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Songs of Yesterday: The Legend of John Henry, Steel-Driving Man, Part 1

The oft-sung ballad "John Henry" has become part of Americana. Telling the story of a steel-driver on the railroad, this story of a legendary folk hero begs the question: "did such a man ever exist?" This article (part one of two) explores that possibility.


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The ballad of John Henry is one of many folk stories of the somewhat super-humans responsible for building or improving this country. But this yarn is also a legend, as it tells of a very real person whose historic challenge of the steam drill allegedly put him in his grave. Because this man and his song involve really two John Henrys – the larger than life folk hero and the actual person on whom it is all based – this investigation will be split into two elements: the history of John Henry, who he was, and the song that brought him to fame.

John Henry was a former slave whose services were engaged to help rebuild the South after the Civil War. He allegedly worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad as a steel driver, or hammer man, drilling holes into the rocks to clear the way for the tracks. Henry was known among the work crews as the fastest and strongest driver; he worked twelve hours a day to drill through sometimes as much as twenty feet of rock. When the crew reached the Big Bend Mountain, they realized that they were facing something too high to go over and too wide to go around. Their only choice: to go straight through the one-and-a-quarter-mile-thick mountain (Hempel).

A salesman came into the camp at one point, attempting to sell steam drills, with the pitch that steam power had the capability of out-drilling manpower. To test this claim, a race was planned that would pit man against machine – John Henry, of course, would be the opponent on the side of the humans. Henry was the victor, managing to dig two seven-foot holes, swinging a twenty-pound hammer in each hand. In the same period of time – thirty-five minutes – the steam drill succeeded in digging only one hole, measuring nine-feet deep (Lomax, p. 551). Then, the legend states, John Henry died. What is not clear from those who have researched the story is just how long it was between the end of the contest and the death of the steel driver: some say it happened as soon as the contest ended (Dorson, p. 231), and others say it was some period of time later (whether a matter of days or months is unclear) (Lomax, p.552).

Another rendition, allegedly from a man who knew John Henry, is that after the contest, Henry went home and headed to bed, after mentioning to his wife that he "had a queer feeling in his head." The next morning, when his wife went to wake him, she found that he had died in his sleep (Botkin, p. 234). There is also some confusion about the cause of his death: some say a stroke; some say exhaustion (Hempel); another, based on an alleged doctor's examination, concluded that a blood vessel had burst in his head; and still others believe he was simply caught in a tunnel cave-in (Lomax, p. 552). Some believe that his death was in 1873 (Dorson, p. 231), but even that is unsubstantiated.

Scholars who have researched the story have found some evidence for his existence, not the least being the tunnel in West Virginia, though some place the location of the "contest" in Alabama. John Henry is the embodiment of the American worker: he represents the growth of the country during a time period when it was necessary for many wrongs to be righted. And the work crews were building just the vehicle (the railroad) to accomplish the task of uniting the two parts of a recently warring nation – North and South (National Public Radio). It is not likely that definitive proof of the story will ever be found: while we could analyze the likelihood that a human being could accomplish what John Henry allegedly did, even if we could not find anyone able to swing two ten-, twenty-, or thirty-pound hammers (stories differ in the weight of the tool), one in each hand, it would not prove the story false (that would constitute what debaters call an argument from ignorance fallacy: if it cannot be proven true, it must be false, or vice versa [Copi, pp. 101-102]). Who is to say there was not, at some time, a man capable of accomplishing the drilling task, as stated in the legend? And if we could prove that the steam drills of the late 1800s were incapable of drilling any deeper or faster than the one that the famous steel driver beat, would that mean that the story is true? Again, that would commit the argument from ignorance fallacy. This story is not likely to ever be proved conclusively true or false. We can, however, check some facts that might prove the existence of a railroad construction worker named John Henry.

In 1870, there are no black men of the right age and birth location by the name "John Henry" listed in the United States census in West Virginia. However, in Alabama there were four black men by the name of John Henry, three born in Virginia and one born in North Carolina (the two states listed as being his possible birth place [Hempel]). Their occupations are listed as "day laborer," "farmer," none (the line is blank), and "works on RRd." This last possibility lived in Mobile, Alabama at the time (, almost 500 miles from the Big Bend Tunnel, built between 1870 and 1873 (according to the Microsoft Streets and Trips, 2009 version).

