Peonage in West Virginia?

According to Google, Peonage is “a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work.”  Now don’t get slavery and peonage confused. They are similar things but, they are not the same. How are they different? 

Well, slavery was an act from the South based on skin color and nationality. But, Peonage was an act for any nationality or skin color. 

How is Peonage related to West Virginia History?

Peonage is a big part of WV’s history. Peonage was a big deal in the coal mines, mills, and log companies. But the coal mines were the biggest one, Big bosses of coal mines would make miners pay off their debt with hard physical labor. Sometimes the labor was so long and strenuous that it caused severe physical issues for the miners. Or sometimes it even killed them. A person can only be in the mines so long before the coal dust starts to affect their breathing. Coal miners and their families didn’t buy things from the store with real money because miners weren’t paid real money. They were paid token-type coins that they took to the store. These coins were used to pay for their bills, debt, groceries, clothes, and anything else needed. Back when this was a thing most women did not work, they were stay-at-home mothers or housewives. If a woman was working she was a cashier at a store, secretary, waitress, or she did little things like babysitting and seamstress work. So all the income came from the man or teenage boy of the household. This is what led bosses of the coal mines to get away with this for so long. If a man needed to provide for his family he would do anything necessary. 

Did Peonage Ever Stop?

Peonage was eventually outlawed in 1867 by Congress. But some southern black men were still forced to do forms of peonage for money or their freedom depending on the state they lived in. So peonage wasn’t completely over with until the 1940s. By then slavery wasn’t a thing legally and peonage came to a holt.  


Beckley expedition coal mine in Beckley WV