A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Excavators uncover chilling evidence of a brutal assault during a 1914 miners' strike.
On April 20, 1914, Colorado National Guard troops attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners at Ludlow, a small town on the Colorado plains. That morning, the guard commander ordered Louis Tikas, the leader of the colony, to meet him at Ludlow railroad station. Fearing this might be a pretext for an attack, armed strikers of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) took up a position in a railroad cut overlooking the station. The situation was tense, and when shots rang out, guardsmen near the station trained their machine gun on the tents and began firing into the camp. As the day progressed, up to 200 guardsmen joined the fight and a second machine gun was added to the first. Armed strikers engaged the guard and tried to draw their fire away from the camp, where women and children huddled in fear.
As dusk gathered, a train crew sympathetic to the miners stopped their train in front of the machine guns, blocking their line of fire. As the guns fell silent, most of the remaining people in the camp and the armed strikers fled, while the guardsmen swept through, looting and setting the tents on fire. Mary Petrucci and her three children, one an infant she held in her arms, fled her burning tent and took refuge in the already occupied cellar below a nearby tent. Four women and 11 children crouched in the cellar while the flames crackled above them. In the first light of dawn, the camp was a smoking ruin. In the dark hole below the tent, Mary awakened to find her baby dead in her arms. Two of the women and all 11 children seeking shelter in the cellar had suffocated. During the battle, the guardsmen had seized Tikas and two other camp leaders and shot them dead. In all, 24 perished, including four guardsmen.
Following the attack, the strikers rose up in armed rebellion and seized control of the mining district. They destroyed several company towns, killed company employees, and pinned down the National Guard in their camps. Finally, after 10 days of war, President Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops to restore order. The strike continued until December, when a financially broke UMWA had to call it off.
At Ludlow, we have exposed tent platforms, latrines, a trash dump, and the cellars that families huddled in during the attack. The remains of the cellars tell the story of the attack in terms more vivid than any found in historical documents. We found fire-damaged family possessions sitting on the floor: a rusted bedstead, metal basins, a row of canning jars melted in place, and a porcelain doll's head deformed by the heat of the fire. To reach them we dug through a level of burned wood and charred canvas from the burned tents. On top was a layer of charcoal, rusted metal, and burned possessions that the miners used to fill the cellars after the massacre.
Randall McGuire is a professor of anthropology at Binghamton University.