Journal of Arizona History 18 (Summer 1977): 119-148.


By Joseph F. Park

THE STRIKE AT CLIFTON IN JUNE, 1903, the only significant outbreak in Arizona until the onset of labor disorders accompanying the First World War, was unique in being largely a Mexican affair.  In all its outward aspects the episode was a paradox that caught the whole Territory by surprise.  The Western Federation of Miners, active in Arizona since a labor-management confrontation at Globe in 1896, had not gained a foothold in the Clifton-Morenci district.  There was no apparent labor organization and in view of the preponderant number of alien Mexicans in the area, the strikers could expect no support from the Union.  Yet, where the WFM had not succeeded thus far in staging a successful strike on a large scale, the Mexican workers at Clifton managed to tie up the whole district.  In fact, the conduct of the walkout revealed a sense of unity and a power of decision notably lacking in the activities of the predominantly Anglo WFM.

The strike failed through a combination of circumstances that nobody could have expected or foreseen, but it wrote a chapter in the labor history of the state and was a landmark in the painful upward progress of the Mexican workman – without whom Arizona could not have achieved industrial significance.

This important mining district is a good laboratory for the study of Mexican labor in Arizona beginning in post-Civil War years when workers from both sides of the border offered a

Mr. Park, microform librarian at the University of Arizona library, specializes in the demography of the border area with emphasis on the role of the Mexican in Arizona labor history.  His essay is extracted from his master’s thesis, “The History of Mexican labor in Arizona during the Territorial Period” (University of Arizona, 1961).

solution to the mine owner’s problems as the industry revived in a virtually abandoned region.  Indian labor had proved unsatisfactory.  Anglo-Americans were restless in the employ of others and tended to work only long enough to grubstake themselves.  Chinese laborers, no longer needed by the railroad companies, came and went but not in significant numbers.  In the villages south of the Mexican border, however, there existed an abundance of capable workers, many of them with experience in working ores of the Arizona-Sonora zone.  These aliens crossed the frontier, legally or illegally, in increasing numbers both before and after the turn of the century to join the native-born work force, and little distinction was made between the two groups.  They were given largely the same treatment, paid the “Mexican” wage, and usually assigned to jobs considered by the Americans as “Mexicans’ work.”  In the development of the Clifton mines these Mexicans played a major role.  An account of their origin, background, treatment and eventual rebellion throws considerable light on the labor history of the copper state.

Their employment at Clifton-Morenci became important with the opening of the district in 1872.  Except for a few ranches in the upper Gila, this region was completely isolated, and the environmental and social problems encountered there during the developmental years were fully as difficult as those experienced on other frontiers in Arizona during earlier decades.  The nearest point of supply was Silver City, New Mexico.  Military posts were too distant to offer effective protection, and renegade Apaches from the San Carlos reservation roamed freely through the region, attacking supply wagons and wood-chopping crews, and even raiding the settlement, thus adding to the problems of inaccessibility and isolation a factor of danger that made it doubly difficult to attract and retain workmen.

The Clifton ores were known to Mexican prospectors of the early nineteenth century, who reported the presence of copper in the precipitous mountains north of the Gila River.  In 1864, Henry Clifton rediscovered the ore body, but due to its remote location, he returned to Silver City without attempting to file on it.  Six years later Robert Metcalf and a group of prospectors found outcrops of beautiful copper carbonates along the cliffs about two thousand feet above the bed of Chase Creek.1  After locating claims, Metcalf returned to Silver City, where he sold the controlling interest in the prospect to Charles and Henry Lesinsky.  At Las Cruces, the Lesinskys organized the Longfellow Copper Mining Company and made preparations to enter the region.  Aware that Mexicans had a traditional knowledge of smelting, Henry Lesinsky recruited a small force with experience in copper mining, deciding to leave it to them to build and operate the first smelters at Clifton.  Returning to Silver City, he was joined by Metcalf and others, and they packed into the area.2  Deep in a canyon at the junction of Chase Creek and the San Francisco River, they founded the settlement of Clifton, built entirely by Mexican labor.3

By October, 1873, they had thirty men working steadily and were smelting seventy to eighty-percent ore using Mexican processes.4  The undertaking was a success from the start.  During the next two or three years, according to Hiram C. Hodge, thousands of tons where worked through the furnaces, several of which were in continual operation.  From 200 to 400 men were being employed at three to four dollars a day.5  On account of the rough terrain, however, they experienced increasing difficulty in handling the volume then being processed.  From the mouth of the Longfellow Mine the mineral was carried down a steep incline to a wagon road, then hauled some five miles to the reduction works at Clifton, where Mexican workers shouldered the ore baskets and carried them to the smelters.  In 1874 Henry Lesinsky improved the local transportation arrangements by building a twenty-inch railway over the route.  Mules hauled the cars up the incline.  Then, according to James Colquhoun, a young Scottish engineer who later took charge of the Clifton mines as president of the Arizona Copper Company and functioned also as the community historian, “the ore cars hauled the mules down.”6

The shipping of the copper bullion, however, posed the greatest problem.  During the early years, the owners used bull teams, hauling their copper 1200 miles to Kansas City and returning with supplies.  Colquhoun remarked of the hazards of the journey, “Sometimes teamsters left Clifton with their loads of copper, and were never heard of again.  A few dead bodies, and the wreck of a plundered wagon, told the tale to the teamsters who followed.”

