John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was among one of the owners of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I). Most of the miner’s anger, which will be described in the following paragraphs, was directed at the Rockefellers and their unjust management and treatment of the mine workers. Members of his staff had been receiving reports of unrest in Southern Colorado before the strike. However, Rockefeller, Jr., brushed off the concerns, declaring the “irrelevant.”
The CF&I seems to have controlled many aspects of the miner’s lives, including housing and suitable activities for children. Families lived in company-owned housing and were paid in company script, which was only legal tender in company stores. In fact, miners were punished in small, sneaky ways if they purchased products from anyplace other than a company store. Punishments, such as short weighting his coal and bad room assignments, were some of the underhanded ways CF&I hinted that the miner’s business may go nowhere else.
Brass checks, labeled with a unique number for each individual miner, served several purposes within the mine. First and foremost, they helped miners to get paid, as a tag went up with each load of coal they extracted. Additionally, brass checks could provide a rollcall of sorts. Each miner hung their unique checks on a board at the entrance of the mine. Therefore, if disaster struck, the brass checks which were uncollected would identify the coal miners whom were still trapped.
Within the mining colonies, there were expectations for both male and female children. Coal miner’s sons started the profession at a young age. Some boys were working underground before puberty. In many cases, the children were scared to go and work in the mines. One young miner expressed his fear of working in total darkness: “Mother, I don’t want to go into that dark hole. I’m afraid…I’ll do anything if I didn’t have to work there.” Another young miner, Victor Banzanale, became trapped behind a stubborn mule and missed supper. When he got home, he realized that no one noticed that he was missing. Victor reflected on this experience and came to the conclusion that “People was worth nothing; a mule was worth everything.”
Children received some schooling before they began their working lives. Teachers graded the students based on how clean the mother was able to keep the household. Corporation administrators encouraged children to embrace company values, be obedient workers, and patriotic Americans. Girls received porcelain dolls to remind them of their future roles as wives and mothers. Oftentimes, young girls had to help feed their families. By the age of sixteen, many girls were married and caring for families of their own.
“Hi, I’m Elena. I live here with my family. My poppy is a coal miner. We used to live in a house but the company made us all leave when the miner’s strike. Now we live in these tents. It’s so cold here but poppy says we have to stay here until they make the mines safe. He tells me about his friend who dead in the mine. I don’t want my poppy to die, too.
Smell that? It’s Greek Easter and the Greeks are roasting a Lamb. I have to help my mommy get ready for dinner, but later me and my friend, Snyder, are going to the baseball game. You should join us.”
Elena, Video from the El Pueblo Museum, Children of Ludlow Exhibit
The Ludlow Massacre of 1914 was not a sudden event. Tension between the miner’s, whom had gone on strike in September 1913, and the guards had been mounting in the months leading up to the Massacre. Working in the mines was a dangerous occupation, which placed the miner’s lives at risk on a daily basis. Such dangers included cave-ins, poisonous air, and explosions, all of which could result in the miner losing his life. In addition to these dangers, miners were severely underpaid and cheated of wages. Laborers were charged for essential work and safety equipment provisions, and were only paid for the amount of coal they brought up, not the time they spent making their work environment safer. The combination of the poor pay and an unsafe working environment encouraged the miners to join the United Mine Workers of America and go on strike in September 1913. It would take John D. Rockefeller, Jr. a full two weeks to acknowledge the strike and the threat it posed to his administration.
The union demands were as follows:
- To recognize the existence of the United Mine Workers of America
- A 10% increase in wages
- 8 hour work day
- Payment for dead work (work which was not directly related to the extraction of resources)
- Be able to elect their own checkweighmen
- Right to trade in any store, live anywhere, and seek care from any doctor
- The enforcement of the Colorado mining laws and elimination of armed mine guards
Any miner who was involved in the strike, and his family, were evicted from their company homes. Once the miner quit his job, the family scrambled to pack their few belongings and leave before the mine guards came to physically force them onto the street. Those who were not quick enough were literally thrown out of their homes; many children were hurt, resulting in skirmishes between the parents and the guards.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) provided striking miners with a tent to live in. The UMWA recorded each family who was issued a tent during the strike. Tent colonies, such as Ludlow, began to spring up throughout Colorado. It is estimated that 9,316 children endured the southern Colorado coalfield strike of 1913-14. These tents, however, provided very poor protection from the brutal Colorado winters, made worse by a record-breaking blizzard in December 1913. Snow built up on top of the tents and collapsed under the weight. Many families dug cellars under their tents to create a safe place to hide from the violence and gunfire.
The National Guard frequently conducted raids of the campsites in search of hidden weapons. Nearby ranches and farms were also subject to searches, as local families gave miners food and a place to hide their weapons. All effort was made to make sure the miners had no way to defend themselves.
An armored car, rightfully named the “Death Special,” frequently terrorized camps, randomly shredding the tents with a spray of bullets. The “Death Special” was covered in steel plates, and had a machine gun and spotlight mounted to it. This car was designed to instill fear in the miners and force them to return to work. The likelihood of the tent colony to be the target of such violence was a motivator in digging the cellars below the tents.
Labor-rights activists, such as Mary Harris (AKA: Mother Jones), supported the coal strikers in Colorado. She rallied the crowds together with her speeches and was imprisoned on several occasions for violating orders to stay out of the strike zone. While she advocated for labor rights for all, her primary concern was the children who worked in these mines. In fact, she was not above using real children to advance the cause of the Colorado coal miners.
