Tent Colony of Lick Creek, Williamson
Located close to the town of Williamson, the Lick Creek tent colony was the largest, and one of many evicted miners settlements in Mingo County of southern West Virginia. During the summer of 1921, armed state militia, state troopers, and constabulary led by captain of state police, James R. Brockus and Major Thomas B. Davis to evict the unionizing miners of the temporary settlement and arrest them of their terrorist crimes.
Backstory and Context
In the early half of 1912, West Virginia was experiencing civil unrest in regards of the miners of the state wishing to unionize for fairer wages and healthier working conditions. During this time miners in the southern half of the state were paid by the coal operators with a company currency known as “script”. Once miners wished for actual pay it led to many armed conflicts in the state. Governor John J. Cornwell was under stress given that the majority of National Guard of the state were being sent off to WWI, and Cornwell was needing state militia to enact martial law upon the southern counties. The governor was able to issue three separate gubernatorial martial law proclamations that helped calm things as much as they could till June 1914.
With no state militia industrial violence and the slaughter of civility in the state, the governor had more than enough backing from state officials to form a constabulary. A state police bill was passed on March 29th, 1919 this would create what would be known as the “Department of Public Safety”. Jackson Arnold was appointed superintendent of this new department, but he faced issue with trying to find adequate members to form these new police forces. Over the next three years this would be a common occurrence with many of the miners in small towns striking out against the state police, Baldwin-Felts DA, and state constabulary. Captain of the state police, James R. Brockus kept most of the peace in all of Mingo County, especially during the three-day Battle of the Tug in 1921. With fear of more uprising to come Captain Brockus ordered for a meeting to issue anyone willing to wield a rifle will help him keep the peace in Mingo County. A Vigilance Committee was made of 250 vigilantes and, eventually, nearly 800 men to serve as acting state troopers.
When governor Ephraim F. Morgan took office, he was thrown into the turmoil that was befalling the state and issued that Mingo county under new martial law on May 19th, 1921, and stating that the county was further in “a state of war, riot, and insurrection.” He granted Major Thomas B. Davis to be the general of the state’s militia and his personal agent in Mingo County. Davis was given power and jurisdiction in every county and would be able to command and state or county officer he wished to. Captain Brockus would lead his own career’s demise when he would arrest A. D. Lavinder, a UMWA representative from Virginia, and brutally apprehend him in an ice cream parlor. He was arrested for carrying a pistol, even though he had permits granting him permission to have it, and was delivered to a prison in McDowell County.
Many miners who were now evicted from their company owned homes by the Baldwin-Felts agents were now creating tent colonies around Lick Creek and other rivers in the area. Major Davis traveled to Charleston to plea that the militia was being “too gentle” on the member of the colonies given their violence and resistance towards his men. Peace would be had for a short period of time from May till June 1921. On June 8th, colonists were sniping at cars when they would pass on a public road. Brockus and his troopers were fired upon after more shooting were reported in and led to the raid of their tent colony near Lick Creek. This led to 47 arrests of miners from the tent colony, but something interesting happened during the testimony. Davis, who accompanied Brockus during the raid, stated that he and his men acted accordingly and professionally when searching the camp, but the strikers stated that he and his men broke locks, plundered supplies, brutalized men, and assaulted women and children. On June 14th, 1921, A.D. Lavinder and other jailed members of the UMWA filed writs of habeas corpus. They stated that since the martial law proclamation exceeded the requirements of common and statute law, and probably violated the United States constitution, and that there were no official members of military service acting as the police force, the proclamation would have to be lifted and all arrests under it be set free.
Cole, Merle T.. "Mere Military Color": The State Police and Martial Law, West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History. July 1st 2003. Accessed April 8th 2020. http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs/wvhs1731.html.