The Black Patch Tobacco Wars

Tobacco Warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky 1906

The Black Patch Tobacco Wars is the name given to a violent episode in American history that took place among 30 counties in southwestern Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee at the turn of the 20th century. The unrest was over tobacco and its prices, and about the way growers fought back against the corporate monopoly that was ruining them, and about the desperation of people faced with losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their heritage.

James B. Duke, Courtesy of Duke University

In 1890, James B. Duke (for whom Duke University is named, because he bequeathed his fortune to Trinity College on that condition) began building a monopoly controlling all tobacco purchasing and to that end he started the American Tobacco Association and the American Tobacco Company (ATC), which absorbed all of his competitors. By 1900 Duke controlled or had no-competition agreements controlling almost all purchases for US tobacco production, and his control was enormously damaging to tobacco farming families, especially those who grew Dark Fired tobacco, also known as black tobacco. That's how the Black Patch was named: It comprised the 30 counties where black tobacco could be grown at that time.

Duke was now the only buyer for the tobacco produced, and if a grower didn't like the price offered, there was nowhere else to sell the tobacco. The prices offered couldn't sustain the tobacco farms: At that time the cost of raising tobacco was six-to-seven cents per pound, but Duke paid only three cents for top-grade tobacco, two cents for mid-grade, and one cent per pound for the lower grades. Growers were going into debt for the privilege of working hard to raise crops. The ATC maintained its unrelenting squeeze until farms were being foreclosed upon and people were at or past ruination.

Resistance to the American Tobacco Monopoly

Desperate farmers began working together to force the Duke monopoly to pay reasonable prices. In 1904 they instituted the Dark Tobacco District Planter's Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee (PPA). They built warehouses for storing tobacco, the idea being to force higher prices. The Black Patch was the only place on Earth that grew Dark Fired, and if they could control the supply, store it, and withhold it, they would be able to bargain from a position of power. If Duke could have a monopoly, so could they. Other tobacco growers began to join.

The problem with this plan was that it required the cooperation of growers across all 30 counties. If some continued to sell to Duke, they would render the strategy impotent. Therefore, it was written into the charter that each member would use his strongest influence to enlist planters who were not members. Many farmers who chose not to join were coerced, and that coercion grew in violence to convince the more stubborn. Members of the PPA referred to the independents as "hillbillies," segregating them into a separate class to be looked down upon — until they joined the association.

Growers were going into debt for the privilege of working hard to raise crops. The ATC maintained its unrelenting squeeze until farms were being foreclosed upon and people were at or past ruination.

These were people on the verge of losing everything. They were desperate. That doesn't excuse the violence that came, but it does explain how that violence accelerated. People will do what is necessary to provide for their families, and it's easy to see the animosity that would have grown against those perceived as undermining economic survival. If you are storing thousands of pounds of tobacco representing your yearly income and are unable to sell it because neighbors and neighboring counties are selling theirs instead of holding it back for better prices, the situational pressure and resentment is hard to contain. Those who sold to Duke despite the Association found better prices because there was less tobacco available, while those who held their tobacco in storage had nothing.

Sadly, many lives and livelihoods were destroyed. The Association had been unsuccessful at raising tobacco prices because independent growers were still selling to Duke. The intimidation leveled toward those independents may have started with reasoning, but it grew into one of the most violent eras in American history.

Dr. David A. Amoss, Courtesy of Baccy Pipes

The origin of that violence was in 1905 with a group of 32 association members in Robertson County who formed the Possum Hunters Association. The most prominent and ideologically driven member was Dr. David Amoss, who was a medical doctor and a farmer. Possums are nocturnal, and this group intended to conduct its business at night as well, as directed by Amoss. They would visit independents in groups of no more than 2,000, as specified by their charter, and deliver stern but peaceful lectures. The entire purpose, however, was to intimidate.

Violence was inevitable. Historian Rick Gregory writes in The Tennessee Encyclopedia that the culture of the region was already predisposed to such violence: "Area residents had a long history of using group violence to redress real and perceived grievances. Indian warfare, several regulator and vigilante movements, guerrilla warfare during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and lynching had characterized the Black Patch history long before the onset of the tobacco war."

Inevitable Escalation to Violence

From the Possum Hunters movement evolved the Night Riders, which was a more violent secret arm of the Association meant to convince those growers who continued to refuse to join despite multiple attempts at reason. Gregory writes:

The night riders were organized into a secret fraternal society known as the "Silent Brigade" or the "Inner Circle" and structured along military lines. Dr. Frank Amoss, a physician from Caldwell County, Kentucky, reportedly led the order. Over the next few years, the night riders engaged in attacks on both property and people. They scraped or salted tobacco plant beds, destroyed tobacco in the fields, killed livestock, burned barns and warehouses filled with tobacco, dynamited farm machinery, and assaulted hillbillies and tobacco buyers. At the height of their power, the night riders staged spectacular night raids and captured entire towns. The Kentucky towns of Princeton, Hopkinsville, and Russellville suffered this fate.