Through the mid-1870s, shipping remained the principal barrier to volume production, and for this there was no apparent remedy other than adding voice to the growing agitation for the construction of a railroad across the Territory.  In May of 1877, this long-postponed event began to materialize with the construction of the Southern Pacific to the west bank of the Colorado.  In mid-November, 1878, the first cars crossed the river and work resumed with the help of daily importation of Chinese laboreres, over 600 by the end of the week.7  On November 30 construction superintended Strobridge reported:  “We are now employing about two hundred white men, and have over eleven hundred Chinese graders strung along ahead of the track.”8

With the introduction of these Chinese track workers, Mexican laborers faced severe competition for the first time.  Not only did the importation of coolie labor exclude Mexican workers from a great number of jobs that would otherwise have been available, but it brought into Arizona another class of cheap labor that threatened to destroy living standards already notoriously low throughout the southern part of the Territory.

While the Chinese remained in competition with Mexican workers only, their presence provoked little concern among news editors and representatives of the vocal groups.  But it was not long before they began to drift from the railroads into mining work.  In August, Henry Lesinsky touched upon this matter publicly, announcing that if the Longfellow Copper Mines employed any Chinese at all, “it would be at work which neither white men nor Mexicans would accept.”  He did not want to be responsible for starting a “Mongolian invasion of that territory.”  Instead, the Chinese would be put to work in the hills burning and transporting charcoal for the furnaces over such rough country that “even Mexicans cannot be got to carry anything over it.”  Not more than seventy would be hired, and these would work separately from the “225 to 275 white men and Mexicans, who got on very well together.”9  A week later the Silver City Herald reported that “some fifty Chinamen have arrived at Clifton, Arizona, and will be put to work in the mines and furnaces.”10

Meanwhile, the question of Chinese labor was becoming an issue throughout the Territory.  Editorials boomed the consequences of forcing native-born Americans to compete with labor prepared by generations of misery and trained to work “without air and food.”11  Vagabondage and crime were said to be the direct result of this immigration, local politicians were challenged to define their positions on the issue publicly, and the Immigration Act of July 1, 1879, then being formulated, was cited as evidence of federal recognition of the seriousness of the Chinese question.12  “The Chinese must go!” became the symbolic cry that greeted Southern Pacific foremen when they arrived with their crews at Maricopa Station in January, 1880, after a six-months interruption of the work.  The Chinese soon went¾some of them into the copper camps.

As the railroad proceeded toward the eastern border, the heyday of Arizona’s copper era was drawing near.  Henry Lesinsky’s miners and smelting crews at Clifton worked to maintain a steady flow of ore through the smelters despite fuel shortages, delays in transportation, inadequate protection and other adverse conditions.  Clifton had become the busiest place in Arizona.  According to an observer describing the camp during the spring of 1878, the settlement was beginning to stretch out along the banks of the San Francisco River beneath a towering wall of red cliffs.  The reduction works of the Gleason and Sweeny Mine was situated at the northern extremity of the camp, a neat adobe structure surrounded by outlying buildings and several Mexican huts.  A mile below was Clifton, comprising some thirty to forty Mexican adobes forming a devious line between the cliffs and the river, and two well-constructed buildings which made up the office and residence of Louis Smedberg, superintendent of the Longfellow Copper Company.  Speaking of the progress of the work, the writer said:

They employ some 200 men at the mine and works, principally Mexicans, with a considerable number of freighters and coalburners [charcoal burners] in the mountains adjacent.  Average wages paid here, $2 a day, in L. C. M. Co.’s “checks” or promissory notes, printed on stout red cloth, and payable entirely in merchandise at the company’s store in Clifton, or if a considerable amount, half in green backs and half in merchandise, at M. Lesinsky’s store in Silver City.13

In such an isolated community, it is safe to say that most, if not all, the payroll went back to the company via the store or the mess hall.  Butchering was done at dawn every other morning, when beef and mutton could be purchased at twelve and a half cents a pound.  Mexican workers did not like to cook for themselves, yet they deplored the mess system at Clifton.  In any event, their money went one direction or the other.  The importance of the commissary stores during the early operation of the mines is revealed by Colquhoun, who writes:  “Often the company lost money of the copper they shipped, but these losses were more than offset by the profits on the stores.  Had it not been for the stores the enterprise could not have existed.”14

At this time, most of the Mexican workers were recruited in New Mexico, and even as far east as El Paso.  But, on account of the Apache problem, it was difficult to hold the men once they were brought into the mines.  In 1879 the Apache chief Victorio broke out of the San Carlos reservation and raided the Clifton camp, driving off the mules and frightening away many of the Mexican laborers.  In order to fill the gaps, more hands were imported from El Paso.  Desertions continued, however.  Realizing the importance of the family unit in Mexican culture, Lesinsky finally decided to recruit married men with families, thus doubly assuring the company of more permanent workers since desertion was made unthinkable when loved ones were placed in a position of danger thereby.  Don Antonio, described by Colquhoun as the “beau ideal of the Spanish caballero,” was assigned to the task of importing twenty-five Mexican families.  Not a single interested family group was found, however, so he chose the next best alternative, returning to Clifton at the head of a caravan of twenty-five Mexican couples who were promptly married by Superintendent Smedberg on their arrival in camp.15

