Sunday, June 18, 2017

Family History, Western U.S. Labor History, and a Persistent National Sin?

This post will be a little odd, but that shouldn't surprise anyone, because I'm a little odd, as anyone who knows me will tell you.  Recently, a genealogical project in my own family's history--with which I still need assistance--led me directly across the path of one of our greatest and most persistent national sins.  What makes this sin so insidious is not only the effect it has on those it crushes, but the fact that many in our political and even Christian church cultures beleive it to be positive--even maybe indispensible--social good.

Before going into this evil, I will set forth my request for assistance in my genealogial progect.  I ask any of my readers to contact me who:

1)  Knows anything about a mine workers' union organizer named James McCutcheon (or a similar-sounding variant spelling) who probably was active circa 1880 to 1920 or 1930 in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and/or Oklahoma, and who may have had a son-in-law whose surname was Fletcher who was a miner and possibly also an activist in Colorado and/or New Mexico;   OR

2) Knows an active historian of the U.S. Labor Movement to whom they could refer me who has done work in western U.S. mine workers' unions of roughly the period 1880-1930; OR

3) The above failing, can refer me to the best published historical works on U.S.mine workers' unions of this period;  OR

4) Knows whether records of criminal prosecutions relating to union activity in central Scotland (Lanark?) from the 1871-1880 period would still exist.

To respond, leave a comment or email me here.

My recent genealogical work was triggered by a memory surfaced in my mind by one of the speakers in a Perspectives class I took at my church--an excellent class on missions on missions I would recommend to any Christian. The speaker caused me to remember what my paternal grandmother told me years ago (about 40 years ago) about her grandfather, "Jamie" (likely, James) McCutcheon.  Outside of the stories grandmother told me about her grandfather, the mine union organizer, and what I remember of one old newspaper clipping (now long lost) that was dated (if I recall correctly) around 1930 and published in Oklahoma, that my grandmother showed me a long time ago, no one who remains in our family knows anything about grandmother's family except that my grandmother's maiden name was Fletcher.  (Hence, the guess that Jamie McCutcheon had a son-in-law whose surname was Fletcher).

First, the stories.  Jamie McCutcheon was, according to my grandmother, a miner born in "Girnin," Scotland about 1848. No one in our family who has looked for "Girnin" has ever been able to find it, not even on 19th-Century maps.   Indeed, "Girnin" would be a strange place name.  Online Scots_English dictionaries say the adjective "girnin" means "complaining, groaning," and that the word is etymologically related to the noun "girn," which means "noose, snare, trap."  The only non-fictional place we've ever been able to find that even has the word "girnin" in it is the "Girnin Dug" in Lanark, a grieved dog-owner's now 180-year-old statuary monument to his martyred pet.  So it's possible that, when my 2nd-great grandfather Jamie told his grand-daughter where he came from, he described his occupation rather than naming his birthplace.   

At any rate, Jamie was a miner.  But Jamie was also involved in organizing mine workers' unions in Scotland.  This got him in so much trouble that he was "deported" (my grandmother's word) from Scotland sometime toward the end of the 19th Century. (No one remembers that grandmother ever said exactly when). This leads to a conjecture about Jamie McCutcheon's geographic origins.  I have been able to find a James McCutcheon who was born 11/10/1847 in Girvan (which sounds like Girnin), Ayrshire, Scotland.  The last record I am able to find of this James McCutcheon from Girvan is the 1871 Scottish Census, at which time he was single, living in Lanark, and working as a miner.  (Remember Lanark, the location of the Girnin Dug, and also the site of William Wallace's first battle?)  By the time of the 1881 Scottish Census, he had either died or left the realm.  So it sounds like my 2nd-great-grandfather may have been "deported" for union activities between 1871 and 1880, a time early enough in the British labor (or, there, labour) movement that union organizers were treated quite harshly.  Common-law outlawry, maybe?  So that piece appears to fit.  But I have no way to prove it, or to connect James McCutcheon of Girvan-then-Lanark to the U.S. or to my family.

When he came to the U.S., Jamie remained a miner, and remained involved in organizing unions.  This point was confirmed by that circa 1930 newspaper clipping grandmother once showed me, which honored Jamie McCutcheon, my great-great-grandfather, as one of the founders of a regional union which, by the time of the article, had become a District of the United Mine Workers of America.  I understood from the article that this union had originally been independent of the United Mine Workers of America and had included at least Oklahoma (where the article was published) and New Mexico, and had later joined itself to UMWA.  Perhaps it was a part of the radical Western Federation of Miners--although that union as a whole never merged with UMWA--or maybe my memory of that detail from the article I saw years ago is deficient.
Grandmother also had a lot of stories about how dangerous mines were back when she was growing up (she was born in 1901), how nasty the mining camps were, about low pay, poverty, corrupt company stores, corrupt company post offices--basically corrupt everything.  Two of her more memorable stories involved ham and the really mean-spirited way one strike was broken.  The story of the ham involved a group of families who got together some real money (a difficult thing to do in a mining camp, which paid only company scrip) to order some good-quality (not available at the company store) canned hams from Sears Roebuck for a holiday, only to have the company post office open all of the cans and pour in kerosene.  Grandmother's story of nasty strikebreaking tactics makes it sound like she may have been at Ludlow, though she never said that's where it occurred and she may only have been reporting what others told her.

With the Ludlow Massacre and Colorado Coalfield War of 1914, and the violent labor conflicts that preceded it in the mines from Idaho and Montana down through Colorado for more than 20 years, we reach the persistent national sin I previously mentioned.  This persistent national sin is thinking of certain classes of people as property to be used--and treating them exactly as a work animal or piece of machinery--and further expecting them to tamely submit to this treatment.  It is also corruptly placing the power of enforcement in the hands of their owners.  The United States formally abolished slavery as a legal form in December 1865, but very quickly thereafter expanded other legal mechanisms which permitted practically the same thing--except that the new all-but-owner of these human machines was 1) now usually a non-human person, a corporation and 2) was no longer responsible for the servant's life or well-being, though fully in control of the servant's life.  Witness: miner's camps, and other kinds of early-20th-Century company towns, usually had company-hired guards instead of police, and one of the major functions of the guards was to keep workers from leaving.   (Often, even if they did manage to escape, courts stood ready to send them back, to work off their debt to the company store).  

Why do I call this a persistent national sin? Company towns have also been abolished now. Because we have simply found new forms to keep groups of people "in their place," serving their "betters."  The number of "betters" has shrunk dramatically, and the number bound has increased.  The bonds have become less visible, but are still just as binding--e.g., no more company guards to keep people from running away, but an economy that is based on debt with no place to run away to (if you run, your debts will follow you).   And we are entering a period in our nation's history when it is predictable that much more power will be placed in the hands of the very few, with no one able to countermand them.  Think about it

On this same topic, I could also mention our treatment of "illegal" immigrants, whose exploitative labor we are tacitly willing to accept, as long as they accept the possibility that we may arbitrarily criminalize and deport them at any time and the certainty that we will do so if they ever object to their treatment.  This is not really greatly different from the big mining interests' importation of nonperson miners from Ireland, Scotland, and the impoverished parts of Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th Century.  

At any rate, considering the kind of situation in which my grandmother was likely born--a mining camp--it is not surprising that no record was kept of her birth.  She was just another working animal, and, as a female, was not considered a very useful one, at that.  Nevertheless, I am trying to put together my genealogy, and I'm proud of my grandmother, even if those in authority thought of her as an ox.  Oh, and, by the way, I'm human.

 Again, to respond, leave a comment or email me here.