I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Bisbee, Arizona was a company town that depended on copper mining and smelting for its prosperity, although the men who laboured in the industry received little or no share of the wealth. When the workers tried to get a better deal for themselves they were trampled on by the mine owners and deported.
Bisbee, Arizona: A Company Town
In 1917, Bisbee was the third largest city in Arizona in which the Phelps Dodge Company owned just about everything including the local newspaper and most of the politicians. The company started out in 1834 as an import-export business, but got into mining during the boom in the West. One of the properties that came under its control was the Queen Copper Mine in Bisbee.
The Phelps Dodge Company was not a worker-friendly employer. In the mine and smelter working conditions were appalling; safety was not a concern of management and the result was injury and death.
In 1916, the Department of the Interior had issued a booklet, Elementary First Aid for the Miner, that pointed out the dangers of the mining trade. It showed miners how to care for co-workers with multiple bone fractures, bleeding wounds, and burns. The document pointed out that “In most mine accidents a miner is injured at or near the working face where no first-aid supplies are at hand.”
The pay was low and tied to the price of copper; if copper prices fell so did the wages of the miners. And, there was the usual exploitation of workers through lodging costs and company-store overcharging.
World War I had created a huge boost in the demand for copper “with miners working harder and longer shifts for often the same pay” (KPNX, Phoenix).
Many of the workers at the Queen Copper Mine were migrants from Mexico and Southern Europe and they were given lower-paying jobs outside the mine. Unions had tried recruiting drives but their efforts had been crushed by the company and the union members fired.
The Industrial Workers of the World
More successful than other unions, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies, concentrated its recruiting among the minority groups.
On June 24, 1917, the IWW presented Phelps Dodge with a list of demands that included improvements to workplace safety, pay, and no discrimination against union members or foreign workers.
The company rejected every demands, using the war effort as cover. Soon, rumours started to spread that the IWW was nothing but a nest of German sympathizers; aliens bent on sabotage.
Three days later, the IWW called a strike and about 85 percent of the men at the Queen Copper Mine, more than 1,200, walked off the job. Workers in nearby mines in Douglas also went on strike.
Before the labour tension had started, groups of pro-company people had formed; one was called The Citizen's Protective League and another The Workman's Loyalty League. Local businessmen now put these groups under the control of Sheriff Harry Wheeler, who then held secret meetings to discuss how to deal with the strikers.
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A Posse of Vigilantes
After meeting with Phelps Dodge executives Sheriff Wheeler issued a proclamation on July 11, 1917. In part, this read:
“I have formed a sheriff’s posse of 1200 men in Bisbee and 1000 men in Douglas, all loyal Americans, for the purpose of arresting on the charges of vagrancy and treason, and of being disturbers of the peace of Cochise county, all those strange men who have congregated here from other parts and sections for the purpose of harassing and intimidating all men who desire to pursue their daily toil.”
At 6:30 am, on July 12, the round-up began. Wheeler's deputies had lists of men to be arrested. They were instructed to go about their work peacefully but reports later surfaced of men being beaten and women abused as well as property destroyed or stolen. One miner shot and killed a deputy; he was then killed by other deputies. Company employees seized the Western Union office and telephones to prevent news of the actions getting out.
About 2,000 men were arrested and marched to the town's ballpark. There, they were given a offer to denounce the IWW and join the vigilantes and be released. Several hundred complied but the rest refused to swear loyalty to copper mine owners and were kept under armed guard in 90-degree heat. At 11:00 am a train arrived and 1,186 men were loaded onto the boxcars many of which had several inches of manure on their floors.
The Geographic Alliance at the University of Arizona picks up the story: the men were “shipped under armed guards and abandoned some 200 miles east in the desert of southern New Mexico, without food, water, or shelter . . . this event has been characterized as . . . unAmerican by many, it has as accurately been considered an illegal kidnapping fueled by political intrigue, mass war hysteria, economic greed, and anti-immigrant sentiments.”
On July 14, U.S. troops arrived and escorted the men to a camp in Columbus, New Mexico. The men were housed and looked after by state and federal authorities and were free to leave at any time, as they all eventually did. Some returned to Bisbee despite the warnings of Sheriff Wheeler that if they did they would be lynched.
In 1919, an IWW Member Wrote this Poem about the Bisbee Deportation
“We were herded into cars
And it seemed our lungs were bursting
With the odor of the Yards.
Floors were inches deep in refuse
Left there from the Western herds.
Good enough for miners. Damn them.
May they soon be food for birds.”
Aftermath of the Bisbee Deportation
With the strikers gone, the town of Bisbee fell under the control The Citizen's Protective League, the lackey of the mining companies. Townspeople were quizzed about their views on trade unions and their political leanings. If they were suspected of sympathizing with the strikers they were hauled before secret and completely illegal “courts.”
The guilty were forced to sell any property they owned to Phelps Dodge at whatever price the company offered. Then, they were invited to leave town.
Eventually, state authorities got to hear of what Sheriff Wheeler and his cronies were up to and ordered him to put an end to the kangaroo courts.
Wheeler defended his actions by saying “It became a question of 'Are you American, or are you not?' I would repeat the operation any time I find my own people endangered by a mob composed of eighty percent aliens and enemies of my Government.” A sentiment that has a familiar ring to it more than a century later.
When U.S, President Woodrow Wilson got news of the rounding up and expulsion of the miners he struck a commission of inquiry. The commissioners concluded “The deportation was wholly illegal and without authority in law, either State or Federal.”
So, somebody would have to be punished wouldn't they? Of course not. Warrants were issued for the arrest of 21 mining company executives, but none of them were convicted of anything.
Several hundred deportees brought civil suits against Phelps Dodge and others for lost wages and other damages. Most of the suits failed but a few workers did get compensation of $500 or so.
- Between 1929 and 1936, 1.8 million Mexicans and people of Mexican descent were deported from the United States. To disguise the nastiness of the action it was officially called “repatriation.” The deportees were made to take the blame for the Great Depression.
- In 1921, thousands of coal miners in West Virginia went on strike. The work stoppage led to a five-day shoot-out between mercenaries hired by the coal companies and the strikers, of whom about 100 were killed. You can read more about the Battle of Blair Mountain here.
- The Pinkerton Detective Agency played a key role in suppressing union activity, often violently, in the United States. History.com called the company “the paramilitary wing of big business.” You can read more about the Pinkertons here.
- Bisbee '17 is the title of a dramatized documentary directed by Robert Greene. The 2018 movie depicts the story of the deportation of the striking miners.
- “July 12, 1917 – Bisbee, Arizona Deportation of Striking Workers by Local Vigilantes.” rhapsodybooks, legallegacy.wordpress.com, July 12, 2018.
- “Remembering the Bisbee Deportation, the Most Infamous Event in Arizona Labor History.” Hunter Bessler, KPNX, September 6, 2021.
- “Teacher Reading: An Overview of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917.” Arizona Geographic Alliance, undated.
- “Still on Strike!” Fred Watson, Journal of Arizona History, Summer 1977.
- “In 1917, Corporate America Deported more than 1,000 Striking Miners. Have We Learned Anything from Bisbee?” AndrAc Naffis-Sahely, New Statesman, September 18, 2018.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor