August 27, 2008
If you have reached above your head to hammer a nail into a stud, then you have gained some understanding of the physical demands on 19th-century miners. By the time you drive a nail halfway through a two by four, you usually need to rest. Imagine using a 12-pound sledgehammer to drive a one-inch drill rod into rock above your head.
Cornish miners excelled at the work. They were generally short in stature but, pound for pound, they were mining machines. Every mining camp had Cornish miners, engineers and mill operators. Hardrock mining methods, equipment, contract labor systems and even mining terminology were imported to America from Cornwall.
Cornwall’s copper mines provided nearly all regional non-agricultural employment. The economic depression of the 1840s and competition from South American copper production resulted in massive unemployment. The Cornish joined Irish and other European emigrants seeking a new life in America. They were referred to as “Cousin Jacks” because wherever they found employment they would offer to recruit “cousin Jack back home.” In 1880 one third of Leadville’s population were immigrants. Less than 28 percent of the mining workforce of Virginia City, Nev., was native American; just as many were from Cornwall.
The lead mines of Wisconsin were the first to take advantage of Cornish hardrock mining skills. Once California shifted from placer gold panning to underground mining, Cousin Jacks joined the westward tide. Large numbers also moved to upstate Michigan to work in copper and iron mines. From the 1860s on, they found their way to Colorado’s precious metal mines.
Cousin Jacks were immediately employed by Western mine owners based on their reputation. Hardrock mining required a different skill set than coal mining. Miners were more autonomous under the Cornish tradition of contract mining. The mine owner supplied candles, timber and black powder; the Cornish miner supplied the labor and shared a percentage of the profits. Contract mining was popular in small- to mid-sized mines where the miner carried out diverse tasks such as tunneling, laying track, ore dressing, pumping water, timbering vast caverns and using explosives.
The Cornish brought mining superstitions that they passed on to others. They believed that bringing their mules to the surface on Christmas Day would bring good health in the coming year. They believed that their wee-folk, tommyknockers, would guide them to good ore and would warn them if danger lurked in the depths.
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Rivalry grew between the Cornish and other immigrant groups, especially the Irish. Mine owners in Montana used one group to drive down wages of all miners. Cousin Jacks were favored for the most skilled jobs and promoted their own, leading to disharmony among the less skilled immigrant workers. After the recessions of 1893, 1904 and 1907, many mine owners shifted from payroll to contract mining. Since contract mining was a Cornish tradition, unions held less sway with them.
When mines mechanized, especially the open pit copper mines of Arizona, demand for the skills of the Cornish miner diminished. Cousin Jacks became industrial laborers within large companies that no longer respected their unique skills. Meanwhile, labor unions tried to organize all miners to keep wages from dropping. In 1917, more than 1,000 miners were forced onto a train and left in the desert of New Mexico without food or water. On into the 1930s, you could not get a mining job in Arizona if you had ever been a union member.
The predominance of the Cornish below ground diminished as other immigrant groups took up the profession, but their underground traditions reigned. If the floodgates of immigration had not been used to undermine Cornish bargaining power, then towns like Aspen would have been inhabited solely by Cousin Jacks. Perhaps someone forgot to bring up the mules on Christmas Day.