The Night Riders
The Night Riders was the name given by the press to the militant faction of tobacco farmers during a popular resistance to the monopolistic practices of the American Tobacco Company of James B. Duke. On September 24, 1904, the tobacco planters of western Kentucky and the neighboring counties of western Tennessee formed the Dark Tobacco District Planters' Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee (called the Association or PPA). It urged farmers to boycott the American Tobacco Company and refuse to sell at the ridiculously low prices it offered. A more militant faction of farmers, led by David B. Amoss of Caldwell County, Kentucky, resorted to physical intimidation or burning the crops of those who ignored the boycott, finally targeting the tobacco warehouses of the ATC itself.
The Dark Patch Tobacco War (or the Great Tobacco strike) in southwestern Kentucky and northern Tennessee extended from 1904 to 1909. It was the longest and most violent conflict between the end of the Civil War and the civil rights struggles of the mid 1960s.
Originally known as the Silent Brigade, The Night Riders' were a vigilante force opposed to the American Tobacco Company because it priced tobacco so low that farmers could not make any profit from their work. The head of the Night Riders was David Amoss, a medical doctor and farmer. The American Tobacco Company had artificially suppressed the price of tobacco, nearly bankrupting many ordinary farmers. However, the violent tactics of the Night Riders (whipping, burning of warehouses, and seizing entire towns) caused to an inevitable confrontation with the Kentucky National Guard.
In April 1908 a National Guard force led by First Lieutenant Newton Jasper Wilburn launched a series of daring raids against the Night Riders' leaders. Most of the Night Riders eventually escaped justice, but Wilburn's actions restored law and order to the region. The Amoss House in Caldwell County is dedicated to the history of Dr. Amoss and the Night Riders. Other area museums house numerous artifacts and personal histories regarding the era of the Night Riders.
The major cause of the Dark Patch Wars was the drastic price reduction offered the American tobacco Company offered tobacco farmers for their crops. In the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, farmers had earned a profit of from eight to twelve cents a pound, more than enough for a comfortable lifestyle. That changed with the turn of the Twentieth Century, due to the creation of a virtual monopoly by the American Tobacco Company. With competition almost eliminated, prices dropped to an average of four cents a pound from 1901 to 1903. This was actually two cents per pound less than the cost of producing tobacco. Farmers were losing money by planting their crops. In some areas the price fell as low as three, two or even one cent a pound. The farmers formed the Planters' Protective Association to oppose the monopoly. Under leader Frederick Ewing's plan, they would grow tobacco, but store it in Ewing's warehouses until the market price increased. Ewing stressed that his plan would require the cooperation of all tobacco growers. Breaking the boycott was not allowed.
Planter’s Protective Association and its conflicts
The association was created in 1904 so farmers could sell their crop for a set price (originally set at eight cents per pound and two cents per pound over the cost of production). The Association would keep the tobacco in their own warehouses and pay the farmers when they sold its holdings. At the beginning between 70% to 95% of the population in the county was signing contracts to have their crop delivered only to the association (percentages varied in some regions). However in the first year of the Association it was unsuccessful, many non member producers and Association members ignored their pledges to the Association and undermined the attempt to meet the Tobacco Trust (Monopoly) on an economic basis, instead they chose to seek a personal profit since the Trust gave ten to twelve cents per pound in an attempt to destroy the Association. For example, in 1906 non-members were selling to the Trust at ten to twelve cents a pound while Association members were receiving seven and one-eighth cents. This failure also occurred in the 1920s by the Burley [Bright Leaf] Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. They also had a deep decline in the price of Bright Leaf Tobacco like the Dark Patch growers. Also similarly, they had a large number of voluntary membership expressed by a pledge by the growers saying that they would only sell to the Burley Association. The Burley Association would then keep the crop and sell it at an acceptable Price then use the money to pay the producers. This gave successful results, but it was followed by a decline in prices received by the Association and its members. In order to solve this problem a meeting was held at Stainback School House. At this meeting it was decided that some of the farmers belonging to the Association would become “Possum Hunters”. The Possum Hunters then were told to visit non-members to show them their way in groups (not less than five but not more than 2000). These nightly meetings eventually led to the violence of the Masked Silent Brigade (or the Night Riders).
American Tobacco Company (ATC)
The American Tobacco Company or the Tobacco Trust was one of the most sophisticated and highly financed industrial monopolies in the late 1890s. When the burley crop of 1906 and 1907 was boycotted by the ATC, farmers resulted to desperate measures. In the year 1908 over thirty-five thousand farmers in over thirty counties did not plant tobacco. This created a huge consequence since an entire year’s worth of crop was lost. Since there were drastic consequences the ATC agreed to the farmers demands in November 1908.
The Night Riders would attack individual farms and their crop. They eventually occupied whole towns and would destroy the Trust warehouses and machinery in the towns. Not only did they destroy the warehouses they also attacked individuals who supported the Trust. The Night Riders were known to be the most efficient association. It was in 1908 that the association had the most control, when they nearly had complete control of the Dark Lead tobacco crop. It is important to note however that the Night Riders received their success through violence and illegal actions. In order to protect themselves from the government, the Night Riders took membership into the governmental elite of the affected Dark Patch regions. By having memberships it allowed then to have control of machinery, the courts and officers of the counties and judicial districts. This was eventually stopped when attorneys for some victims began to move plaintiffs out of Kentucky to establish residency and qualify for suit in the federal courts that the Night Riders’ power in court was broken and they could be under the judicial process.
- Cunningham, Bill (1983). On Bended Knees: The true story of the Night Rider Tobacco War in Kentucky and Tennessee. Kuttawa, KY: McClanahan.
- Saloutos, Theodore (1939). "The American Society of Equity in Kentucky: A Recent Attempt in Agrarian Reform". The Journal of Southern History 5 (3).
- Waldrep, Christopher (1986). "Planters in the Planters’ Protective Association in Kentucky and Tennessee". The Journal of Southern History 52 (4).
- McCulloch-Williams, Martha (1908). "The Tobacco War in Kentucky". The American Review 37.
- Nall, James (1991). The Tobacco Night Riders of Kentucky and Tennessee. pp. 1905–1909.
- Millar, John G. (1936). "The Black Patch War". Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Newman, Christopher. "The Kentucky Dark Patch Knight Riders’ Rebellion". Elgin College.
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- Campbell, Tracy A. (1992). "The Limits of Agrarian Action: The 1908 Kentucky Tobacco Strike". Agricultural History 66 (3).