Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend

Time Period
1877 to 1924
Media Type
Black History
Scott Reynolds Nelson

According to the ballad that made him famous, John Henry did battle with a steam-powered drill, beat the machine, and died. Folklorists have long thought John Henry to be mythical, but historian Scott Nelson has discovered that he was a real person—a nineteen-year-old from New Jersey who was convicted of theft in a Virginia court in 1866, sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary, and put to work building the C&O Railroad. There, at the Lewis Tunnel, Henry and other prisoners worked alongside steam-powered drills. In his book, Nelson pieces together the biography of the real John Henry. It is also the story of work songs, songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but also, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest. This lecture complemented the VMHC exhibition Organized Labor in Virginia. Scott Reynolds Nelson teaches history at the College of William & Mary.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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