The need for more workers continued, even so, and as a result the Chinese menace reached Clifton and caused some problems for the Mexicans.  In June of 1879, according to a Clifton reporter, Lesinsky left on a recruiting trip, hoping to bring in seventy-five to a hundred new workers.  The year before, on a similar trip, he had hit upon the idea of hiring Chinese railroad laborers, and this time he brought back a number of them.  He intended, he said, to use them as wood choppers, but he was as ruthless as the railroad companies had been in putting them to work where they were needed.  Much of the discontent of the Mexican employees, the “Chinamen were employed as miners.  If occasionally a few were killed, no questions were asked, and the work went on as usual.”16  During the year ending May 31, 1880, the mines of the district smelted 3,183,750 pounds of copper, according to Raphael Pumpelly, who set the total labor force at only 110 persons,17 including the unwelcome Chinese.

This was accomplished in spite of the Apaches, who continued to harass the camp in the early eighties.  Lesinsky alleviated the problem to some extent in 1881 when he imported a tiny steam engine capable of pulling up the grade to the foot of the Longfellow incline.  Henry A. Arbuckle and two Mexican helpers were assigned to its operation, which included maintenance as well as heaving the contraption back on the tracks after each of its many derailments.  Aside form bringing to the camp the distinction of owning the first such locomotive in Arizona, the engine expedited the processing of ore and, as Colquhoun adds, “it was something the Indians could not steal.”18  Indian trouble continued through the spring of 1882, however, when Geronimo left the reservation and killed eleven Mexican teamsters at a camp twelve miles south of Clifton.19  The Apache raiders forced the arrieros to carry arms as they followed the trails that linked the mines to civilization.  They even harassed the drivers hauling ore along the track between the mine and the smelters.

The railroad which really sent Clifton’s fortunes soaring and increased the demand for Mexican workmen was the Arizona and New Mexico, which was built through to a junction with the Southern Pacific at Lordsburg in 1882.  Whereas Arizona had produced 5,000,000 pounds of copper during the preceding year, the total output now rose to 15,000,000¾then jumped to 24,500,000 pounds in 1883.  Clifton produced 8,000,000 pounds of copper from the Detroit smelters alone.20

Under the management of James Colquhoun, the Arizona Copper Company doubled the work force at Clifton to a total of four hundred in 1883, among whom were about one hundred Chinese.21  Before the end of the year, however, Colquhoun discharged the Chinese, replacing them with Anglo-American and Mexican miners.  On their way out of the hills, several of the unfortunate Orientals were waylaid and killed for the money they had scraped together.22  But, as in many other boom settlements of this period, a large percentage of Chinese driven out of mining and railroad work remained in the community to open businesses.  Meanwhile, where the percentage of Anglo-Americans continued to increase in other mining districts in the intermountain zone, Clifton became a predominantly Mexican community.  Anti-Mexican sentiments, though no doubt felt by the Anglo-American miners there, were not outwardly expressed to any significant degree, either toward resident or alien Mexicans.  The difference in attitudes at Clifton, as compared with those of other camps, was noted in the remarks of D. L. Sayre, publisher of the Clarion:

Our Mexican fellow citizens have largely attended masquerade balls nightly in the Tip-Top hall for several nights past, and they have done their share of merrie-making for the carnival week of 1885.  Among themselves the Mexicans are kindly and orderly, but a few white men generally manage to intrude their presence on these festive occasions and not only mar the pleasure of the devotees of Terpischore, but disturb the whole neighborhood, in the small hours of the night, by their noise.23

By 1890, Clifton had become Arizona’s melting pot of minority groups.  A writer described the community as having three general stores, seven saloons, two doctors, several Chinese restaurants and “washee houses with ‘hop’ joint attachments,” and on the outskirts of town, a large machine shop and round house for the Arizona and New Mexico Railway.  Regarding the population composition, the writer continued:

The railroads, reduction works and mines…belong to the Arizona Copper Company, and hundreds of men are employed….The major part of the population in Mexican; there is a large Chinese contingent who have a strong foot-hold, a respectable sprinkling of Italians, several [Jewish] itinerant merchants….All skilled workers are white.  What the population is in round numbers no one knows as the census enumerator failed to enumerate a large percentage…but it is estimated, approximately, that the population is about 2,000 souls.24

During these yeas, the richer veins were being mined out at Clifton, and copper districts throughout the territory struggled to increase production levels to offset expenses incurred by declining copper prices.  The Detroit Copper Mining Company at nearby Morenci finally shut down, while the Clifton mines often had barely enough money to pay wages and none to meet payments on a million-dollar mortgage.  The old mechanical means of reducing copper ore was not successful in processing the low-grade oxidized porphyry then coming out of the shafts, with the result that much of the copper content passed on to the dumps.  Colquhoun commenced “fooling around with a forty-gallon barrel and a can of sulphuric acid” and, at a time when the company appeared financially doomed, he proved that copper could be leached profitably from the tailings formerly consigned to the dumps.  Unable to get financial backing, he set the men to work building with reclaimed timbers and iron fittings a leaching plant capable of extracting 2,000,000 pounds of copper a year.25

