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Historical archaeologists of the American West work in a place defined as much by imagination and myth as by history and geography. The Mythic West is a barren landscape of impressive silences, but history and historical archaeology shows the silent spaces of myth are filled with real people. Focusing on the Ludlow archaeology project, this paper discusses the relationship between the archaeology of working people, the Mythic West, and the living presence of alternative histories.
Mark Walker Anthropological Studies Center Sonoma State University Rohnert Park, CA 94928 (707) 664-2381 email@example.com
Presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference, St. Louis, MO, 2004
The American West is as much a place of imagination as it is a geographical reality. The "Romantic West" of sturdy homesteaders, hard-living cowboys, and Savage/noble Indians (take your pick) remains very much alive. It has little, if any, academic currency, but it remains a pervasive presence in American national consciousness. There is far more involved in the imaginary west than entertainment and nostalgia. Like all myths and histories it is crafted together out of different pieces of experience and reality to create a useful artifact. It is one of the fundamental elements of the dominant conceptions of American identity. It is, for example, in the wide open spaces of the West that Americans are supposed to have become Americans. The Mythic West and its ideological importance was solidified in the late 19th and early 20th century. As with the real west, to understand the Mythic West, we must look east; to Philadelphia where we find Owen Wister who, with his novel The Virginian, established the conventions of the modern Western, and to New York, home of Theodore Roosevelt, and the artist Fredric Remington. These three men along with historian Frederick Jackson Turner in Wisconsin, probably did more than anyone else to create and codify the West as a foundational element in American identity. The vast empty spaces of the West are paralleled by the vast emptiness of the mythic West--an emptiness that should be filled with people like wage workers, women, and immigrants. They are present in the very holes they leave in the narratives of the Mythic West. This paper focuses on one particular absence, that of workers and labor in the West. The Mythic West was a product of class tensions and would not exist if not for the fact that the working classes were very much in the minds of the Mythic West's patrician Eastern creators. The absence of class that is such a feature of the Mythic West is a product of the class tensions of the late 19th and early 20th century. The last quarter of the 19th century, "The Gilded Age", saw a concentration of wealth and capital that was unthinkable in the earlier days of the Republic. This period also saw a massive wave of immigration from Asia, England, Ireland, and southern and Eastern Europe. Most of these immigrants, especially those from agricultural backgrounds, funneled into low-paying unskilled jobs. The disparities of wealth and the unstable economy, together with new regimes of work as industrial production increased and more and more workers entered wage work led to dramatic increases in labor struggles. From 1881 to 1885 there were an average of 500 strikes per year. In contrast the average for the 1890s was 1300 strikes per year (Licht 1995:173). So prevalent in the historical West, these immigrants make one appearance in The Virginian. "There go some more I-talians." "They're Chinese," said Trampas.
"That's so," acknowledged the Virginian with a laugh…Without cheap foreigners they couldn't afford all this hyeh new gradin'." [Wister] The working class was no longer "American" but immigrant. Class was becoming racialized. The Mythic West was not an escape to a simpler place and time as might be supposed, but provided a model for understanding and dealing with class tensions in the coastal metropoles. With its simple dichotomies the West provided a framework for comprehending the changing nature of American capitalism and its consequent tensions, and justifications for the appropriate actions. Cowboys and Indians, civilization and savagery, Americans and foreigners--a rich terrain of last stands, circled wagons, threatened homesteads, and harsh justice. For Fredric Remington the cities were the new frontier where Anglo-Saxons would rediscover their martial vigor through race warfare. In a letter to Owen Wister, Remington stated Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns--the rubbish of the earth I hate--I've got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of 'em, and what's more I will.…Our race is full of sentiment. We've got the rinsin's, the scourin's, and the Devil's lavings to come to us and be men--something they haven't been, most of them, these hundreds of years. (Stevens 2002:10) The West was where White Americans could strip away the accretions of urban living and rediscover the Anglo-Saxon core. Wister himself noted that survival in the "clean cattle country requires spirit of adventure, courage, and self-sufficiency; you will not find many Poles or Huns or Russian Jews in that district; but the Anglo-Saxon is still forever homesick for out-of-doors" (Stevens 2002:14). Because Wister was able to ignore the social relations that created the cowboy--the wage work, the debt peonage, and even that cowboys rarely owned their own horses--he was able to create the isolated free-roaming individual so has become such an integral part of dominant conceptions of American identity. The Mythic West may have little academic credence but one always feels its heavy hand on one's shoulder when doing archaeology in the West and presenting findings to the public. This "heavy hand" can be present in audience expectations, in the questions they ask, and in the uneasy sense that one is competing with the every hour, on the hour, outlaw hanging in nearby Canon City. The Mythic West remains a dominating presence, but other histories also flourish. They may not have the same resources or appeal but they remain vital and living. More often than not archaeologists work in the realm of these other histories. We have a hard time avoiding the Poles, Huns, Jews, Chinese, and the rest of the "Devil's lavings". The West we work in is one of immigrants, work camps, company towns, railroads, vast extractive enterprises, Eastern capital, and labor struggles that substantially changed the ways that millions of Americans lived.
