On The Bisbee Deportation

“The Bisbee Deportation was the illegal kidnapping and deportation of about 1,300 striking mine workers, their supporters, and citizen bystanders by 2,000 members of a deputized posse on July 12, 1917. The action was orchestrated by Phelps Dodge, the major mining company in the area, which provided lists of workers and others who were to be arrested in Bisbee, Arizona. The arrested were first held at a local baseball park before being loaded onto cattle cars and deported 200 miles (320 km) to Tres Hermanas in New Mexico. The 16-hour journey was through desert without food or water. Once unloaded, the deportees, most without money or transportation, were warned against returning to Bisbee.”[1]

The above is a typical description of what happened that day in Bisbee, Arizona. Like most brief descriptions, it is vague enough to be misleading at best, or deceptively bland at worst. Though typically presented as unique, deportation was a common anti-labor tactic in the Southwest and it contributed to the practical defeat of the unions in the southwestern mining industry.[2] The Bisbee Deportation, though larger and more publicized than others, should not be seen as an isolated act of rogue vigilantes, outside the norms of American decency; it was a predictable extension of the malignant nationalism festering in a culture of ongoing class warfare and expertly utilized for corporate interests.

Strictly speaking, the Bisbee Deportation was when one group of residents – funded, armed, and impelled by the local mining companies – rounded up and deported another group of residents, ostensibly strikers, who perhaps did not wholeheartedly support those same mining companies. The first group of residents was deputized by the county sheriff, a man named Harry Wheeler. Sheriff Wheeler considered himself a fair man, and a patriot; he was convinced to participate after two Bisbee mining company executives ‘appealed to his patriotism,’ although he had previously declined to interfere with the strike. One of these two executives was John Greenway, the General Manager of the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company, the second largest mining company in Bisbee. The other was George Abbot, the Security Manager for the same company.[3] Greenway, accompanied by Sheriff Wheeler, headed a meeting of Workmen’s Loyalty League and Citizens’ Protective League members,[4] during which the leagues’ members were deputized. This meeting took place in the Phelps Dodge Dispensary. To manage this operation, Sheriff Wheeler – whose office was in Tombstone, Arizona – established a temporary headquarters for himself in Bisbee. This headquarters was also located in the Phelps Dodge Dispensary.[5] The twelve hundred new deputies were armed with rifles, revolvers, and at least four machine guns, all distributed from an arsenal, which was also located in the Phelps Dodge Dispensary.[6] The morning of the deportation, Greenway attempted to halt all telegram communications going in and out of Bisbee, with limited success.[7] The trains that were rerouted to carry the second group of residents – the deportees – away from Bisbee, were the property of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, a subsidiary of Phelps Dodge Mining Company, the largest mining company in Bisbee.[8]

The strikers’ demands – submitted for negotiation and summarily denied on June 26 – were not for higher pay. Their demands were that the wages be the same for every person doing the same job – essentially the abolishment of the dual wage system, in which Mexican and Mexican-American employees were paid approximately half the wages received by Anglo employees – and that working conditions be improved for safety concerns.[9] The mining executives, in their public statements concerning the union’s demands, cast the situation as being a disagreement between conservative and liberal politics, with conservatives being any miner who agreed with the executives “that this is the highest paid wage camp in the United States.”[10] That statement was true, but only if you were white. Historian Eric Meeks goes so far as to present the Bisbee Deportation as being entirely about “race, gender, and class,” and he focuses his presentation primarily on racism.[11] Those forces were influential, but they were not unguided by another factor: the successful attempt by mining executives to control labor and eradicate unions.

The initial roundup gathered over two thousand people for deportation in the Warren Ballpark, the most convenient staging area in town.[12] Once there, the crowd was offered release if they would join the deputies. Some took the offer – these people’s status as strikers is unknown – and some chose to stay with the other deportees whether they were strikers or not, as an expression of solidarity or defiance toward their unwarranted arrests. Still more were sent home when it was discovered that not all the deportees could fit in the train cars. The remaining deportees were loaded into cattle cars and shipped out. In the end, 1,186 people were deported, including approximately four hundred union members. The rest were fellow workers who weren’t in any unions, members of non-striking unions, business owners and professionals suspected of sympathizing with the strikers, and bystanders who were rounded up along with the rest, perhaps mistakenly.[13]  The roundup itself did occur on 12 July 1917, but when we speak of the Deportation we speak, too, of the months that lead up to that pivotal day. We must also address the social environment that allowed for and even encouraged such a blatant display of corporate power.