Colquhoun’s discovery injected new life into the industry.  Production was increased forty percent and the cost of processing copper reduced two cents a pound.  In regard to labor demand, the advent of the leaching plant had even greater effects.  Where profits once depended almost solely on the quality of the ore, the capacity of the reduction works now became the principal factor, thus permitting increased volume to compensate for declines in copper content.   Consequently, to sustain the tremendous quantities of low-grade ores flowing through the smelters and leaching plants, the number of surface and underground workers had to be doubled and tripled.  By the turn of the century, the output of the Arizona Copper Company exceeded that of the entire Territory in 1882, some 29,000,000 pounds of copper being processed through its reduction plants during 1904.  In that year, the Overland Monthly reported that the company was using the latest improved machinery.  In the mine shafts, ore was hauled in electric cars from huge bins and racks to the elevators, then brought to the surface to be processed through modern concentrators, smelters, and leaching plants.  The “hell-born machine,” which had displaced so many workers during the 1870’s was now making possible the employment of 2500 men in those mines alone.26  The search for more miners was carried on with renewed vigor, and this time it went deep into Mexico.

The labor recruiter operating on both sides of the boundary, soon became the central figure of the period, though he was a universal outcast.  He was hated by union workers for his traffic in cheap labor; he was accepted and solicited by employers only insofar as he proved profitable to them.  His activities often led him beyond the limits of the law, yet never far enough to move authorities into taking action against him.  The contract-labor and immigration statutes of the time were designed to apply to seaports and to overseas immigrants and could easily be evaded in Arizona since they were inapplicable to conditions along the border.  The recruiter operated in violation of several of these laws.  The Immigration Act of February 26, 1885, declared void all labor contracts made with foreign immigrants prior to their arrival in the Untied States.  It also forbade any person or company to prepay the transportation, assist, or encourage in any way the immigration of aliens under contract.27  On October 19, 1888, the act was amended to reward persons reporting violations.  While the Immigration Act of 1907 sought to control Japanese immigration primarily, its provisions applied to all immigrants.  Section One stipulated that whenever the president had reason to believe that a foreign country was issuing passports enabling persons to come to the United States to the detriment of labor therein, he could refuse such immigrants entry into the country.28

These acts aimed to eliminate many abuses resulting from the contracting of foreign labor, as well as to prevent the degradation of working conditions in the United States.  None was designed to restrict the flow of voluntary Mexican labor across the border in any way.  The Immigration Act of 1891 provided for the location of inspection stations at ports of entry along the seaboard and on the Mexican and Canadian borders.  Two of them were in operation on the Mexican boundary by 1894.  On account of the great length of the border and the constant remigration across it, however, the smuggling of Orientals as well as the traffic in Mexican labor went on unabated.

After 1900 Mexican immigration became a matter of general concern.  The rush to build feeder railroads into the copper districts and the resultant upturn in production brought thousands of Mexican workers into Arizona.  Between 1900 and 1910, the number of these immigrants was three times larger than that of the two preceding decades combined.

In 1908 the Department of Commerce published a report by Victor S. Clark, which constitutes the first comprehensive study of the inflow and diffusion of Mexican laboreres throughout the Southwest at this time.29  Included  were observations on the unlawful activities of the contractors.  American agents preferred crews imported from the interior of Mexico to those picked up by chance along the border.  The agent worked through his Mexican counterpart, the enganchador, the “hooker,” who enlisted workers largely from the tramp population around cities.  Hostility toward the recruiter and prohibitive legislation made open recruiting dangerous in the rural districts.30  The methods of transportation to the border varied.  In some cases, the gangs of workers were placed aboard a northbound train in charge of a boss who held the tickets.  The cost of transportation was passed on to the American agent, who deducted it from the workers’ salaries once they were placed on a job.  Mexican laborers very often signed up for work merely as a means of travelling to towns farther north, slipping off the train at an opportune moment.  The practice was evidently common enough to result in considerable loss to the recruiters, for Clark reported that “one is told of locked car doors and armed guards on the platforms of trains to prevent desertions en route.”31

On delivering a group of workers to the border, the enganchador was paid off by an American labor contractor, who either delivered the recruits directly to an employer and collected his commission or sold them to another agent.  At Tucson and at Trinidad and Denver, Colorado, large agencies handled a considerable number of Mexicans.  On the other hand, a private labor contractor occasionally speculated, retaining a select crew at his headquarters on subsistence in order to secure a better price from a particular railroad or mine operator soon to be badly in need of extra hands.  The workers were held with promises of higher pay, which often did not materialize, merely to keep them away from rival agents.  Meanwhile, chiseling on railroad fares and other graft progressively reduced the workers’ wage.  During these years the large contractors often increased their profits by supplying the recruits with provisions and other articles formerly sold at the company stores.

Indeed, this is their main source of revenue and some firms are said to furnish labor to railways without commission in return for the privilege of keeping the commissary.  The working man buys at the commissary because he can get credit there…and the commissary can grant this credit because its arrangement with the employing corporations gives it the exclusive right to charge such debts against the payroll.32

According to the editor of the Bisbee Daily Review, thousands of Mexicans were brought into Arizona during 1901 to work on the railroads and in the mines.  The inflow was so great at this time that he questioned the accuracy of the 1900 census in setting Arizona’s total population at 122,212.  “There is little doubt, despite these official figures,” he said, “that the territory has a bona fide population of about 140,000.”33  No immigration statistics were kept at this time, but Clark estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 Mexicans crossed the border annually.34

The success of the recruiters was largely due to economic conditions in Mexico, which encouraged a constant northward movement among the laboring class to supply demands in the less developed areas and to escape peonage in the agricultural states above the Valley of Mexico.35  The northward construction of the Mexican Central Railway gave a tremendous impetus to this grass-roots migration.  The people of the agricultural states tended to be more sedentary than those of the northern frontier.  They disliked taking work, even on a temporary basis, if it led them into areas beyond daily travelling distance from their homes.  Many worked on the haciendas, which held laborers in one locality through indenture, even though better wages might have been available elsewhere.  As the railroad built northward, however, many Mexican villagers found both the means and the incentive to leave their native regions.  Once hired to lay track, the peon found the promise of a daily wage a powerful inducement to remain with the construction company as a section laborer.  With this decision, the regional bond was broken:

Gradually he became bolder and more worldly-wise and could be prevailed upon to work for a month or so a hundred miles or more up and down the line….This carried the Central Mexican villager a thousand miles from his home and to within a few miles of the border, and American employers, with a gold wage, have had little difficulty in attracting him across that not very formidable line.36

Wages now became the principal means of support for the railroad workers, thus further loosening their psychological and economic ties to the land, as well as providing greater mobility.  Family loyalties, always strong among Mexican laborers, remained a problem, but the companies circumvented it by providing box cars in which the workers’ families could live and travel.  The arrangement offered them the promise of better living conditions in the future.

Arizona originally received the majority of its Mexican immigrants from Sonora and Chihuahua, but the turn of the century witnessed a tremendous inflow from the villages adjacent to the Mexican railways, including natives of states as far south as Guanajuato, Aguas Calientes, and Michoacan.37  The results were visible in the mining districts.  Clark writes that the Mexican worker of the early 1900s supplemented all other kinds of laborers in the mines of New Mexico and Arizona.  In exploratory work, “he will be found…using the drill and powder and in some new mine opened in a new district, to the exclusion of white labor, yet later, if the property proves valuable, he may be supplanted wholly by skilled American miners.”  One mine owner said that in isolated regions he preferred Mexicans because they could be replaced easily if they became dissatisfied.38

With an adequate supply of Mexican workers, Arizona’s social and economic progress might have continued along increasingly tranquil paths through the Territorial period to statehood.  On the eve of the twentieth century, however, a collision occurred between the mounting tide of alien laborers from Mexico and the members of the miners’ union, which was expanding southward from the Rocky Mountain zone into the mining districts of Arizona.  Already smarting under the defeats they suffered through the importation of Mexican strike breakers during the Colorado coal strikes of 1903-04, union organizers entering Arizona directed their principal efforts against the employers of alien Mexicans.  They found their strongest support in the intermountain zone, where Anglo-American miners viewed the northward surge of Mexican immigration as a threat which would soon destroy the two-wage system, leaving laborers of all social classes with the choice of accepting the prevailing minimum or going without work.  During the 1870s mechanization in the mines had made possible a series of higher pay scales for specialized Anglo-American workers, and this, in turn, tended to pull up the wages of common laborers within this socio-economic group.39  In the 80s and 90s, however, the scale for Anglo-Americans leveled off at about three dollars a day, largely because of the increasing inflow of alien competition from below the border.

While the union organizers and Anglo-American workers often made an effort not to discriminate against citizens of Latin extraction, the growing sentiment against alien Mexicans tended to generalize, lumping all people of this heritage in the cheap labor class then being exploited to the detriment of other workers.  Thus through no fault of their own Mexican-Americans became the object of a renewed anti-Mexicanism typical of the early years of the present century.  While resident Mexicans felt sympathetic to the immigrant national, they did not want to be identified with him in public opinion.  Furthermore, they resented being placed in direct competition with the alien Mexican laborer, feeling that he could afford to work for a cheaper wage since he had no family with him.40  They could not escape, however, from sharing his problems and his fate.

For one thing the steady increase in corporate control of Arizona’s mines prompted an impersonal relationship between the workers and their employers.  These latter had little interest in balancing social factors against economic realities in setting wages.  Railroad and mining work usually required no particular skill, and employers stood fast on their prerogative of moving ahead by the cheapest possible means.  Consequently unskilled Mexican-Americans had no alternative but to work for the prevailing rate paid to imported labor.  Although the Mexican labor scale had increased from an average of one dollar and a half in 1885 to about two dollars in 1895, it leveled off and remained constant through the first decade of the present century as Mexican immigration doubled.  Meanwhile, the gap between Mexican and Anglo pay scales was widening.  With the increase of union activity in Arizona during the period 1900-1910, Anglo-American wages rose from about three dollars to four for the same type of work.  Nevertheless, the past effects of alien competition on the wages of Anglo-American workers, along with the current leveling of the wages of resident Mexicans, serves as a warning to the Anglos and turned their thoughts increasingly to collective action as their only defense against management.

Behind the cheap-labor philosophy of this period lay not only the profit motive but an obsession in the minds of employers that any increase in wages was a dangerous concession to the nascent union movement, then gathering strength in the mining districts of the West through the efforts of the Western Federation of Miners.  In this attitude mine operators had the sympathy of the general public, which looked with apprehension on the violent outbreaks of the period¾the Chicago Haymarket riot of 1886, the bloodshed during the Carnegie strike of 1892, the paralysis of transportation during the Pullman strike of 1894.  People needed little encouragement to attribute the strikes and riots to foreign ideas imported by the bolshevist Industrial Workers of the World.  Consequently an employer importing cheap labor to break a strike could do so without fear of censure from the public at large.  The strike of the Western Federation of Miners in the Colorado coal fields during 1904-04 was easily rendered ineffective by the mass recruiting of Mexican laborers.41

As the union movement spread southward through the Rockies, a feeling of resentment hardened against the employers of imported labor and against the alien Mexican workers themselves who, without protective organization of any kind, were little more than pawns in the impending battle in the Arizona copper districts.42

The first Arizona local of the WFM was formed at Globe in 1896 following a demonstration against a wage cut and the employment of Mexicans in the Old Dominion Mine.43  At this time the Mexicans at the Clifton-Morenci mines were being paid $1.75 to $2 for a ten-hour day while the lowest wage at Globe was $3.  When the Globe mine changed hands, the new superintendent cut the wages of car men and shovelers to $2.75.  Unrest spread, but no trouble developed until he cut the minimum again, setting it at $2.25.  Three weeks later tempers flared, the superintendent was accosted on the street, and a miners’ meeting was called for “all those who wished to keep Globe a ‘white man’s’ town.”  The miners made it clear, however, that their complaint involved only Mexican aliens¾not citizens of Mexican extraction.  Threatened with violence, the superintendent restored wages and discharged the alien Mexicans.44  Soon afterward the new owners closed the Old Dominion but the local union survived the shutdown and made Globe “the center of labor agitation in the Territory.”45  The buildup toward the troubles of 1903-1904 had begun.

The forces at work included the growth of monopolistic ownership by the big companies.  Phelps Dodge in particular was reaching out for new properties and its control of Arizona’s copper resources was almost complete by the turn of the century.  It took possession of the United Globe mines in 1892 and the Detroit Copper Company at Morenci three years later.  By 1903 the company had acquired the Old Dominion Mine at Globe and only the properties at Jerome remained outside its domination.46

The growth of this monopoly had a bearing on the progress of unionization by giving management a greater unity, but the problems of the great corporation increased correspondingly wherever labor disputes occurred.  The labor-management issues of the early twentieth century were reduced largely to battles between the union and Phelps Dodge.

In the Clifton-Morenci area the WFM encountered a special situation which discouraged union activity.  Most of the workers were aliens who were largely unaware of the objectives of the movement, and those without families or local ties continually drifted from camp to camp, their places being taken by new recruits from below the border.  Under these circumstances indoctrination was almost impossible and the WFM directed its principal effort toward the higher-paid Anglo-American workers, relying upon a strong anti-Mexican policy to win support.  To the discomfort of the organizers, however, this approach only increased their difficulties for it played directly into the hands of the employers by perpetuating “the existence of two competing classes of workmen.”

The strike of 1903 was preceded by two events which indicated the growing influence of the union movement in Arizona politics, particularly in regard to the question of hiring alien Mexican laborers.  On March 21, 1901, during Governor Nathan O. Murphy’s last year in office, the legislature passed a bill enabling the governor to create a special body called the Arizona Rangers.  Their personnel, whose identification was to be kept as secret as possible “for strategic purposes,” were authorized to command the services of cattlemen and law officers when necessary.  Formed originally to patrol the border and prevent cattle rustling, they were often used by mine owners to suppress strikes.47  Having formed the body as one of his last official acts, Murphy, himself a mine owner, resigned to attend to business affairs, forcing his successor, Governor Alexander O. Brodie, to take office prematurely in July 1, 1902.   The next year the union won a round.  When the twenty-second legislature met on January 19, 1903, says historian James McClintock, they passed an act “directed against the companies employing Mexican and contract labor…prohibiting more than eight hours of labor on underground work in the mines.”48  While the eight-hour law constituted a major victory for union men in their efforts toward better working conditions, their principal satisfaction came in seeing an effective blow delivered to mine operators who sought to employ alien Mexicans whenever possible because they would submit to working ten to twelve hours a day at a wage that undercut the union scale by almost fifty percent.49

On June 1, the eight-hour law went into effect with the understanding that wages would remain unchanged.  On the following day, mine operators in the Clifton-Morenci District cut the work day from ten to eight hours accordingly, but in doing so offered their men only nine hours’ pay, in effect reducing their wage by one-tenth.  The men rejected this proposal and commenced to walk out.   On the morning of June 3, the smelters and mills were shut down and 3500 men were idled.50  There was no violence and everyone seemed to be in a good humor, as well as in agreement with the action being taken.  Of the men who started the strike, eighty to ninety percent were Mexican.  Though no leadership had been apparent, the editor of the Bisbee Daily Review observed, “The Mexicans belong to numerous societies and through these they can exert some sort of organization to stand together.”51  As the strike progressed, it became known that the principal men in charge were A. Salcido,  president of a Mexican society, Frank Colombo, an Italian, and W. H. Lastenneau, a Rumanian.

