“Welsh in Coal Creek” history lesson at Briceville School
(The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree)
17 March 2005

Briceville 4th and 5th grade students learned about their Welsh roots during a history lesson at the school.  The Welsh were tolerant of all minorities because of the way they were mistreated by the English before immigrating to America.  They also cherished education and built schools and churches when they arrived in the Coal Creek watershed after the Civil War.  The Welsh miners from Coal Creek and many other states celebrated their heritage by participating in annual eisteddfod cultural festivals and literary competitions.

Briceville Church built by
immigrant Welsh coal miners


Briceville 4th grade students,
Mr. Phillips and Miss Davis,
learned they have
Welsh surnames

When convict miners were brought to Coal Creek to work in area coal mines, the Welsh miners were able to seek help from their fellow miners in other parts of Tennessee and other states because they communicated with them on a regular basis as part of their annual eisteddfod cultural festivals.  Their tolerance of all minorities explains why they were so motivated to abolish the use of convict labor in area coal mines during the Coal Creek War.  By that time, the convict lease system had become corrupted to the point where primarily African-Americans were being arrested for petty crimes and sentenced to work in the mines.  Such treatment was reminiscent of the way the Welsh had been mistreated in Great Britain.  Their tolerance of all minorities also explains why the Welsh allowed most of the African-American miners killed in the 1902 Fraterville Mine disaster to be buried in Welsh Cemetery in the Wye Community of Coal Creek.
Thanks to the schools built by the Welsh, all the children in the community had the opportunity to learn to read and write.  That’s why when miners were trapped in the mines after the 1902 Fraterville Mine explosion and the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine explosion, so many of them could write farewell messages to their families before suffocating underground.  Those messages were printed in newspapers around the world, raising public awareness of the dangers of early 20th century coal mining, and starting us down the long road toward safer working conditions for miners today.


Farewell message of Jacob Vowell


Coal Creek miner David R. Thomas
who donated his father Rees R. Thomas' rare Welsh book collection to
Harvard University Library

We know so much about the Welsh and local Coal Creek mining history due to the writings of the Welsh.  As Dr. Eirug Davies from Harvard University told students last year, the person recognized for preserving the most Welsh books is Rees R. Thomas, a miner from Coal Creek, Tennessee.  His rare Welsh book collection was donated to Harvard University in the late 1800s by his son, David R. Thomas, also a miner from Coal Creek.
Our guest lecturer for the history lesson about the “Welsh in Coal Creek” was Dr. John Kesterson, the great-great-grandson of Rees R. Thomas, and the great-grandson of David R. Thomas.  Dr. Kesterson graduated from the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt Medical School before serving as a surgeon for the Army in Europe during World War II.  He practiced his profession in Knoxville for many years and was recognized as one of the most respected surgeons in East Tennessee before retiring in 1991.

Dr. John Kesterson tells his Welsh family's
Coal Creek story while Barry shows the
New Testament with columns of Welsh and
English writings to one of the students


Page from the New Testament with
both the Welsh and English text

Dr. Kesterson gave examples to students of the importance of a good education, regardless of your chosen profession.  He also told them a story about how an African-American doctor was being considered for recognition as a founding teacher at a local hospital.  One of the other doctors opposed including an African-American in the select group, but Dr. Kesterson convinced the others to include him.  Although 150 years separates Dr. Kesterson from his roots in Wales, he still maintains the Welsh traits of cherishing education and supporting all minorities.
Students also learned the details of the 2005 Eisteddfod Literary Competition.  They will be writing poems and essays about the Coal Creek miners.  The winner will receive a $100 cash prize and will be recognized at a traditional Welsh ceremony to be held as part of the Coal Creek Miners’ Festival in Lake City from May 19-21, 2005. 
Click on image to enlarge:


Dr. Kesterson's great grandmother
Prudence Levi Thomas


Bible of Rees R. Thomas published
in 1804 written in Welsh language

Class instruction


Ms. Carroll's 4th grade class


Mr. Woods' 5th grade class

Clinton Courier article, "Backbone of an industry"

Lake City Elementary 4th and 5th graders get Coal Creek history lesson

Coal Creek Eisteddfod Literary Competition, May 2005

Courier News article about Sister-Schools -- 16 March 2005

Coal Creek Sister-Schools in Wales

Fred Brown's Knoxville News Sentinel article about the occasion

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