealed “for fear of retribution”. It is of course it’s more likely that Burns gun-thugs, on the instructions of their superiors or out of boredom, snuck down the hollow to Frogtown and decided to throw some fear into the strikers. The anonymity of the “eye witness” kept defense attorneys from cross examining them, a fact in itself that makes their statement suspect. Deputy U.S. Marshals who had stayed in the fortified Prairie Creek mine compound testified that Burns agents had led company guards into the woods around the mine regularly, and the sound of shots fired always followed. The detectives claimed they were doing “target practice.”6
The following Wednesday the village of Frogtown was again subjected to gunfire.7 That was the last straw for the miners. The Union Guards had been on alert since the first attack on Frogtown, now they went on the offensive. A force of between 150 and 200 armed men fanned out through the wooded hills around Prairie Creek mine no. 4, that being the main outpost of the gun thugs and the only one of the mines operating anywhere near capacity.
The most detailed written account of the battle that followed was recorded by acting mine superintendant S.T. Moore in his report to mine owner H. Denman of Philadelphia:
“On the 16th I learned that all the Hartford and Huntington Mines were idle for the reason that the men were preparing for an attack on number 4. When I left no. 4 about 6 o’clock, everything was quiet…and so I went home.
“About 10 o’clock on the night of the 16th, the central girl called me to let me know all the phone wires to no. 4 had been cut, also all the wires out of Midland. The electrical wires were cut also. It was impossible for me to get a message out to any place.
“The next morning I went to the mine about seven o’clock and learned that about 75 men had passed the mines going east down the lane toward the creek, and after they passed the mines a little way, they fired some shots into the camp and went on. I thought they had made an attempt to organize during the night and failed, and that was all the men they could get together and that the thing was over. So Mr. Eustice and I started to see about some of the boys who had gone up the line to see where the wires were cut. When we got to the no. 4 camp I saw a man and his wife leaving the camp and I remembered I’d met several families leaving as I came up from Midland. I called to this man and asked him why he was leaving. He told me that the whole woods was full of people armed with rifles, shotguns and pistols and they had been told to get out of the camp by 8 o’clock, because they was going to be an attack on the mine.
“Mr. Eustice and I turned around and drove back to the mines as fast as we could and notified the fellows at the office to get their guns ready, there was going to be a fight. Before we had time to get our guns loaded they opened fire from the Midland Valley railroad track between the mine and the schoolhouse. “
The battle had begun. The miners had moved into position behind the railroad embankment before daylight, a position that allowed them to fire from good cover across the front of the mine area. When the miners behind the embankment opened fire, it was the signal for other miners positioned on the ridge above no. 4 to also open up.
At around 10 o’clock 20 or so of the gun thugs and scabs decided they’d had enough. They took all the ammunition they could carry and made a break for the woods. They were promptly captured by the miners. Most were let go, but eight men were arrested by constable Slankard and his deputy D. Trout. The eight were marched through the woods toward Hartford with their hands tied behind their backs. As they walked an unidentified person came up and shot two of them dead. Slankard and Trout managed to keep this person from killing anyone else.
The mine guards that had stayed at no.4 ran out of ammunition around noon. They gathered everyone still at no. 4 and slipped into the woods to the east of the mine. The miners let them pass through unmolested to Midland. The miners then completely destroyed Prairie Creek mine number 4. They shut off the water pumps, flooding the shaft, wrecked all the machinery on site, and then burned down the coal tipple. Finally, they used dynamite to seal off the shafts.
In the end the only 2 known fatalities of the uprising were the 2 company guards killed in the woods by persons unknown. Mine superintendant Moore claimed that: “We did some very effective shooting and know there is a number of wounded and some deaths on the miner’s side.”8 However, no record exists of any of the miners even being injured, much less killed. Given the superiority of the miners position (under good cover and on the high ground), the fact that none of the guards who stayed at the mine were even injured speaks to the likelihood that the miners had no real desire to kill anyone. Their goal was to drive the company men from the mine, and in that they were completely successful.
Bache-Deniman again attempted to reopen the mines with scab labor in October of 1914. On October 29 over 3000 bullets were fired into the rebuilt Prairie Creek mine buildings. The mine guards had been warned of the attack and had barricaded the walls with sheet iron. Two deputy marshals stationed at the mine testified that the sheet iron had saved their lives, as the miners were “shooting to kill.”9 When a federal marshal from Fort Smith later arrested fifteen union miners believed to be involved in the attack, a group of 50 armed and masked men boarded the train they were on and made him free the prisoners.
Federal troops from Fort Sheridan in Chicago were called in eventually, but by the time they got there they had precious little to do. The miners had made their point, and after the destruction of the Bache-Deniman mines things quieted down considerably.
Pete Stewart was arrested on charges of murder, inciting a riot and violating a federal injunction. He was convicted of the last 2 charges and spent four months at Leavenworth.