America’s national culture in the years before World War I was already stained by the battles between labor and corporations, and between ‘natives’ (Anglo-Americans born on the continent) and immigrants. From 1880 to 1920, America experienced both industrialization and a peak in immigration. Industrialization created high demands for workers, and immigration filled that demand while also providing new markets for industrial output. These new markets – immigrants – made it economically possible for American industry to eschew foreign trade and rely more strongly on domestic trade, giving rise, ironically, to the idea of ‘America for Americans’ at least in the economic and political arenas.[14] But the needs of working men were increasingly in conflict with the booming business of industrialization, and strikes were becoming an almost regular disturbance. Then an 1877 railroad strike in Baltimore devolved into open warfare between workers (not all of whom were strikers) and federal troops sent to break the strike.[15] That event tied the notion of organized labor to violence and political subversion in the public mind.[16] The utopian literature of the following two decades encouraged this connection by insisting that workers’ unrest – justified or not – would be the downfall of society.[17]

The Espionage Act, passed 15 June 1917, was a victory for then-President Woodrow Wilson’s two-year campaign to enact legislation punishing unpatriotic behavior. The act prohibited, among other things, speech against the government that might cause insubordination within the military or the disruption of military enlistment efforts. In his 1915 State of the Union Address, Wilson harped on the foreign origins of the malcontents he believed were poisoning citizens’ patriotism, dichotomizing the nation by building a false separation between patriots and both new immigrants and government dissenters. Wilson’s efforts, as canonized by the Espionage Act, encouraged citizens to protect their neighborhoods and their country from any foreigner, or any one, who might naysay government policies. When paired with the Espionage Act, the purported connection between the Bisbee strikers and the Wobblies gave members of the loyalty leagues a federal justification, if not the authority, to act against the strikers. The Espionage Act also made it easy for the Bisbee vigilantes to justify rounding up people who were not even miners, but who might have spoken cooperatively with the actual strikers. Thus, shop keepers who had extended credit to strikers found themselves herded into the trains along with any rumored friends of strikers.[18]

The International Workers of the World (IWW), a syndicalist labor union known for its anti-enlistment and anti-government propaganda, was a prime target for the Espionage Act, and for any Nativist concerned about their neighbors’ patriotism. The IWW’s members were known as Wobblies, and many of them were recent immigrants. The Wobblies were a greater threat to companies than other unions; they challenged far more than the companies’ bottom lines with their radical rhetoric. They didn’t just want a fairer wage from the company owners, they wanted the whole company; they did not just want the management to treat workers more humanely, they wanted the management to go away. The IWW’s syndicalist goals contested the conformist values of wartime patriotism by denying the legitimacy of the company owners’ property rights, the majority religion of the country, and the assumed supremacy of the nation over the individual. An oft-quoted slogan of the IWW encourages worker solidarity over all other allegiances, even religious or patriotic, saying, “Arise!!! Slaves of the World!!! No God! No Master! One for all and all for One!”[19] The Wobblies were anti-capitalistic, atheistic, and anti-nationalistic. In those days of high patriotic fever, these traits were seen as anti-American, and potentially treasonous. In Bisbee, a staunchly white company town, Wobblies were practically an existential threat.

Framing World War I as an anti-communism action, as much of the national media of the time did, aligned anti-capitalists with the enemy in public opinion. This was true in Bisbee, too, and it’s no surprise that according to Bisbee’s company-owned newspapers, the strikers were all violent, anti-American Wobblies.[20] In reality, the IWW was new in Bisbee, and only gained members when the less radical unions left town, just a few months before the strike was called. Of the 1186 people deported, only 400 carried IWW membership cards. Of those, 300 carried at least one more union membership card, indicating that their IWW membership was less about radicalism and more about being a member of the only union left in town that was open to miners.[21]

The tension between these miners and their bosses were brought to a peak by the American entry into World War I, behind which high copper demands followed just as swiftly as the furious patriotism. In order to profit from the highest price for copper in history,[22] all the Bisbee mine companies had to do was produce the copper they knew they had. In 1915 Phelps-Dodge, the leading mining company in Bisbee, had developed plans to begin the pit mining operation which would eventually turn Sacramento Hill into the Sacramento Pit, a six million dollar investment at the time.[23] How frustrating for them to have a labor strike on their hands, with so much profit on the line; how convenient for them that the social climate favored their goals.

