From the archive
Bisbee hosts remembrances of infamous deportation of union miners
1,286 strikers forced into train cars and dropped in desert one century ago
Sunday, Bisbee wound up a week-long commemoration of the forced removal of nearly 1,300 striking miners from their homes 100 years ago. The event, known as the Bisbee Deportation, hasn’t always been well known, even to people who grew up in the area.
More than a thousand men were forced onto cattle cars at gunpoint on July 12, 1917, and railroaded without food or water to a spot near Columbus, N.M., where they were dropped in the desert.
“I never heard of it at all. Not even the word ‘deportation’,” said Christine Rhodes, a Bisbee native and longtime Cochise County Recorder. “I had never heard about it. I had a reaction. Something that big happened in my hometown and I never heard of it.”
“Don’t you think that’s shocking?” she added.
To some, the fact that the story is not a more prominent part of Arizona lore is no accident.
“They suppressed this history; they kept people from knowing this history for decades,” said Rebecca Orozco, a history instructor at Cochise College and a native of Cochise County. “I went to school here and didn’t know about it. But across the nation it was the labor event of the decade.”
The motives for the Deportation were many: war fervor, distrust of immigrants and Hispanics, and the desire to break the union.
“It was because of the hysteria when the United States entered World War I, the fear of the Germans telling Mexico to distract the United States,” said Rhodes. “There was a fear of foreigners and people who didn’t yet know the language.”
“If you look at the people that were deported, most were recent immigrants,” she added.
Miners in Bisbee had a number of complaints against Phelps Dodge, the largest of the three firms that controlled the mines in the area, and thus the town. Their demands included an end to blasting while men were in the mine, pairs running equipment rather than lone men, and a stop to humiliating physical examinations to counter theft. The leading union for miners, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, was uninterested in organizing the miners, who were mostly Mexicans and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
The radical International Workers of the World, a group of anarchists, socialists and syndicalists known as the Wobblies, stepped in and started organizing in the early months of 1917. They called a strike on June 26 after their demands weren’t met by Phelps Dodge.
Approximately 3,000 workers went on strike. Mine owners and local political leaders, citing the war effort, demanded federal troops be sent in. The calls were ignored, so instead a group of vigilantes called the Citizens’ Protective League was organized.
On July 11, Sheriff Henry Wheeler and mine executives met to organize the deportation. It was to be along the same lines as one in Jerome just a week earlier when 67 Wobblies were loaded on train cars and dropped off in Needles, Calif.
This was to be a much larger effort. On the morning of July 12, the Bisbee Daily Review announced that 2,200 “loyal Americans” from Bisbee and Douglas had been organized to arrest strikers. They hit the streets after sunrise. The majority were un-deputized, but they had white armbands so they could be identified.
They carried lists of IWW members, but also arrested others: people who had supported the union, merchants and sometimes random people.
They were marched to Warren Ballpark, about two miles south of Bisbee. There, surrounded by deputies led by Sheriff Wheeler in a car outfitted with a machine gun, they were given the choice of renouncing the IWW or getting on one of the cattle cars that the local railroad had brought in.
1,286 men refused to renounce the union and were forced on to the train. They were transported 160 miles and dropped off with no food or water at a spot in the desert 10 miles away from Columbus, New Mexico.
The men were eventually given temporary housing in refugee camps that were built for Mexicans escaping from the Revolution. A presidential commission (that included a young Felix Frankfurter) later found that the action was “illegal and without authority.” Federal (but not state) arrest warrants were issued against 21 of the organizers, but the warrants were overturned by the Supreme Court.
It was a bleak day, but there were moments of heroism. Anna Payne confronted Sheriff Wheeler to demand the release her two sons. Orozco portrayed her as they re-enacted the scene at Warren Ballpark on Sunday for a documentary about the Deportation.
“She had a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old. One worked in a grocery store and the was still asleep,” Orozco said while still in costume in a break in taping. “The first refused to put on an armband, so they grabbed him and then came for the brother and dragged out him out of the house.”
Payne, who had only one leg, went to the ballpark to find her boys. She was a far cry from any stereotypes of women in that era being staid and passive.
“She confronts everybody,” she said. “She calls Harry Wheeler a coward. She threatens to smack the guards that are holding her sons.”
“She manages to get them out.”
Bisbee’s week-long commemoration included symposiums and film viewings, and because it’s Bisbee, art shows and music. For event organizers, keeping alive this piece of history is crucial.
“The fact that we’ve done this commemoration week, with all the events we’ve had, and it’s been so well attended, that people understand now,” said Orozco. “It’s been incredible.”
Rhodes was on the committee that has worked for a year to organize the commemoration but admits that she “did the least of all the people.” Still, some work she did decades ago provided some important background for later researchers. Shortly after being elected county recorder, she ran across the forms that Wheeler used to deputize hundreds of the vigilantes that day.
“I found those in the 1970s. When we found those records, people were astonished,” she said. “That was a big thing when those were found, but I found out so much more in this last year.”
After so many years, Rhodes is still shocked at the scale of the events that took place where she grew up.
“This was the biggest mass kidnapping in American history,” she said. “It’s unbelievable what can happen in a small town.”