The company filed a lawsuit against the United Mine Workers, seeking damages in excess of $2 million. The suit eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. It established the precedent that a national labor organization could be held legally liable for the actions of a local union. According to Sam Gompers the actual final settlement to the company amounted to slightly less than $3000. But the precedent was used as a pretext for the authoritarian centralization of power within many unions of the AFofL, including the United Mine Workers.
The Working Class Union
The workers organization that benefitted most from the uprising in Hartford was the Working Class Union . The Working Class Union was neither a political party like the SP, nor a traditional labor union like the UMW Formed in Louisiana in 1913, the WCU operated more like a guerrilla army. The WCU had come together after the defeat of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers in a strike in western Louisiana and east Texas:
“The BTW was affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World and hoped to include local tenant farmers and sharecroppers in its membership. The national leadership of the IWW, however, rejected the farmers as members because they were not true wage workers, although many held jobs in the lumber industry. In response, BTW leaders formed the Working Class Union (WCU) in 1913.”10 The national headquarters of the WCU was reestablished in Van Buren, Arkansas (across the river from Fort Smith) in August of 1914 (a month after the much publicized ‘”riot” at Prairie Creek).
The Working Class Union freely embraced violent retribution as a reasonable means of countering the institutional power of the bosses, and armed raids against landowners who treated laborers and tenants unfairly were accepted tactics. The no-nonsense approach of the WCU was extremely attractive to the sharecroppers, poor farmers and laborers of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Like the UMW the WCU did not discriminate based on race, and in some areas included equal parts black, white and native American working people. This is not to say that anything like social equality truly existed in the organization, as would later become clear in the events of 1917 known as the “Green Corn Rebellion”. Like all of the other socialist organizations of the era, the “race issue” was considered to be something that could only be resolved in a post-revolutionary world, and so was given little consideration in the present.
There were several thousand WCU members in Oklahoma, particularly along the Canadian River area, and there were also certainly many members in Northwest Arkansas. WCU members in Oklahoma had donated some of the funds used to purchase and ship firearms to the Hartford Valley.
To say that the events in Hartford had a dramatic effect on the local population is a safe assumption. The people of the area had no love for armed struggle, but they were not unfamiliar with it. There were still men and women living in the communities who could remember civil war times, when the area was a hotbed of pro-union and pro-confederate guerilla bands. Many families had stories of fleeing to the woods with the family cow to hide from armed men of one side or another. The presence of armed federal cavalry patrols only added to the sense of déjà vu. In the end the area proved such a fertile recruiting ground for the WCU that as many as a quarter of its highpoint membership of over 30,000 were from Northwest Arkansas.
Still, the closing of the mines, which would not reopen until 1918, was a severe economic blow to the area. Socialists were blamed for the loss of mining jobs. When the mines did reopen they did so as non-union operations, and in the countryside the secular preachers of a new egalitarian world were replaced by the burning crosses of a revived Ku Klux Klan.
If you go to the site where Prairie Creek Mine Number 4 once stood you’ll find no evidence that there ever was a coal mine there. The works were finally closed and the shaft sealed for good (by the bosses this time) after World War II. The type of mining that replaced mines like Prairie Creek #4 tore the sides out of mountains. The remains of these strip pits can be found all over the area.
Frogtown is an eccentric little collection of workers houses along state route 45. The residents know their village was once shot to pieces in a labor conflict, but the stories differ as to who did it and why.
The once-thriving African American communities of the area are gone, evidence of their existence reduced to the numerous “colored graveyards” out in the wild countryside. Living black people are as rare as socialists in Sebastian County today.
The miners uprising of 1914 is even less remembered than the “Green Corn Rebellion” of 1917. If remembered at all both are dismissed as the foolhardy acts of people out of touch with reality. That is one way of looking at it. Another is to see them as the heroic acts of men and women who believed a better world was not only possible, but actually worth fighting and dying for. What they may have lacked in sophisticated strategic analysis they more than made for in pure-hearted courage. And that on its own is worth remembering.
- Bissett, James (1999). Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside 1904-1920. (University of Oklahoma Press) p.7 [↩]
- Weinstein, James (1967). The Decline of Socialism in America 1912–1925. New York: Monthly Review Press, reprinted in 1969 by Vintage Books (Random House) pp 116-118 [↩]
- Eugene V. Debs, International Socialist Review, September, 1900 [↩]
- The Samuel Gompers Papers Project: http://www.history.umd.edu/Gompers/Bisbee%20Gregory%20notes.htm [↩]
- Green, James R (1978). Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest 1895-1943. (Louisiana State University Press) pp 283-284 [↩]
- Alvarez, H. G. (1983). Fire in the Hole: The Story of Coal Mining in Sebastian County, Arkansas. (South Sebastian Historical Society) p 38 [↩]
- Alvarez, p. 38 [↩]
- Alvarez, p. 52 [↩]
- Norwood, Stephen Harlan.(2002); Strikebreakers and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth Century America; (University of North Carolina Press) p. 159 [↩]
- Oklahoma Historical Society, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture: http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/W/WO021.html [↩]