The Bisbee Deportation, 1917

One hundred years ago Bisbee, Arizona, hosted the beginning of the defeat of one of the world’s boldest and most effective labor organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies, when 1186 striking copper mine workers were rounded up, loaded into cattle cars, then dumped in the desert of southwest New Mexico at the behest of the mine company owners. Bisbee marked the historic deportation of July 12, 1917, with tributes and activities during all of last July.

Robert Houston’s Bisbee ’17, first published by Pantheon Books in 1979 and reissued by the University of Arizona Press in 1999, provides a moving fictional account of those events, bringing some of the principal actors on the scene at the time to life.  These include Sheriff Harry Wheeler, IWW organizer Big Bill Haywood, Calumet and Arizona Mining Company General Manager John Greenway, and Phelps Dodge titan Walter Douglas, the son of Bisbee founder Dr. James Douglas.

The only two men who lost their lives in the deportation, Orson P. McRae and James Brew also figure prominently in the novel. McRae was a shift boss, acting on behalf of the mine owners. Brew was an IWW organizer, who refused to submit to the vigilantes. After he warned that he would not come out alive and would shoot anyone who entered his room, he shot and killed McRae who did so and was himself shot and killed by McRae’s companions.

Houston’s novel also brings in central IWW figures, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; her consort at the time, Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, and Mother Mary Jones, who in historical fact were not in Bisbee at the time of the general strike. Another important character in the novel, Bo Whitley, appears to have been modeled after Flynn’s ex-husband, Jack Jones, a miner whom she met in an IWW organizing campaign in the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. Jones was also not present in Bisbee during the strike. In any case, the inclusion of so many historical IWW figures and the invented character Art Matthews, portrayed as a Princeton student and son of a mining company executive sympathetic with the miners, makes a good story.

The Bisbee deportation highlights a critical moment in US labor history. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, copper was the mainstay of the Arizona economy. In 1917, Bisbee was the largest city in Arizona, with a population in excess of 25,000. In 1877, an Army reconnaissance unit was sent to the Mule Mountains and a civilian tracker found signs of mineral deposits including lead, copper, and silver.

The first claims were filed by George Warren, who involved Judge DeWitt Bisbee and other investors to provide capital to develop the mines. Warren soon gambled away his claims and died in poverty in 1893. The investors brought in James Douglas, a Canadian mining engineer, who had developed new smelting techniques. Douglas’s company, Phelps Dodge, bought out the owners in 1885 and developed this extremely productive underground mine. With the needed technical staff and other labor, Bisbee arose quickly and chaotically as a boom town around the prosperous mines.

By 1900, Phelps Dodge’s Copper Queen mine had become the most important copper mine in Arizona and one of the most productive in the world. Its ore ran to 23 % copper, unusually rich. Using all available wood to fire the furnaces, the mine owners completely deforested the surrounding hills. The resulting erosion produced devastating floods during the summer rains, and with no organized sewerage system, the filth and stench made life miserable for Bisbee residents. When there was no rain, and no water, fires destroyed the homes and businesses of Bisbee.

Given the need to relocate the miners and their families, James Douglas built the company town to the southeast, named Warren for the original claim owner. Douglas provided a street car to transport workers between Warren and the principal mine, located in what is now Bisbee’s central business area. In Brewery Gulch, the canyon between the mine and Warren, rooming houses, bars, brothels, and casinos served the young male miners.

In contrast to the miserable living and working conditions of the Bisbee miners, Douglas built his home, office, and the opulent Copper Queen Hotel on slightly higher ground opposite the entrance to the mine shaft as an ostentatious display of wealth, including English oak-paneled walls, Italian mosaics and a Tiffany glass cathedral ceiling. Phelps-Dodge built its own spur, called the El Paso and Southwest Railroad, to connect with the Southern Pacific Railroad at El Paso. Walter Douglas, James’s son, assumed control of the Bisbee mines, which he visited regularly in his private rail car coming in from his home in New York.

Douglas needed skilled miners for work in the Bisbee mine shafts. He found them mostly in eastern European countries, where political turmoil was displacing many of them.

Ethnic rivalries arose between the Cornish “Cousin Jacks” and other Anglo workers and the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Italians brought in by Douglas. Mexican workers were only allowed to work in the smelters and elsewhere on the surface at a lower wage scale. This policy of divide and conquer allowed the mine owners to resist unionization efforts and break early strike attempts.