In the year following the Deportation, Sheriff Wheeler would testify that he was justified in deporting striking miners because they were “mostly Mexicans” who had come into town specifically to cause trouble and stir up “anti-American” dissent. The majority were not local and did not actually work in the mines, he said.[24] The actual roster of deportees indicates that Mexicans made up a much smaller number than indicated by the sheriff (only about thirty percent), and that the deportees had homes in Bisbee and had at least applied for citizenship, if they didn’t already have it.[25] A personal account by a deported striker indicated that the strikers who would become deportees were well-known co-workers who lived in Bisbee, though many were first-generation immigrants of various nationalities. A later census of the deportees conducted by the military personnel at the camp where most deportees ended up, listed most deportees as “foreigners,” but in a country of recent immigrants, and in a recently conquered region, who was a foreigner? The country had just entered World War I and was ablaze with patriotic furor. In Sheriff Wheeler’s testimony about the Deportation, he explained that it had come down to, “Are you American – or are you not.”[26]

The time was certainly ripe for patriotism, and all the xenophobic fears that go along with it. The accounts and testimonies of the deportation give evidence that it may have been fueled largely by prejudice, but an investigation demonstrates that corporate interests funded and encouraged those prejudices which led to anti-labor behaviors. The Bisbee Deportation is a prime example of how racism has been utilized as a tool of corporate interests in America’s long labor war.

The course history of mining and labor in the Southwest after the Bisbee Deportation was fundamentally changed by that event. This one was more widely publicized than other labor deportations, and while public opinion vacillated between admiration and derision labor unions in the Southwest mining industry never regained the strength in numbers or the general influence required to affect any changes in labor practices.[27] Historian Eric Meeks characterized the Bisbee Deportation as being entirely motivated by racism, as demonstrated by the conflict over the dual wage scale that paid Anglo workers more than any other workers. It may be true that the individuals involved were motivated by racism. However, abolishment of the dual wage scale was only one of seven demands made by the strikers,[28] and it would be irresponsible to ignore the obvious victory of management over labor that resulted from the Bisbee Deportation. Such a lasting impact – the removal of labor unions from the majority of Southwestern mining operations for six decades – could not have been unhoped-for by the executive officers who planned the event.



Bailey, Lynn R. Bisbee, Queen of the Copper Camps. Tucson, AZ: Westernlore Press, 1983.

“Bisbee Deportation.” Wikipedia. February 2, 2007. Accessed March 24, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisbee_Deportation.

Bruere, Robert W. “Copper Camp Patriotism.” The Nation 106, no. 2747 (February 21, 1918): 202-03. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/nation_2_21_1918.html.

Bruere, Robert W. “Copper Camp Patriotism: An Interpretation.” The Nation 106, no. 2748 (February 28, 1918): 235-236. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/nation_2_28_1918.html

Byrkit, James W. Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona’s Labor Management War of 1901-1921. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1982.

Cox, Annie M. “The History of Bisbee 1877-1937.” Master’s thesis, University of Arizona, 1938.

“Deportation List.” Roster of Deportees. Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, Bisbee, AZ.

Foster, James C., ed. American Labor in the Southwest: The First Hundred Years. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1982.

Fancaviglia, Richard V. “Copper Mining and Landscape Evolution: A Century of Change in the Warren Mining District.” Journal of Arizona History 23, no. 3 (Autumn 1982): 267-98. http:www.jstor.org/stable/41695672.

Lindquist, John H., and James Fraser. “A Sociological Interpretation of the Bisbee Deportation.” Pacific Historical Review 37, no. 4 (November 1968): 401-22. doi:10.2307/3637187.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Morse, Samuel. “The Truth About Bisbee.” 1929. Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.

O’Neill, Colleen. “Domesticity Deployed: Gender, Race and the Construction of Class Struggle in the Bisbee Deportation.” Labor History 34, no. 2-3 (1993): 256-73. doi:10.1080/00236569300890161.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.

Ring, Bob, and Al Ring. “Warren Arizona: The City Beautiful [Convention Paper].” April 26-28, 2001. http://www.ringbrothershistory.com/Convention/ConventionPDF/2001 Warren. Arizona – The City Beautiful.pdf.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

“Statements of Managers.” Bisbee Daily Review (June 27, 1917). http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/bd627sta.html.

Watson, Fred. “Still on Strike!” Journal of Arizona History 18 (Summer 1977): 174-84. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/jahwats.html.

