Violence in the American West—Unions and Coal Miner Rights

From the lecture series: The American West — History, Myth, and Legacy

By Patrick N. Allitt, PhD, Emory University

Some of the worst violence in the American West of the 1800’s involved class conflict at metal ore mines and coal mines. Mine owners tended to be tough, hard-bitten entrepreneurs with a broad streak of ruthlessness. Working conditions were chronically unsafe in their mines: Death from fire, from collapsed tunnels, and gas inhalation were common.

Photograph of the ruins of the Ludlow Colony near Trinidad, Colorado.
Ruins of the Ludlow Mining Colony near Trinidad, Colorado, following an attack by the Colorado National Guard April 20, 1914. This was the most violent episode in the western mining patches resulting from strike-breaking. (Image: By Bain News Service/United States Library of Congress)

To make matters worse the mine owners rarely paid their workforce in money; instead, they paid the men in scrip, a kind of private currency that the workers were forced to redeem at company-owned stores, where prices were high and quality low. In remote mountain districts the workers also usually lived in company housing, which made them exceptionally vulnerable to the will of the mine owners.

The Formation of Unions

Photograph of Coal miners in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, in 1900.
Unions were formed to campaign for the safety and fair treatment of mine workers. (Image: By Unknown/Courtesy Pennsylvania State Archives)

The workers reacted by creating unions. The hard rock workers, who mined metals, formed the Western Federation of Miners, and the coal miners formed the United Mine Workers. The unions campaigned for safer conditions, a “check-weighman” to ensure that the ore and coal they brought to the surface was being weighed honestly, an eight-hour workday, and collective bargaining rights for the unions themselves.

The owners fought tooth and nail against the unions, fearing loss of control and a loss of profitability. If the state authorities and the local community supported the men, they could sometimes win their strikes. That’s what happened in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1894, when Governor Davis Waite sent in the militia to safeguard the miners when most of the townspeople agreed with the strikers’ cause.

This is a transcript from the video series The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Waite belonged to the radical Populist Party and had won election the previous year, just as the great depression of the 1890s began. He visited the scene of the strike and persuaded the owners not to extend the workday from eight to 10 hours—with no pay increase—as they had intended.

States Side With Unions

Later governors, Republicans and Democrats, more often sided with the mine owners, from inclination and fear that strikes would damage their state’s reputation for business. Governor James Peabody, for example, issued court injunctions and sent in the state militia to help the mine owners, when the Cripple Creek miners struck again in 1903.

Later governors, Republicans and Democrats, more often sided with the mine owners, from inclination and from fear that strikes would damage their state’s reputation for business.

This time the union was defeated, many of its leaders were expelled from the community, and the company hired strikebreakers instead, and neither did the mine owners hesitate to infiltrate the unions with spies, and to kidnap, beat up, or intimidate particularly dedicated union leaders.

State support for mine owners proved decisive in Idaho, too. A trainload of miners dynamited the factory of the Bunker Hill Mining Company in 1899 because the company refused to recognize the union. The structure, valued at half a million dollars, was completely demolished in the blast. The union had used dynamite in an earlier strike of 1892 to destroy an ore-processing plant at the town of Gem, and remembered the spectacular effects of this tactic.

This time around, however, the company retaliated by persuading the Governor, Frank Steunenberg, to call on the president for Federal troops, who arrested nearly a thousand miners. They were herded into enclosures known as “bullpens” and left there for months with no due process—some were stranded for more than a year. When a local newspaper editor criticized the situation, his paper was closed, he was accused of sedition, and was forced to join the suffering men in their vermin-infested makeshift prison. This collective violation of the miners’ civil rights broke the union.

Harry Orchard from a photograph taken in January 1906, shortly after his arrest for the murder of ex-Governor Steunenberg.
Harry Orchard assassinated Governor Steunenberg for siding with the mine owners during the Cripple Creek miners strike in 1903. (Image: Unknown/The confessions and autobiography of Harry Orchard, published by The McClure Company, photo page between pages 226 and 227/Public domain)

One of the miners, Harry Orchard, later assassinated Governor Steunenberg, feeling a particular sense of grievance because Steunenberg had originally been a Populist, elected largely with miners’ votes. Orchard also suspected that the governor had been bribed by the mine owners to change sides.

A sensational trial ensued, in which Orchard alleged that he had been hired by Big Bill Haywood, and two other leaders of the Western Federation of Miners. Haywood was an anarcho-syndicalist, who believed in class warfare and was willing to use violence to smash capitalism. He was one of the founders of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, America’s most revolutionary trade union.