Frank Little, the son of a western settler and a native American woman, went to Bisbee in 1903 looking for work. He went on to become a national organizer for the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and then the IWW.  Three years later the first Bisbee labor union was organized by the WFM. Phelps-Dodge and the other mine owners refused to recognize the union, offered a very modest wage hike, and fired over 400 union supporters. Another prolonged attempt was made in 1907 with better results. In 1916 the WFM changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFofL).

During 1914 and 1915, the IWW, led by Bill Haywood, Vincent St. John, and Frank Little, gained control of the IUMMSW and rejected the AFofL policies of conciliation with the mine owners on critical issues, made more radical demands, and sought one big industrial union of all working peoples of the world. The IWW gained ascendancy with protests against the abuses of the workers when the mine owners’ profits reached obscene levels after the War began in Europe.

An important strike at Phelps-Dodge’s mines in Clifton and Morenci in 1915-1916 was largely successful, when the miners settled on an offer granting part of their demands without violence. At the Ajo mine, a walkout that began in November 1916 was settled peacefully after 60 days.

Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, separate from New Mexico, largely because mining companies like Phelps-Dodge sought to gain political control and limit the advances of the unions, which had the support of many territorial politicians, including George W. P. Hunt, a Democrat and Arizona’s first governor as a state. Hunt worked easily with the IUMMSW but was not close to the IWW. The Arizona state Constitution embraced labor demands, as well as progressive political reforms like the initiate and recall.

In opposition to the pro-labor progressive politics of Governor Hunt, Phelps-Dodge provided financial and organizational support to Thomas E. Campbell, a Republican, in the 1916 elections. Campbell was declared elected in 1916 by a 30 vote margin. Hunt took the matter to the courts, and although an Arizona Superior Court initially ruled in favor of Campbell, the Arizona Supreme Court decision in December 1917 awarded the victory to Hunt. So, Campbell, backed by Phelps-Dodge, was Governor during the general strike and deportation, June 27-July 12, 1917.

In 1917 there were three copper mining companies in Bisbee: Phelps Dodge, the largest, Calumet and Arizona, and Shattuck. The IWW won control of the Bisbee mines in May 1917, although many of the Bisbee miners were affiliated with the IUMMSW or both unions. The mine owners, supported by the new governor, tightened their control, imposed wage reductions, and adamantly refused union demands. That political situation led both the IUMMSW and the IWW to sponsor non-violent and modestly successful strikes in many western states.

The call for the strike in the Bisbee mines came from the local organizers, Ben H. Webb, Michael C. Sullivan, W. H. Davis, J. G. Payne, Adolphus S. Embree and Charles E. Tannehill, who were coordinating with Frank Little and Arizona Secretary Grover H. Perry of the IWW leadership and the leaders of parallel strikes in Jerome, Miami, Globe, and Ajo in Arizona, and Butte, Montana. The IWW leadership in Chicago, including Secretary General Haywood, was informed of the plans, but did not respond with enthusiasm, since they believed the relationship of forces was not favorable.

The six-hour day was discussed, but the actual strikers’ demands, presented by IWW Local 800, far from radical, were:

  1. Abolition of the physical examination;
  2. Two men to work on machines;
  3. Two men to work in raises;
  4. Discontinuance of all blasting during shifts;
  5. Abolition of all bonus and contract work;
  6. Abolition of the sliding scale of wages; all men working underground to be paid a minimum scale of $6.00 per shift, and top men $5.55;
  7. No discrimination against members of any organization.

The strike began on June 27 and was sustained until July 12.

Given the strategic importance of copper in the war effort, the mine owners began attacking union leaders as unpatriotic and promoted the organization of loyalty leagues in opposition to the strikes. The United States was more than two months into war with Germany when the Bisbee strike began. Immediately, the New York Times blamed it on the Germans.

The IWW opposed both the War and conscription and demanded worldwide labor solidarity against the capitalist class. It sought to organize all workers, regardless of ethnic origin. That position strengthened it among immigrant mine workers and cross-border Mexican laborers.

In Mexico, a major copper mine strike had occurred in 1906 across the border from Bisbee in Cananea, Sonora, where the mine was owned and operated by an American, William C. Greene. That strike is considered a harbinger of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. The revolutionary forces by 1915 were divided into three factions. Venustiano Carranza assumed the presidency with peasant leaders Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata vying for power in opposition. US President Wilson recognized the Carranza government in October 1915 in a move to diminish the power and influence of the Villa and Zapata forces.

