"In the Beginning, all America was Virginia."
William Byrd II
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The Story of Virginia

Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend By Scott Reynolds Nelson

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 complements the exhibition Organized Labor in Virginia.

At the time of this lecture, Scott Reynolds Nelson taught history at the College of William and Mary.