This paper focuses on one such struggle and the memories that surround it--the 1913-14 Colorado Coalfield War and the Ludlow Massacre. The Southern Colorado coalfield was an important source of coking, steam, and domestic bituminous coal, and was extensively developed by heavily capitalized industries such as railroads and steel mills, especially the Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) mills in Pueblo. CF&I, owned by Rockefeller interests, was one of the largest employers in the region. The control of the large coal operators, such as CF&I, over the political and economic life of Las Animas and Huerfano counties, which comprised the southern field, was nearly total. The miners lived in numerous company-owned towns located in the canyons where the coal seams were exposed by erosion. They lived in rented company houses, bought food and supplies at company stores, and alcohol at company saloons. The entries to the canyons were gated and guarded by deputized mine guards (Beshoar 1957:2; McGovern and Guttridge 1972:23). The workforce itself was largely immigrant labor from southern and eastern Europe who had been brought in as strikebreakers in 1903. Before the strike the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) counted 24 different languages in the camps. One might think this was not your usual West, but it was. On September 1913, after an organizing drive by the UMWA, the miners went on strike. 10,000-12,000 miners and their families were evicted from their housing and poured from the canyons to about a dozen sites rented by the UMWA in anticipation of the evictions. The UMWA supplied tents and stoves, and organized the strikers into tent colonies. The colonies were located at strategic spots covering the entrances to the canyons to intercept strikebreakers. The largest of these colonies was Ludlow, with about 200 tents and 1200 miners and their families. After a period of low-level violence, the National Guard was called out to keep order. For number of reasons, including the financial straits of the state and the class sympathies of the Guard leadership, the neutrality of the Guard became hopelessly compromised, and it degenerated into little more than a heavily armed strikebreaking force (Sunsieri 1972). General Chase, the Guard commander, initiated a regime of unofficial and illegal martial law, highlights of which included the suspension of habeas corpus, mass jailings of strikers, a cavalry charge on a demonstration of miners’ wives and children, the torture and beating of prisoners, and the demolition of a tent colony at Forbes. The strike climaxed in the Ludlow Massacre, when firing broke out at the Ludlow tent colony. An estimated 25 people were killed, including three Guardsmen. As the strikers retreated from the colony, the Guard moved in and burnt it. Four women and 11 children had taken refuge in a pit excavated beneath the one of the tents. All of them, except two of the women, died when the tent above them was burned. Both of survivors lost all their children. This pit has been preserved and is the site of the current monument, erected by the UMWA in 1918. Other casualties included three strikers, including the colony leader, Louis Tikas, who were captured by the Guard and summarily executed.
