122-Year-Old War Finally Ends in Tennessee…

Briceville School’s 13th Annual History Field Trip

Friday, 17 May 2013

Briceville students made history today by witnessing the signing of a treaty of peace to end the Coal Creek War.  State Rep. John Ragan signed the treaty on behalf of Gov. Bill Haslam and the State of Tennessee, whereas state Sen. Randy McNally assured us that the treaty would be ratified during next year’s General Assembly session.

The signing ceremony began with a performance of “Stars and Stripes Forever” by the Coal Creek Marching Band.  Students then learned how soldiers and convicts built Fort Anderson on Militia Hill as the base of operations of the Tennessee National Guard during the war with Coal Creek miners over the use of convict labor in the mines.

Senator Randy McNally signs the
Treaty of Peace to end the
Coal Creek War

Coal Creek Marching Band!

According to the Tennessee Blue Book, A History of Tennessee, “Violence in the coal fields peaked during the summer of 1892, when state militia were dispatched to the Coal Creek area by Gov. John Buchanan. The militia fought pitched battles with armed miners, arrested over 500 of them, and killed twenty-seven. The miner uprisings prodded the General Assembly to end convict leasing… making Tennessee one of the first Southern states to get rid of the system.” 

 The gang with dignitaries and newly signed treaty and installed plaque

Rep. John Ragan presents
signed treaty to Barry Thacker


Although hostilities ended in 1892, no peace treaty was signed.  That oversight was rectified when Rep. John Ragan, a retired Air Force pilot, announced, “I’ve talked to the Governor who says that the war has officially ended.”  Dignitaries signing the treaty included Sen. McNally, Rep. Ragan, Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank, County Chief of Staff Richard Burroughs, County Commissioners Tim Isbell and Jerry Creasey, as well as County Tourism Director Stephanie Wells.

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank
speaks to children on the importance
of their heritage and history

View the signed Treaty of Peace

Louisa Roldan & Bradley Phillips won
the Eisteddfod essay contest

In the tradition of the Welsh miners who settled Coal Creek after the Civil War, Briceville students competed in the 2013 Dixie Eisteddfod, which was won by Louisa Roldan and Bradley Phillips.  They received ceremonial chairs and $100 cash prizes. 

Briceville students then installed a plaque at the Militia Hill overlook of the town of Coal Creek (now Lake City) recognizing the listing of Fort Anderson on the National Register of Historic Places.  The festivities ended with a re-enactment of the final battle of the war where a miner stepped on a twig to arouse a sentry, which prompted the Tennessee National Guard to open fire on the miners with Gatling guns.  During the re-enactment, Austin sneezed to arouse the sentry, thus providing authenticity to the exercise.


Students installing National Register plaque

Image from Harper's Weekly
of Fort Anderson overlooking
the Knoxville Iron Company stockade

War correspondents from national news publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Harper’s Weekly chronicled the hostilities in Coal Creek in the early 1890s.  Quoting from one of those articles, “Do you know that soldiers of the Winchester Rifles (a company of the Tennessee National Guard) do not carry Winchester rifles, but Coal Creek miners do?”

Hostilities peaked during the summer of 1892 in large part because then-Governor John (Buck) Buchanan was running for re-election.  Daily articles in state and national news publications painted him as inept in handling the conflict.  Did Governor Buchanan send the bulk of the Tennessee National Guard to Coal Creek to end the fighting so the bad publicity would end?  

Photo of cannon on Militia Hill
during Coal Creek War

Click here for PDF of image

Buchanan lost his re-election bid to Gov. Peter Turney, who ran on a platform of ending the convict lease system.  Turney publicized the inexperience of convicts as miners, which had resulted in more than 130 fatalities at the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company mine alone.

Commissioner of Labor George Ford wrote about the inexperience and poor working conditions of the convict miners in an 1891 report that says, “At one place a gang of seven or eight convicts were gathered in the passageway, with their lamps suspended from their caps, and one of them handling a can of powder, pouring it out of the can in a dangerously careless manner.  It seemed as if a single false step might send the whole crowd to their maker instantly.”  

Governor Turney abolished the convict lease system by finding a more profitable alternative to convict leasing.  In 1893, he enacted legislation to build Brushy Mountain Mine and Prison in nearby Morgan County.  Coke ovens were built by the state to increase the value of the coal mined there and convicts were able to reduce their sentences based on how much coal they mined.  Convicts with mining experience worked in the mine and the remaining convicts operated the coke ovens or farmed the land to feed the prisoners. 

Unlike the convict lease system, the state-operated mine provided financial incentive to sustain safe working conditions for the convict miners.  The Brushy Mountain Mine continued to yield substantial profits for the state each year until it closed in 1938. 

L to R: Leann Tupper, Senator Randy McNally,
Richard Burroughs, Mayor Terry Frank

War correspondents Bob Fowler from the Knoxville News Sentinel and Chris Silcox from the Clinton Courier News documented the signing of the peace treaty at
http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2013/may/18/peace-treaty-signed-to-end-coal-creek-war/ and www.coalcreekaml.com/newsCour05192013.pdf  respectively.

Front porch shot at Cracker Barrel

Students were then treated to lunch at Cracker Barrel, before ending the field trip at Briceville Church, which was built in 1888 by Welsh miners.  The church and its cemetery were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.  The church served as a temporary jail for miners captured during the Coal Creek War.  

Prison and labor reform movements in the late 1800s fought the convict lease system because it was commonly used throughout the South as a means to break strikes by unions.  The mere threat of bringing in convict labor was enough in many cases to end a strike. 

Why were Coal Creek miners successful in ending convict leasing in Tennessee when others groups had failed?  We believe it was due to the close-knit relationship of the Welsh miners who gathered in Knoxville in 1890 and Chattanooga in 1891 for their Dixie Eisteddfod cultural festivals.  When fighting began, Coal Creek miners were able to draw support from Welsh miners in Soddy, Jellico, and southeastern Kentucky.

We have credited the Welsh miners for their contributions to ending convict leasing by including Welsh translations at selected locations in the treaty of peace.

What’s in store for next year’s history field trip?  Fort Anderson was not decommissioned until 1893 when soldiers became embroiled in the lynching of miner Dick Drummond at what is now known as Drummond Bridge.  The trip will occur in daylight hours only because Dick Drummond’s ghost reportedly haunts the bridge at night, looking for the soldiers who lynched him.     



HUGE Thank you to
Gary Tackett our
Sentry of Militia Hill
who volunteers to
maintain the beauty
of the area and
protect its historic

Well done, Gary!!

Anderson County
Commissioner Jerry Creasey

Anderson County
Commissioner Tim Isbel spoke
to us about hard work and history
and joined the Coal Creek Marching
Band with his kazoo!

Richard Burroughs
Anderson County
Chief of Staff

Rep. John Ragan

Anderson County Tourism
Director Stephanie Wells

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