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Cousin Jacks & Tommyknockers Remain a Part of Our Mining Culture & Heritage

© 2004 by Anthony Belli

image of miner graphicCornish miners from Cornwall, Great Britain were some of the best mining men in the business, they simply had years of experience at tunneling and mining that the 49er’s lacked. In the diggings they represented as close to a mining engineer as one could find. Their sudden success in the mines encouraged mine owners to ask if they knew of anyone else back home with mining experience who’d be interested in coming to work in the California mines. The common answer among the Cornish was… “Well, me cousin Jack over in Cornwall wouldst come could ye pay is boat ride.” So many Cornish miners made their way to California this way, that it wasn’t long before the Americans had taken to calling em’ all… “Cousin Jacks.”

The Cornish miners were highly respected and sought after making them the authority in many Northern California mines. As they educated many on mining they also inadvertently introduced the Tommyknockers to California. The Tommyknockers were part of Cornish legend and lore which still survives today in our own mining culture and history.

According to legend the Tommyknockers were the underground cousins of the Piskies and Vogs which lived in the British moors. They were well known for mischief, colorful pranks, jokes, and being highly spirited! They are tiny characters who dress like little miners and perform many mining duties while underground working alongside the other men. To the cousin Jacks the Tommyknockers were no less important then a candle and double jack. They believed in the Tommyknockers although not one of em’ could say they’d actually seen one.

Regardless the cousin Jacks refused to enter any mine until the mining company assured them the Tommyknockers were on duty. In time mine owners gave way to the custom as simply a matter of doing business with the Cornish. Over the years the Tommyknockers were blamed for many a prank, while being credited with saving the lives of many miners. If someone’s hammer was missing it was the Tommyknockers… If a cousin Jack got out just before the tunnel failed, you can bet it was the Tommyknockers who raised hell, got him out and saved his life.

In 1956 California’s mining industry came to a grinding halt. Devote believers (mostly Cornish descendants) lobbied the general manager of one of California’s largest and oldest mines, to release the Tommyknockers from employment in order so they could be transferred to other working mines in the California Mother Lode. The mining company agreed.

Today not much is heard of the Tommyknockers, but they will forever have a place in our history, legend and lore.


Lisa Butler, Miners kept safe with help from tiny, magical men, El Dorado, CA., County Times & Review, Vol. 6 No.8, August, 1999, p.1
F. D. Calhoon, Coolies, Kanakas & Cousin Jacks, Sacramento, CA., Cal-Con Publishers, 1986, p. 294 – 316