Dean J. Saitta, University of Denver
Randall McGuire, SUNY-Binghamton
Philip Duke, Fort Lewis College

Paper presented in the symposium "Communities Defined by Work: Life in Western Work Camps and Towns," chaired by T. Van Bueren and M. Maniery, at the 1999 Society for Historical Archaeology Meeting, Salt Lake City


The Colorado Coal Field Strike and War of 1913-1914 was a watershed episode in US labor history. Collaborative research between the University of Denver, Binghamton University, and Fort Lewis College is exploring the everyday lives of miners and their families during this period in an effort to better understand the factors that conditioned the strike and influenced its outcome. Specific research questions focus on strategies of daily existence, gender roles, and ethnic relations in worker/striker communities. This paper reports the early results of archaeological investigations at the Ludlow Tent Colony (site of the Ludlow Massacre of April 20, 1914) and associated coal mining camps in the southern Colorado Coal Field.

-Click on the images to see a larger version-

Shortly after dawn on April 20, 1914 Colorado National Guard troops opened fire on a tent colony (figure 1) of 1,200 striking coal miners at Ludlow, Colorado. Twenty four hours later the camp was in ruins (figure 2). Twenty of its inhabitants lay dead including two women and eleven children who suffocated in a cellar that had been dug beneath a tent.
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The "Ludlow Massacre" was the most violent and best known episode of the 1913 - 1914 Colorado Coal Field Strike. The ten days of gunfire between miners and militia that it precipitated shocked the nation and constitutes one of the more dramatic examples of open class warfare in American history (figure 3). Although by many measures the strike was a failure, it did lead to some "progressive" reforms in labor relations that turned corporate management policies away from direct confrontation with strikers to more negotiated settlements. Today the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) maintain the Ludlow site (figure 4) as a monument to the struggle of organized labor in America.


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The Colorado Coal Field War Project is dedicated to researching the 1913 strike and publicicizing its legacy. It is sponsored by the University of Denver, Binghamton University, and Fort Lewis College in collaboration with Trinidad State Junior College. The work has been financially supported in its first two years by the Colorado Historical Society State Historical Fund. Our research goal is to integrate archaeological data with archival information to better understand the everyday lives of southern Colorado coal miners and their families. The major histories of the strike agree that it was provoked by desperate working and living conditions. However, none of the histories provide more than an anecdotal understanding of what these conditions were like before, during, and after the strike.

Archaeological research provides a way to gain a richer and more systematic understanding . By investigating the company coal camps occupied before the strike, the stiker tent colonies, and the company camps re-opened after the strike, we hope to illuminate the root causes of the strike and how it changed life in the coal camps. Our focus is not just on the experience of men working in mines, but also on the women and children working at home who proved to be particularly tenacious participants in the labor action. In this paper we summarize the progress of our fieldwork to date.

Research Questions

Our research design incorporates several sets of questions. One set includes questions about striker camp demography and the material conditions of striker camp life. What was the demographic makeup of the Ludlow Tent Colony; i.e., the relative percentages of single men and families? What was the nature and extent of their material deprivation? We know that the strikers were being provisioned by the mineworkers union; can we identify any unexpected sources of outside support, or novel local strategies of survival? To what extent were there differential patterns of deprivation within the Tent Colony?

Another set of questions concern the ethnic constitution of the Tent Colony and the "sociability" of striker camp life. The Ludlow miners were an ethnically diverse group. In 1912, 61% of the area's coal miners were of "non-Western European" origin. Company records indicate that the miners spoke 24 different languages. Other archival records document union efforts to stress the common class identity of the strikers as a way to help integrate that ethnic diversity. Archaeologically, we can investigate union strategies to create striker unity through, for example, the spatial organization of the colony. However, we are also investigating whether social differentiating processes can be detected in the distribution of particular objects within the colony. To what extent were ethnic boundaries within the striker's colony actively maintained? How were ethnic differences among Ludlow strikers negotiated in the interest of building a collective class identity and consciousness?

Finally, we are interested in comparisons between striker tent colony life and life in the company towns both before and after the strike. Were the conditions of home life similar for the different ethnic groups occupying the company towns? If so, to what extent can we say that women and children, and not just male miners, were active agents in the construction of a common class consciousness that led, in turn, to a unified labor action? Answers to these and other questions will add a new dimension to historical accounts of the Coal Field War, and may even offer some insights of benefit to general anthropological theory.

Results of Archaeological Fieldwork

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In 1997 we conducted three weeks of preliminary reconnaissance at the Ludlow Tent Colony to evaluate the integrity of the site and determine the best methods for its excavation (figure 5). We established a grid over the entire site area of the colony, covering some 72,000 square meters. We completed a survey of surface material by counting all artifacts observed within 1 meter radius dogleashes at 10-meter intervals over the entire area. The surface of the site is littered with glass, ceramics, nails, tin can fragments, bone, and large amounts of coal and coal clinker. All artifact distributions contained "solarized" glass and crown cap bottle closures, indicating an early 20th century time frame (figure 6). Surfer maps of the dogleash data show a rough northeast to southwest alignment of material, which conforms to the spatial orientation of the camp as shown in historical photographs (figure 7).
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In 1997 we also excavated a 20 meter long test trench through what we took to be the approximate center of the tent colony (figure 8). This trench revealed stains and artifacts at a depth of 5-10 cm below the present ground surface. It also intersected what we suspected was the edge of the tent platform (visible in foreground of figure 8). The other 1997 excavation was a test pit in the tent colony midden located next to an arroyo at the north end of the site (figure 9). This pit revealed somewhat deeper deposits (20-25 cm) and much denser cultural material.
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In an effort to locate buried features such as cellars known to have been dug beneath tent floors, our colleague Larry Conyers conducted a ground penetrating radar survey of a 2,500 square meter area of the tent colony (figure 10). His survey revealed several anomalies that may represent such features (figure 11). We'll return to what excavation of this anomaly revealed in a moment.
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In the summer of 1998 we conducted a more extensive eight week excavation at the tent colony in the area of the suspected tent platform and GPR anomaly (figure 12). Historic photos of burned and demolished tents show that the tents were constructed over wooden joists laid directly on the ground. The photos also show shallow ditches around some of the tents and berms of earth piled around their edges, presumably to anchor the tent and provide insulation.

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A block of excavation in 1998 uncovered one of these tent platforms (figure 13). It was identified by two debris filled ditches to the northeast and southwest, a shallow silt-filled ditch to the southwest, a linear dark stain to the northeast, and rows of nails that followed the joists. The tent is estimated to have a maximum size of about 14 ft. by 16 ft (figure 14). Features evident inside the tent include three postholes, seven small stakeholes, four larger stakeholes, and an ash-filled basin that probably represents the remains of a hearth. In the course of this block excavation we may also have exposed parts of adjacent tents to the southeast and northwest, and possibly to the north.
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In 1998 we also tested the GPR anomaly detected in 1997. Excavation revealed a 2-10 cm thick lens of coal clinker and ash located 4-8 cm below the surface, overlying the natural subsoil. We now interpret this area as an ash dump. The GPR appears to have detected the particularly dense ash lens, rather than a tent cellar. The lesson learned here is that we need to be very careful interpreting red blotches on GPR maps.

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However, we did locate, with a fortuitously placed test pit, a likely sub-floor cellar in what had been the first row of tents at the colony. The pit was filled with debris, primarily tin cans and bottles (figure 16). This material was either cleanup from the burned colony or trash from when the colony was reoccupied by strikers after the massacre. At the top of the rubbish, and separated from it by a thin layer of sediment, was the wire frame for a wreath (figure 17). This wreath may have been placed by the strikers after the massacre, or it may be from an early memorial service (held annually at the site since the massacre).
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In 1998 we also initiated work at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company town of Berwind located just up the canyon west of Ludlow (figure 18). Berwind was bult in 1892 and abandoned in 1931. Thus, it gives us an opportunity to compare life in the tent colony with life in the company towns before and after the strike.
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The remains of houses, public structures, and privies are clearly visible at Berwind (figure 19). We've mapped spatially and architecturally distinct residential/use areas. Based on oral history interviews with four local informants who grew up in Berwind Canyon we believe that these areas may be associated not only with different time periods, but also with different ethnic groups including African-Americans, Italians, and Hispanics.

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One area of particular interest at Berwind is Area K (figure 20). Area K is a knoll near the center of the town containing a midden deposit. Preliminary analysis of the surface collection in Area K suggests that this area dates to the period before the strike. The area contains six foundations of unshaped stone, a type present only in this part of town. We excavated three test units in this locale, one in the trash midden and two in nearby houselot areas (figure 21). These excavations revealed stratified deposits of up to 50 cm deep in the yards associated with houses, including solarized glass throughout.
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Another interesting area is Area T (figure 22). This area is located about 0.7 km up a side canyon leading from the main part of town. It consists of a discrete cluster of domestic foundations, privies, and associated out-buildings. When we first encountered these ruins we wondered why they were set apart from the rest of the community. Later, one of our interviewees told us that this location was where African-American miners and their families lived. The area contains a total of eighteen shaped stone foundations, seven privies, a large communal oven, and five out-buildings. The archaeological remains in this area are in particularly good condition, presumably because looters or tourists have not impacted them. They also appear to date to the post-strike period because solarized glass was evident only in the lower levels of our test pits.