During the Massacre:
“I don’t go to school anymore now that we live in the tents. Sometimes me and frank and the other kids play games. But I have to help my mommy a lot. Everyone has to work together now so we can survive.
The grow-ups argue a lot about the strike. It’s kinda scary since they get so angry but I like it when they sing the union songs. Sometimes they asked us kids to help. I got to hold a sign and march down the street.
Some nights we hear gunshots and poppy makes me and my brother to hide in the cellar. I feel safer down there and hope that the bad men will go away.”
On April 19th, the day before the Massacre, the families in these tent colonies celebrated Greek Easter by feasting, dancing, and playing baseball, a pastime which united these ethnically diverse camps. Children played in the lingering snow as mandolin music and the aroma of roasting lamp swirled among the tents. The National Guardsmen, who had a camp of their own not too far away, mocked the miners, saying, “You enjoy your roast today; we will have ours tomorrow.” This was perhaps a subtle warning, a storm cloud in the distance, of the massacre to come the following morning.
The tent colony at Ludlow erupted in deadly gunfire on the morning of April 20, 1914. Even eye-witnesses are unsure of who actually shot first. A small band of Colorado National Guardsmen and other militiamen occupied the high ground and the flats, respectively. Hundreds of striking coal miners returned fire while women and children fled for cover, whether that meant in their cellars or attempting to flee over the hills. The men attempted to draw the fire away from the tent colony and they defended the colony the best they could.
At the end of the day, twelve children, two women, two miners, a Guardsman, and a bystander had been murdered. Eleven-year-old Frank Snyder was among the children killed in the crossfire. His father carried him across the battlefield, crying “They’re shooting children!” Frank Snyder’s death was the only one that Major Edward Boughton, a mining attorney and counselor for the Colorado National Guard, would acknowledge in later statements to the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations.
The tent colony was destroyed, as the Guards had set fire to it earlier that day, thinking it abandoned. It was not until after the fire had burned out that the bodies of the women and children were discovered. It is believed that they were suffocated by the fire, not shot by the Guards. Also among the casualties was Louis Tikas, a prominent Greek leader of the strikers, and two other men.
“Yesterday was so bad! There was shooting and screaming and a bunch of people died! I ran away because I was so scared. Everything burned down and now our tent is gone!
Poppy’s friend Tikas, was shot by a soldier. My friend, Frank, died too. Mommy wouldn’t let me see his body. Some of my other friends died in the cellar and now their mommy wishes she had died too. What are we going to do now? I don’t even know where I am going to sleep tonight. ”
“Elena” Children of Ludlow Exhibit – El Pueblo Museum
Depending on which party one looks at—the miners or the Rockefeller's—one may understand the events at Ludlow as a battle, as described by the Rockefeller's, or as a massacre, as depicted by the coal miners. Although it was a tragic event, UMWA utilized the event to further develop the labor union’s cause. Ed Doyle, the secretary of District 15 of UMWA, contacted the union president, stating, “For God’s sake…urge the chief executive of this nation to protect the helpless men, women and children being slaughtered in southern Colorado.”
On the other hand, the Rockefeller's released the following statement: Ludlow was “An unprovoked attack upon small forces of militia yesterday by two hundred strikers forced fight.” However, Rockefeller was unable to persuade most of America of the idea that Ludlow was a battle. Nonetheless, he attempted to turn the American public in his favor by distributing bulletins to the President and his Cabinet, Congress, newspaper editors, mayors and a few other individuals.
Following the attack on Ludlow, strikers across Colorado began a streak of violence which came to be known as the Ten Days’ War. Residents of other tent colonies interpreted the Massacre as an offensive measure made by mine operators. Thousands of coal miners throughout the region grabbed their weapons and marched to wage war on nearby militias. Rather than give the militias the upper-hand, they brought the fight to the militiamen before they had the chance to do any harm to the miners themselves. These coal workers began a reign of terror throughout the region.
The Colorado State Federation of Labor, the Western Federation of Miners, and the United Mine Workers published articles in newspapers asking for donations and volunteers so as to provide some order to the primitive military companies that had formed. In other states, Union miners expressed that they were armed and ready to fight if necessary.
Although the moment was opportune to allow a revolution in the labor force, Union leaders agreed to a truce with state officials. However, the striker militias were not ready to call a truce yet and the Union had no way of controlling their actions. The strikers executed many attacks, securing the entire region between Ludlow and Rouse in a matter of four days after Ludlow. Meanwhile, women took to the streets and marched on the Colorado capital on April 25th, asking the governor to quickly end the violence.
The bloodiest day of the Ten Days’ War, however, was April 29th in Forbes, Colorado. Over three hundred armed strikers entered the town in the wee hours of the morning. They systematically overtook the town, having broken up into small groups and working their way through the town. The school, saloon, and the houses of important individuals were shot up. Many buildings were set ablaze and the mine fan was demolished. The miners had planned on continuing their crusade; however, inclement weather forced them to return to their camp.
President Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops to reestablish the peace in Colorado. The miners believed that President Wilson was sympathetic to their cause, and the miners stood down without a further engagements. This submission to the federal troops marked the end of the Colorado Coal Wars. The death toll of the Ten Days’ War is estimated to have been seventy-five to one hundred people.