West Virginia
Historical Society

Membership Information

January, 2003


Fred Barkey, Ph. D.

Dr. Fred Barkey is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall University Graduate College and a well known author on West Virginia History topics.

One of the most dramatic struggles in a year of great labor upheavals took place in the coal fields of southern West Virginia in 1912. The Cabin Creek-Paint Creek Strive was in many ways a, small civil war. Full scale battles between miners and Baldwin.Felts detectives raged through the hills along the creeks and three periods of marital law were required to maintain the peace. Because the strike was initiated by rank and file miners, many of whom were Socialists, the press had a double reason for dubbing the incident a "rebellion of West Virginia Rednecks".(l)

One of these rednecks. Brant Scott, a justice of the peace, recently elected on the Socialist Ticket, testified before a United States Senate Subcommittee - which was looking into the causes of the strike. In response to allegations that the radical strike leaders were from outside the district or were the local foreign element, Scott testified that 90% of the striking miners on the two creeks were native Americans and that a great many of them belonged to Improved Order of Red Men, the oldest fraternal organization in the United States. He should know, Scott explained, because he was the Chief of Records of the Algonquin Tribe, #74 which had its wigwam at Mucklow (now Gallagher) on Paint Creek. (2)

More than fifty years elapsed before historians began to examine the kinds of issues suggested by Brant Scott's testimony. Following the lead of British scholars like Alfred Thompson and Eric Hobsbawn, American historians have enlarged traditional labor history by moving beyond chronicling spectacular strikes or institutional trade union development toward a concern with other dimensions of working class life. These scholars have argued very persuasively that research should focus on such factors as the changing nature of the job itself and the whole fabric of working class community life. An important, yet little examined, dimension of the latter is the role which fraternal organizations played. (3)

The little work which has been done to date on the impact of the fraternal lodge in working class communities suggests that they were an important vehicle in helping to socialize- the workers to the discipline and ethics of the new industrial order. A recent study of the Odd Fellows stresses that this lodge provides a classic example of an American voluntary organization which reduced alienation by bringing together men from different classes in an atmosphere and ritual which stressed diligence, discipline, sobriety, and success by individual effort.(4) By contrast, it is the purpose of this essay to suggest that the Improved Order of Red Men proved adaptable to those coal miners in West Virginia who stood for a radical approach to the problems being created by industrial capitalism.

Most coal mine camp communities of any size and virtually all nearby incorporated towns has a surprising number and variety of fraternal organizations. For instance, in the lower end of Fayette County, West Virginia which was essentially populated by coal miners in 1910 there were ten lodges of Masons, thirteen chapters of the Order of American Mechanics, six each of Modem Woodmen, Knights of Golden Eagles, Modern Mechanics, and thirteen Tribes of the Order of Red Men.(5) Some of these organizations were little more than benevolent societies of the type which workmen had formed before the Civil War to provide a decent funeral or tide members over in case of temporary unemployment or other emergencies. However, many lodge halls like those of the Red Men could more accurately be described as partial substitutes for familiar neighborhoods and extended family relationships which were being fragmented by the forces of modern industrialism. Fraternal Lodges also served as training ground where workers practiced many of the skills needed to sustain other organizations that would aggressively challenge a new industrial order.

There is much in the origin and development of the Improved Order of Red Men that may have made it the most comfortable lodge for Socialist miners and other radical workers in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields. The Red Men trace their origins to the decade or so prior to the American Revolution when patriotic groups of mechanics and merchants in several colonies formed secret councils generally known as Sons of Liberty whose purpose was to oppose British mercantile policies. In 1776, the Sons of Liberty in Annapolis, Maryland took a more formal structure which they called Tamina Society after a Delaware Indian whose exploits had become legendary. In part, Tamina was chosen as the native American contrast to the old world symbols used by newly formed Maryland Tory groups. As an early Red Man's song put it:

Of Andrew, of Patrick of David and George

What mighty achievements we hear

While no one relates great Tammiment's Feats

Although more heroic by far, my brave boys,

Although more heroic by far.(6)

