A host of tall, dark, Welsh great uncles with strange names dart in and out of my childhood memories. Even my mother and her siblings had names no one around us had ever heard of: Nila, Nova, Hillous Gwen, and Veachel. It wasn’t until I grew to adulthood, went to library school, and dabbled in geneology that I learned the origin of those names, and how these particular Celts wound up in Kentucky.

Family lore has it that the first Rather in America was given a land grant by King William IV of England, Queen Victoria’s uncle and immediate predecessor. This may have been a reward for serving as a soldier in one of England’s many wars, or a favor granted by the monarch to a loyal subject. Apparently, he couldn’t do much with his land in Virginia because he died in the poorhouse.

It’s hard to turn a soldier into a farmer.

Most of his descendants moved westward with the land tide that swept the continent in the early 19th century.  My ancestors stopped in Kentucky. Others moved on to Texas, the birthplace of newsman Dan Rather, my ????th cousin. A slight change in pronunciation occurred along the way: we pronounce it RATH-er (the th is breathed), while they pronounce it Rather (the th is hummed, as in “Would you rather have beef or fish?”).

Many of the Welsh immigrants who came to Appalachia were miners, and this region needed them badly. When coal was discovered, the hilly, tree-covered landscape was forever changed. America needed steel to build railroads to ship people and goods westward, and coal was the only abundant fuel that burned hot enough to make it.  The coalfields fed the steel mills in Pennsylvania, which would, in time, also feed the automobile factories of Michigan.

Coal was a vital commodity for the expansion of a young and ambitious country – a country that also had a steady supply of immigrants to provide the labor. Because there was a glut of labor, the mine owners paid them a pittance, housing them in company towns and charging them for everything they consumed.

It was, essentially, prison labor.

Conditions in miners’ houses were disgraceful.  As they were so close to the mines, coal dust seeped into every crack and crevice. People woke up with rings of soot around their nostrils. The wives worked constantly to battle the dust, to little avail.  Money was tight and clothes were often made from flour sacks. New, “store-boughten” clothes were the stuff of daydreams: as one woman remembers, “Babies were the only new thing we ever got!”

John Sayles’ excellent film Matewan relates the true story of the attempts of mine workers in West Virginia to form a union for better pay and conditions, and the subsequent massacre that resulted.

In the film, there are three basic groups of miner families: Black; White (mainly Welsh immigrants); and Italian – also known for their mining skills. A very old joke says that they had little racial strife because when they came up out the mine, they were all the same color.

When they move out of the company town into a tent city, they try to communicate with and help each other despite their obvious cultural differences. Starvation was a real possibility with the prospect of no pay.

An Appalachian woman hands an Italian mother some wild bulbs and says, “These is ramps.  They put a taste in your food.” The Italian lady stares in astonishment at what she holds in her hand.

I still smile when I think of this priceless intercultural exchange – a West Virginian giving garlic to an Italian.

Cultural and oral historians have been hard at work preserving the history of coal in Appalachia. West Virginia University Libraries (libguides.wvu.edu) have put together an educational multimedia experience called “Mountaintop: Coal Mine Wars in West Virginia.” It includes oral histories, videos, music, and written documents.

Here is an excerpt from one of the oral histories, relating how the unions got started:

Hit was very hard when they tried to get it, they had to meet in various places, sort of in secret, til they got everthin a-goin. Then the coal companies would fire em, they would put em out of their homes. They had people working in the union, though, working for them, then later they would turn back to the union; they seen the union was right.

The history of coal mining is the same as that of every industry, worldwide, that has spawned one or two billionaires at the top: monopolize the industry, exploit the workers, punish any action that threatens your supremacy, and reap the rewards – all with the government’s blessing and assistance.

Wales and Appalachia share many physical and social characteristics. According to Helen M. Lewis, writing in the Appalachian Journal:

The industrialized coal mining areas of South Wales and Central Appalachia share several common features: similar mountainous environments, histories of rural subsistence agriculture, small village settlements and industrialization based on coal mining. Both areas have been described as internal colonies, peripheral to industrial centers, and both have experienced similar under-development, social and economic problems, and poverty programs designed to alleviate their distress.

We’ve all heard tales (or seen them in movies and on television) of the “mountain men” of the region – fiercely independent, recognizing no governmental authority (particularly the “revenuers” who wanted to tax their good corn liquor), and not afraid to point a gun at anyone who tried to make them part of a world to which they didn’t belong and could scarcely understand.

Some of their descendants are still making intoxicants illegally, but these days it is usually meth, not moonshine. After coal mining declined in the region, whole communities were thrown out of work and into depression. The legacy of chronic hunger, intergenerational poverty, and substandard education lives on in the children’s children; it is alive in the very dirt.

This is another similarity with Welsh coal mining villages. Tom Hansell’s book, After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales, now also a documentary, relates how the decline of mining has affected both areas. The After Coal Project “seeks to bridge former Appalachian and Welsh coal mining communities.” The transition away from fossil fuels is painful, but necessary to the survival of our world. Sudden transition, however, throws people off balance.  Hansell, through sharing the stories of coal families in both regions, shows that we can work together to help their world stop spinning.

Between 1994 and 2014, Appalachia lost 20,000 mining jobs. Between 1980 and 1990, Wales lost 20,000 mining jobs. The 1984-85 UK miners’ strike was a direct result of the mine closures and job cuts. Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ever eager to reduce the power of labor unions, led the charge against Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers. After six deaths and over 11,000 arrests, the strike (the largest since the general strike of 1926) ended in defeat for the workers and significantly weakened the labor movement in the United Kingdom.

No person of Welsh descent will ever forget the 1966 tragedy of Aberfan, when an overlarge slag heap (about which the colliery bosses and the National Coal Board had been warned repeatedly) slid down the hill onto a schoolhouse, killing 116 children and 28 adults. The Netflix series The Crown portrayed this event and Queen Elizabeth II’s reaction to it with stunning sensitivity. When the entire village begins to sing over the mass grave, you can hear every note of human sorrow and grief, blending in tight harmony and floating up to the heavens. Similar mining tragedies have occurred in Appalachia, but none that killed so many non-miners. It remains the foremost example of the danger of placing profit ahead of safety.

The Welsh, in common with Appalachians, are indeed strong, scrappy, independent, hardworking, and intolerant of intolerance. They have a lovely lilting accent and brook no nonsense. I saw a lot of these qualities in the ancestors I remember. They were also funny, musical, and communal – “If you’re here, you’re one of us.” We could do worse than look to our cousins across the pond to find the roots of our own nature.

Just like digging in the dirt for farming and gardening, mining has connected us both to the earth. ~Story by Lisa Karen Miller