The Bisbee deportation of 1917 - Sheila Bonnand

Vigilantes force strikers to assemble
Vigilantes force strikers to assemble

An overview of the Bisbee deportation, when over 1000 strikers in the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World union were illegally transported by armed vigilantes to New Mexico.

Submitted by Steven. on August 1, 2016

"How it could have happened in a civilized country I'll never know.
This is the only country it could have happened in. As far as we're concerned, we're
still on strike!" ~ Fred Watson

The Bisbee Deportation was still fresh in Fred Watson's mind when interviewed 60 years later. This is not surprising, because on July 12, 1917, Watson and 1,185 other men were herded into filthy boxcars by an armed vigilante force in Bisbee, Arizona, and abandoned across the New Mexico border. The Bisbee Deportation of 1917 was not only a pivotal event in Arizona's labor history, but one that had an effect on labor activities throughout the country. What led to this course of action by the Bisbee authorities?

Arizona in the early 1900s was home to huge copper mining operations. The managers and engineers controlling these mines answered primarily to eastern stockholders. During World War I, the price of copper reached unprecedented heights and the companies reaped enormous profits. By March of 1917, copper sold for $.37 a pound; it had been $.13 1/2 at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. With five thousand miners working around the clock, Bisbee was booming.

To maintain high production levels, the pool of miners was increased from an influx of southern European immigrants. Although the mining companies paid relatively high wages, working conditions for miners were no better than before the copper market crash in 1907-1908. Furthermore, the inflation caused by World War I increased living expenses and eroded any gains the miners had realized in salaries.

The mining companies controlled Bisbee, not only because they were the primary employers but because local businesses depended heavily on the mines and miners to survive. Even the local newspaper was owned by one of the major mining companies, Phelps Dodge.

Prior to 1917, union activity had repeatedly been stifled. Between 1906 and 1907, for example, about 1,200 men were fired for for supporting a union. Conversely, the Bisbee Industrial Association, an alliance that was pro-company and anti-union, was easily organized around the same time. Finally, in 1916, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter (formerly the Western Federation of Miners) successfully enrolled 1,800 miners.

The Industrial Workers of the World's (I.W.W.) presence in Arizona was also increasing. Founded in 1905, the I.W.W. never recruited more than five percent of the trade unionists in the country, but many others were exposed to its ideas. Some of the I.W.W.'s tactics, such as advocating slowdowns and sabotage, were of great concern to the controlling interests. In addition, the I.W.W. adopted two successful recruiting practices. They actively recruited miners from minority groups. As a result, the IWW was particularly successful recruiting Bisbee's Mexican workers, who were routinely given lower paying jobs outside of the mine. The I.W.W. was also successful recruiting southern European immigrants, who were allowed in the mines but given lower paying jobs.

On June 24, 1917, the I.W.W. presented the Bisbee mining companies with a list of demands. These demands included improvements to safety and working conditions, such as requiring two men on each machine and an end to blasting in the mines during shifts. Demands were also made to end discrimination against members of labor organizations and the unequal treatment of foreign and minority workers. Furthermore, the unions wanted a flat wage system to replace sliding scales tied to the market price of copper. The copper companies refused all I.W.W. demands, using the war effort as justification. As a result, a strike was called, and by June 27 roughly half of the Bisbee work force was on strike.

Tensions heightened when rumors spread asserting that the unions had been infiltrated by pro-Germans. Another rumor suggested that weapons and dynamite were cached around Bisbee for sabotage. The Citizen's Protective League, an anti-union organization formed during a previous labor dispute, was resurrected by local businessmen and put under the control of Sheriff Harry Wheeler. A group of miners loyal to the mining companies also formed the Workman's Loyalty League. On July 11, secret meetings of these two so-called "vigilante groups" were held to discuss ways to deal with the strike and the strikers.

The next day, starting at 2:00 a. m., calls were made to Loyalty Leaguers as far away as Douglas, Arizona. By 5:00 a. m., about 2,000 deputies assembled. All wore white armbands to distinguish them from other mining workers. No federal or state officials were notified of the vigilantes' plans. The Western Union telegraph office was seized, preventing any communication to the town.

At 6:30 a. m., Sheriff Harry Wheeler gave orders to begin the roundup. Throughout Bisbee, men were roused from their beds, their houses, and the streets. Though armed, the vigilantes were instructed to avoid violence. However, reports of beatings, robberies, vandalism, and abuse of women later surfaced.

Two men died during the roundup. James Brew shot Loyalty Leaguer, Orson McRae, after warning McRae he would shoot anyone who attempted to take him. Brew was in turn shot and killed by men accompanying McRae.

The vigilantes rounded up over 1,000 men, many of whom were not strikers -- or even miners -- and marched them two miles to the Warren Ballpark. There they were surrounded by armed Loyalty Leaguers and urged to quit the strike. Anyone willing to put on a white armband was released. At 11:00 a. m. a train arrived, and 1,186 men were loaded aboard boxcars inches deep in manure. Also boarding were 186 armed guards; a machine gun was mounted on the top of the train. The train traveled from Bisbee to Columbus, New Mexico, where it was turned back because there were no accommodations for so many men. On its return trip the train stopped at Hermanas, New Mexico, where the men were abandoned. A later train brought water and food rations, but the men were left without shelter until July 14th when U. S. troops arrived. The troops escorted the men to facilities in Columbus. Many were detained for several months.

Meanwhile, Bisbee authorities mounted guards on all roads into town to insure that no deportees returned and to prevent new "troublemakers" from entering. A kangaroo court was also established to try other people deemed disloyal to mining interests. These people also faced deportation.

Several months after the deportation, President Woodrow Wilson set up the Federal Mediation Commission to investigate the Bisbee Deportation. The Commission discovered that no federal law applied. It referred the issue to the State of Arizona while recommending that such events be made criminal by federal statute. They did hold that the copper companies were at fault in the deportation, not the I.W.W.

The State of Arizona took no action against the copper companies. Approximately 300 deportees brought civil suits against the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad and the copper companies. None of these suits came to trial because of out-of-court settlements. Suits were also filed in state court against 224 vigilantes. Sadly, the only suit brought to trial ended in a "not guilty" verdict. The rest of the cases were dismissed.

Although efforts to organize pro-labor unions in Bisbee were crushed in 1917, the Deportation boosted I.W.W. efforts across the country.

Sheila Bonnand, 1997


Lynn R Bailey, Bisbee, Queen of the Copper Camps (Westernlore Press, 1983).

Annie M. Cox, History of Bisbee, 1877 to 1937. (University of Arizona, 1938).

Rob E. Hanson The Great Bisbee I.W.W. Deportation of July 12, 1917 (Signature Press, 1989).

Fred Watson, "Still on Strike! Recollections of a Bisbee Deportee" Journal of Arizona History 18 (Summer 1977): 171-184.

Taken from