July 12, 1917 – Bisbee, Arizona Deportation of Striking Workers by Local Vigilantes

On this day in history, 1,186 men were herded into boxcars by an armed vigilante force and taken from Bisbee, Arizona to be abandoned across the New Mexico border.

Arizona had a number of large copper mining operations in the early 1900s. One of them, Phelps Dodge, owned the mine in Bisbee, Arizona (where you can still take a tour of the old mines today). Mining conditions were difficult, and working conditions (including mine safety, pay, and camp living conditions) extremely poor. But with the onset of World War I, the price of copper soared, and companies were making record profits. Bisbee had some five thousand miners working around the clock.

Inside the Copper Queen Mine in Bisbee

As Sheila Bonnand chronicled in her history of what happened in Bisbee, union activity had repeatedly been stifled in the area, but the recruiting success of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Arizona was increasing, particularly with immigrants, of whom there were a great many in Bisbee.

She reports that on June 24, 1917, the IWW presented the Bisbee mining companies with a list of demands for better working conditions, equal treatment for minorities, and a flat wage system to replace sliding scales tied to the market price of copper. She writes:

The copper companies refused all IWW 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.”

Xenophobia-tinged rumors roiled tensions and turned townspeople against the strikers. In addition, there was a group of miners loyal to the mining companies who formed “The Workman’s Loyalty League.” On July 11, Bisbee Sheriff Harry Wheeler met with Phelps Dodge corporate executives to plan the deportation of striking miners. Some 2,200 men from Bisbee and the nearby town of Douglas were recruited and deputized as a vigilante “posse” — one of the largest posses ever assembled. Phelps Dodge officials also met with executives of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, who agreed to provide rail transportation for any deportees. The morning of July 12, copies of a proclamation were posted all around Bisbee by the sheriff:

I have formed a sheriff’s posse of 1200 men in Bisbee and 1000 men in Douglas, all loyal Americans, for the purpose of arresting on the charges of vagrancy and treason, and of being disturbers of the peace of Cochise county, all those strange men who have congregated here from other parts and sections for the purpose of harassing and intimidating all men who desire to pursue their daily toil.

. . .

We cannot longer stand nor tolerate such conditions. This is no labor trouble. We are sure of that, but it is a direct attempt to embarrass the government of the United States.

I therefore call upon all loyal Americans to aid me in peaceably arresting these disturbers of national and local peace. Let no shot be fired throughout this day unless in necessary self-defense, and I hereby give warning that each and every leader of so-called strikers will be held personally responsible for any injury inflicted upon any of the deputies while in the performance of their duty as deputies of my office, for whose acts I, in turn, assume full responsibility as Sheriff of this county.

All arrested persons will be treated humanely and their cases examined with justice and care.

I hope no resistance will be made for I desire no bloodshed. However, I am determined if resistance is made it shall be effectively overcome.



The Bisbee deportation occurred on July 12, 1917.

This was no warning but only this announcement. Early in the morning on the same day – this day in history, the 2,200 “deputies,” each wearing a white armband for identification and carrying a list of men on strike, dispersed through the town of Bisbee. They arrested every man on their list, as well as any man who refused to work in the mines or even those who were sympathetic to the strike. The vigilantes were instructed to avoid violence, but reports later documented beatings, robberies, vandalism, and abuse of women, and two men died: one was a deputy shot by a miner he had tried to arrest, and the other was the miner (shot dead by three other deputies moments later).

What happened next is quite chilling, and certainly not in keeping with the promise of the sheriff made in the proclamation:

The arrested men were marched two miles to Warren Ballpark. Notably, Sheriff Wheeler oversaw the march from a car outfitted with a loaded machine gun. At the baseball field, non-IWW member arrestees were told that if they denounced the IWW and went back to work, they would be freed. About 700 men agreed to these terms.”

At 11:00 a.m., the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad brought 23 cattle cars to Bisbee. The remaining arrestees were forced at gunpoint to board the cars, many of which had over three inches of manure on the floor. Although temperatures were in the mid-90s Fahrenheit, no water had been provided to the men since the arrests began at dawn. The train eventually stopped in Hermanas, New Mexico, at 3:00 a.m.

A later train did bring 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 further east in Columbus, New Mexico. Many were detained for several months. (You can see a transcription of the official report with demographics of Bisbee deportees here.)

Back in Bisbee, Phelps Dodge executives seized control of the telegraph and telephones to prevent news of the arrests and expulsion from being reported. News of the Bisbee Deportation was made known only after an IWW attorney, who met the train in Hermanas, issued a press release.

The deported citizens of Bisbee applied to President Woodrow Wilson for protection and permission to return to their homes. In October 1917, Wilson appointed a commission of five individuals to investigate labor disputes in Arizona. In its final report, issued on November 6, 1917, the commission denounced the Bisbee Deportation as “wholly illegal and without authority in law.”

On May 15, 1918, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the arrest of 21 Phelps Dodge executives, including some from the Calumet and Arizona Co., and several elected leaders and law enforcement officers from Bisbee and Cochise Counties. But a pre-trial motion by the defense led a federal district court to release the 21 men on the grounds that no federal laws had been violated. The Justice Department appealed, but in United States v. Wheeler, 254 U.S. 281 254 U.S. 281 (1920), Chief Justice Edward Douglass White wrote for an 8-to-1 majority that the U.S. Constitution did not empower the federal government to enforce the rights of the deportees. He maintained:

. . . no basis is afforded for contending that a wrongful prevention by an individual of the enjoyment by a citizen of one state in another of rights possessed in that state by its own citizens was a violation of a right afforded by the Constitution.”

He argued that Article 4, § 2 of the Constitution reserves to the several states authority over the subject. States were only restricted by:

. . . the very few express limitations which the federal Constitution imposed upon the states — such, for instance, as the prohibition against ex post facto laws, bills of attainder, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts. But, with the exception of these and a few other restrictions, the entire domain of the privileges and immunities of citizens of the states, as above defined, lay within the constitutional and legislative power of the states, and without that of the federal government.”

Arizona officials never initiated criminal proceedings in state court against those responsible for the deportation of workers and their lost wages and other losses. No individual, company, or agency was ever convicted in connection with the deportations.

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