On June 5 the Bisbee Daily Review reported the progress of the strike as follows:

The strike is now composed of almost entirely Mexicans.  Quite a number of Americans have left the camp.  These men are taking no part with the Mexicans….At Metcalf, where practically all the men employed are Mexicans, the tie up of operations was complete from the start.  The men prevented the loading of any ore in the cars which haul it to the Arizona [Copper Company] reduction works at Clifton….It seems that the Mexicans are being led by one or two prominent leaders; they gather two or three times a day in Morenci and listen to speeches from the leaders who are very industrious [and] have used harsh language concerning the “gringos”….This morning at 5 o’clock, more than two hundred Mexicans were already gathered at the mouth of the Humboldt tunnel, listening to the harangues by the leaders and music by the band….This will probably be the end of Mexican labor in the district.52

During the next few days, the fury of man and the elements merged to bring the Clifton strike to a spectacular climax.  At the outbreak of the strike Governor Brodie ordered the Arizona Rangers to the scene.  On June 9, they watched some 2000 sullen workers conduct a one-hour parade through the streets of Morenci in defiance of the Rangers and a relentless downpour of rain.  Noting that most of the demonstrators were armed with rifles, pistols, and knives, Sheriff Parkes sent word to the governor requesting more help.  Meanwhile the rain continued and flooding was impelled by thunderstorms in the adjacent mountains.  Suddenly, two torrents of water converged on the junction of Chase Creek and the San Francisco River, forming a crest that ripped thought the length of Clifton, destroyed nearly $100,000 in property and took a death toll of nearly fifty persons, according to later estimates.53  Federal troops were rushed to the strike-bound district, followed by six companies of the national guard.  On June 12 the community was declared under martial law and the Mexican consul, Arturo Elías, arrived in hope of exerting his influence on the strikers.54  The strike was over, however.  The flood had constituted a formidable distraction since the principal damage occurred along the narrow valley of Chase Creek which was thickly settled by Mexican laborers and their families.  Despite its tragic outcome, however, the flood may have averted a collision between the armed strikers and the incoming troops which could have resulted in even more fatalities.

As Arizona’s first major strike came to a close, the strikers were disarmed, their houses were searched, and arrests were made.  The leaders were tired and ultimately confined in the Territorial prison at Yuma.  Though the companies won an easy victory, they had done so behind an array of troops larger than any witnessed in Arizona since the campaigns of General Crook during the closing years of the Apache wars.55  This fact brought even greater notoriety to the “Mexican affair” at Clifton and may have exerted a sobering effect upon the WFM regarding Mexican workers since it illustrated the extent to which employers might go to prevent the spread of unionism in Arizona.  In any event, the WFM was impressed to the point of making a statement which constituted the only tribute the strikers received for their efforts.  On being questioned as to the position the union intended to take in regard to the strike and its outcome, WFM President Charles Moyer answered from their regional headquarters at Denver, “The men at Morenci have the full support of the Western Federation of Miners.”56

The Clifton strike was the opening gun of a long series of skirmishes between labor and management with Mexican workers as a major issue.  Because of increased cooperative effort, the wages of Mexican workers began to rise as the years went on.  By the end of the Territorial period, the goad of economic necessity showed Anglo and Mexican workmen that cooperation was the better course.  There was also a significant decline in anti-Mexicanism.  The alien labor issue, however, continued to be a problem.  In fact, really serious troubles were just beginning.  Contract systems for alien Mexican labor were established during both World Wars and the government ultimately resigned itself to legalizing what it could not prohibit.  The mines continued to be affected.  For every empire built in Arizona upon high-grade ore, ten empires were built by men who discovered low-grade ores and a fortune in Mexican labor.  The Morenci experience shows how it began and how the system worked.


1Frank Tuck, Stories of Arizona Copper Mines (Phoenix: Department of Rural Resources, n.d.), p. 27.

2Floyd S. Fierman, “The Lesinsky Family,” Some Early Jewish Settlers on the Southwestern Frontier (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1960), pp. 14-21; James Colquhoun, The Early History of the Clifton-Morenci District (London: William Clowes & Sons, n.d.), pp. 35-37.

3Colquhoun, Early History of the Clifton-Morenci District.  p. 39.

4Arizona Citizen (Tucson), November 8, 1873.

5Hiram C. Hodge, Arizona As It Is, or the Coming Country (Boston: H. O. Houghton & Co., 1877), p. 112.  Throughout his book Hodge tends to overestimate the wages being paid during the mid-1870s, in most cases quoting the maximum pay for skilled men.  Lesinsky may have paid relatively higher wages to attract workers at this time, $3 to $4 being the top for Anglo-American workers and half that figure for Mexican laborers.

