After the murders of labor union-sympathizers Sheriff Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers, on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, West Virginia on August 1, 1921, tensions were high among the miners of United Mine Workers (UMW) District 17. Hatfield and Chambers took part in the Matewan Massacre, a deadly shootout between union miners and private security forces hired by the coal mine operators to suppress union organizing among their workers. In response to their brazen murders, on August 7, 1921 the union miners submitted a list of demands to West Virginia Governor Ephraim Morgan in which they explained their grievances against the coal mine companies, especially the employment of the brutal and extra-legal Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency guards that routinely intimidated miners and suppressed their civil liberties. On August 17, Governor Morgan refused to concede to any of the union’s demands or even comment on the brazen murders of Hatfield and Chambers, let alone take any action against the Baldwin-Felts guards.
After Morgan announced his reply, union miners gathered in the small town of Marmet in Kanawha County, eight miles south of the state capital, Charleston. This was the second time during the mine wars that miners gathered in Marmet; the first time was during the strike of 1919 when union miners gathered to march to Mingo County in support of striking miners there. At that time, Governor John Cornwell, along with UMW District 17 President Frank Keeney, pleaded with them to return home, which most of them did. In 1921, however, thousands of armed miners traveled to Marmet, some arriving by riding on the tops of train cars.
As they gathered, Keeney gave a misleading interview to a New York Times reporter that he had “wash[ed]” his “hands of the whole affair,” thus giving the impression that the UMW District 17 had not sanctioned the meeting. The gathering miners wanted to avenge the murders of Hatfield and Chambers and free the union miners jailed under the martial law imposed on Mingo County at the time. Their planned stop on the march was in Logan County to confront—and possibly kill—Sheriff Don Chafin, who took money from the coal mine operators to enforce their interests.
Governor Morgan knew that the bloodshed would be heavy so, in an effort to suppress the striking miners, he dispatched state police to Mingo County and petitioned the government to send in federal troops. When Secretary of War Newton D. Baker declined his request, Governor Morgan asked Don Chafin to assemble a “home guard” to repel the marchers before they reached Logan County.
Even those who sympathized with the miners were concerned about the enormous odds they faced and some even sought to thwart the march before it began. One of these sympathizers was labor rights activist Mother Jones. On August 24, she traveled to Marmet where the miners were gathering and read a telegram that she claimed came directly from President Harding. The telegram told them to return home and that the president would “forever eliminate” the mine guards from the state. However, several of the men doubted the authenticity of the telegram and, in a move that would forever rupture their relationship, Frank Keeney called her bluff and announced to the crowd that the telegram was a fake. The march to the southern coalfields began that night.
Discover more resources on the West Virginia Mine Wars and related topics here: Resources on the West Virginia Mine Wars.