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Today's Economic History: 1847 Tredegar Iron Works Strike

J. R. Anderson: May 26, 1847:

To my late workmen at the "Tredegar Iron Works"

On Saturday last I received, by the hands of Gatewood Talley, information that you had determined by a mutual combination that you would not work for me again until I had discharged my negroes from the Squeeges & Puddle Rolls, where they have been working several Years, and until the Armory Iron Company had discharged theirs from the Puddling furnaces, and that the Puddlers and heaters required their pay to be increased.

I requested Mr Talley to say to you that I regretted that you had given up constant employment at good wages, always promptly paid in cash, but that I fully recognised the right of any individual to leave my employment at any time. At the same time I had no idea of relinquishing my right to discharge or employ any one at my pleasure.

That I had not designed to put Negroes to puddling at the Tredegar Works, but that now I should be compelled by your quitting my employment to do so, and that I had never intended to discharge any of my hands who did their duty. That, in reference to the price of Puddling, I had advanced the price two or three years ago when Iron advanced and when Iron fell last summer I might with propriety have reduced the Wages, but had not done so to this day. That the Heaters and Puddlers who complained of low wages could earn with ordinary diligence from $2.00 to $2.95 whilst the Rollers may earn from $3.00 to $5.00 per Day, and that I could not accede to any demand they had made.

I see no reason now to change this determination.

If I were to Yield to your demand, I would be giving up the rights guarantied to me by the constitution and laws of the state in which we live.

This I hope you will never expect me to do; and having heard nothing further from you since my reply was conveyed to you on the 22nd–Inst. I must infer that you do not intend to work any longer for me. I therefore give you notice that I wish all who occupy my houses to give me possession of them as soon as practicable and I have given directions for your accounts to be made out. I will waive all claims on account of the usual notice not being given and will in advance of the usual pay day pay each man all that is due to him as soon as he delivers to me the possession of his House.

Those who do not occupy my houses will be paid off tomorrow and all I have to add is that you will bear in mind that you have discharged yourselves. That I gave assurance before hand to two of your number Henry Thomas & Lott Joy that I would never discharge one of you who continued to do his duty to me and now having endeavored to do my duty as your Employer, I wish that you may, one and all of you, never regret that you have given up the Employment you had from me.

Your Obdt. Servt.

Richmond 26 May 1847

Virginia Memory: Tredegar Strike: "The Virginia railroad boom of the 1830s provided a growth spurt...

...for iron manufacturing in Richmond. Two iron foundries were established within close proximity in 1837 and they merged into the Tredegar Iron Works in 1838. The panic of 1837 froze railroad construction in Virginia, which forced Tredegar to find a new market for its iron. The owners of Tredegar hired Joseph Reid Anderson as the commercial agent in 1841 and he soon secured the federal government as a customer for Tredegar iron. Anderson was a former army officer who had been working as an assistant state engineer for the construction of the Valley turnpike. The turnpike project introduced Anderson to the Tredegar industrialists and to the use of enslaved labor for industry. Tredegar Iron Works had five slave laborers in 1841, but this number increased to seventy-eight by 1848. Flour mills, textile mills, government-funded projects, tobacco factories, and iron manufacturers used enslaved labor to keep the cost of production low.

As the nineteenth century progressed, industry's reliance on enslaved labor grew, bringing white workers into conflict with slaveholders and the enslave workers who competed for jobs. By 1847, Anderson was also president of the Armory Iron Company and was making moves to use slave laborers for the skilled positions of puddlers, heaters, and rollers. White workers, many of whom were either northern-born or European immigrants, objected because Anderson sought to replace them with slaves in key labor positions. At Tredegar and the Armory mills white puddlers, heaters, and rollers went on strike and Anderson responded by terminating their employment.

Urban industrial slavery provided slave owners with a steady income and manufacturers with a decreased cost of production. Many slave owners retained control over the hiring negotiations with employers, but some allowed their slaves to negotiate their own terms of employment. Negotiating the terms of their employment allowed enslaved people to receive cash payment for overtime work and to secure lodgings away from their employer. These perks created a sense of independence and increased the realization of self-worth among the urban enslaved. The money earned by the enslaved supported the growth of a cohesive community that fought against the oppression of slavery. In 1841, the enslaved and free black members funded the establishment of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond. Enslaved people also used their money to purchase freedom for family and community members, facilitating escapes, assisting the sick and the elderly, burying the dead, and donating to charities for the destitute. Living away from employers and masters also provided the enslaved with a better opportunity to learn to read and write. Anderson was unusual in that he kept strict control over his industrial slaves, not allowing them to live off-site. The independence enjoyed by many urban enslaved people instilled fear among some white Richmond residents, who believed that the urban enslaved had too much liberty, which undermined the institution of slavery.

Up to and during the Civil War, enslaved labor was critical to the southern economy. Richmond experienced population and manufacturing growth between 1800 and 1860 and the system of slavery provided industries with a stable, controllable, and cheap workforce. Financial independence and a strong community network better equipped the urban enslaved population to organize politically and socially once the peculiar institution was dismantled.

Suggested Reading:

Berlin, Ira, and Herbert G. Gutman. ‘Natives and Immigrants, Free Men and Slaves: Urban Workingmen in the Antebellum American South.’ American Historical Review 88, no. 5 (December 1983): 1175–1200.

Dew, Charles B. Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works. 2d ed. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1999.

O'Brien, John T. ‘Factory, Church, and Community: Blacks in Antebellum Richmond.’ Journal of Southern History 44, no. 4 (November 1978): 509–536.

Schechter, Patricia A. ‘Free and Slave Labor in the Old South: The Tredegar Ironworkers' Strike of 1847.’ Labor History 35 no. 35 (Spring 1994): 165–186.

Takagi, Midori. 'Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction': Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782–1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.