The Bisbee Deportation on July 12, 1917 was one of the largest single event mass civil liberties abuses in American history. Although not unprecedented in the open class warfare that marked the bitter labor struggles across the West in the metal mining industries over a span of decades, its sheer scale was astonishing.
The roots of the conflict went deep.
The discovery of unusually high quality copper ore in the Mule Mountains of southeast Arizona in the 1880’s led to a virtual copper rush. A number of claims in the area became successful mines, but none matched the fabulous Copper Queen, which was digging ore with nearly 25% metal content compared to the average of 4%. Gold and silver were also found in the same formations, but the concentrations of copper made the precious metals unearthed simply a secondary bonus. The town of Bisbee, named after an investor in the mine sprang up as a virtual company town.
The mine was acquired by the Phelps Dodge Corporation, one of the biggest mining companies in the United States—and one of the most notorious for its violent opposition to unionization by its workers.
Although two smaller mines also operated in Bisbee, Phelps Dodge owned almost everything of importance in the town—the newspaper, the hospital, the Copper Queen Mercantile which had a monopoly for a while and later sold stock to the few independent stores that opened, the biggest and best hotel, the Copper Queen, and most of the housing in the city. Only the bars, whorehouses, and opium dens were truly independent. The professional class was just as dependent on the company as the underground miners.
By 1902 when the city was incorporated Bisbee’s population had grown to over 9,000 and it was surrounded by a ring of small suburbs most of them built around a small mine. The whole area was referred to as the Warren District after the man who had filed many of the original claims. The suburb of Warren was an enclave for the wealthiest mine owners, operators, superintendents, and the professionals who catered to their needs.
The workforce in the mines swelled, particularly during boom times, but was pretty rigidly segregated by ethnicity. The best jobs, and pay, went to the American born and miners from Wales, Cornwall and elsewhere in the British Isles. Below them were Italians, Serbs, and other Southern Slavs. At the very bottom were the Mexicans. As the mines increased production, a labor shortage meant that more immigrants were hired.
There were various attempts to unionize the mines going back to the 1890s. In 1906 an ’07 the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had launched a vigorous organizing drive among the more highly skilled underground miners—mostly English speaking. Sporadic strikes were met by violence from company guards and gun thugs employed by the Bisbee Industrial Association, an organization of mine owners and supporting industries in the Warren District. In those two years over 1,600 miners were fired and blacklisted for involvement with the union and there were even some small scale deportations of union leaders.
Under intense company pressure, the WFM campaign withered. And then a financial Panic sent the price of copper plummeting. Boom times were followed by bust and there were large scale layoffs. Some of the smallest and weakest of the mining companies shut down. The union withdrew from the Warren District.
But boom followed bust, followed boom. The beginning of the Great War in Europe touched off another panic and drop in copper prices as concerns for international markets rose. The collapse was dramatic and layoffs massive. In Bisbee’s Mexican quarter, where the men in the best of times earned only about half of what Anglo miners got, there was actual starvation.
This time, however, recovery was rapid as the Allies in Europe began to place huge new orders and U.S. producers began ramping up war production in the name of preparedness in the last half of 1915. Modern war production meant a huge demand for brass, a copper-zinc alloy needed for millions of rounds of artillery shells, rifle and machine gun cartridges, fittings for machinery, and even the buckles and buttons of uniforms. Copper prices soared, the mines re-hired and then hired more—often not even able to obtain enough workers. Even wages went up.
You would think that everyone would be happy. But wages boosts failed to keep up with inflation, which was especially high in the remote mining district where almost all consumer goods and food had to be hauled in over great distances. In addition mine safety conditions, always dangerous, deteriorated as bosses demanded speed-ups and cutting corners. And miners and surface workers were doing exhausting 10 to 12 hour shifts seven days a week.
|Hard rock mining was arduous and dangerous work. Here a three man crew operates a jackleg--a pneumatic drill--on a rock face.
After a surprising but hard fought victory of a strike in the Clifton-Morenci District encouraged the union, now renamed the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelt Workers (IUMMSW), to return to Bisbee in 1916. Soon a new local boasted—perhaps extravagantly—1,600 members among the more skilled and higher paid workers. The union was not recognized by the company, but its existence was tolerated given the high demand for shipped ore. And perhaps because another, even more unsatisfactory—to the bosses—union was in the field.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Metal Miners Industrial Union No. 800 (IU 800) had been active around Bisbee and the Douglas district since 1912. They were a militant, class conscious union with a reputation for creative tactics, direct action including sabotage, and on the job actions. And the union not only welcomed all workers regardless of ethnicity, but actually sought them out and empowered them within the union. By early 1917 the IWW had hundreds of members, sympathizers, and supporters especially among the Mexican, Italians, and Slavs. The union movement in Bisbee was effectively divided by ethnicity.