The Tamina or Tammany Society idea spread during the Revolutionary War and early years of the American Republic. The society saw itself as the guardian of the aims for which it felt the Revolution had been fought. It opposed trends which the lodge considered monarchial and elitist. Plans that surfaced around the attempts to create a new American Constitution in 1787 were causes for alarm. The proposed ideas of the election of a president and congress for life and idea of wealth as the main qualification for public office were vigorously opposed. Moreover, the creation of an officer only Revolutionary War Veterans Organizations like the Order of the Cincinnati brought a large number of recruits into Red Men's Lodges. (7) By contrast, Tammany Halls were places where Jeffersonian political types and causes found willing recruits. (8) The Red Men apparently saw themselves as protectors of those being exploited by the special interests who were now running the Government In this regard, the Red Men took special pains to dramatize the causes of the American Indian. For example, the New York Society in full regalia escorted Alexander McGilvry, a half breed Creek, and two chiefs of that Indian Nation down Wall Street to Federal Hall to protest the unlawful seizure of Indian land. (9)

By the mid 1830's the Tammany Society bad been reconstituted as the Improved Order of Red Men. This process involved not only the creation of a more formalized organizational structure, but also the pulling together of the Lodge history and belief system into a reinforcing ritual and tradition. The ferment of the romantic reform movement of this period helped to intensify many of the basic values held by the Red Men. To take but one example, the concept of the noble savage as a symbol of freedom became firmly embedded in lodge tradition. John S. Skinner, the Grand Incohone, said in his "long talk" (Presidential address of 1810), "Its (Red Men) symbols are properly borrowed from the Aboriginal Americans whose state presented a model of perfect freedom, if not primal innocence and affection.''(10)

The romantic, democratic egalitarian tradition embraced by the Red Men was also evident through official interpretations in initiation ceremonies. On more than one occasion, it was pointed out that there was a areat deal of misunderstanding about Indian government. Power did not rest with the arbitrary will of the chiefs, but upon all adult warriors who had an equal chance to help decide the laws. Equality, as an ideal, was emphasized to the new initiates. "All men are made equal by the Great pleased him to make difference among men, but is wrong for one man to exalt himself over others."(11) There is evidence that such ideals were not just ritual clap trap. At the very time when the South was closing its collective mind on the slavery issue, the Charleston, South Carolina Order of Red Men stated that no person owning or holding a slave could be admitted into their organization. This restriction appears to have been the only restriction on membership which was apparently open to all those "who would present themselves sincerely."(12)

The origins, symbols, and ritual of the Improved Order of Red Men often made their Lodge Hall and its activities an important adjunct to miners' struggles to organize the southern West Virginia coal fields at the turn of the century. Interviews with surviving Red Men indicate that the Lodge Hall could be used for union organization meetings in order to get around coal company prohibitions on such gatherings.(13) Interviews also indicate that the mutual aid aspect of Redmanship was transferable to the entire community through its efforts in helping to establish cooperative stores. (14) Most intriguing of all, oral history suggests the importance of the Lodge's pageants as a potential propaganda vehicle.

Not nearly enough is known about the less formal activities of fraternal groups like the Red Men. It would appear that in some cases the Red Men's pageants were simply occasions where the members of the tribe could don Indian regalia for the benefit of themselves and their families. In other instances, the pageants took on the look of elaborate folk drama that could become occasions to identify current labor problems with historic struggles for American rights. For instance, when a Red Men's Lodge near Oak Hill, West Virginia was reenacting the Boston Tea Party, one of the signs carried in the drama read "Down with the Tyrants King George and Samuel". The latter tyrant was none other than Samuel Dixon, the President of the New River Coal Company. Similarly, the Minewa Tribe of Winifrede, West Virginia and the Lackawana Tribe of Charleston used their pageants to protest conditions during the so-called "long ton strike of 1908".(15)

Sometimes a pageant turned out to be more exciting than the Red Men intended. Dave Tamplin, a life-long resident of the Kanawha River town of Boomer, West Virginia, remembers just such an incident. The drama, which was staged on an open bottom area close to the river, began when Princess Pocahontas was kidnapped by the "Great Evil Spirit" and his braves. The kidnappers were pursued through the hills behind the town by good Indians who fired blank cartridges to let the audience know of the progress of the chase. A short stop in a saloon at the head of the hollow apparently caused several of the "good Indians" to reload their guns by mistake with live ammunition. The fun really began back on the river bank as Dave Tamplin recalled:

"When the good guys began firing at the bad Indians who were about to burn Pocahontas at the stake, well, a couple of the kidnappers fell down and began howling like crazy. I recall that folks near me in the audience commented on what tremendous acting talent some of the boys had. Well, before it was over, seven or eight had been shot. The only thing that saved them from getting killed was that the good guys with live ammunition had drunk so much that they couldn't hold their guns too high and everyone that got shot was hit below the knees. Well that was the end of the Red Men around here." (16)

The riverbank massacre may have killed off the Red Men Wigwam in Boomer, but the general patterns in West Virginia was one of rapid growth. Between 1910 and 1918 the members of the tribes more than tripled so that by the latter date there were at least ninety tribes with a combined membership of over two thousand.(17) This growth paralleled the development of a militant unionism and a rising popularity of Socialist Party politics. That fraternalism and radical unionism could go hand-in- hand is no surprise to anyone familiar with the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. The point of this essay is that such an integration did not necessarily die out with the demise of the Knights. In many places, it may well have been an important part of a multifaceted struggle by workers to control the course of industrial transformation. Certainly, this is enough evidence to warrant a closer examination of the evolution of this important dimension of American working class life.


1. Frederick A. Barkey, "The Socialist Party in West Virginia From 1898 to 1920: A Study in Working Class Radicalism", (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Pittsburgh, 1971), 133-139. Fred H. Merrick, "The Betrayal of the West Virginia Red Necks", International Socialist Review, July 1913.

2. U.S. Congress, Senate, 63rd Congress, 1st Session, Committee on Education and Labor, Conditions In the Paint Creek District. Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, Washington, 1913,3 vols, vol. 1,483-490.

3. E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class. (London, 1663); Eric Hobsbawn, Primitive Rebels and Social Bandits. (Manchester, 1959); Hobsbawn, Laboring Men. (London, 1964). Some important innovative works in recent scholarship in America's labor history are: David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans 1862-1872; Montgomery, Worker's Control; Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America. (New York, 1946); David Brody, Steelworkers in America: The Non-Union Era, (Cambridge, 1960); James R. Green, The World of the Worker. (New York, 1980).

4. Brian Greenberg, "Worker and Community: Fraternal Orders in Albany, New York, 1845-1885", (paper delivered at University of Bridgeport History Conference, 1978); see also Green. The World of the Worker. 29.

5. The Gazeteer, 1910-1912

6. Carl R. Lemke, ed., Official History of the Improved Order of Red Men, (Waco,.Texas, 1964), 153-162, 188- 194. Allegedly William Penn had purchased significant parcels of land from Chief Tammany; Thomas March, Pennsylvania History. (New York, 1915), 83; S.J. Buck, The Indian Walk. (Pennsylvania, 1849).

7. Ibid., 161-165.

8. Roger Butterfield, The American Past. 81; John C. Miller, The Federalist Era. (New York, 1969), 118- 122.

9. Alexander McGillivray was of Scottish, French and Creek background and was Chief of both the Creeks and Seminoles and was the first Indian Chief to visit an American President. See Reginald Horsman, Expansion and America's Indian Policy l783-1812. (Michigan, 1967); Francis P. Trucba. American Indian Policy in the Formative Years, (0ctober.l970); Red Men's Official History, ch. IV.

10. Official History, ch. II, 185, 249.

11. Interview with Charles Houck, Uniontown, Pennsylvania, March 23, 1977. Mr. Houck has been a Red Man for forty-nine years and is currently an active member of the White Stone Tribe. He is an excellent source on ritual and other fraternal activities of the Order.

12. Official History, 355,388.

13. Interviews with Sylvanus Goff, April 18, 1967, Gatewood, West Virginia; A.D. Lavender, July 25, 1968, Gatewood, West Virginia; Fred Smith, August 28, 1969, Clendenin, West Virginia. (The latter two interviews will be accessible through the Marshall University Oral History of Appalachia Collection.)

14. Interviews with Duff Scott, February 23, 1968, Chelyan, West Virginia; and A. D. Lavender.

15. Interviews with Sylvanus Goff, Homer Martin, August 178 1968, Gatewood, West Virginia; H. Lee Rhodes, June 6, 1968, Gatewood, West Virginia; Mrs. Fred Bosher, May 18, 1971, Winifrede, West Virginia.

16. Interview with Dave Tamplin.

17. "Smoke Signals", vol. 5, number 6, December 1968, Elkins, West Virginia, (published by the Seneca Tribe).

West Virginia Historical Society

West Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History