In response, in March 1916, Villa’s bands crossed the border with 1500 men, raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killed 19 people and left the town in flames before retreating back across the border. President Wilson sent an expeditionary force under General John J. Pershing into Mexico to pursue Villa, unsuccessfully and with no opposition from Carranza. That incident was widely publicized in the US press.

Then in January 1917, the Zimmermann telegrams, were made public. That secret German diplomatic initiative proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico in the War, with the return to Mexico of its former lands taken by the United States in the 19th Century, assuming that United States would be defeated in the War.

The combination of these incidents made it easier for the US press to associate both the Mexican revolutionaries and the striking copper miners with German interests. Recent research in German archives has revealed no German role in either the border raids or the mineworkers strikes. Moreover, the Carranza government, officially neutral, was quietly negotiating with both the Germans and the United States, but never seriously considered entering the War on the side of Germany.

An IWW-led strike at a Phelps Dodge copper mine in Jerome, Arizona, began on July 6, but was opposed by the IUMMSW, thus dividing the Jerome Miners Union, many of whom belonged to both unions. Violence ensued, and on July 10, several hundred armed non-IWW mine workers along with other local citizens rounded up 104 IWW members and hauled them off to the Jerome jail. Following intervention by Governor Campbell, 37 were released on promises of “good behavior” and returned to work. The remaining 67 mine workers were taken forcibly to Jerome Junction, 27 miles away, where they were met by Deputy Sheriff John H. Robinson and a large number of armed posse who loaded them onto a Santa Fe Railroad train bound for Needles, California. Some declared their intention to return to Jerome, but few ever did. This prior deportation set the stage for the larger one in Bisbee two days later. The decision to deport the striking mine workers in Bisbee came in an order from Walter Douglas.

Greenway and another copper mine official, George B. Wilcox, were Spanish-American War veterans, as was Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler. All three had been in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Greenway and Wilcox convinced Wheeler that the IWW was collaborating with the Germans and needed to be removed from the scene. Sheriff Wheeler, who was coordinating closely with Greenway, accepted and led Douglas’s proposal for the deportation, which began on July 12, organized the armed posse of nearly 2200 local people, including a small contingent of the mine workers, into the Workmen’s Loyalty League, and attempted to break or co-opt the strike.

Following their seizure of the Western Union telegraph and radio services, the vigilantes rounded up the striking mine workers from their homes and rooming houses in the early morning and escorted them to the post office plaza, where the mine owners demanded they return to work. Those who refused were marched at gun point to the baseball park, several miles down the canyon where, under the hot southern Arizona sun, they awaited the arrival of a train. When it arrived two hours later, they were herded into 23 boxcars that had been brought in by the copper mining companies for that purpose. The boxcars had been used to transport cattle, and the floors were covered with manure that reached over the tops of the miners’ shoes. There was no water or food in most of the boxcars.

“Loading the Cars.” Photograph from the University of Arizona Library Special Exhibition on the Bisbee Deportation.

The train departed from a point near the baseball field in Warren at noon and arrived in Columbus, New Mexico at 9:30 pm. The deportees were not allowed to disembark there, since New Mexico governor, Washington E. Lindsey, a Republican, ordered the arrest of those in charge and the return of the train to Arizona. The train then moved west about 20 miles to Hermanas, New Mexico, where the deportees disembarked. From there, they were escorted by US Army troops to nearby Camp Furlong, where they were fed and held pending further military orders.

Upon receiving news in Chicago of the Bisbee deportation, Haywood wired President Wilson on July 13th and 15th, demanding protection and the return of the deported miners to their jobs, but he received no response. Most of the deportees stayed in New Mexico while demanding the right to return to Bisbee and their work. They brought civil suits against the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad and the copper companies, but none ever went to trial, because of settlements out-of-court. Weeks later, when no resolution came, they dispersed and sought work elsewhere. A few of the deported miners eventually returned to Bisbee and their families and some were given their old jobs back.

In Bisbee, the Bisbee Vigilance Committee, presided over by Miles Merrill, President of the Workmen’s Loyalty League, now ruled the town, broadcast verbal abuse against the IWW and stood guard to prevent the return of the striking miners.

Further deportations of IWW union leaders occurred at a lead mine in Flat River, Missouri, on July 14th and of striking coal miners in Gallup, New Mexico, on July 31, 1917. The Butte, Montana, strike was still going strong then. Rival IMMSWU and IWW unions were facing off with three rival copper mining companies. At the largest mine, owned by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, the IWW held sway, when organizer Frank Little arrived from Globe, Arizona, in late July to help consolidate the strike, although he was still recovering from a broken leg. On August 1, 1917, masked vigilantes, suspected to have been organized by Pinkerton guards, went to Little’s hotel room before dawn and took him to a car, where he was tied to the bumper and dragged to a railroad trestle outside of town, where he was lynched and left with a note reading “Others take notice. First and last warning.” The police made no effort to find and bring to justice Little’s assassins.