Wilson, Marjorie H. “Governor Hunt, the ‘Beast’ and the Miners.” Journal of Arizona History 15 (Summer 1974): 119-38. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/jahwils.html.

Zeigler, Jack. “A Ride of No Return: The Bisbee Mine Labor Deportation of 1917.” The Tombstone Epitaph 82, no. 9 (September 2012): 1-6.



[1] “Bisbee Deportation,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisbee_Deportation (accessed March 24, 2016).

[2] James W. Byrkit, Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona’s Labor Management War of 1901-1921 (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1982), 174.

[3] Jack Zeigler, “A Ride of No Return: The Bisbee Mine Labor Deportation of 1917,” The Tombstone Epitaph 82, no. 9 (September 2012): 6.

[4] Lynn R. Bailey, Bisbee: Queen of the Copper Camps (Tucson, AZ: Westernlore Press, 1983), 237-239. These citizens were recruited from the Workmen’s Loyalty League, a nativist, anti-union group sponsored by the mining companies in Bisbee, and the Citizen’s Protective League, a similar group sponsored and attended by non-mining business owners.

[5] Robert W. Bruere, “Copper Camp Patriotism,” The Nation 106, no. 2747 (Feb 21, 1918): 202-203.

[6] Bailey, Queen of the Copper Camps, 237-239.

[7] Fred Watson, “Still on Strike,” Journal of Arizona History 18 (Summer 1977): 171-184; Robert W. Bruere, “Copper Camp Patriotism: An Interpretation,” Nation 106, no. 2748 (Feb 28, 1918): 235-236.

[8] Marjorie Haynes Wilson, “Governor Hunt, the ‘Beast’ and the Miners,” Journal of Arizona History 15 (Summer 1974): 119-138.

[9] Annie Cox, “The History of Bisbee 1877-1937” (Master’s thesis, University of Arizona, 1938), 174.

[10] “Statements of Managers,” Bisbee Daily Review (June 27, 1917), University of Arizona Web Exhibit.

[11] Eric V. Meeks, Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007), 108.

[12] Bob Ring and Al Ring, “Warren Arizona: the City Beautiful” (Arizona History Convention, Pinetop, Arizona, April 26-28, 2001). The Warren Ballpark was situated along the rail line and was the only large, enclosed area in the otherwise mountain-bound town.

[13] Cox, The History of Bisbee, p182.

[14] Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 79.

[15] Ibid., 16-17.

[16] Ibid., 23-24.

[17] Painter, Standing, 64-67.

[18] Byrkit, Forging the Copper Collar, 198.

[19] John H. Lindquist and James Fraser, “A Sociological Interpretation of the Bisbee Deportation,” Pacific Historical Review 37, no. 4 (November 1968): 422.

[20] Thomas E. Sheridan, Arizona: A History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press 1995), 190. The strike was documented by the local newspapers as being the work of the Wobblies; the deportation was called the “Great Wobbly Drive.” The inaccuracy was expedient for the mining companies, and was certainly intentional. Bisbee’s local newspaper, The Daily Review, was owned by the leading mining company in Bisbee, Phelps-Dodge. The same company also owned the Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), the International Gazette (Douglas), the Arizona Gazette (Phoenix), and the Copper Era (Clifton). There was no independent newspaper with the influence to contradict Phelps-Dodge’s characterization of the strikers as being wholly Wobblies.

[21] James W. Byrkit, “The Bisbee Deportation,” in American Labor in the Southwest: The First One Hundred Years, ed. James C. Foster (Phoenix, AZ: The Arizona Board of Regents, 1982), 97.

[22] Sheridan, Arizona, 190.

[23] Richard V. Francaviglia, “Copper Mining and Landscape Evolution: A Century of Change in the Warren Mining District,” Journal of Arizona History 23, no. 3 (Autumn 1982): 283.

[24] Samuel Morse, “The Truth About Bisbee” (1929), Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, 26.

[25] “Deportation List,” Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, Bisbee, AZ. Furthermore, many of the miners of Mexican descent were members of families who had resided in the region prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gasden Purchase, so in fact had longer family and individual residencies than the entirely white deputies; Colleen O’Neill, “Domesticity deployed: Gender, race and the construction of class struggle in the Bisbee Deportation,” Labor History 34, no. 2-3 (1993): 257, n6.

[26] Morse, The Truth, 29.

[27] Sheridan, Arizona, 193.

[28] Byrkit, Forging the Copper Collar, 158.


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