Historians have produced rigorous accounts of the 1917 Bisbee deportation and the labor struggles in early 20th century Cochise County, Arizona. What follows is a brief synthesis of these scholars’ research to provide context for the film. Refer to the texts in the Resources section below for more detailed histories.
At the turn of the 20th century, Arizona’s Cochise County embodied the shifting national and social boundaries of the American West. When the U.S. acquired the territory from Mexico in 1853, its inhabitants included Anglo-American settlers, Chiricahua and Western Apaches, and Mexicans who were offered U.S. citizenship after their homes became American soil. Although citizenship conferred the racial status of “white” under federal law, historians including Katherine Benton-Cohen have shown how the privileges and immunities of whiteness remained elusive for many residents of Mexican origin. Anglo-American settlers contested the definition of citizenship as they drove indigenous families off of the land and encountered their new neighbors: immigrants from Mexico and Europe who were arriving to work in the mining industry.
World War I increased the demand for copper, and in the 1910s mining cities like Bisbee were booming. The extractive industries led to a vibrant union movement in the southwest, and when Arizona became a state in 1912 it ratified one of the most labor-friendly constitutions in the nation’s history. However, this Progressivism developed in tension with racist nationalism. Bisbee was known as a “white man’s camp”: local laws excluded Chinese immigrants and restricted Mexican workers to jobs that were more menial and lower paid. With discriminatory labor practices, the mining companies capitalized on nationalism and racism to disrupt solidarity between U.S.-born workers and their immigrant counterparts.
If the mining companies feared cooperation between U.S.-born and immigrant workers, it was because interracial organized labor was gaining power nationwide. The International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies, were a radical union that organized workers of all races and nationalities, including more than six thousand Mexican, European and Anglo-American workers in Arizona by 1917. Many of these IWW members worked at the Copper Queen Mine in Bisbee, which was owned by the Phelps-Dodge Corporation.
In early 1917, the Wobblies came to Bisbee and mobilized workers at the Copper Queen mine. They brought several demands to the bargaining table: improved safety practices, pay increases, an end to unfair wage deductions such as water and light charges, and a decrease in the racialized wage gap between Anglo-American workers and the predominantly Mexican “surface workers.” The mining companies refused to negotiate with the union. Citing the war effort, the mine owners denounced the workers’ demands as unpatriotic and claimed that the vocally anti-war IWW was an “outlaw organization.”
In late June 1917 the union voted to strike. By some scholars’ estimates, 90 percent of the mining workers went on strike; a large portion of these strikers were Mexican immigrants. A U.S. Deputy Marshal called it “the most peaceful, orderly strike I ever saw.” Although all the workers were men, women and families joined the picket lines in solidarity.
Three weeks after the strike began, an anti-union vigilante group called the Citizens’ Protective League met with Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler and hatched a plan to defeat the workers. A rumor was circulating that the strike was planted by a conspiracy between pro-German sympathizers and Mexicans to sabotage the country’s production of copper and undermine the war effort. Sheriff Wheeler appointed 2,200 citizens—nearly all white men—as armed deputies to round up the striking workers.
The event that became known as the Bisbee deportation began just before dawn on July 12, 1917. Wheeler’s deputies picked up guns and scattered across Bisbee, busting in doors and arresting men in their homes. One worker was killed while attempting to defend his home against invasion. The deputies marched the deportees at gunpoint through the town and assembled them on a baseball field, where a crowd of family members and onlookers gathered. After herding the workers into 23 boxcars owned by the Phelps Dodge Company, they drove 180 miles into the desert and left them in the desert near Hermanas, New Mexico. In total, an estimated 1,200 strikers and their suspected sympathizers were expelled from Bisbee. Approximately 90 percent of the deportees were immigrants, hailing from at least 34 countries.
The deportees were taken in by the U.S. army camp in the border town of Columbus, NM. Although the fate of these men was once unknown, almost none of them returned to Bisbee. According to one deportee, the threat of persecution would make life “unendurable for them in Bisbee.” Six months after the deportation, Bisbee’s directory claimed that “no foreign labor is employed in the mines”; one scholar found just six percent of the identified deportees in a city directory months after the deportation. Following the deportation, the immigrant population of Bisbee was dramatically reduced, and the growing labor movement was crushed in mining cities across Arizona.
Sheriff Wheeler had carried out a sweeping anti-union purge, and the event made national headlines. Following a public outcry, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a federal commission to conduct an investigation into the incident. The commission found that “those who planned and directed [the deportation]...purposely abstained from consulting about their plans either with the United States attorney in Arizona or the law officers of the state or county”; their report concluded that the deportation was “wholly illegal” and “without justification, either in fact or in law.” The New Republic described it as a “brutal resort to the spirit of mob violence.” However, the commission could not identify any federal laws that were violated. They ultimately recommended the creation of new laws to protect striking workers, but the perpetrators of the Bisbee deportation never faced legal consequences.
 “The President’s Commission at Bisbee,” 140.
Benton-Cohen, Katherine. "Advising Bisbee’17." The American Historical Review, Vol. 124, Iss. 3, June 2019, pp. 976-982.
Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Benton-Cohen, Katherine. "Making Americans and Mexicans in the Arizona Borderlands." Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States, edited by John Tutino, University of Texas Press, 2012, pp. 171-207.
Benton-Cohen, Katherine. “Two Ways of Looking at the Bisbee Deportation.” Lapham’s Quarterly, 30 August 2018, https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/two-ways-looking-bisbee-deportation.
Bonnand, Sheila. “The Bisbee Deportation of 1917: A University of Arizona Web Exhibit.” University of Arizona, 1997, www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/history/overview.html.
Byrkit, James W. Forging the Copper Collar : Arizona’s Labor Management War of 1901-1921. University of Arizona Press, 1982.
Delman, Matt. “A Conversation with Robert Greene (BISBEE ’17).” Hammer to Nail, 27 August 2018, http://www.hammertonail.com/reviews/robert-greene-interview/.
Dubofsky, Melvyn, and McCartin, Joseph Anthony. We Shall Be All: a History of the Industrial Workers of the World. University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Gordon, Linda. The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Harvard University Press, 1999.
Meeks, Eric. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans and Anglos in Arizona. University of Texas Press, 2019.
O’Neill, Colleen. “Domesticity Deployed: Gender, Race and the Construction of Class Struggle in the Bisbee Deportation,” Labor History 34, no. 2–3 (1993): 256–273.
“Report on the Bisbee Deportations.” U.S. Department of Labor, www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/primarysources/reports/president/index.php.
“The President’s Commission at Bisbee.” New Republic, vol. 13, no. 162, Dec. 1917, p. 140.
Watson, Fred. "Still on Strike! Recollections of a Bisbee Deportee." Journal of Arizona History, vol. 18, 1977, pp. 171-184, http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/jahwats.html.
Weber, Devra. “Mexican Workers in the IWW and the PLM. IWW History Project. https://depts.washington.edu/iww/mexicaniwws.shtml.
Young, Elliott. “Haunted by Trauma.”The American Historical Review, Vol. 124, Iss. 3, June 2019, pp. 963–966, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhz456