Ludlow: Killing Our Own

This is another blog article in my series of massacres mostly about Indian fights where the Natives won, but this massacre (a name normally attributed to Native victories) had no Indian participants.

To the contrary, the Ludlow Massacre was a murderous attack on civilian workers by anti-striker detectives and national guardsmen during the Colorado Coalfield War of 1914. The event is named after the mining town of Ludlow (now a ghost town) nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south central Colorado just off Interstate 25, approximately twelve miles north of Trinidad.

“Rise up!” White-haired Fire in the Mines

In Trinidad, Colorado, on September 15, 1913 at the Convention of District 15, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), Mary G. Harris Jones (aka Mother Jones), a be-speckled woman standing five feet tall with silver-white hair approached the podium.

Mother Jones (Mary Jones 1830-1930), Famous Woman Labor Leader, ca. 1910.

In the words of Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle (1906) and King Coal (1917), “There broke out a storm of applause which swelled into a tumult as a little woman came forward on the platform. She was wrinkled and old, dressed in black, looking like somebody’s grandmother; she was, in truth, the grandmother of hundreds of thousands of miners.”

“Rise up and strike!” the charismatic labor activist and organizer said, “Strike and stay with it as we did in West Virginia. We are going to stay here in Southern Colorado until the banner of industrial freedom floats over every coal mine. We are going to stand together and never surrender.

“Pledge to yourselves in this convention to stand as one solid army against the foes of human labor. Think of the thousands who are killed every year and there is no redress for it. We will fight until the mines are made secure and human life valued more than props. Look things in the face. Don’t fear a governor; don’t fear anybody.” Her voice dropped in pitch, the intensity something to physically feel. “You are the biggest part of the population in the state. You create its wealth, so I say, let the fight go on.

“If nobody else will keep on, I will.”

What followed was a massacre of UMWA strikers and their unarmed families by government troops and mine security guards.

Years of Shame

Between 1884 and 1912, Colorado’s fatality rate among miners more than doubled the national average, with 6.81 miners killed for every 1,000 workers. By September 1913 – after months of sporadic strikes and years of deadly mining accidents, the UMWA had suffered enough. The union planned a strike in Colorado’s southern counties in opposition to coal mining companies’ abusive policies and blatant violation of Colorado laws governing safety, pay, and compensation. Mother Jones’s impassioned appeals to strike played no small part.


Armed Strikers Near Trinidad Colorado

A thunderous applause for Mother Jones’ fiery speech motivated a unanimous vote of the convention. With the full backing of the UMWA international board, the strike call went out to all miners in Southern Colorado.

On September 23, twelve thousand miners struck against three mining companies, among them the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), a large steel conglomerate mainly owned and controlled by John D. Rockefeller’s and Jay Gould’s heirs. Among the strikers demands were a ten-per-cent pay raise, the enforcement of an eight-hour work day, and the right to live and trade outside the company-owned town.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike’s declaration, sporadic violence broke out between strikers and the company-backed strikebreakers and mine guards. Mine management viewed the strike as a threat to profits and authorized the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, noted for violent repression of labor unions, to deputize local militia as reinforcements.

Later, Mother Jones, who divided her time between the violent coal fields of West Virginia and Colorado, gave another rousing speech in support of the strike on the steps of the Trinidad Post Office for which she was imprisoned for twenty days for violating court orders. Multiple attempts by strikers and Trinidad residents to liberate her by demonstrations and riots failed. When she was finally released, she saw that over 10,000 strikers and their families had been evicted from their company-owned shanties and were living in tent colonies outside the towns they had once called home.

Baldwin-Felts Death Special

Baldwin-Felts agents began driving around the tent colony at night, terrifying, injuring, and sometimes killing the sleeping miners and their families. Miners established night patrols to ward off the detectives, but they were no match for the “Death Special” an armored vehicle mounted with two machine guns. In response to the terrorism of the agents, the miners and their families dug pits in the earth under their tents, in which they hid at night through winter and spring to avoid being sprayed by bullets. The few occasions they fired back were used as justification for mobilizing the Colorado National Guard.

A rail route passing near the Ludlow Colony began to be used as a guard firing position to harass strikers in early October. Shortly after noon on 9 October, a striker was killed. His death came the same day four pieces of artillery arrived in the strike zone. News of the incident resulted in a strikers’ run on guns in Trinidad. Miners’ rage was further galvanized when a nearby mine in New Mexico collapsed on 22 October, killing 263 miners. Thus began a series of skirmishes, demonstrations, and killings.

On 24 October, the shooting deaths of several strikers by deputies in a town northwest of Trinidad sparked a gun fight in nearby Berwind Canyon. There, the strikers killed a National Guardsman.

Four days later, Colorado Governor Elias M. Ammons ordered state Adjutant General John Chase, who favored an aggressive strategy in dealing with the strikers, to deploy troops along the Colorado and Southern railway to disarm strikers and prevent further violence.

General John Chase

The National Guard began operations the next day by arresting strikers accused of arson and assault. After an agreement between Chase and John R. Lawson, leader of District 15 of the UMWA, the National Guard marched between the mines and tent colonies of Ludlow to implement a disarmament on both sides on 1 November. Strikers at Ludlow created a band to herald the arrival of the soldiers. The National Guard seized twenty to thirty miners’ weapons.

