While many assume that workers in the nineteenth-century American West enjoyed easily available land and a fluid social structure, the region’s history of radical unionism at the turn of the century suggests otherwise. In Cripple Creek, Colorado, for example, violent conflict broke out in 1903 between members of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and corporate mining interests determined to crush the union. Before it was over, thirty men were dead and the union was defeated. But the battles of Cripple Creek were fought not only with bullets and dynamite—they were fought with words waged in the press. Telegrams between the New York World, the pro-mine owner governor of Colorado, and WFM Secretary William Haywood underscored how the national press served as a public outlet in which both management and labor explained their motives and actions.
The New York World, June 13, 1904, to Governor James H. Peabody
New York, June 12, 1904
Governor James H. Peabody,
Will you not telegraph to the World a statement of your reasons for permitting Colorado troops to dump 91 union miners on the Kansas line, leaving them destitute on the prairie, miles from habitation? No explanation of this action has reached the East. What evidence against the men justified such action? Under what Colorado laws were they banished? Please wire at our expense.
Governor James H. Peabody to the New York World, June 13, 1904
Denver, June 13, 1904
The World, New York City:
Answering your telegram, the reason for deporting strikers and agitators from Cripple Creek was the dynamite outrage of June 6, whereby fourteen nonunion miners were instantly killed, and the subsequent street riots and killing of two nonunion miners by the same element. Suitable provisions were sent on same train with agitators. No cases of hunger or suffering reported. The constitution of Colorado commands the suppression of insurrection by such means as may be necessary. The statement published from headquarters Western Federation of Miners to the effect that present strike was called by referendum vote and for the purpose of establishing eight-hour day erroneous and false. The strike was arbitrarily called by the executive committee of the Western Federation of Miners, and protested against by three-fourths of the miners in the Cripple Creek district. The eight-hour day had been established and recognized for ten years past, and employer and employed were satisfied and working in harmony. Rioting, dynamiting, and anarchy has had its day in Colorado.
James H. Peabody,
William D. Haywood to the New York World, June 17, 1904
Denver, Colo., June 17, 1904.
The World, New York City, N. Y.:
The flagrant misstatements in Governor Peabody’s telegram are that he avers the strike was arbitrarily called by the executive committee of the Western Federation of Miners. The fact is that the executive board has never called a strike. The governor refers to the strike, thus implying that there is only one strike in the State of Colorado and that deportations and banishment of men and women from their homes and families had only occurred in one county. The facts are that the counties of Denver, Clear Creek, Fremont, El Paso, Teller, and San Miguel are involved in the strikes; these, besides the counties in the southern fields where worse atrocities have been committed by the militia than in other parts of the State—women and children evicted from their homes, wives of striking coal miners assaulted by soldiers, and the miscreants never punished. Eighty coal miners were driven like cattle by a troop of cavalry from Berwind to Trinidad, where they were photographed, measured by the Bertillon system and turned loose. Wrongs almost as grievous as these have been perpetrated in all strike regions, and it must be remembered that no violence of any description had taken place until after the governor had ordered out the troops, and, in the language of General Bell, then “hell began to pop.”
The governor says the constitution commands the suppression of insurrection. If he would go and hang himself the chief insurgent would be dead. He has caused to be violated every constitutional, moral and political right that American citizens are supposed to enjoy. The only trait of honesty the governor displays is his evident desire to “stay bought” and to deliver his ante-election pledges. His business administration has cost the State nearly $2,000,000 to maintain a retinue of grafting colonels and carry on a mimic war. During nearly a year of active service we find that one soldier has died on the battle field, and he was killed by a drunken comrade.
There has been no insurrection in Colorado except that emanating from the occupant of the capitol building. Nowhere in the United States will you find a higher class of workingmen than in this Commonwealth. The people of this State issued, by a constitutional amendment, an imperative mandate to the legislature, instructing them to enact an eight-hour law for all persons employed in mines, mills, smelters and blast furnaces. The sovereign will of the people was frustrated by a conspiracy of corporations, and the State administration is not free from contamination. The majority for the amendment to the constitution making the eight-hour law general in vocations named was 46,714.
The percentage of those working eight hours as compared to the number entitled to it is very small.
The mine operators in the Cripple Creek district have never been satisfied with the agreement established in 1894. There has been a continued effort to reduce wages, and by some a pernicious discrimination against union men. . . .
William D. Haywood,
Secretary-Treasurer Western Federation of Miners.
Source: U.S. Congress, A Report on Labor Disturbances in Colorado from 1880 to 1904, Inclusive (Washington, D.C., 1905), 272–274.