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A detailed history of this song family can be found in Archie Green, Only a Miner: Studies In Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, Urbana, IL, 1972, pp. 63-111.
"Captain Jack," John Wallace Crawford (1847-1917)... like other frontier heroes, led a kaleidoscopic life: Scottish child immigrant, boy laborer in America's anthracite industry, young Civil War volunteer in a Pennsylvania "Miner's Regiment," Black Hills scout in the Sioux Wars, U.S. Army Chief of Scouts in New Mexico and Arizona, Alaska gold seeker, Wild West Show actor, minor poet and playwright, Chautauqua lecturer, myth-maker....
His first book, The Poet Scout, was published in San francisco in 1879. Included was "Only a Miner Killed," written after Commodore Vanderbilt's death on January 4, 1877, and perhaps inspired by the juxtaposition of a newspaper account of the capitalist's ostentatious life and the paltry funeral procession of an unknown miner. It was written presumably while the poet was acting with "Buffalo Bill." In its first printing, the poem was headed by a few lines which hinted at a Nevada (Comstock silver mining) setting:
Although everything that science, skill, and money can devise is done to avert accidents, the average of fatal ones in the Comstock is three a week. "Three men a week."
Archie Green, Only a Miner: Studies In Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, Urbana, IL, 1972, pp. 94-95.
It is assumed that Crawford's poem preceded the song by a decade, but there is an outside chance that the mining song was in tradition before Vanderbilt's death and was heard by Crawford. He did use time-tested material.... However, until an "Only a Miner" item can be dated before 1877, "Captain Jack's" poem "Only a Miner Killed" has priority over the folksong....
The decade of the 1880's seems the likely time for the transformation of Crawford's poem... into a folksong. Vance Randolph was told that "Only a Miner" was sug in 1888; Duncan Emrich obtained the dates 1890 and 1897; Wayland Hand was given 1900, 1904, and 1908.
ibid., p. 97.
Lyrics as printed (with revised introduction) in John Wallace Crawford, Lariattes, Sigourney, Iowa, 1904, p. 25; reprinted in Archie Green, Only a Miner: Studies In Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, Urbana, IL, 1972, pp. 95-96.
While in Virginia City, in 1877, a wagon passed up Main Street, with a soiled canvas thrown over it. Some curbstone brokers rushed out to investigate, and when they returned were asked what was the matter. "O," replied one, "It's only a miner killed." Old Commodore Vanderbilt died on the same day and the papers were full of accounts concerning this multi-millionaire. A paragraph in the Virginia City Chronicle, referring to the above incident, suggested the following verses:
Only a miner killed -- oh! is that all?
One of the timbers caved, great was the fall,
Crushing another one shaped like his God.
Only a miner lad -- under the sod.
Only a miner killed, just one more dead.
Who will provide for them -- who earn their bread? --
Wife and little ones: pity them, God,
Their earthly father is under the sod.
Only a miner killed, dead on the spot,
Poor hearts are breaking in yonder lone cot.
He died at his post, a hero as brave
As any who sleeps in a marble top grave.
Only a miner killed! God, if thou wilt,
Just introduce him to Vanderbilt,
Who, with his millions, if he is there,
Can't buy one interest -- even one share.
Only a miner, bury him quick;
Just write his name on a piece of a stick.
Though humble and plain be the poor miner's grave
Beyond, all are equal, the master and slave.