In 1927 Charles C. Spencer, an African American living in Salt Lake City, Utah, sent Guy Johnson two long letters detailing his witnessing of John Henry's contest and death in Alabama. Slowly, and with much assistance, I've been finding out more about Spencer. I believe that some of it is relevant to the transmission of the legend.
1870 Born John Matthews, 05Dec, at Spencer's Store, Henry County, Virginia*
1879 (fall)-1880 (01Jun) Father, Houston Matthews, died
1880 "At school," but did not read or write
1881 Mother remarried, 15Dec, to Jake Watkins
1887 20Sep Carrying water and tools for steel drivers on the C & W
including John Henry Dabney
at Coosa Mountain Tunnel, Dunnavant, Shelby County, AL
"under the care of a white man, the young Master of my people"
Saw John Henry's contest and death
Knew a great deal about John Henry
1887 (late) or ca 1888 Went with crew, including John Henry's wife,
to Mercer and McDowell Counties, WV, to work
in the Elkhorn Tunnel (original, not present-day)
1888+ Worked with John Hardy in McDowell County, WV
1894 19Jan Witnessed hanging of John Hardy at Welch, McDowell County, WV
1900 Coal miner in Bell County, Kentucky
Known as "Charles C. Spencer" by now and for rest of life
Could read and write
1910 Hod carrier in Denver, CO
Married to Lucile since ca 1901
Elected first-degree minister, Second Church of the Brethren, Denver
Second Church was a "Negro mission"
1915 (ca) Now second-degree minister and pastor, Second Church
1920 Coal miner in Mohrland, Emery County, Utah
Non-union, a scab
Still married to Lucile
1922 24Dec Shot and killed Pleasant Jackson during card game
1923 20Feb Began serving life term at Utah State Prison, Salt Lake City
Known as "Sugar House" prison
1926 20Nov Sentence commuted to five years
1928 18Feb Released from prison
1930 Boarding in Salt Lake City
Landlady: Lula V. Stevens
"Crane man" in a factory
Probably Griffin Wheel Company, where he later worked
Still married but not living with Lucile
1932 Becomes pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Salt Lake City
Preaches many sermons and funerals
Active in NAACP
1935 (ca) Marries Lula V. Stevens
1937 Establishes free employment bureau for African Americans
in Salt Lake City
1940 Lula V. Stevens Spencer dies
1941 (late) Steps down as pastor of Calvary Baptist
Continues work at Griffin Wheel
1944 21Apr Charles C. Spencer dies, age 73+
Surely Spencer and the rest of his crew told John Henry's story often while they were in West Virginia. This is a plausible way for the legend to have arrived there. Relocalization could have converted "C & W" and/or "C of G" to "C & O" and attached the legend to Big Bend Tunnel.
Note that what is being discussed here is the legend, not the ballad. To an extent, they overlap, but by the time they were being collected the ballad had lost details that the legend maintained, such as Coosa ("Cruzee"/"Cursey") Mountain, John Henry's surname, and the name of the "Captain" (both "Dabney").
In 1934 Elbert McDonald, of Bell County, Kentucky, published a John Henry tale that places him there when he died, but also calls him a "tall, gaunt, Alabama negro," "the most powerful steel driver of the crew," who "had never tasted defeat." There is the usual contest and collapse, then John Henry's "foreman" "gathered John Henry close to his bosom" as "tears were streaming down his face." John Henry died in his arms. Spencer, who was in Bell County in 1900, is a logical person to have planted the seeds of this tale, which correctly associates John Henry with Alabama and notes a close personal relationship between John Henry and his boss, really
Captain Fred Y. Dabney, whose father had probably owned John Henry before the Civil War.
Some versions of "John Henry" ballads and work songs mention Colorado. Spencer was in Denver by 1910 and stayed until ca 1916. Letters or other communications with home folks could have planted the Colorado seed.
Spencer was very active in Salt Lake City from 1928 to 1944. He must have told his John Henry story there many times. Even so, I am not aware of a Salt Lake City John Henry tradition. If somebody on the list lives there, it might be worth trying to track down African Americans who might still recall the story. The place to begin would be with elderly members of Calvary Baptist Church, now pastored by the Rev. France A. Davis, a vigorous and accomplished many who has been very helpful to me and to whom I am grateful. The members in question should be those whose families have a history at Calvary Baptist that goes back at least to 1940, preferably to ca 1930.
Why did John Matthews change his name to Charles C. Spencer?
His father, Houston Matthews, died young, at about age 36, when his son John was nine or ten years old.# I do not know how he died. Perhaps it was ignominiously, such that John could not bear the disgrace of his surname. Perhaps he chose not to accept his stepfather's name, Watkins, either. For all we know, Jake Watkins might not have been too happy at having an 11-year-old stepson. It is hard to say, but perhaps there was a Charles Spencer whom John Matthews admired. There have been plenty of them, some of them from Henry County, Virginia. I don't know what the second "C" in "C. C. Spencer" stood for, but I guess that it might have been "Clanton," the surname of his maternal grandparents.
My next task is to make an effort, perhaps a small one, given that I feel time pressure, to find out how Houston Matthews died.
By the way, there seems to be no lack of historians and historical
accounts of Henry County, VA. I need to find some way to use them well and efficiently. One of my most recent resources has been Beverly R. Millner, an African American man who has plumbed the depths of the 1866 Cohabitation Register for Henry County and other documents and produced a gorgeous book, *Something to Build On: Genealogy of African American Families of Henry County Virginia and Surrounding Area with Surnames "A-Z"* (2006?), as well as other genealogical books on Henry County. I am grateful to him.
See http://www.myspace.com/something_to_build_on .
*I had concluded from circumstantial evidence that John Matthews, of the 1880 census, Henry County, Virginia, was probably Charles C. Spencer, but Bev Millner found documents that make this very clear. Perhaps the most important items are that the identified Jane Matthews as the former Jane Clanton, a daughter of ex-slave Louisa Clanton. This explains an error on Spencer's death certificate, where his mother is give as "Louise Clayton." Louisa Clanton was not his mother but his grandmother. The informant for the death certificate was Spencer's stepdaughter's husband, who was able to give a remarkable amount of correct information about Spencer's origin, but he erred on this point.
#Since I wrote the above, Cliff Ocheltree has discovered a record stating that "Hairston Mathews" (wife Jane) died on 07Nov1879. It is clear that this is Houston Matthews. Thanks, Cliff.