The story of the night riders began with James Buchanan. His family and he began W. Duke & Sons Company, a company that bought tobacco and sold it in commercial forms. However, it was under James direction that this company became the American Tobacco Company.
He led this company into a world monopoly of tobacco products by 1900. Duke avoided political interference very easily at first, with Cunningham stating that, "Many times the company would own the interests and subsidiaries, yet allow them to operate ostensibly independently while maintaining their name and personnel and keeping ownership a close secret" (16). The company had control over every facet of the business except the actual growing of the tobacco. Yet, Duke s only concern was for profit. In his search he and many people associated with his company became extremely wealthy. In his search for profit, he forgot the growers of his product.
The lack of competitive buyers for the tobacco dropped prices drastically. In 1904, It cost farmers an average of six cents a pound to break even. However, in that year farmers who were accustomed to receiving eight to twelve cents a pound were receiving two to three cents a pound. This was caused by the American Tobacco Company, or the Duke Trust, as its enemies called it.
Dark tobacco was only grown in a section of western Kentucky and western Tennessee called the Black Patch. The farmers in this area could not break even. Tobacco was their only legitimate cash crop and the generally uneducated people of the area knew no other way of life. Because of the agrarian nature of this area the whole economy relied on tobacco.
Many farmers lost their land or went hungry or were forced to move. The television documentary On Bended Knees stated it best, "There were sellers of tobacco and there were buyers of tobacco. By 1904, the American Tobacco Company was the only buyer, the only game in town." It was the dark tobacco grower that would begin the rebellion against the Duke Trust. The most important person of the revolution was Doctor David Amoss, who was born in a small Caldwell County community called Cobb. He was a very bright student when he was young and he followed his family s profession into medicine. Yet, he held a fondness for the military and may have chosen it as a career if it was not for the bitterness left behind by the recent Civil War.
Dr. Amoss grew to be a small but handsome man of a very amiable disposition. He was well respected both in the medical community and in his living community. He had many hobbies, among them sharp shooting, and it was widely assumed in his area that he could do whatever he put his mind to. He was also a generous man, he never turned down a needy patient who could not afford his services and he would wait until harvest for the farmers to pay him. Dr.
Amos noticed the wrongdoings of the Duke Trust and it angered him deeply that the big businessmen were taking advantage of the people in his area. Another very important person in the trust resistance was Felix Ewing of Adams, Tennessee. He was an aristocratic farmer. He came up with an idea in 1893 that was basically, "Since the Duke Trust monopolized the buying market through consolidation, why couldn t farmers monopolize the supply" (Cunningham 46). He did not act on this idea until 1904. He called a meeting on September 24, 1904, in Guthrie Kentucky for all of the angry tobacco farmers that wished to attend.
Over five thousand farmers converged at this small town for the day long meeting. From this meeting came the Dark Tobacco District Planter s Protection Association of Kentucky and Tennessee, better known as the Association. Its purpose was to withhold tobacco until prices were reasonable. The Association would work to sell its members tobacco.
It would require about ninety percent participation of farmers for it to work. The members of the new association recruited new members with religious zeal. They were supposed to encourage full participation by all of the farmers. Some short-sighted farmers refused to join the Association. They became known as hillbillies. Many business men took the side of the Association to gain favor with the persons who made up most of their customers.
Many of those refused service to non-Association members. The trust had huge warehouses of tobacco so it could wait a long while before it was even necessary to purchase more. It offered non-Association members a premium price. This made the Association members feel betrayed by their neighbor. The Association persevered through 1906 with much hope for change but nothing to show for their efforts.
Then the next level of the rebellion against the trust happened. The Possum Hunters were born, with Dr. Amoss as their leader. This initially nonviolent group rode at night after their farm work was done to strongly encourage the hillbilly farmers to join the Association. These farmers were, "impatient, strong-willed and angry men.
And they were all religious men, Baptists, Methodists, and Church of Christ, reputable and with upstanding untarnished positions within their community" (Cunningham 54). The groups were often in dangerous situations because of their numbers and the hour of their calling. Occasionally the visited hillbilly would face them at gun point and heatedly tell the groups to leave. It soon became apparent that more action was necessary. From this necessity came the Night Riders. They were the unofficial militant arm of the Association.
