Night Riders, Tobacco Wars, & The Equity

Oversimplified, the Night Riders grew out of the Black Patch Tobacco Wars, which took place in the western part of Kentucky from 1904 through 1911 or so, and quickly spread to the burley belt.  The American Tobacco Company developed a tobacco trust, or monopoly, and paid farmers less and less for their crop.  Because there was virtually no one else to sell to, “the Trust,” led by James B. Duke - remember that name - came to pay farmers less per pound than what it cost to grow. And there was no one else to sell it to. Duke got rich; farmers revolted.

 The Black Patch of Kentucky (and Tennessee) does not grow Burley (a.k.a. white burley), but a darker variety of tobacco that requires smoke curing.  The variety was - and is - grown almost exclusively in northwestern Tennessee, and the western part of Kentucky, just east of the Land between the lakes.  It's dark green to the point of being nearly black, hence the term “Black Patch” for the area where it's grown.

In response to the Duke Trust, the Black Patch farmers formed their own association – The Dark Tobacco Planters Protective Association – and agreed to simply not raise tobacco, or to raise it and not sell it. Neighbors were encouraged to boycott the trust.  Strongly encouraged.  Social pressures to join were enormous, and vandalism, arson, murder, and other violence was not unheard of.  The scraping or salting of the tobacco beds of the uncooperative was common. There were many instances of graves dug and left open. What few arrests were made were rarely brought to trial, and even more rarely resulted in convictions, although subsequent civil trials were sometimes successful. 

Night Rider attacks in both Hopkinsville, Ky., and Princeton, Ky. were remarkably well-organized onslaughts of military-like precision as hundreds of Night Riders moved in to town to guard police stations, barricade fire departments, and destroy switchboards before burning down Duke's full warehouses. They were reported to have been led by Dr. David Amos, who was one of the early organizers of the movement.

 You can read that the Night Riders were simply an outgrowth of the Ku Klux Klan.  That's wrong.  It is true that they adopted many Klan-like tendencies.  They sometimes wore sheets, burned crosses, and terrorized at night.  But their target was tobacco prices, not racial retribution.  Certainly, there were elements of the Night Riders for whom that was not true, but as a character in Robert Penn Warren's first novel, Night Riders, noted, “the good Lord never got any thousand or so men together for any purpose without a liberal assortment of sons of bitches thrown in.”

The Night Rider movement spread into the burley growing section of Kentucky, and, in the area covered by Northern Kentucky Views,we have documented burned barns or tobacco warehouses, or other destructive actions in at least Owen County, Owenton, New Liberty, Trimble County, Spring Lake, Alexandria, Carrollton, Covington, Dry Ridge, Walton, Richwood, Hathaway, Verona, Warsaw, Ghent, Sanders, Sparta, Harrisburg, Milton, Prestonville, Brooksville, Willow, Germantown, Mayslick, Maysville, Sardis, and Augusta.  Burley farmers formed the ASE, the American Society of Equity, a.k.a. “The Equity,” to oppose the tobacco trust.   In 1908, the Falmouth Outlook and the Boone County Recorder both ran a weekly ASE “society” column to keep readers up to date on ASE activities.  The Owenton News-Herald ran weekly front page stories for months supporting the ASE and the Carrollton Democrat urged farmers “Don't raise tobacco; raise hell.” The Equity decided to raise no crop in 1908, and was mostly successful in that effort. It's believed that Bracken County in 1908 didn't have a single stalk of tobacco come out of the ground.  We've read that Owen and Gallatin Counties, too, did not grow a single tobacco plant in 1908.

We find it a fascinating saga and there are several books on the subject. An excellent book on the subject is Bill Cunningham's On Bended Knees.  We recommend you NOT read Suzanne Marshall's Violence in the Black Patch of Kentucky and Tennessee.  Ms. Marshall's book roams far and wide, and seldom comes to terms the Princeton and Hopkinsville Raids, or even James B. Duke.  Mr. Cunningham has done thorough research and is very readable.  The ending will knock you out.  The classic work on the subject is James O. Nall's The Tobacco Night Riders of Kentucky and Tennessee, but it's from 1939, and, while the definitive work, can be hard to find, expensive, or both.

 James B. Duke, the monopolist, left a huge part of his fortune to Trinity College, which, out of gratitude, changed its name to Duke University.  So the next time you watch a Kentucky-Duke game remember this: it's just a game.  But if you had an ancestor raising tobacco in Kentucky between 1905 and 1911, Kentucky vs. Duke could be – literally - life and death.  And Duke was the bad guy. Go Cats.

PS: After James B. Duke became a tobacco czar, he put lots of start up money into a new-fangled business called an electric company.  Duke Energy?  Same guy.


You can read of many local incidents of the Tobacco Wars on the various town pages of our web site. Or, there's a search button on the home page.