However, another theory is that it was not the West Virginia tunnel that was the scene of the digging and the steam drill contest. More recently, scholars are focusing their attention on Alabama as the scene of the events with the actual tunnel being the Coosa Tunnel near Leeds, Alabama, built between 1887 and 1888 for the Columbus & Western Railroad (National Public Radio). In 1880, there was only one black John Henry listed that meets the criteria (, 1880): born in Virginia or North Carolina (he was born in Virginia), sometime between 1840 and 1850 (Hempel). Listed as a "RR Hand," he also lived in Mobile, Alabama with his wife and daughter (agreeing with the story that he was a married man), but that location is almost 150 miles from the Leeds area where the Coosa Tunnel is located (according to the Microsoft Streets and Trips, 2009). This John Henry would have been about 50 years old at the time of his death, which does not agree with most of the legends. Also, this man reports his parents having been born in Virginia, not in Africa, where it is alleged Henry's father was born (Botkin, p. 234).

In recent years, additional research has been conducted by a history professor, Scott Reynolds Nelson, who attempted to track down John Henry with the use of various records. His conclusion: that Henry was a prisoner in Prince George County, Virginia, and he had been part of the railroad crew that was made up of black prison workers that did construction on the Lewis Tunnel in Virginia (not West Virginia or Alabama). These men were leased to the C & O Railroad and they were treated poorly, to say the least. More importantly, this means that John Henry was not a willing worker (p. 25). If this is the John Henry of the ballad, the estimates of his stature are greatly exaggerated, for, according to prison records, this man was only a little over five feet tall and had been born in New Jersey (not Virginia or North Carolina). He had fought in the colored troops in the Civil War and had been born about 1847 (p. 44), making him considerably younger and smaller than the popular accounts. Nelson stays true to the 1873 death date for his John Henry (p. 95), but other factors do not seem to correlate with the hero of the oft-sung ballad. To complicate that, he does not appear in any U. S. census record that would match these parameters. In Nelson's version, the song was allegedly created by prisoners with the underlying message being "this work will kill you" (Cala).

In short, no John Henry, found for this research, matches the legendary hero. Of course, in the telling and retelling of the tale, particulars, such as age, birthplace, etc., may have been changed, causing difficulty in proving the legend by looking at historical possibilities as reported in the census records taken in the 1800s. It appears, for all intents and purposes, that if John Henry existed, as the legend states, he managed to be omitted from the census (not unheard of: he could have been off with a railroad construction crew when the enumerator was making the rounds). It is apparent that, while we cannot prove the legend positively false, we cannot prove it positively true, either. There is a chance that the hero of the ballad was known by another name, legally, and that "John Henry" was either a nickname or one created for the song (if his Christian name was "Percival Magilicutty," it could have been changed for the purposes of "singability," by reason of "poetic license"). Of course, there is always the possibility that John Henry was not a single individual but, rather, a composite of the many former slaves whose hard work created the railroad in a rocky and mountainous region of the United States.

The question of the exact identity of this folk hero probably will never be conclusively answered. As genealogists, we find ourselves consumed with correctly identifying our ancestors, so for genealogy-folklorists, this issue is likely to be more a focus than for those who just want to sing a catchy song. Whatever your particular interest, next month we will examine the lyrics and message of the yarn to, perhaps, add even more meaning (or more things to research).

References 1870 US Census, Mobile Ward 7, Mobile, Alabama. Geo. Thompson household, line 39, page 252, Roll M593_31. Retrieved April 30, 2007, from database. 1880 US Census, Mobile, Mobile, Alabama. John Henry household, page 445. Enumeration District 142. Retrieved April 30, 2007, from database.

Botkin, B. A. (Ed.). A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People. New York: Crown Pub., 1944.

Cala, M. "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend" (Book review) [Electronic version]. Sing Out!, March 22, 2007. Retrieved May 7, 2007, from

Copi, Irving M. Introduction to Logic, 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., Inc., 1982.

Dorson, Richard M. American Folklore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977.

Hempel, Carlene. "The Man – Facts, Fiction and Themes," December, 1998. John Henry the Steel Driving Man. Retrieved June 18, 2010 from index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=294600594&blogId=490795556.

Lomaz, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1960.

National Public Radio. "John Henry," September 2, 2002. Present at the Creation. Retrieved June 18, 2010, from storyId=1149349.

Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend [Electronic version]. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006. Retrieved May 7, 2007 from NetLibrary database.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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