On the morning of 8 November, in nearby La Veta, pro-union men began harassing non-striking and strike-breaking miners (called scabs by strikers). A local miner rejected offers to join the union and barely survived an ambush. Another miner was shot in the head. That same morning, a strikebreaker was shot in the eye then arrested and held for three months on suspicion of knowing who fired the bullet. Later that day, the National Guard reported that strikers assaulted a clerk working at another mine.

The National Guard reported that on 18 November at Piedmont (now a Rockies foothills ghost town) a strike quitter’s home was dynamited. He survived. Four days later a Baldwin-Felts detective was assassinated by a striker who was then sentenced to life for the murder, a conviction ultimately overturned. Violence abated slightly in December, except for a mine guard shot and killed. On December 17, the National Guard reentered the strike zone following a brief moratorium.

1914: A Bad, Bad Year

In January 1914, General Chase implemented a harsh arrest and detention (without charges) policy of miners and sympathizers. Later, a subordinate stated in court, “It is a matter of supreme indifference to General Chase whether men arrested and held by him are guilty or innocent of a crime.” Later in the month, an unexploded bomb was located near the encampment of several National Guardsmen.

The return of Mother Jones to Trinidad on 11 January resulted in significant response. She was arrested shortly after arrival under orders of Governor Ammons and taken to San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad where she was held for nine months. Strikers attempted to liberate Jones by marching on the hospital but failed to secure her release.

The strikers lived through the high Plains winter in some twenty different tent colonies spread across Colorado’s southern coalfield. Ludlow was the largest with about 1300 residents made up of Slavs, Germans, Russians, Portuguese, French, Hungarians, Italians, Greeks, and other nationalities. Community life was well organized with strike relief, medical care, and local government for each colony. Evenings were filled with music.

The Guard’s mission was to maintain the peace, but since mine owners had agreed to pay the state for the cost of the deployment, the objective of pacification was corrupted, and the troops actually caused more trouble. The Guard troops also included many veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection who were conditioned to think of the multi-ethnic miners as inferiors.

After six months of deploying troops to the southern part of the state, and with tensions easing due to the pacifying influence of union leader Louis Tikas, National Guard troops were withdrawn to Denver in mid-April, only to return within a few days.

On a sparkling spring day, the strikers at Ludlow put on an Orthodox Easter celebration for Greek families in the tent colony. The next morning, April 20th, the National Guard opened fire on the sleeping miners. The face-off spanned fourteen hours, during which machinegun fire raked the strikers from an overlooking bluff. Guardsmen also torched the miner’s make-shift shelters. Two women and eleven children hiding in caves were asphyxiated in the fire. The confrontation resulted in the death of twenty-one persons, including three strike leaders, and the peacemaker Tikas who was captured and shot in the back by a guardsman.


Where Two Women and Eleven Children Died

The massacre caused local miners to take up arms en masse. As news of the deaths of women and children spread, the labor leaders issued a call to arms and urged union members to gather arms and ammunition. Subsequently, the strikers began a large-scale guerrilla war, called the Ten Day War, against the mine guards and facilities throughout the southern coalfields. In Trinidad the UMWA openly distributed arms and ammunition to strikers at union headquarters. Over the next ten days, 700 to 1,000 strikers attacked mine after mine, driving off or killing the guards and setting fire to the buildings. At least fifty people, including those at Ludlow, were killed during the fighting. Hundreds of Guard reinforcements were rushed to the coalfields to regain control. The fighting ended only after President Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops. The troops disarmed both sides, displacing and often arresting the militia in the process.

The United Mine Workers of America ran out of money and called off the strike on December 10, 1914. The strikers’ demands were not met, the union did not obtain recognition, and many striking workers were replaced. Furthermore, 408 strikers were arrested, 332 of whom were indicted for murder. Only strike leader John R. Lawson was convicted of murder. The Colorado Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction. Twenty-two National Guardsmen, including ten officers, were court martialed. The officers were found responsible for the deaths of Tikas and other strikers but were acquitted of murder charges.

An estimated 69 to 199 deaths occurred during the strike and related events. Evidence from modern archeological forensic investigation largely supports the strikers’ reports of the event. Historian Thomas G. Andrews has called it the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States.” Historian Howard Zinn further described it as “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history”.

Far from Colorado, World War I began in Europe after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. None at the time could have foreseen the ultimate effect the war would have on the worlds energy supplies and America’s entry in April 1917.

At home, the Ludlow Massacre became a watershed moment in American labor relations. Congress responded to public outrage by directing the House Committee on Mines and Mining to investigate the events. Its report, published in 1915, was influential in promoting child labor laws and an eight-hour work day.

The chief owner of the mine, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was widely excoriated for having bankrolled the bloodbath. After the massacre, Mother Jones was invited to meet face-to-face with Rockefeller. The meeting influenced Rockefeller’s 1915 visit to the Colorado mines and introduction of long-sought reforms.

In 1918, the UMWA erected a granite monument in memory of those who died at the Ludlow Tent Colony Site. Today, the site is owned by the union.

In 1976, a magazine that focuses on news, commentary, and investigative reporting on topics including politics, the environment, human rights, health and culture and whose political inclination is variously described as liberal or progressive was named after Mary “Mother” Jones and is known today as Mother Jones. The magazine bills itself as smart and fearless, a description easily ascribed to its namesake.

On June 23, 2009, Governor William Ritter declared The Ludlow Massacre Memorial a National Historic Landmark. The site of the tent colony was dedicated a National Historic Landmark five days later.

To this day, the Ludlow Massacre is often grouped in Americans’ collective memories as Native butchery. In fact, this horrific event was a blatant case of bloodshed over corporate profits versus workers’ rights.

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