A Visit to Historic Bisbee Arizona and a Story of Mass Deportation

Bisbee Arizona is not a town that people casually pass by. Many might say it’s quite a ways away from most things but I assure you that Bisbee is a terrific and interesting place to visit. Bisbee is located in one of those parts of Arizona that is filled with history. The legendary old west town of Tombstone is only a short drive away.

bisbee arizonaOne remarkable thing about Bisbee was that while being in a remote area of Arizona, about eight miles from the Mexican border, the town was a thriving metropolis during the early years of the 20th century. Streetcars, opera houses, theaters, amateur baseball teams along with several stock exchanges are what a traveler to this town would have seen. Bisbee AZ was so popular during this era that noted stage and silent film celebrities such as Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, pictured below, traveled there to perform.

fatty arbuckleThe business of Bisbee Arizona was all about mining and where there’s mining there’s money and with money came the people. Bisbee was founded in 1880 as a copper, gold and silver mining settlement. The town derived it’s name from Judge DeWitt Bisbee. Judge Bisbee was a financial backer of the big Copper Queen mine. Many people today even refer to Bisbee as the Copper Queen City.

One of the most newsworthy events that occurred in Bisbee AZ was a result of labor and political atmosphere of the early 1900’s. The industrial revolution that began after the Civil War ushered in a very large number of immigrants from all over the globe. Jobs were to be had in America and peoples from Europe and just about anywhere else emigrated to North America seeking work and a new life. Industrialization also ushered in the labor unions. During the latter part of the 1800’s, federal labor regulations were almost non existent. This included issues such as working hours and child labor utilization. To be sure, there was many things that attracted laborers to unions.

haymarket riotAs a result, there were many strikes in these years, some of which were quite violent and brought in the military and local militia. Two highly publicized and violent strikes were those against the Pullman Company in Chicago and the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago which resulted in the Haymarket Riots. During the Haymarket Affair a policeman was shot and killed during the melee and as a result there were criminal convictions of union organizers and there were several hangings afterward.

Labor unrest also spread to the mines all the way from West Virginia to the western states. What occurred in Bisbee AZ in July 1917 was a culmination of general labor unrest combined with the United States buildup in anticipation of entering World War I. The Phelps Dodge Corporation was active in Bisbee with a number of copper mines. Mining conditions in the region were difficult in regards to safety, pay and general living conditions. During the winter of 1915–16, a successful and bitter four-month strike in the Clifton-Morenci district resulted in unionization among miners. At the same time members of Bisbee’s merchant group and non miners were organizing their own groups to oppose the quick growing unionism. The most aggressive union working to enlist mine workers was the IWW. This was the International Workers of the World. The IWW in Bisbee signed up about 1,000 workers. Their target were the large Phelps Dodge operations. Bisbee Arizona had about 8,000 total residents in 1917.

In May 1917, the union presented a long list of demands to Phelps Dodge.IWW Local 800 presented a list of demands to Phelps Dodge. Among the demands were and end to physical examinations, at least two workers on each drilling machine, two men working the ore elevators, an end to blasting while workers were inside the mines, an end to the bonus system, no more assignment of construction work to miners replacement as well as some wage issues. As was somewhat customary during this era, Phelps Dodge refused to negotiate.

The IWW called it’s strike for June 26, 1917 and about 1,000 miners walked off the job. This was also joined by miners working on other mines and resulted in about 3,000 miners on strike. This obviously decimated the local economy and although there was no violence at first, the sheriff requested federal troops to intervene and end the strike. The atmosphere was influenced by the nearing of America’s entrance into the war in Europe and the local authorities framed their request for troops with the accusation that the strike was part of a German and anti-American plot. The photo below was taken during the Bisbee AZ strikes.

bisbee arizona strikers in 1917What led up to the larger trouble to come in Bisbee actually occurred a bit earlier in Jerome Arizona as a result of strikes there. Local authorities and a group representing mining interest ejected about 100 miners, put them in jail and later deported over sixty of them on a train to Needles California. Phelps Dodge learned of what happened in Jerome and feeling it was a success for the mine owners, organized, along with local authorities, a deputized posse of some 2,000 men from Bisbee and nearby Douglas Arizona. On July 12, 1917, over 2,000 deputized men swept through the entire town of Bisbee and arrested some 2,000 men accused of everything from disturbing the peace to treason. The arrested men were told they would be freed to go back to work if they denounced the IWW union. About seven hundred did and the remainder were eventually put into twenty three railroad cattle cars. The train went eastward and ended up a bit past Columbus New Mexico. On the journey, while the train stopped for water, machine guns and posse members stood guard. It was also reported afterward that executives from Phelps Dodge took over the telephone and telegraph system in Bisbee to prevent news of the deportation from getting out. The deportees were escorted by troops to outside of Columbus New Mexico where they were maintained by the Government (War Department) until the middle of September. The incarceration lasted some three months. The photo below is of an IWW strike in New Yor City in 1914.

IWW demonstration in new yorkInterestingly enough, the news reporting of the forced deportation incident did not raise public ire. Most stories carried by newspapers editorialized that the workers must have been very unruly for the deportation to take place. By and large, the reporting of the time was in favor of the mine owners. Some stories suggested that the miners were fortunate they weren’t sent to prison. Probably the most noteworthy reaction was the statement uttered by former President Teddy Roosevelt who said “no human being in his senses doubts that the men deported from Bisbee were bent on destruction and murder.” I would have to conclude that the statement made by Roosevelt was colored by the events of the time, namely the warfare going on in Europe. What began as a labor dispute and work stoppage at the Phelps Dodge mines in Bisbee turned into one of the largest vigilante action against union members ever undertaken in the United States.

The Army census data concerning the Bisbee deportation which was collected shows that of those workers deported, 199 were native-born Americans, 468 were citizens, 472 were registered under the selective-draft law, and 433 were married. Of the foreign-born, over twenty nationalities were represented, including 141 British, 82 Serbians, and 179 Slavs. Surprisingly, based on the accusations made by the local Bisbee authorities, Germans and Austro-Hungarians (other than Slavs) were comparatively few.

 

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