On Halloween Night in 1891, Tennessee Miners Made Righteous Mayhem

The Coal Creek War was one of the largest insurrections in American labor history, with thousands of miners batting state troops to end the convict leasing system designed to extend slavery and undermine organized labor.

Illustration of a militant firing a gun from a "miner's nest."

On the night of October 31, 1891, hundreds of masked men burned down the stockades of the Tennessee Coal Mining Company and the Knoxville Iron Company. They set three hundred convicts free, dressed them in civilian clothing, and told them to “go and sin no more.”

What sounds like the ultimate Halloween prank was in fact a strategic act of rebellion, a pivotal moment in working miners’ monthslong campaign to end the convict lease system in Tennessee. Tennessee coal companies were putting prisoners to work in mines, simultaneously carrying on slavery through legal means and undermining the strike capacity of newly organized labor unions.

Historical marker commemorating the Coal Creek War.

What began as a small, isolated protest in a company town grew into of the largest insurrections in American labor history, with thousands of miners from eastern Tennessee and Kentucky facing off against armed state guardsmen and militias in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains.

The “miners have acted for themselves and have solved the convict problem with a vengeance,” wrote the Knoxville Tribune of the Halloween jailbreak. That statement was premature. It took five more years for convict leasing to end officially. Nevertheless the Coal Creek War, as it became known, gave the ruling class a fright.

Slavery by a Different Name

Scott County is a stubborn spot in northeastern Tennessee, most famous for its rejection of Tennessee’s secession from the Union. Shortly after the Volunteer State joined the Confederacy in 1861, the county voted to secede and create the “Independent State of Scott,” and was not technically reintegrated for over a century.

It was here in the State of Scott and neighboring Anderson County where the conflict over convict leasing broke out three decades after the Civil War. Local miners, many of whom were Welsh immigrants, had begun to win concessions from their corporate bosses in the 1890s, a decade when workers were agitating and striking for better pay and conditions across the country.

Free miners in 1892.

In the post-Reconstruction South, many former Confederate states were selling off prisoners — mostly former slaves and free blacks — to coal and railroad companies to work for free. Convict leasing was a perverse pact between the state and capital to break the power of organized labor and exploit a loophole in the law that ended chattel slavery.

“Most people think slavery ended after the Civil War in the South, but it didn’t because the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery except as a punishment for crime,” Barry Thacker, founder of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, told Jacobin. By 1891, six corporations used 746 convict miners, nearly 75 percent of whom were black Tennesseans serving terms for petty offenses under Jim Crow laws that put blacks in prison “for stealing as little as an eight-cents fence rail.”

The Tennessee Coal Mining Company (TCI) began using convict labor in mid-1891 after workers refused to sign a contract that would have paid them in scrip instead of cash. The company brass admitted as much. “One of the chief reasons which induced the company to take up the system [of convict leasing] was the great chance it offered for overcoming strikes. . . . I don’t mind saying that for many years the company found this an effective club to be held over the heads of the free Laborers,” said A. S. Colyar, an executive of the Tennessee Coal and Mining Company.

The miners refused to roll over. On Bastille Day of 1891, a few hundred armed miners and other community members surrounded the TCI’s newly built prison stockade, released forty inmates imprisoned there, and sent them on a train to Knoxville from Coal Creek without firing a shot.

On July 16, Governor John Buchanan, who had campaigned as a populist but had voted for the convict lease law as a state representative, responded by personally marching the convicts from Knoxville back to the stockades in the Coal Creek Valley with the state militia in tow. A few days later, the miners struck back by setting free more convicts in Coal Creek and Briceville after winning a surrender from one hundred troops stationed at the stockade there to guard them.

The miners passed a resolution on July 20 to be forwarded to the governor: “We struggle for the right to earn bread by honest labor, and in principle are opposed to that system of labor which may be invoked to our degradation.”

Some sympathetic observers didn’t expect the governor to budge. “For a long time the miners have been calling upon the governor, but he heard them not, for he had corporation cotton in his ears,” a newspaperman named Henry R. Gibson told a crowd on July 22.

A temporary compromise was soon struck. The miners would sit tight for sixty days if the militia would leave, and the governor would call a special session of the legislature recommending the repeal of the convict lease system. Meanwhile, an inspection of TCI’s mines by state labor commissioner George W. Ford revealed inhumane conditions for the convict laborers: awful food and clothing, poor ventilation, no hospital or washing facilities, and additional child labor under the age of twelve, among other violations.

Tennessee Coal President B. A. Jenkins countered by calling the inspection a political ploy and threatening capital flight. “If anarchy and communism is to be upheld by the courts and state officials, this state will be the sufferer,” he said. “Capital is not seeking investment where there is no protection for it, and where there is no capital there can be no labor.”

Tensions Boiling Over

The General Assembly sided with the coal bosses during its August 1891 special session, not only failing to end the convict lease system but expanding the system in other Tennessee counties, and allocating more money for the state militia so that it could be used to suppress the miners.

In September, the miners tried to appeal to the state courts. One convict working at the TCI mine was encouraged to apply for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that the mine was an illegal prison. The lower court ruled in favor of the prisoner, but the state Supreme Court reversed the ruling.

Defeated on both fronts, the workers called a mass meeting in Briceville on October 28. It became a call to arms, with “whites and negroes . . . standing shoulder to shoulder.” This was the impetus for the Halloween night march to the TCI coal mine to release prisoners and set fire to the stockade. Another 120 prisoners were set free at the Knoxville Iron Mine and two hundred at the Cumberland Mine in Oliver Springs on November 2.

Following two months of indecision, Governor Buchanan responded with a show of force, deploying a small army led by a Confederate veteran and a Gatling gun. Thirty days later, convicts contracted to work again at the mines and returned to the region.

Fort Anderson.

For seven months there was an uneasy standoff between the miners and soldiers. “All eyes in Tennessee were turned to Coal Creek,” according to Harper’s Weekly. Soldiers fired warning shots — sometimes cans filled with mud — from Fort Anderson atop Militia Hill into the nearby Coal Creek village. In the Tracy City area, a town southwest of Coal Creek, miners burned a stockade and sent 362 convicts on a train to Nashville. In retaliation, soldiers lynched a miner and left his body hanging from a tree.

The tension boiled over into violence on August 18, 1892, when miners charged Fort Anderson and managed to capture its commander. Militiamen and miners exchanged fire, and several of the workers were killed and two or three soldiers were wounded. The miners failed to capture the fort and were eventually arrested by over five hundred militiamen dispatched by the governor. It was the last stand in the Coal Creek war.

Camp on Militia Hill.

But all was not lost, noted Thacker. The miners “lost the battle, but not the war over convict leasing.” The Coal Creek War ruined Buchanan’s gubernatorial career; he lost to Chief Justice Peter Turney in 1892. Turney, who campaigned on the shamefulness of the convict lease system, signed legislation in April 1893 that effectively ended the practice. Tennessee became the first state in the South to do so.

Almost Lost to History

Until recently, this important history was literally buried under a pile of trash. Maps from the 1960s labeled the site of Fort Anderson on Militia Hill as the Lake City Trash Dump, as Coal Creek was first renamed Lake City and then Rocky Top.

When locals Barry Thacker and Carol Moore started the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation in 2000, they didn’t intend to dig up labor history. Their initial goal was to simply clean up the trash marring the natural beauty of the mountain stream. Over the last two decades, they’ve cleaned up the spot where the Coal Creek War was fought, obtained the land, and installed historical markers and replica cannons to show the weaponry that once fired cans of mud at villagers downslope 130 years ago.

Tennessee Hollow Camp.

Meanwhile, they successfully campaigned to make the Coal Creek War part of Tennessee’s social studies standards in 2013. The state’s board of education proposed removing mention of the labor struggle in 2017 — but public opposition led to the passage of the Tennessee History Act, which in 2019 began requiring state history, including the Coal Creek War.

Thacker says that all Tennesseans should know that slavery didn’t end in the state after the Civil War. “It ended with the Coal Creek War,” he said. And it was workers who ended it.