Elsewhere in Arizona that spring I.U. 800 conducted a number of successful quickie strikes and job actions resulting in immediate concessions even though the union was not recognized. In May the IWW presented a list of demands to Phelps Dodge—an end to physical searches and examinations (used by the mine owners to counter theft), two workers on each drilling machine, two men crews on the ore elevators, an end to blasting while men were in the mine—all important safety demands. Economic demands included an end to the bonus system, no more assignment of construction work to miners, replacement of the sliding scale of wages with a $6.00 per day shift rate, and no discrimination against union members. The company flatly refused all the demands. A strike was called on June 27.
Not only did IWW members at the Copper Queen go out on strike, so did 85% of all the mine workers in the Warren district and at most mines. Over 3,000 joined the strike, including most members of the IUMMSW. Leaders of that union bitterly denounced the strike and ordered their members to return to the job—an order widely disobeyed.
This was months after the U.S. officially entered the War on April 6, 1917. Phelps Dodge and two new front organizations, the Citizens’ Protective League composed of business leaders and middle-class local residents and the Workmen’s’ Loyalty League made up of loyal IUMMSW members, unaffiliated miners, and the boss’s usual crews of guards and thugs, immediately charged that the IWW was acting as an “agent of the Kaiser” and thus treasonous. The charge was echoed by the press and spread nationwide. They also charged that the strikers were violent. In fact the strike had been entirely peaceful and was conducted with remarkable discipline considering that not even half of the strikers were IWW members.
Almost immediately company leaders demanded intervention by the state Militia and Federal troops. Both the Governor and President Woodrow Wilson declined to send troops. Instead Wilson proposed mediation.
On July 5 the IWW local in Jerome, Arizona, struck a Phelps Dodge mine. Mine superintendents were ordered to remove the miners from the town. Mine supervisors, joined by 250 local businessmen and members of the IUMMSW began rounding up suspected IWW members at dawn on July 10. More than 100 men were kidnapped by these vigilantes and held in the county jail and later that day, 67 of them were deported by train to Needles, California.
That proved to be just a rehearsal for what was to come. On July 11, 1917, Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler met with Phelps Dodge corporate executives to plan a deportation in Bisbee itself
The operation in Bisbee was carried out with almost flawless military precision. At 4 am that morning a posse of 2,100 armed men recruited in the city and in nearby Douglas consisting of mine supervisors, foremen, local business and professional men, and Liberty League members identified by white handkerchiefs tied around their arms fanned out. Some set up a cordon around the mining town, blockading the roads and trails from the town and guarding the railroad line. Others occupied the rail yard and took possession of the telegraph office at the station to prevent any chance of a call for help to escape. Others spread out quietly though the streets awaiting orders.
Sheriff Wheeler in command of the operation stationed himself, a large squad of men, and machine gun in the street outside of the IWW Metal Miner’s Hall. He called on several union organizers, delegates, and rank and file miners to surrender or be killed. With those men in custody and just as the town began to stir 6:30, deputies began kicking in doors and arresting men across the city. Others combed the streets, barns, and out buildings for any that might try to slip away. Arrested were all known IWW members, other strikers, any one thought to be sympathetic, and seemingly random Bisbee citizens with no connection at all to the union or the ongoing strike. Also nabbed were the operators of small grocery stores who were in competition with the Phelps Dodge company store. Deputies emptied their cash registers and looted the merchandise.
It was all over in an hour. More than 2,000 men had been rounded up. The operation had encountered little resistance. But Wobbly James H. Brew, alerted by the commotion in the street, armed himself. When deputies arrived at his door, Brew warned them that he was armed and that they had no right to arrest him. The deputies moved toward his door and Brew shot and killed Orson P. McRae, a shift boss at the Copper Queen mine. Other deputies let loose a heavy volley, riddling Brew with multiple wounds. Otherwise the round up was conducted without gunfire, although several men were beaten and pistol whipped and there were reports that the wives of some strikers were assaulted.
An hour after the raids had begun the detainees were assembled in the street in front of the Post Office, formed into a column three abreast, and told to begin marching, hedged in on both sides by the deputies. They were marched two miles through Bisbee and Lowell, another mining camp to the baseball park in Warren which was surrounded by barbed-wire and turned into an open-air bull pen. There the men broiled in the rising heat of the Arizona summer without benefit of food or water or medical attention for the wounded. Those men who agreed to renounce the IWW, sign and oath of allegiance, and pledge to return to work, were allowed to walk back to their homes, white bandanas newly tied around their arms. About 700 took the deal and departed the ball park to the jeers and hoots of their former fellow workers.
|Wobbly deportees are loaded into cattle cars. Note white arm band on vigilante guard.