After the massacre, the strikers went to war. For 10 days they attacked and burned mines and coal camps, fighting a series of battles with the militia and mine guards along the 40 miles from Trinidad to Walsenburg. This ended when Federal troops were sent in to restore order. The strike dragged on for another seven months, ending in the defeat of the union. The trials of arrested strikers (408 in total, with 332 indictments for murder) continued until 1920. All charges were eventually dropped, with most never coming to trial. The National Guard court-martialled and exonerated 10 officers and 12 enlisted men for the Ludlow Massacre. Although it ended in the defeat of the union, the Ludlow Massacre focused national attention on the conditions in the Colorado coal camps, and in labor conditions throughout the U.S. (Adams 1966; Gitelman 1988). John D. Rockefeller Jr. was singled out and excoriated in the press and in a spectacular series of public hearings before the Commission on Industrial Relations. The strike did lead to some significant changes. It resulted in a general shift on the part of management from violent confrontation with organized labor to a policy more of co-optation. It is also generally accepted wisdom that company town conditions improved throughout the US as a result of the Coal War (Roth 1992; Crawford 1995). But for all its importance to the labor movement and its practical effects on probably millions of Americans' lives, Ludlow is little known today. Nationally it did not fit with dominant conceptions of what American history should be. Locally, it was not interpreted largely because it was not thought top be the sort of West that people really want to hear about. The remembered past in southern Colorado needs to be considered in the context of de-industrialization, the decline of coal-mining, and local attempts to recreate the area economically--largely through heritage tourism, real estate, and, yes, private prisons. Civic leaders in Trinidad, the largest town near Ludlow, are marketing Trinidad as a historical area, a destination for tourism. Trinidad does boast a remarkably well preserved late 19th-century downtown. The history that is emphasized here is that of the Old West; Trinidad’s status as a rest-stop on the Santa Fe Trail where wagon trains would pause to recoup before heading over the Raton Pass into New Mexico. Through this history, Trinidad is able to link itself to the national myth of the Old West. The tourist literature is full of cowboys, pioneers, Indian attacks, and figures such as Kit Carson, Dick Wootten, "Black Jack Ketchum" and Bat Masterson. The subsequent histories of coal mining, company towns, and labor struggle are marginalized. There is some commemoration of coal mining, which, if trends in other deindustrializing regions are any guide, will probably become more prominent as the industry recedes into the past (Walker 2003). But at present in much of the tourist and public history interpretation, the history of Trinidad stops with the growth of coal mining. Isn't this just giving the public what it wants? No. It is only giving a segment of the public what it wants. Addressing the Mythic West is not simply a matter of correcting The Public. All too often we behave as if historical awareness on the part of the public is
simply awareness of and agreement with what we think--a simple matter of formal education and getting our message across more effectively. But other than a convenient shorthand for referring to people who aren't archeologists, the term "public" has very little meaning. The public is diverse. We know this. And the histories that are important to them are just diverse. Here I focus on the class basis of the histories surrounding Ludlow. Ludlow, and labor history in general, is a silence in official history. As of yet few, if any, of the seminal events of labor history and labor struggle have received official commemoration or enshrinement (Foote 1997). When important labor history events are commemorated or their sites marked it is generally by labor and labor unions. This is the case with the Ludlow Massacre site (Walker 2000). The United Mine Workers of America purchased the site within two years of the massacre and erected a monument in 1918. They have held annual memorial services ever since, with a brief hiatus during World War II. Ludlow is, for the mineworkers, and organized labor in general, very much sacred ground. Because of the nature of Ludlow, an important aspect of our archaeological work has been the relationship with organized labor. One thing that attracted us to Ludlow is that it is a counter-hegemonic history, but it is also not our counter-hegemonic history. Our initial appeal for the UMWA and other unions is not what we can tell them about their history, but what we can tell others. As archaeologists, we bring not only skills and specialized knowledge in archaeology, but the know-how to gain grants and official recognition for the site. Also archaeology itself is a highly public activity and attracts media attention as well as educational opportunities. Members of the project created