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Remembering the Bisbee Deportation of 1917

Remembering the Bisbee Deportation of 1917

This week, on May 1st is May Day or International Worker’s Day in many parts of the world. In America we generally celebrate Labor Day in September, but in Europe and other parts of the world May 1st is a workers holiday that dates back to the 1880s, and was inspired by the Haymarket riots of 1886 in Chicago. The history of labor movements in America has been turbulent at best. The extraction industries that came to define the Western United States would create a high demand for human labor. The difficulty of the work, coupled with sometimes horrific working conditions, would add to tensions between the labor force and the captains of industry.

Perhaps the most infamous event in Arizona labor history is the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, an illegal vigilante action taken against striking copper workers and the residents of Bisbee. The outbreak of the First World War drove copper prices up and turned the Bisbee mine into a 24/7 operation. On June 24, 1917 workers represented by the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) presented a list of demands to the mine owners that included increased safety measures, and a wage system that did not discriminate by race and was not tied to the market price of copper. The demands were rejected and three days later about half of the labor force went on strike. Rumors of sabotage by striking workers helped fuel fears among local businessmen and workers loyal to the mine. Vigilante groups were formed and controlled by Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler. On July 12 about 2,000 “deputies” assembled and began rounding up workers. By 11:00am 1,186 men, many of whom weren’t on strike or even mine workers, were loaded on boxcars and shipped east to New Mexico. The train stopped in Hermanas, N.M. where the men were abandoned without shelter in the desert. Another boxcar eventually brought them food and water. Two days later federal troops would arrive to provide shelter and assistance. President Wilson set up an investigative commission that concluded there was no federal law that applied to prosecute the vigilantes. The state of Arizona took no legal action against the copper companies or vigilantes. A number of lawsuits were filed by the exiled workers. Most of these were dismissed or settled out of court. One did go to trial which ended in a “not guilty” verdict. The event helped crush the labor movement in Arizona, but was influential on the labor movement around the country.

 In addition to books written about the event, U of A’s Special Collections holds many items that cover the deportation. One manuscript collection, “Bisbee deportation legal papers and exhibits, 1919” contains official court documents and exhibits pertaining to two of the lawsuits. This collection contains firsthand accounts of the deportations, court depositions and I.W.W. literature that were entered as evidence in the case. “The Truth about Bisbee” is a typescript collection of primary accounts of the deportation and its aftermath. This collection includes letters from Joseph P. Hodgson, Phelps Dodge manager during the deportation, and recollections of the event from Sheriff Wheeler. “Bisbee Deportation” is a pamphlet with an eyewitness account of the deportation as recalled by George Medigovich many years after the event. Some unique items in our collection include the photos of the actual event that are part of the Arizona/Southwest Photo Collection. The event is such a popular local research subject that in 2005 UA Libraries put together a website that covers the history of the deportation.  This site includes photos, books, articles, video, dissertations as well as primary accounts from newspapers, personal recollections, maps, letters, legal documents and demographic information about the workers.