At 11:00 am by pre-arrangement with the railroad an El Paso & Southwestern locomotive with 23 boxcars and cattle cars pulled into Warren station immediately adjacent the ball field. Within an hour the deportees were boarded and at noon the Wobbly Special pulled out of Warren. On board were the 1,286 deportees and 186 armed guards. They were destined for Columbus, New Mexico where there was a sizable Army post.
Because of the secrecy surrounding the operation, when the train arrived in Columbus the next day, no one knew that they were coming. Local authorities refused to take the prisoners claiming that they had no accommodations for them. Without unloading the deportees, the engineer was forced to back his train out of the Columbus station. The train stopped 17 miles back on a siding at Hermanas where the men were finally unloaded before sundown. They still had not been fed or provided with water and many were suffering from heat prostration from being confined in the crowded cars.
The following day an EP&S train finally arrived with food and on July 14 the Army escorted the men back to Columbus where they were housed in a camp built earlier to house Mexicans refugees from Pancho Villa’s forces. None of the deportees were charged with a crime, but were held in de facto captivity until the Army could figure out what to do with them. After a few days those who had homes began to be released. Many left the region, but a handful made their way back to Bisbee despite the obvious risks. Many others had no place to go and no resources to make a trip. Others insisted on staying in the hopes that the Federal Government would recognize the illegality of the deportation and guarantee them safe passage back to Bisbee. On September 17 the remaining men were ordered out of the camp regardless of their desires.
Back in Bisbee Sheriff Wheeler and the Citizen’s League set up a virtual dictatorship under unofficial martial law. Operating from a Phelps Dodge building Wheeler and his representatives interrogated residents about their political beliefs about unions and the war and determined who could work or obtain a Draft deferment. Guards were posted at all entrances to Bisbee and Douglas and anyone seeking to exit or enter the town over the next several months had to have a passport issued by Wheeler. Any adult male in town who was not known to the sheriff's men was brought before a secret kangaroo court where hundreds of citizens were tried and most of them were deported and threatened with lynching if they returned. Even long-time citizens of Bisbee were deported by this court. Only a handful of deportees ever returned to Bisbee.
News of the strike went national. Most accounts took the claims of the company its fronts at state value. But some papers, including the New York Times concluded that there had been a massive violation of civil liberties and condemned the company, the railroad, and state and local authorities for allowing it. President Wilson appointed a commission to investigate, but former President Theodore Roosevelt thundered that “no human being in his senses doubts that the men deported from Bisbee were bent on destruction and murder.”
Wilson’s commission, headed by Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson heard testimony in November and issued a final report concluding “the deportation was wholly illegal and without authority in law, either State or Federal.”
The following spring the Justice Department ordered the arrest of 21 Phelps Dodge executives, Calumet and Arizona Co. executives, and several Bisbee and Cochise County elected leaders and law enforcement officers. Sheriff Wheeler escaped only because he had enlisted and was serving in the Army in France. The case was thrown out before it could proceed and on appeal, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White in an 8-to-1 majority decision that the U.S. Constitution did not empower the Federal government to enforce the rights of the deportees. Rather it “necessarily assumed the continued possession by the states of the reserved power to deal with free residence, ingress and egress.” Only in a case of “state discriminatory action” would the federal government have a role to play.
The deportees were no more successful in several individual suits for damages but in the first case the jury determined that the deportations represented good public policy and refused to grant relief. Most of the other suits were quietly dropped, although a few workers persisted and received payments in the range of $500 to $1,250 in out of court settlements
As for the IWW, it was finished in Bisbee. But publicity about the case actually gave the union a boost in its efforts in other industries. But the Federal government concluded that the union was a menace to the war effort and launched an unprecedented attack on the union, its leadership, and its members that extended well into the post war Red Scare. Hundreds of members were imprisoned on Federal and various state charges and “alien” members were subject to deportation.
|The mines have been closed for years, but Bisbee thrives as a tourist destination and as a home to artists and old hippies--a liberal island in a very conservative state.
Today in Bisbee, the mines are closed except for tourist tours. The quaint business district including the Copper Queen Hotel has been exceptionally well preserved. It is both a popular tourist destination and a refuge for artists of all types which gives the town a sophisticated, bohemian character. It is a liberal island in a very conservative state. There is even a monument now to slain Wobbly James H. Brew near his grave in the local cemetery.