The US press gave a lot of attention to the Bisbee deportation. President Woodrow Wilson
dispatched former Governor Hunt to Globe, not Bisbee, Arizona, to negotiate a settlement with striking miners there on July 12, 1917, the same day as the deportation. He later set up a Federal Mediation Commission to investigate the Bisbee action. That Commission included Felix Frankfurter, who later ascended to the US Supreme Court. It went to Bisbee and took depositions there November 1-5. It found liability for the deportation on the part of the copper companies, and no fault for the IWW. It also determined that no federal law applied, although Arizona law clearly made kidnapping illegal. It referred the issue to the State of Arizona and recommended a new federal statute to criminalize such activity.

In May 1918, the US Department of Justice obtained and indictment of 21 Phelps Dodge and Calumet and Arizona executives, including Walter S. Douglas, Copper Queen Mine General Manager Grant Dowell, and Loyalty League organizer, Miles Merrill. Sheriff Wheeler, John Greenway, and Walter Douglas’s brother, James Douglas, Jr., could not be arrested, since they were serving in the War in France, and Walter Douglas, who was in New York, did not appear in court. The case, United States v Wheeler, was thrown out by Judge William Morrow in San Francisco, as a matter to be resolved by the State of Arizona, not in federal jurisdiction. The Justice Department appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which upheld the district court decision on an 8 to 1 vote, with only Chief Justice John H. Clark dissenting.

The State of Arizona failed to take action against the copper companies. Suits were filed in state court against 224 of the vigilantes. Only one mining company official was ever brought to trial in Arizona for his responsibility in the Bisbee deportation, Harry Wooten, a Phelps Dodge employee, Loyalty League member, and deputy, in place of Sheriff Harry Wheeler. That trial ended in a not guilty verdict. The rest of the cases were dismissed.

Phelps Dodge began open pit mining operations in 1917. Open pit mining requires less skilled labor, although it leaves behind horrendous environmental conditions. So, it was convenient to dispose of the skilled labor force in the mineshafts and still be able to produce copper at a substantial profit. Phelps Dodge’s operations continued without significant interruption until the Bisbee mines were closed in 1974. Having broken the back of the labor movement in Arizona, Walter Douglas controlled the Bisbee operations until he retired in 1930 and shared those in Jerome, Arizona, with his brother Rawhide Jimmy Douglas. He died wealthy at his home in Chauncey, New York in 1946.

The Lavender Pit Mine in Bisbee, September 2017. Photo by Carl Michael Waag (used by permission).

Jack Greenway had been active in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912. Following the deportation, he enrolled in the US Army and served in the War in Europe. He died in New York in 1926. His widow, Isabella Greenway, mentioned in Bisbee ’17, had been a classmate of Eleanor Roosevelt at Miss Chapin’s School in New York City and was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She represented Arizona in Congress, as a Democrat, 1933-1937, where she supported progressive policies on labor relations, including the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act. In 1929, she opened the Arizona Inn in Tucson, which is still operated by her descendants.

Sheriff Harry Wheeler resigned in March 1918 to enlist in the US Army for service in France. He was exempted from federal charges related to the deportation because of his military service. After the War, he returned to Bisbee and ran for Cochise County Sheriff again, but he was defeated in the Democratic primary. He died of pneumonia in Bisbee in 1925.

In 1918, on vague conspiracy charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, 101 members of the IWW leadership were charged and convicted for their active role in opposing the US involvement in World War I. Bill Haywood and 14 others were sentenced to 20 years in prison. While free on appeal in 1921, Haywood jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union, where he was granted refuge. He died there in 1928.

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The Bisbee deportation was a turning point in the history of labor-management relations in the United States. Regrettably, it was not an event that favored the interests of working people. One hundred years later, it is important to understand it in its context and learn from the experience. The racism, militarism, xenophobia, patriotic zeal, and anti-democratic politics that were on display in 1917 are still with us in 2017. Organized labor had more power in those days and began to lose it after 1917, although there was a resurgence between the 1930s and 1960s.  Today, as corporate power has reached unprecedented levels of concentration, and working people are increasingly marginalized, there is an urgent need for the 99 per cent to assume creative new approaches, as the IWW did in its day, to displace the near total power of the 1 per cent and achieve what the IWW was unable to do in its day.

