A part of “The Bedford Series in History and Culture,” this slim volume presents an overview of its subject as well as key documents highlighting its evolution and importance. The book uses as case studies the Johnson County War in Wyoming in 1892 and the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914-1915.
The so-called Johnson County War took place over range land in the Powder River area of Wyoming in April 1892. It involved a fight between small ranchers who were trying to enter the business versus larger established ranchers. Two groups were involved in this effort. The first was the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA), which hired a group of enforcers known as regulators ostensibly to prevent rustlers from stealing cattle on the open range. Most of the time, however, they targeted small farmers and ranchers, organized into the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers’ Association (NWFSGA). The series of bloody events led up to the climax in 1892. The murders of Ella Watson, presumed leader of a rustler gang, and storekeeper Jim Averell in 1889 enraged the small farmers and ranchers. Other incidents followed, all of them presumably of rustlers, enraged the local community.
This came to a head in the spring of 1892 when the WSGA brought in some 50 regulators to hunt down rustlers, although this was clearly an economically motivated fight with tinges of class warfare. The regulators went after Nate Champion, a leader in the WSGA opposition, at the KC Ranch, killing him and Nick Ray on April 9, 1892. This action led to a bloody shootout between the large and small local ranchers, as well as the regulators and a sheriff’s posse, at the TA Ranch on the 11th and 12th. Eventually the state and federal governments intervened to restore order in the region. But that took place only after several deaths had resulted.
This story has been reinterpreted over the years. For some this is the story of resolute community leaders seeking to create order from the chaos of the frontier by cleaning out rustlers and hooligans. For others is was the “haves” preserving their place at the top of the economic, political, and social order by defeated upstart “have nots.” This story of class warfare has been, therefore, a mirror on which any may project their beliefs. This book tells this story through narrative and primary source documents.
No less controversial, but certainly less well-remembered, was the Ludlow Massacre, also detailed in this book. The United Mine Workers union organized a strike in the southern Colorado Coal Strike that lasted from September 1913 through December 1914. There were several incidents of violence but the massacre occurred when a fight broke out between strikers and company men at a tent city of some 1,200 striking coal miners and their families on April 20, 1914, in Ludlow, Colorado. The Colorado National Guard and guards from the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company that operated the mine fired automatic weapons on this group, killing some 25 people (of these two were women and 11 were children).
The Ludlow massacre was the most violent of any confrontation during the strike, but it was not the only incident. When word spread of this massacre other strikers burned the mining buildings and killed some 505 people; the strike has been called most deadly in the history of the United States. The strike finally ended with the union broken, some 400 strikers arrested and some tried for murder. On the other side, 22 National Guardsmen were court marshaled but all but one was acquitted.
The Ludlow Massacre was just as significant as the Johnson County War but it does not have the same resonance in history. It is one of many instances in which labor unrest led to violence and represented, again, the class and economic divisions that have existed throughout American history. This is a useful introduction to the subject and a good selection of key documents.