The richest American family hired terrorists to shoot machine guns at sleeping women and children

The Rockefellers took on the striking miners of Ludlow, Colorado but didn’t expect them to fight back

A detail from the June, 1914 issue of The Masses depicts a coal miner firing on Colorado National Guardsmen after his wife and children were killed in a massacre at their tent camp. Drawing by John Sloan. (Library of Congress)

The bloody history of the American labor movement has never really been taught in schools. Its antagonists are powerful entities who’d rather be remembered for their visionary contributions and largesse. Take the Rockefeller family, some of the most celebrated philanthropists in American history, whose heirs and business partners would like to be known for financial contributions to medical science — not for being responsible for the deaths of the children of striking miners who worked for the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Co.

The incident, known as the Ludlow Massacre, occured in April of 1914, and it sparked a 10-day battle in the coalfields of the American West. It was one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of American class conflict, and one of the closest things to war between compatriots since the Confederacy was defeated a half-century earlier.

Striking miners and their families at the Ludlow tent colony, Colorado, 1914. (Denver Public Library)

The first labor unions arrived in Colorado nearly as quickly as the first coal miners. There were strikes in the Colorado coalfields in 1884, 1894, and 1904. But none rivaled the rebellion of 1914.

Between 1870 and 1910, Colorado’s non-Native American population had multiplied 20 times over. By then, Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. (CF&I) was the largest employer in the state. Its workers were a combination of American-born men of English and Scots-Irish descent and immigrants from places as far-flung as Greece and Japan. Working and living conditions for the thousands of miners were harsh and dangerous. Dynamite explosions, mine collapses, and premature death from work-related illness and injury were common. When an inspector visited the site of a mine explosion that had killed 56 in a coal town called Starkville in 1910, he was startled to see not just how the miners and their families had died, but how they’d lived, writing:

The residences or houses and living quarters of the miners smack of the direst poverty. Practically all of the residences are huddled in the shadow of the coal washers and the smoke of the coke ovens making the surroundings smutty with coal dust and coke smoke. Not all of the houses are equipped with water, and practically none have sewerage; they depend for their water upon hydrants on the streets. The people reflect their surroundings; slatternly dressed women and unkempt children throng the dirty streets and alleys of the camp. One is forced to the conclusion that these people must be very poorly paid, else they would not be content to live in this fashion.

They were not content. The miners agitated for better pay and conditions on their own, but they were repressed at every turn. In Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, Scott Martelle writes, “They did not have a political voice. The courts and the local political structure in the south [of Colorado] were directly controlled by, or friendly to, the interests of mine owners. In elections, local mine superintendents often cast their workers’ ballots for them.” Companies like CF&I had undercover detectives and private security who would spy on union organizers and run them out of town. The mine operators would collude with one another, for instance sending letters with warnings like this one: “All superintendents: look out for Jack Nelson, commonly called the Big Swede. He has been working at Wooten and he is an organizer for the U.M.W. of A.” — that is, the United Mine Workers of America (UMW).

The company towns, writes historian Philip Foner, were “feudal domains with the company acting as lord and master. The ‘law’ consisted of company rules. Curfews were imposed, company guards — brutal thugs armed with machine guns and rifles loaded with soft-point bullets — would not admit any ‘suspicious stranger’ into the camp.” CF&I was the most restrictive of all, and its employees often lived 20 to a shack, in houses owned by the company itself.

In 1913, CF&I workers sought representation from the UMW, which had increased its presence throughout the region despite the attempts of company spies to drive them out. In September, after the company refused demands for an eight-hour workday and the elimination of company guards, the workers went on strike. The labor organizer Mother Jones gave a rousing speech in support of the strike, for which she was imprisoned for 20 days. In her autobiography she writes of her time in a Trinidad, Colorado, prison:

Day was perpetual twilight and night was deep night. I watched people’s feet from my cellar window; miners’ feet in old shoes; soldiers’ feet, well-shod in government leather; the shoes of women with the heels run down; the dilapidated shoes of children; barefooted boys. The children would scrooch down and wave to me but the soldiers shooed them off.

When she was released, she saw that the miners had been evicted from their shacks for attempting to strike. They were now living in tent colonies outside the towns of boarded-up shanties they had once called home. Not only that, but the company guards were arresting the newly homeless miners for vagrancy and forcing them to work for no pay as punishment. The miners were regularly beaten by the guards, but still they wouldn’t stop striking. They knew that the only way to get concessions from Rockefeller’s company was to hold out and watch the profits plummet.

A Greek miner shakes hands with a member of the U.S. Fifth Cavalry as he disembarks from a train, arriving in Trinidad, Colorado, to maintain order during the strike. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

Outraged by the workers’ insubordination, CF&I gave its hired thugs — or “detectives,” working for a private security company called Baldwin-Felts — the liberty to try a new tactic: outright terrorism. The Baldwin-Felts detectives began to drive around at night and fire into the tents, terrifying, injuring, and on occasion killing the sleeping miners and their families. The miners organized armed patrols to ward off the detectives, but they were no match for the “Death Special.” That was the name Baldwin-Felts agents gave to the car, equipped with a machine gun, in which they roamed the coalfields at night.

