The Ludlow Massacre

Summary (By K. Kris Hirst)

In the decades before World War I, industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller had become millionaires; by the early years of the 20th century labor unrest blossomed in the United States, particularly in the coal mine industry. Strikes grew into riots occurring throughout the US, and then into full scale battles, the most famous of which was in 1914, the Ludlow Coal Massacre, when Colorado National Guard opened fire on a tent city of striking miners and their families in Ludlow Colorado.

Basic Facts

On April 20, 1914, Colorado National Guardsmen attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking miners at Ludlow, Colorado, looting and burning the colony. Twenty-five people were killed. This was the worst of many such skirmishes between the government and the miners in Coal Field War of 1914, which lasted for seven months.

Battle Statistics

The battle lasted 14 hours and included a machine gun and 200 armed militia; the tent city was destroyed. Of the 25 people killed, three were militia men, twelve were children, and one was an uninvolved passerby. The strikers were mostly Greek, Italian, Slav, and Mexican workers; the militia were sent by the Governor of Colorado and ultimately by John D. Rockefeller, owner of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

20 April 1914

The events leading up to what is called the Ludlow Massacre began about seven months earlier. There were over eleven thousand coal miners working in Colorado for the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation (CF&I, a company owned by the Rockefeller family). They, like many of the miners of the past, were made up primarily of immigrants or recently "native Americans" ( Greeks, Italians, Serbs).

As was a fact of life for those in such occupations, the work was hard and dangerous (at the time, Colorado had one of the highest miner fatality rates in the world), they were paid little and poorly treated. They made $1.68 a day, in what was company scrip—meaning it wasn't good anywhere except at stores and businesses run by the company. They were regularly cheated by the company underweighing their mine carts. CF&I also ran and controlled school facilities, libraries, and ministers, and collected their rent—they owned towns where they lived. In fact, their lives were owned by the company and the workers wanted something more in return.

Previous talk of a strike had been dismissed by the union but something happened to set things off. A young labor organizer was shot to death by men in the hire of the company (a "coroner's jury" of local businessmen ruled it to be justifiable homicide). This was the proverbial last straw and the workers gathered to discuss a strike.

They had hoped that the owners would agree to collective bargaining and had invited them to discuss their various demands (of which, only two were not already " guaranteed" by Colorado law). On 23 September 1913, close to 95% of the workers went on strike, following the announcement on the 17th:

All mineworkers are hereby notified that a strike of all the coal miners and coke oven workers in Colorado will begin on Tuesday, September 23, 1913.... We are striking for improved conditions, better wages, and union representation. We are sure to win. (
Not wanting to tolerate such dissent, the miners were quickly evicted from their homes despite the cold Colorado winter ahead.

Rockefeller responds
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his business associates were pleased with the action taken as much as upset by the strike. Rockefeller wrote the vice president of CF&I in October:

We feel that what you have done is right and fair and that the position you have taken in regard to the unionizing of the mines is in the interest of the employees of the company. Whatever the outcome, we will stand by you to the end. (
That same month, the vice president wrote to him that the
net earnings would have been the largest in the history of the company by $200,000 but for the increase in wages paid the employees during the last few months. With everything running so is mighty discouraging to have this vicious gang come into our state and not only destroy our profit but eat into that which heretofore been saved. (
(He is referring to union organizer and social activist Mother Jones—who was eventually arrested, confined, and then expelled from the state—and the United Mine Workers Union who had come to aid the striking workers.)

The United Mine Workers Union (or United Mine Workers of America, UMWA) helped them by setting tent cities in the surrounding hills, while the workers continued striking and picketing. In response, the Rockefeller "interests" brought in more men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency—basically hired gun strikebreakers (it was one of them who had shot the labor organizer)— to help deal with the "problem." They brought along Gatling guns and rifles and began to raid the "cities." With the raids began the casualties. Miners armed themselves for protection against the "detective agency" and its band of hired thugs and gunmen who had already set themselves up in local sheriff's offices, making themselves a sort of unofficial police organization.

Despite the hired "muscle," the workers managed to hold out and continue the strike and resist the raids. They even managed to drive back an armored car with a mounted machine gun. With the strike and the workers' ability to fend off strikebreakers, the mines were unable to continue operating—which angered not only the corporate ownership, but the governor of the state. In order to bring a halt to the situation, he called out the National Guard (which had its wages paid by the Rockefellers—three to four times what the workers had made per day).

At first, the miners thought the National Guard was there to protect them, even greeting them waving flags and cheering. The facts of matter were soon learned. Guardsmen beat and arrested—"by the hundreds"—miners and "rode down with their horses parades of women in the streets of Trinidad, the central town in the area" (Zinn, People's...). Rockefeller was pleased with the proceedings (in a letter to the vice president):

You are fighting the good fight, which is not only in the interest of your own company but of other companies of Colorado and the business interests of the entire country and the laboring classes quite as much. I feel hopeful the worst is over and that the situation will improve daily. Take care of yourself, and as soon as it is possible, get a little let-up and rest. (
Not willing to be simply beaten down, the workers took action. They killed a strikebreaker and some mine guards (they were escorting scabs to the mines). They severely beat another and the murderer of the labor organizer was shot and killed. The guard and detectives stepped up their harassment and abuse.

Still the strikers hung on through the winter.

Sunday 19 April 1914. The Greek workers and their families were celebrating Easter. Some strikers were playing a baseball game. Five armed men on horses showed up to break up the game (arbitrary harassment of the strikers was common and de rigueur). The crowd was too large for them to easily disperse and they decided better of it. Reportedly, as they were leaving, some of the women and children laughed at them. They replied "Oh that's right, have your fun today, we'll have our roast tomorrow" (; this might be apocryphal or exaggerated but does give a sense of the antagonism that went on).

The following morning, people were going about their business as usual, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of the strife. Little did they know that there were two companies of National Guardsmen stationed in the hills above the largest tent camp (Ludlow) training their guns on them. There were about one thousand men, women, and children living there.

At five minutes to ten, a bomb went off, sending the people into a panic. It was the first of two signals to the men with the guns. At ten, a second one went off and the people scattered, many men running toward the hills to draw fire away from their families. The shooting was indiscriminate, anyone was a potential target. Only having a handful of guns and ammunition, the miners could only offer weak resistance. The shooting continued into the afternoon.

Louis Tikas, a leader of the Greek workers, made an attempt to arrange a truce. He went up into the hills for his meeting and never returned. Women and children who were unable to make an escape to the hills dug pits in the tents to avoid the gunfire. The day wore on and around dusk the guardsmen came down to the camp and began dowsing the tents with kerosene and setting them on fire. Along with the tents were three American flags that the workers had flying. Those remaining fled for their lives.

The following day, amid the charred debris, a telephone linesman moved an iron cot, uncovering one of the pits. Inside it were the burned bodies of eleven children and two women. At least twenty-six people were killed in the massacre.

The day after the events, Rockefeller sent a telegram to the vice president: "We profoundly regret this further lawlessness and accompanying loss of life."