Docile Children and Dangerous Revolutionaries: The Racial Hierarchy of Manliness and the Bisbee Deportation of 1917

By Benton-Cohen, Katherine | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, June-September 2003 | Go to article overview

Docile Children and Dangerous Revolutionaries: The Racial Hierarchy of Manliness and the Bisbee Deportation of 1917


Benton-Cohen, Katherine, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


On July 12, 1917, three months after the United States entered World War I, a dramatic event in a remote copper-mining town near the U.S.-Mexico border grabbed national headlines. On June 26, in Bisbee, Arizona, the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or "Wobblies") had called a strike on several local copper mines, including the Phelps-Dodge (PD) Corporation's famous Copper Queen Mine. By almost all accounts, the strike had remained relatively uneventful until the wee hours of July 12, when county sheriff Harry Wheeler quietly deputized twelve hundred men, who were normally miners, engineers, doctors, and shopkeepers. Mining company officials silenced all out-going phone calls and telegrams. On the front page of the morning newspaper, Wheeler warned women and children to stay off the streets. By four a.m., the gun-toting deputies "appeared as if by magic," as the front page of the New York Times reported the following day. The posse of deputies, led by the charismatic sheriff and armed to the teeth, swarmed the narrow, steep streets of the mountain town. (1)

Throughout the mining district, deputies broke down doors and gathered up men from their homes, rooming houses, or places of business, including not just miners, but also restaurant owners, carpenters, and a lawyer. Amado Villalovas was in a neighborhood store when, as he later explained to the Arizona attorney general, "about ten gunmen all armed came in and told me to get out. I asked them to let me take my groceries home to my family. They dragged me out of the store, hit me and knocked me down." (2) Under the hot July sun, the deputies forced Villalovas into a line of over a thousand other captives in a forced march through town, past the mines, to a baseball field two miles away. There, local residents gathered to watch as the deputies loaded their charges into twenty-three boxcars and sent them off nearly two hundred miles into the New Mexico desert. Hours later, an army camp in nearby Columbus, New Mexico, rescued the deported men and set up housing for them. Because vigilantes continued to police Bisbee's borders, the deportees were not allowed to go home for more than two months, and many never returned. The event became known across the country as the Bisbee Deportation, although it was not a "true" deportation across international borders.

The deportation captured national headlines, but it was only the most dramatic of a series of encounters during the summer of 1917 between Wobblies and their opponents. The mining West had been the Wobblies' stronghold since disgruntled leaders of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had founded the IWW in 1905. Led by colorful characters like "Big Bill" Haywood and Mother Jones, the IWW organized across class, race, and gender lines. Unlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which organized along craft lines, the Wobblies' goal was to create an industrial union--"one big union"--that included all workers, from the washerwoman to the foreman.

There were over forty-five hundred work stoppages in the United States that year, but in the patriotic fervor of World War I, the IWW's radical politics and antiwar stance elicited especially deep antipathy. Two weeks after the Bisbee deportation, IWW organizer Frank Little was lynched in Butte, Montana, another copper-mining center. Other towns tarred and feathered Wobblies or deported a few dozen striking workers, as occurred in Jerome, Arizona, just two days before the Bisbee Deportation. (3) But nowhere did anti-Wobbly responses reach the precision and scale of the Bisbee Deportation, a distinction that has generated many attempts at explanation. The event prompted President Woodrow Wilson to appoint a federal commission to investigate the IWW and vigilante activities in war industries in the West.

Today, the event remains a mainstay of the scholarly literatures on the domestic front in World War I, western labor history, and the history of nativism.

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