The domination of the Night Riders over the independent growers was successful. The Night Riders, who numbered about 10,000 by the end of 1906, conducted nocturnal raids on horseback, riding in military-style columns, carrying torches, and they wore masks, hoods and robes. They muffled their horse's hooves with cloth and rode silently. Amoss ordered his men to destroy the property of non-Association growers, and to whip them and anyone else who failed to comply.

Salted fields, burned barns, beatings, and destroyed crops were devastating propositions, even harder to recover from in that era than they would be today. There was no legal redress. Growers joined because they believed in the cause, and those who didn't believe joined because they were afraid of the Night Riders.

The Night Riders, who numbered about 10,000 by the end of 1906, conducted nocturnal raids on horseback, riding in military-style columns, carrying torches, and they wore masks, hoods and robes.

Major Knight Rider Raids

Larger, bolder raids also occurred, the first in Princeton, Kentucky. The Night Riders occupied the police and fire stations, shut off all water into town, and took over the telephone and telegraph stations. Hundreds of men rode into town in the dark, firing rifles at anyone who tried to emerge from their homes or turn on lights. They soaked the J.G. Orr Tobacco Factory with kerosene,loaded it with dynamite, and reduced it to ashes. They did the same to the Steger & Dollar Warehouse before they rode out of town singing, having destroyed about 75 tons of non-Association tobacco.

Newspaper Headline, Courtesy of The Museums of Hopkinsville

Hopkinsville was next, and after months of planning, the Night Riders raided the town in December of 1907. About 250 masked and hooded men marched into town in the night, again taking over the police and fire stations, as well as all communication offices, leaving the town unable to send for help. Riders would ride their horses up and down the streets, firing rifles at any light that came on. They vandalized businesses. A buyer for a tobacco company was dragged into the street and beaten.

They burned two tobacco warehouses, and those fires became uncontrollable, spreading to homes and even to one of the Association's own warehouses. This raid motivated the Governor to activate the Kentucky Militia.

Racism began to become a part of the raids in 1908 in Russellville, Kentucky. A hundred men took over the jail and demanded four Black prisoners, all sharecroppers. They were in jail because they had voiced approval for another sharecropper who had killed a man in self-defense after being shot in the back. He had been sent to another town for protection, but the four men who verbally supported him were taken from the jail and lynched, all hung from the same tree. Lynchings were already part of the cultural history of the area, and the additional unrest of the Tobacco Wars magnified additional crimes of racism.

There was no legal redress for farmers. Growers joined because they believed in the cause, and those who didn't believe joined because they were afraid of the Night Riders.

During a raid on Dycusburg, Kentucky, the Night Riders burned another tobacco warehouse as well as a distillery and dragged two men who refused to join the Association into the street for public beatings. These weren't simple beatdowns that people easily walked away from. One man was tied to a tree and beaten with branches from a thorn tree. It was a better fate than the sharecroppers of Russellville had suffered, at least.

Another raid in 1908 was on Birmingham, Kentucky, where Night Riders fired into the homes of Black workers as a warning not to work the fields of non-Association growers. A Black man and his grandson were both killed by that gunfire. White workers had heeded the message of the Riders and already refused to work non-Association fields, but the Black population had less choice about where to find work. Some were dragged from their homes for beatings in the streets.

Downtown Reenactment, Courtesy of The Museums of Hopkinsville

Response by the Kentucky State Guard

While the toll in human suffering was high, the Night Riders successfully maintained tobacco prices at reasonably profitable levels until the advent of the First World War. But the carnage and suffering could not continue to be tolerated. The Kentucky State Guard began a series of raids in 1910 to arrest those Night Riders who could be identified, and although they were not easy to find, more and more informers came forward, and the era of the Night Riders was over. While most of those arrested evaded conviction, order was restored. Dr. Amoss was acquitted of charges in 1911 and moved to New York City, where he practiced medicine until his death in 1915.

However, a trial in the Supreme Court in 1911 was more successful, finding that the American Tobacco Company was a monopoly and that it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. It was ordered to dismantle, and the Duke tobacco monopoly ended.