6James Colquhoun, The History of the Clifton-Morenci Mining District (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1924), pp. 9-11.  This work is not to be confused with his Early History of the Clifton-Morenci District, cited above.

7Arizona Sentinel (Yuma), November 16, 23, 1878.

8Ibid., November 30, 1878.

9Ibid., August 10, 1878.

10Ibid., August                17, 1878.

11Arizona Weekly Star (Tucson), February 13, 1879.

12Arizona Sentinel, August 10, 17, November 30, 1878, February 1, 1879; Arizona Weekly Star (Tucson), February 27, July 24, 1879.

13Arizona Weekly Star, April 25, 1878.

14Colquhoun, History of the Clifton-Morenci Mining District, p. 13.

15Colquhoun, Early History, pp. 49-50.  Later Colonel Bennett was appointed justice of the peace.  He attended to marriages, baptisms, divorces, etc.  In Colquhoun’s opinion his job was a sinecure since the Mexicans were quite well behaved and law abiding.  If a Mexican committed a crime, he worked out his sentence in the mines.  See Ibid., p. 63 and Colquhoun, History, p. 15.

16Colquhoun, History, p. 13.

17Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Vol. 15, “Report of the Mining Industries of the United States,” p. 800.

18Colquhoun, History, pp. 9-11.

19Colquhoun, Early History, pp. 74-75.

20Patrick Hamilton, The Resources of Arizona, Third Edition, Revised (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft, 1884), pp. 152, 199.

21Ibid., p. 192.

22Colquhoun, History, p. 28.

23The Clifton Clarion, February 18, 1885.

24Arizona Daily Citizen, December 27, 1890.

25Tuck, Stories of Arizona Copper Mines, p. 29.

26Mark Sullivan, “A Wonderful Copper Plant,” Overland Monthly, Vol. 45 (June 1905), pp. 476-482.

27For formulation and content of the immigration acts of the United States to 1917 see Darrel H. Smith and H. G. Herring, The Bureau of Immigration: Its History, Activities, and Organization (Service Monographs of the United States Government, No. 30, compiled by the Institute for Government Research, Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins Press, 1924), pp. 5, 173.

28Ibid., pp. 24-26.  Continued violation of this act resulted in a presidential proclamation excluding Japanese and Korean laborers, followed by a “Gentleman’s Agreement,” in February, 1908, whereby Japan was to discourage immigration of laboring classes into the United States and carefully supervise immigration into countries contiguous to it.

29Mexical Labor in the United States, U. S. Department of Commerce, Bulletin No. 78 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908).

30Ibid., p. 476.

31Ibid., p. 471.

32Ibid., p. 471, 475-476.

33January 16, 1902.

34Clark, Mexican Labor, p. 466.

35Ibid., p. 471.

36Ibid., p. 469-470.

37Ibid., p. 468.

38Ibid., p. 486.

39Wages of American miners rose from $1.25 in 1860 to $4.00 in 1910.  Mexican wages rose from thirty-seven cents in 1860 to $2.10 in 1910.  Until about 1880 Anglo-American pay usually included board; the Mexican pay included a ration of sixty pounds of flour and often beans and salt (figures drawn from random sources: newspapers, mining reports, and works of contemporary authors).

40Clark, Mexican Labor, p. 513.

41Ibid., p. 492.

42See Vernon H. Johnson, Heritage of Conflict: Labor Relations in the Non-ferrous Metals Industry (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1950), for the history of the WFM.

43Arizona:  A State Guide, compiled by the Works Progress Administration Writers Program (New York:  Hastings House, 1940), p. 97.

44Arizona Republic (Phoenix), April 18, 1928.

45Arizona:  A State Guide, p. 97.

46Robert Glass Cleland, A History of Phelps Dodge, 1834-1950 (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1952).

47Carl M. Rathbun, “Keeping the Peace along the Mexican Border,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 50 (November 17, 1906), p. 1632.

48James H. McClintock, Arizona, the Youngest State (Chicago:  S. J. Clarke, 1916), Vol. 2, p. 352.

49Globe miners at this time were preparing to request $4.00 a day for mine labor, though they did not win this advance until 1907.  The raise was limited to work under 100 feet.  In 1909, however, all underground work was set at $4.00.  Arizona Daily Star, January 9, 1909.

50Bisbee Daily Review, June 2, 3, 1903.

51Ibid., June 3, 1903.

52June 5, 1903.

53McClintock, Arizona, Vol. 2, p. 424, quotes these figures.  Early reports set the toll at thirty dead and about $50,000 in damage (Bisbee Daily Review, June 10, 1903).  The flood broke through several concentrator retaining dams in the canyons above the town, releasing a tremendous quantity of mud and debris.  Consequently only about dozen bodies were recovered.

54Ibid., June 11, 12, 1903.

55Ibid., June 13, 1903.  Lastenneau and others were sentenced on May 28, 1904.  After an attempt to break out, Lastenneau was given an additional ten years, but died of consumption in 1906 (McClintock, Arizona, Vol. 2, p. 491).

56Bisbee Daily Review, June 12, 1903.