Mary Harris-Jones was the daughter of Irish Roman Catholic tenant farmers. Her grandfather was hanged as an Irish freedom fighter and her family escaped to America in the 1830s. Perhaps this is why I relate to her so well--my family also moved to America in the 1800s and one of my ancestors was hung in Texas by a lynch mob because he was from the North. There is something about having a background of social injustice in your family that makes you want to fight for those who are less fortunate in this world.
The Death of her Beloved Family
Five short years after her marriage to George Jones yellow fever ravaged the state of Tennessee. Mary's entire family became sick with the disease. For some reason, Mary was spared, perhaps because she was meant to serve a greater purpose in this world.
When the epidemic began to wane, Mary Harris Jones was faced with the realization that she had no money, no husband, and no means of support. She decided to move to Chicago and work as a dressmaker. She worked hard at her job and eventually earned enough to pay for her own home, and yet, she continued to feel empathy for the sufferings of the working class. In her autobiography, (which is available free, online, through numerous sources) Jones explains her continued frustration over her observations of the behavior of the wealthy. She spent her time in the homes of the local socialites sewing expensive clothing while she stared out the windows at barely-clothed children of the working class poor who begged on the streets.
For many years Mother Jones worked in silence and anonymity alongside other social activists. She traveled around the country, educating herself, watching and learning about social protest and the most effective ways to bring change. In her autobiography she explains, “My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”
In 1877, Mother Jones participated in her first major railroad strike, one of many to come. The strike started in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and quickly inspired additional strikes in Pennsylvania and Illinois. Eventually, the cry to strike went out to the coal miners, as well, and they responded in force. These initial strikes may not have accomplished much in the way of an actual change in labor relations, but what they did inspire was far more important. Through an effective use of the media, the strikers began to open the eyes and minds of the American public to the plight of the working class poor.
The Plight of the Miners Moves Mother Jones Closer to Disaster in the American West
In 1903, Jones used her grandmotherly personality to persuade the children who worked in mills and mines to march from Pennsylvania to New York in protest of the lack of child labor laws. This must have been a tremendously difficult decision for these children who knew they risked, at the very least, a vengeful dock in pay, and possibly their jobs, but Mother Jones was remarkably persuasive. She knew how to speak to children, women, and men, to convince them that a loss now could men saving their lives in the future.
The miners were striking for many reasons and their list was drawn up with the help of activists like Mother Jones who studied activism and labor laws, and understood what was needed to create change. First, miners and their families were forced to live in company houses in company towns that were heavily guarded by armed men. The second reason, as I already discussed, was that they were forced to worship in company churches regardless of their religion and many of the miners in southern Colorado were Greek Orthodox. They did not understand or agree with the company church services. Third, the workers and their families were treated by company doctors and charged company rates. Their fourth reason of protest was the fact that they were forced to shop at company stores were supplies could only be purchased with company-issued money called “scrip.” Company stores grossly inflated the cost of goods. Just as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in his most famous song, the miners owed their souls to the company stores. They were often forced to send their children to work in the mines in order to reduce the family debt.
The United Mine Workers of America first tried to unionize Colorado coal miners in 1903. They were successful in towns such as Boulder and Louisville, Colorado, but failed in places such as Ludlow and Trinidad. Ten years later, the mining companies reneged on their earlier promises in Boulder and Louisville and the UMWA once again organized strikes. This time they concentrated their efforts and financial backing on persuading the southern miners to get involved. They leased large plots of land and provided tents, cook stoves, and guidance for the establishment of strike towns. They positioned the tent towns close to the mouths of the canyons so strikers and union officials could monitor and harass strikebreakers, or “scabs.”
The official call to strike was issued to all coal miners and coke oven workers in Southern Colorado on September 17, 1913. “We are sure to win!” the notice read. The strikers refused to give in. The company men refused to give in, as well. There was violence on both sides. Then, on October 28, 1913, Colorado governor Elias M. Ammons decided he’d had enough of the strike. He called out the Colorado National Guard to keep the peace, but this act only seemed to fuel the conflict.
Train tracks separated the tent camp from the militia and at dusk a passing train provided shelter for miners and their families who left the camp and took cover behind the cars then escaped into the nearby hills. Four women and eleven children were left behind in one of the underground shelters. Louis Tikas and a few other strike leaders also remained in the camp. As the militia entered the town, Tikas was confronted by Lt. Karl Linderfelt, commander of one of the militia companies. Witnesses reported seeing men hold Tikas by the arms while Linderfelt broke a rifle over his head. Tikas and two others were then shot to death and their bodies were left beside the train tracks as a warning to the strikers.
Van Cise exhibits to the Commision on Industrial Relations regarding Colorado coal miner's strike
By 7 p.m. the camp was filled with militia men looting the tents and starting fires with oil-soaked torches. After the camp was reduced to ashes the bodies of the women and children were discovered beneath one of the tents. Three company guards and one militiaman were also killed in the day’s gun battle. The victims of the massacre were buried in Trinidad following a large, well-publicized funeral service. The bodies of Louis Tikas and the other two men remained near the tracks for days. Militia leaders refused to allow the strikers to bury the men until railroad officials finally insisted that they be removed from the view of passing trains.
The gun battle did not end at Ludlow. From April 20 to April 30, 1914, more than 1000 miners, militia men and company guards fought a guerilla war along a forty mile front from Walsenburg to Trinidad as miners set fire to company buildings and killed or simply frightened off remaining company employees. President Woodrow Wilson was forced to send federal troops to disarm both sides, ending the battle with a death toll estimated to be as high as 199 men, women and children.
- Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Random House, New York:1998
- Jones, Mary Harris. The Autobiography of Mother Jones. Charles Kerr: 1925.
- The Colorado Coal Field War Project
- The American Experience: The Rockefellers
- The Ludlow Monument in Ludlow, Colorado. Erected by the UMWA and maintained by UMWA 9856.
- "The Ludlow Massacre." The New York Times. November 10, 1903. Retrieved: November, 2011.
- The UMWA official website. Retrieved November, 2011.