In response to the terrorism of the agents, the miners and their families dug pits in the earth under their tents, in which they hid at night to avoid being sprayed by bullets. They endured this violence, living in their tents with their pits, all through the winter and spring. The few occasions they fired back at agents were used as justification for calling in the Colorado National Guard.

On April 19, the striking miners at Ludlow put on an Orthodox Easter celebration for the Greek families in their tent colony. On April 20, the Colorado Guardsmen came to Ludlow, claiming to be searching for a suspected criminal. It’s still unclear who fired the first shot, but a ten-hour gun battle between the armed striking miners at Ludlow and the Colorado National Guard ensued. Martelle described the scene, which would later come to be known as the Ludlow Massacre:

Seven men and a boy were killed in the shooting, at least three of the men — all striking coal miners, one a leader — apparently executed in cold blood by Colorado National Guardsmen who had taken them captive. As the sun set, the militia moved into the camp itself and an inferno lit up the darkening sky, reducing most of the makeshift village to ashes. It wasn’t until the next morning that the bodies of two mothers and eleven children were discovered where they had taken shelter in a dirt bunker beneath one of the tents. The raging fire had sucked the oxygen from the air below, suffocating the families as they hid from the gun battle.

(left) Colorado National Guard machine gunners and hired strikebreakers overlook the tent camp of the miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images) | (right) Body of a slain miner after a battle in Forbes, Colorado. (Library of Congress)

After the massacre, the strikers formed a militia with volunteer fighters from tent colonies throughout the coalfields. For ten days that militia went from town to town, dueling with Colorado Guardsmen and private agents and declaring each subsequent encampment safe for the strikers. Seeking revenge for the massacre in Ludlow, they spared no bullets. “A week after Ludlow the strikers had already taken an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for each of the lives lost in the course of the tent colony’s destruction,” Thomas G. Andrews writes in Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War.

The immigrant and native miners alike were no strangers to armed conflict. “Among the strikers’ ranks were veterans of broader conflicts: the Spanish-American War, Italy’s North African campaigns, the Balkan Wars and many others,” Andrews writes. One Colorado Guardsman remembered that they were “ten times better soldiers than we were.” Another added soberly, “They were trained, them guys.”

Mines in the Colorado towns of Berwind, Tabasco, and McNally were seized in a hail of gunfire. Those in Aguilar and Walsenburg were completely torched. The final battle occurred on April 29 in Forbes, Colorado. Greeks, Italians, Slavs, and Mexicans were among the 700 to 1,000 men who set out at dawn from the refugee tent colony established for the Ludlow families, called Camp San Rafael. At Forbes, the strikers encountered the state militiamen, mine officials, and strikebreakers. The camp fell in less than an hour.

As one Denver journalist put it at the time, “Like the Indians who once owned these hills, the men had sallied forth, struck deep and hard and then returned to camp.” After Forbes, the miner militia made its way to the next town, Trinidad. By midday, covered in dirt and streaked with blood, they “paraded the streets of Trinidad with the guns upon their shoulders.” They appeared to all onlookers to be victorious.

One of the pits dug beneath strikers’ tents for use as shelter by families while under attack from strikebreakers. Thirteen women and children later died in this hole when the tent caught fire during a clash between the militia and striking miners. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

Though they had conquered the Colorado coalfields, the strikers had no plan and ultimately little power. President Woodrow Wilson, having been informed that the situation in Colorado was out of control and the Colorado Guardsmen were defeated, dispatched federal troops to the region. On hearing this news, the strikers made a judgment call: if they fought the feds, they would surely lose. Exhausted and hoping that the Wilson administration would go easy on them in light of the massacre — after all, Wilson’s labor secretary had come directly from their union, the UMW — they conceded.

More than 400 miners were arrested and charged on nearly as many counts of murder, but only one was convicted, and the verdict was eventually overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. It turned out that the State of Colorado, while waging war with guerrilla fighters within its own borders, had never declared martial law.

All told, the conflict claimed 75 lives. Many were not miners or their families, but guardsmen, union officials, and strikebreakers. Martelle writes of the miners, “They might have been victims of an oppressive political and economic system, but they did not suffer their grievances meekly, and proved to be quite deadly.” But while they were not innocent martyrs, he adds, “they were fighting for their lives and livelihoods in a tableau established by the mine operators, and against an overwhelming system of corporate feudalism in which the U.S. Constitution was trumped by greed and prejudice.”

The Rockefellers and the rest of CF&I sought to suppress the story when possible; when that was not possible, they painted the conflict as an insurrection of immigrant anarchists and radical troublemakers. But the labor movement had its own portrayals of the Ludlow Massacre and the Ten Days’ War, as it came to be called. Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about Ludlow. It went, in part:

We were so afraid you would kill our children,

We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,

Carried our young ones and pregnant women

Down inside the cave to sleep.


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