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In the short term, however, Haywood was vindicated, thanks to the courtroom performance of his attorney, Clarence Darrow. The jury found him not guilty, whereas Orchard went to prison for the rest of his life, escaping the death penalty only because of another governor’s grant of clemency.

Downfall of the Strikebreakers

The most violent episode in the western mining patches came in 1914, during a long winter strike in Ludlow, Colorado, at mines owned by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. This was an area, just north of the New Mexico line, in which the unions had previously been defeated by a combination of employer intimidation, use of injunctions and the militia, and by the employment of strikebreakers.

Three women, wives of striking coal miners, and their children stand outside of a tent at the Ludlow colony, the site of the coal strikes and the subsequent massacre, in Ludlow, Colorado in Las Animas County. 1 January 1914.
On April 20, 1914, the militia fired a machine gun into the tent colony and set fire to it killing women and children. (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

The strikebreakers themselves, a decade after their first arrival on the scene, were now as burdened as the men they had displaced, and finally rebelled against oppressive working conditions in September 1913. Many of them were recent immigrants from Italy, Greece, and the Slavic lands. Forced to leave the company houses in which they were living, they created a tent colony, and stayed in it through the winter, despite bitter temperatures in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The company responded by hiring armed men and calling out the state militia; a tense standoff ensued as the strikers tried to prevent a new generation of strikebreakers from taking their jobs.

On April 20, 1914, the militia fired a machine gun into the tent colony and set fire to it.

On April 20, 1914, the militia fired a machine gun into the tent colony and set fire to it. At least 30 people were killed, including two women, and 11 children asphyxiated by smoke in a cellar under one of the tents. Enraged workers retaliated, attacking company property and militiamen throughout the region, killing dozens more and suffering more casualties in return.

Finally, President Woodrow Wilson intervened by sending a regiment of the United States Cavalry to the area to restore peace. The congressional hearings that followed depicted John D. Rockefeller, owner of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, in an unfavorable light. He had already been singled out as an unscrupulous robber-baron by the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell. Eager to repair his reputation and to win renown for philanthropy rather than brutality, Rockefeller belatedly ordered the company to improve wages and conditions at Ludlow, instituting an eight-hour day and outlawing child labor.

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From this distance, it is difficult to imagine how volatile industrial workplaces could be in the early 20th century. The workers were enraged at bad conditions, low pay, unscrupulous treatment by their bosses, and chronic insecurity and danger at the workplace. The owners, meanwhile, were usually in tough competition with each other and shared a common threat from the unions, knowing that some of the union men would not hesitate to take direct action.

They resisted by hiring labor spies, infiltrators, agents provocateurs, and by using Pinkerton detectives to intimidate or assault the leaders. When Harrison Gray Otis, editor of the Los Angeles Times, refused to let his workforce unionize, and when he published strong anti-union editorials, two radical labor activists, the McNamara brothers, responded by dynamiting the offices of the newspaper in 1910, killing 21 people and injuring 100 more.

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They tried to kill Otis himself, but the bomb they planted at his home failed to explode. Again, the case attracted influential men on both sides, including Clarence Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, a famous Socialist writer of the era, and Eugene Debs, leader of the American Socialist Party. Debs was, more or less, obliged to concede that the McNamara brothers were guilty, but wrote that the oppressive conditions of American capitalism had forced them to take desperate measures.

Common Questions About Violence in the American West

Q: Where exactly is the American West?

The American West is considered the Westernmost and Southwestern states, although the exact meaning has changed over the years with new acquisitions and land grabs beginning with the early European settlements. Around 1800, anything past the Appalachian mountains was considered the west; eventually, that changed to anything beyond the Mississippi River.

Q: What allowed the American West to be so violent?

The American West was seen to be lawless because settlers were essentially on their own. There was a minimal infrastructure of police and law enforcement due to the nature of settling and expansion in the region. Indian battles were common, and it was seen as every man for himself.

Q: What exactly is the American Frontier?

The American Frontier was a concept that drove American expansion. The frontier was seen as the space beyond where resources were available and plentiful, but it was rife with hard work and danger. 

Q: What was the cowboys’ reputation during the early years of American expansion?

Cowboys were hired hands for working with livestock and building ranches. They were also somewhat outside the law by choice and were often viewed as outlaws and vigilantes.

This article was updated on September 16, 2020

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