Today's Tobaccos

As we enjoy our fragrant tobaccos smoldering in our wonderful smoking instruments, it's difficult, perhaps, to reconcile such peaceful enjoyment with the terrible violence of the Tobacco Wars. But tobacco has been an important crop for the US, representing enormous sums of money, and where money is involved, corruption follows. It may be beneficial for us to remember what the tobacco growers who provide our favorite leaf have endured over the centuries, though those who committed heinous acts during the Night Riders era cannot be forgiven, especially those who used the emotional turmoil of the time to commit the most obscene crimes of racism.

The pressure that continued to build in this southern culture as the livelihoods and survival of people were being stolen was manifestly untenable. Like many other groups in history, had they been allowed to make a living at a reasonable wage, they may not have permitted themselves to devolve into pursuing their basest instincts. Where there is desperation, there is irrationality.

Thankfully, tobacco production has become more reasonable, and the blends we smoke are no longer accompanied by a background of violence. We can smoke peacefully, but it wasn't always this way. Remembering the history of our favorite pastime may occasionally be uncomfortable, but it's part of how we reached this modern era when our pipes are no longer ghosted by the suffering of those who labor on our behalf.


Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History Tobacco


    • Johngo on October 31, 2020
    • Good post!

    • D. on October 31, 2020
    • Very good history lesson, I did not know the history of Duke. I appreciate history more now than when I was in my teens. There are the obvious 3 poisons at work here in this history: Greed, Anger, and Ignorance...well, obvious to some. Thank you, sir.

    • Nathan Gilbert on November 1, 2020
    • It was Trinity College, a small Methodist college, that Buck Duke endowed --NOT "Liberty"-- and I believe old Buck is still smoking his cigar in front of the Duke Chapel to this very day

    • pipeguyaz64 on November 1, 2020
    • Nice read. File away in the "who knew" mind folder. Always interested in learning about how we, and things, got to where we are now.

    • Joseph Kirkland on November 1, 2020
    • A great article. KUDOS.Robert Penn Warren’s novel, Nightrider covers this period in Kentucky.My Grandfather was an under sheriff in Obion County Tennessee and during this period he chased Nightriders from the tobacco wars and the problems around Reel Foot Lake in Tennessee. I grew up to my Grandmother’s stories about the Nightriders and carrying a double barrel shotgun to put clothes on the clothesline or to get eggs from the henhouse. I’m told she kept a fire poker in the fireplace with directions that if a stranger knocked on the door, she was to stick the poker in his eye and ask questions later. It was a dangerous time in western Tennessee.

    • Leo Gonzales on November 1, 2020
    • Interesting. Thank you for sharing. It’s important to know and understand our history and learn from our mistakes

    • Phil Wiggins on November 1, 2020
    • Unions Great Happy A!!!

    • Paul Schmolke on November 1, 2020
    • Interesting to know the history of that time, sad that it involved my very favorite tobacco. Growing up in another part of the south in the 50’s and 60’s I was witness to another era of violent discontent that affected a large part of our population. Nothing the average boy could do but wait and watch. I’ve since moved far away in part because of this sort of public nastiness. In my 70’s now I’m happy to sit back and enjoy some dark fired that was born of a more peaceful time and place. I’ll likely be reading more on the era that’s so well described in this brief but informative essay. These historic pieces are always worth reading even though they may describe some rough times from our past.

    • Andy Camire on November 1, 2020
    • A fine piece of Tobacco history here Chuck. Thanks for the informative history lesson. Something I had never read about before. As usual the small farmers come out on the short end when dealing with the big guys. God Bless the farmers.

    • Tad on November 1, 2020
    • Very well written in a short read. Thank you. I truly love reading about our nation’s history. Sometimes it’s not to pretty but we have to endure the hardships to get where we are now.

    • Lucky_Felix on November 1, 2020
    • James B. Duke: the Monsantos of the 19th century...

    • Corey on November 1, 2020
    • Great article, thanks for sharing the history!

    • DAVE SOMMER on November 1, 2020

    • Adam Nordskog on November 1, 2020
    • Interesting.

    • Michael Cherry on November 1, 2020
    • Chuck;Thank you for the history lesson. Well done!Your Obedient ServantMike

    • Fred Neslage on November 2, 2020
    • Very enjoyable and informative article Chuck. I can’t believe the violence and killing that went on in Kentucky and Tennessee during this period. The part about James Duke really got my attention.

    • Daniel Agosto on November 2, 2020
    • Thanks for letting me be a part of this.

    • James.zhang on November 16, 2020
    • Face up to history and reflect on it so that this will never happen again in the future.

    • Rondy Reeves on November 18, 2020
    • Somehow I’ve managed to make it to 42 without ever hearing of this before. Such a fascinating article!! I’m gonna have to read up some more on this.

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