When Their Employees Protested, The Rockefeller Family Struck Back With The Deadly Ludlow Massacre
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When Their Employees Protested, The Rockefeller Family Struck Back With The Deadly Ludlow Massacre

When studying the bloody history of unions in the US, Ludlow Massacre facts reveal a horrific act of violence that changed the landscape of the American labor movement. The massacre brought a 15-month-long strike by Colorado coal miners to a tragic conclusion after striking miners and their families were killed by members of the Colorado National Guard. Twenty inhabitants of the camp died at Ludlow, and the majority of those deaths were women and children.

The main mining company involved in the strike was owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who helped push the conflict on to its violent end, adding a terrible chapter to the dark history of the Rockefeller family. Accounts of the massacre spread around the country like wildfire, often with conflicting stories driven by different political agendas. In the end, the massacre was another Rockefeller tragedy, but it also helped build support for unions in the following decades.

  • The National Guard And Striking Miners Engaged In A Deadly Firefight At Ludlow

    The National Guard And Striking Miners Engaged In A Deadly Firefight At Ludlow
    Photo: The Survey / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On April 20, 1914, national guardsmen entered the Ludlow tent colony to speak to one of the unofficial leaders of the striking miners, Louis Tikas. They had heard that a man was being kept at Ludlow against his will, but Tikas denied it.

    Following the conversation, a National Guard officer ordered a machine gun set up on the hill overlooking the camp. Strikers from the camp saw the troop movement and took up their own rifles in response. The strikers then heard three explosions, which the National Guard later claimed to be a signal for reinforcements.

    Shots were fired, though history is unclear on who shot first, and a firefight broke out that lasted throughout the day. Women and children ran for cover. Over the course of the day, one guardsman, one bystander, and several of the strikers were killed in the gunfight. An 11-year-old boy in the camp was killed when he emerged from his hiding spot.

    After hours of exchanging shots, a member of the National Guard set fire to the tent colony.

  • The National Guard Set Fire To The Camp, Killing Women And Children In Hiding

    As the firefight died down, a member of the Colorado National Guard set fire to the Ludlow tent colony. Unbeknownst to the guardsmen, four women and 11 children had sought shelter in a cellar-like pit beneath an infirmary. As the tent colony burned, the women and children in the pit were slowly overwhelmed by smoke and suffocated.

    One survivor recalled:

    The tent over us caught fire and blazed up big and the smoke commenced to come down on top of us. The bigger children tried to climb up out of the cellar, and they took hold of the burning floor, and their little fingers were burned and they fell back on top of us.

    Two of the women survived the fire, and all 11 children died.

  • Armed Strikers Were Rounded Up And Shot

    After the National Guard entered the Ludlow camp, they captured three strikers, including Louis Tikas, the unofficial leader of the colony. They were brought before Karl Linderfelt, the leader of the Colorado National Guard stationed at Ludlow. Linderfelt broke his rifle over Tikas' head, striking him hard enough to expose his skull.

    Although the accusation was never proven, a sergeant testified under oath that Linderfelt then ordered the execution of Tikas. Some historians believe the militia told the three strikers to run before shooting them in the back. In the end, the three captured strikers were killed, and their bodies were left in the open for three days.

  • The Strike Claimed Lives On Both Sides

    The Ludlow miners formed a volunteer militia made up of those who survived the fire. For 10 days after the Ludlow Massacre, surviving strikers went on a vengeful crusade through southern Colorado using "Remember Ludlow" as a rallying cry. The result was the destruction of half a dozen mines and the deaths of mine officials, strikebreakers, guardsmen, and other people allied with the mining companies. By the time the miners conceded to the federal government, the miners' strike in Colorado had resulted in a total of 75 deaths from both sides of the conflict. 

  • The Working Conditions In The Mines Were Dangerous

    Coal mining in the early 1900s was dangerous and often deadly work. Some miners were killed in explosions, but deaths more commonly caused by falling rocks and poisonous gasses. In Colorado, mining deaths were twice the national average, partly because the mine inspector's office was too understaffed to enforce proper mine safety.

    The miners were also only paid based on the tonnage of coal they produced, which meant that essential work like shoring up roofs to prevent collapse was unpaid and often neglected. The safety issues were just the beginning of the miners' grievances, as they also complained of low pay, unregulated hours, and corrupt management practices on the part of the mining companies.

  • John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Was Extremely Anti-Union

    Mining company owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was staunchly anti-union, which made him a dangerous opponent for the union members who had organized the strike. In an appearance before Congress after the strike begain in 1913, Rockefeller misrepresented the workers' case by claiming that the miners were being manipulated by agitators in the union. He claimed that his company was fighting for the workers' freedom, saying he did not want to allow "outside people to come in and interfere with employees who are thoroughly satisfied with their labor conditions."

    When the chairman of the congressional committee asked Rockefeller if he would stand by his anti-union stance even "if it costs all your property and kills all your employees." Rockefeller responded, "It is a great principle." Even after the massacre, Rockefeller and his company tried to spin the story of the strike as an uprising by radicals and immigrant anarchists.