West Virginia is known for its coal industry.
But that wasn’t the first mineral extracted from beneath its rugged landscape.
Salt holds that honor, although many have since forgotten its importance.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the role of slave labor in this early industry has also been lost in time and history.
Booker T. Washington, famed African American activist best known for writing about his climb out of slavery and work to establish the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, spent part of his boyhood here working alongside his stepfather.
Just nine years old, Washington and his brother helped with the heavy job of “packing” salt into barrels.
And that work often began “as early as four o’clock in the morning and continued until dark,” according to state Division of Culture and History records.
Didn’t know that? You’re not alone.
There is some good news. A new festival is slated for next month to highlight this industry as well as folks who labored in it, including slaves.
The inaugural BB&T Malden Salt Fest will be held Oct. 6-8 in Malden at the J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works. It will kick off with a dinner for descendants of anyone who was involved in the industry.
Family matters there, then and now.
J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works bills itself as a “7th generation salt-making family that harvests an all-natural salt by hand, from an ancient ocean trapped below the Appalachian Mountains of the Kanawha Valley.”
Owners Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne returned to their family’s 200-year-old farm to harvest this salt, and are eager to share this area’s history with the public.
Saturday will include a parade, as well as assorted cultural activities such as lectures, films, music and dancing.
There will also be re-enacting of the salt making of the original settlers, and tours of the family-owned company’s facilities.
A service will be held Sunday at the African Zion Church in downtown Malden with gospel singing.
The Springhill Cemetery will be open for tours of the grounds where salt makers and their descendents are buried.
Salt might not seem important today, but that wasn’t always the case.
Ironically, state settlers weren’t the first to appreciate this valuable natural resource.
Wildlife, including deer and buffalo, would travel to a natural salt spring along the Kanawha River that became known as the Great Buffalo Lick, according to state geologists.
That same spot, located near present day Malden, was also frequented by Native Americans.
State geologists say the Shawnees “boiled brines in a kettle in order to obtain salt to carry back to Ohio.”
History tells the rest of the story which includes boom days in the so-called Kanawha Salines after the first salt furnace was erected in 1797.
Within a decade or so, drilling went deeper and that allowed companies to tap into even richer brine.
By 1815, there were 52 salt furnaces operating there and a co-op was formed to help regulate the growing salt industry.
It reached its peak in 1846 by producing approximately 3.2 million bushels that year.
At that time Kanawha County was one of the largest salt manufacturing centers in the country.
Not unlike coal, salt extraction efforts were dirty, dangerous work and the worst jobs often fell to slaves.
Leased slaves were brought to the area from nearby states like Virginia where there was a mature market for these individuals, according to Charleston native Cyrus Forman, who has spent years researching the salt industry’s use of slaves.
Growing up in the Kanawha Valley, he lived within a few feet of a former salt mine site.
That helped spark an interest that previously included work with the U.S. National Park Service on New York City’s ugly urban slave history, and now includes work on his doctoral thesis about state salt slaves.
As the term “leased” implies, contracts were signed between slave owners and those wishing to use them in the salt fields when demand was up.
“It’s hard to match labor supply in a dangerous industry to cyclical fluctuations. But if you use leased employees you don’t have to sink all of your capital into the ownership of slaves. But you can instead look at market demands each year,” he said.
Don’t look for this term (or even the use of slaves) in state history books, however.
“This is something that West Virginia has deep historical amnesia about,” he said.
“I think part of the reason is the false narrative about our statehood that imagine’s West Virginia as pure from slavery while it was part of Virginia.”
Study suggests labor exploitation didn’t begin with coal mining.
The first salt well was drilled with a combination of free and also slave labor.
“In 1808, the Ruffner brothers knew there was brine on their father’s farm and they began sinking hollowed-out gum trees into a sort of muddy area on the banks of the river. They joined the hollowed-out logs together to form kind of a pipeline with a drill on the end.”
“The names of the white people working there are given, but we don’t know the names of the slaves who were forced to work alongside them.”
Diaries from the time tended to make only vague references to “the boy, the man or the Negro” when in fact these individuals were slaves according to other documents.
Time didn’t help.
“And also once you understand the role of slavery in West Virginia’s salt industry and the salt industry itself, it makes it clear that the violent exploitation of labor in the state’s resource industries was something that didn’t begin with coal or chemicals,” he said.
Even now it’s tended to be a disturbing, thus mostly uncovered, topic.
Simply stated, using slaves was an intentional decision because it was the most economical and slavery was a profitable venture, he said.
Not talking about it has been a “desired narrative” but the facts speak for themself.
“Between 1,000 to 3,000 people were enslaved in the Kanawha Valley on an annual basis.”
“By the 1820s, the industry was in full swing and around that time you had about 1,500 people. When the industry peaks in the 1850s, you had about 3,000 to 3,200 people enslaved,” he said.
“When you think about that it is a really massive number. The 12 largest slaveholders in Virginia, to get into that category, you had to own 150 slaves. So the salt industry here contained in aggregate 20 times more than the entry level for the top 20 slaveholders.”