an interpretive kiosk for the site, a travelling history trunk for schools, and a travelling exhibit for union halls and other public venues. Also as part of continuing education for K-12 teachers, a Teacher's Institute focusing on southern Colorado labor history was run in conjunction with the fieldwork. In general I would say the UMWA has been pleased with what we have done at Ludlow. Beyond the potential for increased awareness of labor history for people outside the labor movement, the findings themselves have become of interest to union members. People are struck by what we have found at Ludlow. The image of the broken remnants of the colony scattered across the plain has become an iconic one. To see these actual remnants--the burned tent floors, the sad artifacts of everyday life, the bullets and cartridges, and the in situ burned furnishings lying where they collapsed into cellars on the day of the massacre is a moving and disturbing experience, particularly for those who grew up with Ludlow. The significance of the site extends beyond the UMW to organized labor in general. The United Steelworkers in Pueblo have been locked out of the Colorado Fuel and Iron (now Oregon Steel) plant since 1997. The Steelworkers use the monument for meetings, invoking their struggle as a continuation of the 1914 fight. The CEO of Oregon Steel blamed the current strike on the culture of the workers, noting in a newspaper interview
that "they're still mad about the Ludlow Massacre…We never thought about that. That culture is still there" (Strom 2000). I am going to wrap this up by noting that between May 7th and May 8th of 2003 the Ludlow Monument was severely vandalized. The culprits have not been caught, and the missing heads have not been recovered. But on the plus side public and union donations have already raised enough to fully restore the monument. An interesting aspect of this is that, outside Colorado, this vandalism was not covered in the US mainstream press. Independent news web sites reported it and there was a lengthy article in the Mexican newspaper La Chronica. In the US, nothing. Whether the vandalism was a blow against the labor movement, fallout from the Steelworker strike, or simply kids on a lark is not possible to say. Given the tenor of the times and the fact that unions are under the most sustained legislative attack since the early Reagan years, it may not matter. It feels anti-union. In conclusion the mythology of the Old West reverberates through political and social discourse through to the present--justifying the laws of capitalistic competition, Social Darwinism, and Manifest Destiny. For example it seems there is no foreign policy problem so complex and so structural that it cannot be solved by shooting the right people. The western myth provides us with a ready-made framework of understanding and interpretation. We do not need to know about Kurds, Arabs, and Persians, Sunni and Shia, Baathists and nationalists. We only need to know about Cowboys and Indians, civilization and savagery, good guys and bad guys. The West of Ludlow, Chinese railroad workers, Wobblies, Apache dam builders, and other working people deserves commemoration and interpretation. It is humane, inclusive, and truer. It is also the West that archaeologists find.
Adams, Graham 1966 The Age of Industrial Violence, 1910-1915: The Activities and Findings of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations. Columbia University Press, New York. Beshoar, Barron B. 1957 Out of the Depths: The Story of John R. Lawson, a Labor Leader. Colorado Historical Commission & Denver Trades & Labor Assembly, Denver. Crawford, Margaret 1995 Building the Workingman's Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns. Verso, London. Foote, Kenneth E. 1997 Shadowed Ground: America's Landscape of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press, Austin. Gitelman, Howard M. 1988 Legacy of the Ludlow Massacre: A Chapter in American Industrial Relations. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. Licht, Walter 1995 Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. McGovern, George S. , and Leonard F. Guttridge 1972 The Great Coalfield War. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Roth, Leland 1992 Company Towns in the Western United States. In The Company Town: Architecture and Society in the Early Industrial Age., John S. Garner, editor, pp. 173-205. Oxford University Press, New York, New York. Stevens, J. David 2002 The Word Rides Again: Rereading the Frontier in American Fiction. Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, Athens, OH. Strom, Shelly 2000 OSM haunted by the past. The Business Journal of Portland, November 3, Sunsieri, Alvin R. 1972 The Ludlow Massacre: A Study in the mis-employment of the National Guard. Salvadore Books, Waterloo, Iowa. Walker, Mark 2000 Labor History at the Ground Level: Colorado Coalfield War Archaeology Project. Labor's Heritage 11(1):58-75. 2003 The Ludlow Massacre: Class, Warfare, and Historical Memory in Southern Colorado. Historical Archaeology 37(3):66-80.
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