The Cornish Miners
Originally from Cornwall, Cornish miners like Matthew Penhallow and James Reskelly’s father played a critical role in opening the American West by providing the knowledge and experience necessary to extract the rich veins of gold, copper, and silver that lay hidden deep within the earth. When these men and their families came to America, they brought with them strong religious convictions, a great love for music, and a vivid imagination.
Where is Cornwall?
Cornwall is located on the southwestern tip of England on a large peninsula that divides the English Channel on the south from the Celtic Sea on the north. With contributions from the Celts, Romans, Angles, and Saxons, the land and its people have a rich and colorful heritage. The coastline is filled with tales of pirates, smugglers, and mermaids that dwell and hide among its coves and rocky cliffs, while the land itself is home to the legend of King Arthur. And deep beneath the earth, in mines that snake through the ground, one can sometimes see and hear the tommyknockers.
The Cornish Contribution to Mining
For many Cornish, mining has been a way of life for over a thousand years. Their forefathers picked tin and copper from the ground long before written history and by the 15th century, they had learned to harvest the ores buried deep in the ground. When gold and silver were discovered in the American West, the Cornish miners were ranked among the world’s greatest hard-rock miners. According to Thomas A. Rickard in A History of American Mining (1932, 248), the Cornishmen “knew better than anyone how to break rock, how to timber bad ground, and how to make the other fellow shovel it, tram it and hoist it.”
When the tin and copper mines failed in Cornwall during the mid-1800s, many Cornish men and women immigrated to the mining frontiers of North America. They settled in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, and Colorado. Called “Cousin Jacks” and “Cousin Jennies” in the new territories, these men and women brought with them words that became the standard language of mining: mine pits were shafts; horizontal tunnels were levels; tunnels connecting two levels were winzes and raises, depending on the direction they were cut; and drainage tunnels were adits. The miner’s candlestick and lunch bucket came from Cornwall, along with the Cornish pump that dewatered the mine and the miner's Code of Signals that enabled the hoister to communicate with miners below. More importantly, the Cornish miner brought expertise and an eye for new innovations. Many subsequent inventions made in the American mining industry were achieved by men of Cornish descent.
The Cornish and their Music
In the late-1800s, life in America’s mining towns was harsh and demanding, but the Cornish miners knew how to liven things up. Known for their love of music, they sang at church, in saloons, and at the mines. “Blackbirds and Thrushes,” the song overheard by Kathy Henley in Riddle in the Mountain, was a favorite among the Caribou, Colorado Cornish miners. In addition to singing, the Cousin Jacks found other ways to engage in music. They often formed brass bands to entertain each other and, in some of the larger towns, they built opera houses to attract professional performers, adding a touch of culture to the otherwise rough life of mining.
The Cornish Dialect
Wherever the Cornish went, they brought with them a distinctive dialect that baffled their fellow miners. As a result, many mining communities contained “Cousin Jack” stories poking fun at their unusual language and brogue. The Cousin Jacks often misused pronouns and verbs with phrases such “us don’t belong to she” and “her be some brave.” They also dropped or added h’s in certain words turning “here” into “’ere” and “ears” into “hears.” In addition, they had their own unique set of words. “Grass” meant the surface of a mine, a “bal” was a mine, and a “cobba” was a lout, or dispicable fellow. To understand all of their words, one would need a Cornish dialect dictionary.
One Cousin Jack story talks about a Cornish miner visiting the town doctor and complaining to the nurse:
“Es ‘ave a sore ouzel and can’t clunk.”
The nurse couldn’t understand what he was saying. Can you?
Rickard, T.A. 1932. A History of American Mining. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York.
Rowse, A.L. 1969. The Cousin Jacks: The Cornish in America. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
Thomas, N. G. 1998. The Long Winter Ends. Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.
Todd, A. C. 1967. The Cornish Miner in America. Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Washington.
The Contemplator’s Folk Music Website by Lesley Nelson-Burns. This is a wonderful site for hearing and exploring the traditional folk music of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and America.