Historians accord considerable attention to the labor disputes, mass movements and political protest parties of the 1890s. However, the linkages among these movements receive less coverage and activities in the less populated counties of the East get little notice. Indiana County provided no events of national significance, but protest movements gained support and their connections offer examples of joint actions by producers. The Populist Party spearheaded protest activities in many areas and played a role in Indiana County as a political presence and a catalyst to other movements, particularly the “industrial armies.” Coxey’s Army, the most famous industrial army, never entered Indiana County but other groups of unemployed workers passed through the county. Coal mining hadn’t reached a high level of production. However, some mines operated, particularly in the Glen Campbell area, where miners joined the widespread coal strike.
Popular ferment shook the nation in the 1890s as the beneficiaries and victims of industrial capitalism clashed over the distribution of wealth and power. The Farmer Alliances and the Populist Party spearheaded agrarian discontent. Farmers, particularly cotton and wheat growers in the South and West, complained about the currency, transportation and political systems and sought an alternative society which would recognize the values of the producers and offer them greater access to wealth and power.
In some cases coal miners joined the struggle, creating a fragile farmer-worker alliance. However, coal miners more often used the United Mine Workers to obtain higher wages and better working conditions. The effects of the Depression of 1893 intensified the underlying problems facing workers and farmers. Mass unemployment became more prevalent and the government remained unresponsive to the growing demands for aid. Therefore, some unemployed workers joined “industrial armies” which marched and rode across the county to raise the consciousness of the nation and to pressure the federal government to create jobs.
Popular protest in Indiana County found diverse channels for expression. The Knights of Labor, a fading factor in national protest movements, remained somewhat active in Indiana County. For example, in February, Knights of Labor Assembly 2043 of Indiana entertained the Blacklick Assembly with refreshments and an interesting program. The county assemblies of the Knights of Labor planned to celebrate Labor Day with a program featuring prominent labor speakers. In September, the Blacklick Assembly reciprocated the hospitality of the Indianan Knights by hosting them for a meeting and a meal. The Farmers’ Alliance generated more support and conducted activities. Blacklick Township was its major stronghold. A well attended hospital lecture in January later in the year and a giant picnic in August provided the highlight of Alliance activities. The event featured singing, music, and speeches. Marion Butler, president of the national Alliance, addressed the crowd. Warren A. Gardner, the state president delivered the main speech. He supported more coinage of silver and government ownership of the railroads. Burrell Township and Kellysburg were other centers of Alliance activity. Burrell Township organized a unit in January which remained active throughout the year. Kellysburg hosted meetings, addressed by prominent speakers and welcomed a county convention which drafted resolutions in behalf of a road system, government ownership of the railroads and inflation.
While relatively few workers supported the political protest movement, more workers struck, particularly the coal miners of Glen Campbell. In April they struck for higher wages, a demand which the operators declared they couldn’t meet. The following month the miners dispatched a delegation to Indiana to solicit aid for the 280 strikers – a trip which raised $52.75 in donations. The character of the strike changed with the arrival of the Coal and Iron Police. Prior to this time, the strike had been peaceful and the strikers had the support of local professional and businessmen. The community resented the presence of the 30 police. Some residents cried “Down with Captain Clark who fights the poor man” while others wavered in their support for the strikers. Conditions continued to deteriorate with the arrival of troops in late June and the presence of deputies who exchanged gun fire with strikers in early August. Soon after this battle the strikers returned to work for the wages set by the employer. The company refused to rehire 35 or 40 strike leaders. In the aftermath of this strike defeat, some residents returned to political action and the Populists finished second in the 1895 election.
However, the Populist Party drew its leadership and supporters from farmers, as comparatively few workers followed the lead of the Glen Campbell miners and urban areas remained unorganized. The former Greenback-Labor Party leaders and supporters formed a core of Populist strength. Robert Alexander Thompson, the leading Populist in the county who served as state chairman for seven years, had been a Greenback and edited The Indiana News, a Greenback and Populist organ. Thompson, a wholesale lumber dealer, came from a prominent and respected family. His forbearers included Major Samuel Thompson, who obtained recognition as a leading abolitionist.
The Populist Party in Indiana County emerged from an organizational meeting held in late March 1892. The party structure solidified in the 1894 campaign when delegates met at the Indiana Courthouse to pass resolutions and nominate candidates. The visit of Jerome T. Ailman, the Populist candidate for governor, highlighted the campaign. He spoke to a large audience at the GAR Hall in Black Lick where he ably presented the fundamental principles of the party. Later he stopped in Indiana to meet with Robert Thompson. Thomas escorted Ailman to the offices of The Indiana News where the candidate met and talked to visitors. The election results in Indiana County surpassed the statewide performance. Ailman won 7.5% of the county vote compared to 3% of the Commonwealth total. In Burrell, Grant, Rayne, and Washington Townships he won more than 20% of the vote. The role of the Populist Party in Indiana County went beyond electoral activity. Party officials coordinated the travel plans and arranged the activities of the industrial armies. For example, they announced the arrival of Randall’s Army and Robert Thompson went to Black Lick to plan for Randall’s visit to Indiana.
Industrial armies visited the county, although Coxey’s Army went directly from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Galvin’s Army, Randall’s Army and the Thomas contingent of Fry’s Army passed through Indiana County. The arrival of Colonel Galvan’s Army in late May began the cycle of arrivals and departures of industrial armies. The Blairsville Evening Courier provided its readers with information about the army and its leader. The newspaper described Galvin as a well informed, quiet and earnest person with leadership ability and experience as a stone cutter. His army was composed of American citizens of working class background who behaved in an orderly manner. The army of 75 arrived in Blairsville on the 17th, where residents provided accommodations and donated bread, beef and coffee. A meeting to welcome the contingent attracted an audience of almost 1,000. They heard remarks by Galvin and a speech by Major Ward. Ward expressed his support for the issuance of greenbacks, a graduated tax system and employment on public works for the unemployed. The orderly and well-behaved crowd contributed about fifteen dollars to Galvin’s Army. Randall’s Army and a contingent of Fry’s Army headed by Colonel Thomas arrived in late June. The Randall Army reached Indiana after stops in Blairsville and Black Lick. They marched up 7th to Philadelphia Street where their presence excited much interest from community residents. Randall spoke at the Courthouse before an audience composed of the Kellysburg martial band and several hundred residents. Randall, who edited a Populist newspaper, delivered an effective speech in which he condemned politicians and the accumulation of wealth. The Thomas contingent, the last industrial army to visit Indiana County, received an enthusiastic welcome in Blairsville. The Boy’s Brigade greeted them and residents provided provisions. Colonel Thomas spoke in behalf of silver coinage and the protection of workers. At the conclusion of his speech he left to deliver an address in Indiana.
The 1890s marked a major watershed in U.S. history. By this time the USA had emerged as the world’s dominant economic power. This new status raised urgent questions about the distribution of wealth and power. The increasing bipolarization of society set the stage for titanic battles including the Homestead Lockout and the Pullman Boycott. Mass movement also arose, most notably Populism and the industrial armies. Pittsburgh and Chicago provided the major battlefields but other areas were affected. In Indiana County some producers struggled for a better society. Their activities reflected discontent and generated public support. By the early 20th century, industrial capitalism became more entrenched and the public agenda narrowed. Nevertheless, new groups, such as the Socialist Party of American, emerged to continue the struggle nationally and in Indiana County.