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Much of this summary was gleaned from Northern Arizona University professor James W. Byrkit’s book, Forging the Copper Collar, published by the University of Arizona Press in 1982. Additional useful information was found in the Cochise County Historical Journal Volume 47, Number 1 – Spring-Summer 2017, the 100th Anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation issue.  An interesting article, from the perspective of a mining company engineer and executive, that treats the history of the Copper Queen Mine and also discusses the rise of the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company and Phelps Dodge’s negotiations with the Southern Pacific around the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, is Richard W. Graeme’s “The Copper Queen Consolidated Mining company: A History of the Company and its Employees, 1885-1917” in Mining History Journal, volume 6, pages 39-51, 1999.

The University of Arizona Library Exhibit on the Bisbee Deportation holds valuable photographs taken at the time of the deportation and a list of the 900 of the 1186 deportees whose identities could be traced, including their nationality, immigration status, marital status, children, property ownership, bank accounts, and purchase of liberty bonds. That list records 35 nationalities, of which Mexican was the largest number, 229, followed by Americans, 167. I also learned a lot from a visit to Bisbee and its Mining and History Museum on September 15, 2017.

A British-born survivor of the deportation, Fred Watson, gave an interview to the Journal of Arizona History titled “Still on Strike: Recollections of a Bisbee deportee” published in its Summer 1977 issue, volume 18, pages 171-184. The 1999 University of Arizona Press edition of Houston’s Bisbee ’17 is still in print.

9 thoughts on “The Bisbee Deportation, 1917”

  1. Thank you for this informative and thoughtful article. My Finnish grandfather was a union organizer, miner, and one of the deportees. He was never able to return to Bisbee. My aunt told us that families in Bisbee helped my then pregnant grandmother and four children get by until my grandfather and others made their way back. She said that the returning men, with help from people in Bisbee, set up a temporary camp outside of the city where their families joined them. My grandfather had to change his name from Toikkanen to Henderson to find work. I imagine most of the miners were blacklisted. The family ended up in Chloride, AZ, where my grandfather worked in the mines until they moved to California.

    • Susan, please contact me at I’m researching the deportees and would like to get information about your grandfather. I know that the entire Finnish population of Bisbee was cleaned out as a consequence of the Deportation. Your grandfather, I believe, is listed as Reina Teikkanen on the census taken by the army of the deportees at Camp Furlong, Columbus, NM

      Bisbee, AZ

  2. Hello Mr. Moore. I’m the great-granddaughter of Harry Wootton you spelled (Wooten). I enjoyed reading your article through it I was able to learn about a book and a documentary that was done about the Bisbee deportation. I would also like to clarify the little information you wrote about my great-grandfather not that it matters to the main content about your article, but its important to me being a descendant of Harry Wootton. Harry Wootton was not a miner who worked for Phelps Dodge. He was a business owner and one of the many men (vigilantes) in Bisbee who were deputized by Sheriff Wheeler.

  3. Hi. Having taken a DNA test last year to try to determine the identity of my father I now know without doubt that my Grandfather was George Fearon. He worked as a miner in Cumberland in North West England. In August 1914 he left England to work in the mines in Bisbee. During my research I was interested to learn of the Bisbee Deportations and wondered if he was one of the deportees. Imagine my surprise when I learned quite the opposite. In actual fact he was one of the vigilantes and appeared in court in July 1919. His wife and three children returned to England the same year and they never saw each other again. She remarried in 1930. I have tried to find what happened to George but the last record I have been able to find is in the Bisbee Daily Review, Sunday December 19, 1920 Where he appears in a show at the Bisbee Grand.

    • Raymond, I am researching the links – and there are many – between my home town of Cleator Moor, Cumbria and Bisbee. Many iron ore miners left the Cumbrian town to work in the Copper mines of Bisbee. Was George from Cleator Moor?

      • Sorry to take so long replying but I have only just read your message. My grandfather George Fearon was born in Cleator Moor in 1890 and since my last message a genealogist has confirmed that George’s second son, John Linton Fearon is my father. I have met my brother, Peter Linton Fearon on four occasions. Peter knows little about George because his father and three brothers relocated to to 11 Trumpet Road with their mother in 1919

  4. I am a great grandchild of Walter Douglas, until the film Bisbee 17 I had no idea this was part of our family history. Thank you for this unvarnished look at history – there’s an HBO series here.


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