Dr. Amoss was in charge of this group. They were secretive, disciplined, and determined to bring the downfall of the Duke Trust. "The order was conducted as a militant organization under the active direction of a General and a lieutenant commander" (Nall 53). Each member took an oath on the Bible of allegiance and to maintain the secrecy of the members and their forthcoming actions. They also agreed that any breach of this oath would be punished as severely as death.
The Night Riders would wear masks, travel in armed groups, and often pad their horses' hooves for quietness. The masks "were meant to disguise one s identity, and was not an elaborate costume" (Campbell 112). They persuaded the disagreeable hillbillies through a strong warning or beating to join the Association. If this was not enough, the hillbilly s barn full of curing tobacco was burned or his plant bed in the spring was killed.
There was fear that if an illness would happen in one's family that Dr. Amoss might not come to the aid of a hillbilly. This was an understandable fear, but an unfounded one. He never mixed his practice and his Association allegiance. The Night Riders reign of the night went without reciprocation. This was because most of the sheriffs and judges all were at least passively involved.
Even if a Night Rider was arrested and sent to trial the jury would have too many Association members or sympathizers to get a guilty verdict. Some of Dr. Amoss best staged plans occurred in Princeton, Kentucky; a town of about one thousand people. There were two of the Trust s tobacco warehouses there that were full of newly bought hillbilly tobacco. An anonymous letter was sent to the warehouses insurance company to drop their coverage. They wisely did.
Around midnight of November 30, 1906, the masked Night Riders invaded. First came the ones on foot. They were in squads of six with each squad assigned a different job. They took over the police station with little resistance.
Another squad took over the telephone and telegraph offices and cut the lines. Still another squad simultaneously took over the fire station and cut off the city's water supply. As these men on foot finished their assignments the next wave of men came, over two hundred men on horseback. The horses' feet were covered to allow them to go unnoticed as long as possible. However, the horses's north began to wake people. When they turned on their lights the riders shot out their windows and commanded the people to stay inside.
They quickly burned both warehouses. The men on foot left. When the last of them were gone the horsemen left in different directions. It was perfectly executed with no one being killed. The Duke Trust lost the money it spent on the tobacco, lost the warehouses, and lost the tobacco, with no insurance.
The next attack was at Hopkinsville, Kentucky; a city of ten thousand people that had an active state militia on guard since the Princeton attack. This was undoubtedly Dr. Amoss best showcase of his leadership abilities. It was carried out on November 20, 1907, with the precision of an army. No one was killed during the attack, but one Night Rider was killed in the chase a small posse made. They burned one huge Duke Trust warehouse and trashed a newspaper that sided with the trust.
Dr. Amoss was superficially shot in the head. This wound enhanced the loyalty of his soldiers. The attack was reported all over the country and was usually grossly exaggerated. It was even reported in the New York Times.
A reward of five hundred dollars was offered for information leading to the conviction of any Night Rider involved in the attack on Hopkinsville. None were convicted. Many other towns were raided between 1907-1908. Among them were Eddyville, Golden Pond, Russellville, Dycusburg, Hazel, Mayfield, and Rock castle.
The effect on the Duke Trust was now being felt. The attention that grew from this was noticed in Washington. On November 7, 1907, American Tobacco Company was declared a monopoly by the New York Court of Appeals. This ruling was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. It took until May of 1911 for the court to uphold this ruling.
The Night Riders had already caused the prices of tobacco to rise before this time; thus, completing their goal. Many of the members of this secretive group were later tried in court, some were found guilty, some were not. However, they were Americans who stood against their oppressor. They were undaunted by the power of their opposition. The Night Riders achieved their goal of having their livelihood restored. Campbell, Tracy Alan, Ph.
D. The Politics of Despair: The Tobacco Wars of Kentucky and Tennessee. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Service, 1988. Cunningham, Bill.
On Bended Knees. Kuttawa: McClanahan Publishing House, Incorporated, 1983. Nall, James O. The Tobacco Night Riders of Kentucky and Tennessee. Kuttawa: McClanahan Publishing House, Incorporated, 1939. On Bended Knees.
Narr. Phil Brower. Prod. Bradley David Kimmel. KET. Bay Horse Productions, 1994..