Artifact Analysis and Research Questions
Lab analysis of recovered artifacts from the Ludlow tent colony and the Berwind coal camp is still in its early stages (figure 23). Thus, there isn't much that we can offer at this point in the way of answers to our major research questions. But, the information we have so far establishes the integrity of site and gives us hope that our research questions are ultimately answerable.
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The artifact assemblage at the Ludlow Tent Colony as a whole is certainly suggestive of a "catastrophic" social event. We have collected many personal items including buttons, collar studs, suspender clips, items of jewelry, religious medallions, and toys that indicate a rapid abandonment of the site.

Artifact differences beween the tent and the midden excavations at the Ludlow tent colony are also instructive about the formation processes of the assemblage and overall site integrity. Test pits in the midden contained larger sized artifacts and more melted glass compared to those excavated at the tent location. Artifacts at the tent location are of a size that would have made them easily lost between the floorboards of a tent. Thus, it appears that recent use of the tent colony area for cattle grazing has had little effect on the integrity of the site.

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Preliminary artifact analysis also appears to establish the differential spatial distribution of material across the tent colony that may, in turn, be suggestive of distinct activity areas. We're picking up concentrations of paper clips, pencil parts, and casters for chairs that may reflect loci of camp administrative activities, as well as an abundance of ceramics that may help us identify the communal dining area that is known, from historical documents, to have existed at the colony. A surprising number of religious medallions suggests that ethnic boundaries within the tent colony may be identifiable (figure 24).

The Berwind assemblage is also only minimally processed at this point. This assemblage is prodigious (figure 25). The test pit in the Area K mid-town midden extended to a depth of over one meter. It produced many artifacts including several leather shoes, a wine bottle, medicine bottles and the remains of several tin cans. In addition we found a great abundance of ceramics, butchered bone, and clothing parts. The soil conditions in this area allowed such items as cloth, pumpkin seeds, and egg shells to be preserved. In general, Area K shows a very high degree of archaeological integrity and potential. The remarkable preservation of floral and faunal material in the midden will provide important data on diet and nutrition among miners and their families in the early 20th century.
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In Area T, our possible African-American precinct, two 1 meter square midden test pits were excavated to a depth of .50 meters. We found a variety of domestic refuse in these pits, ranging from ceramic shards to toy balls. The area shows great potential for understanding post-strike lifeways, but also the everyday lives of African-American miners and their families. Until recently very little attention has been paid to African-American heritage in Colorado. By exploring the role of black miners and their families in this early industrial context we can begin to address this gap in our understanding of Colorado history.

Public Interpretation

Although the archaeological research is still in its early stages, the project is clearly making headway in raising public awareness of what happened in the southern Colorado coal fields in the first two decades of the 20th century. A primary emphasis of the project is the linking of archaeological research to public outreach and K-12 education. In this endeavor we have the cooperation of the United Mine Workers and various educational and cultural institutions in the nearby city of Trinidad.

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In both field seasons we've presented project overviews at several union-sponsored events. A traveling exhibit prepared by 1998 field school students and presented at various venues around Trinidad was a smashing success (figure 26). In conjunction with the Union's Women's Auxiliary we are developing a new interpretive display for the Ludlow Memorial that will use tent colony archaeology to inform visitors about the everyday lives of the strikers, as well as highlight contemporary labor struggles in a dynamic and constantly changing format.

We are seeking to actively involve local citizens in the project via standing invitations to share their family experiences and photos with us, to visit for site tours, and to actually help with the excavations. Several hundred people visited our excavations during the summer of 1998 (figure 27). As noted above, several local informants have been instrumental in helping us understand the archaeology of the company town at Berwind.
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We also hope to widen the audience by developing teaching units for Colorado K-12 schools and a traveling photo and artifact trunk for classroom use. With the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities we are in the process of organizing a Summer Teacher's Institute on Colorado labor history that will overlap with the 1999 archaeological fieldwork. This initiative will produce an online curriculum for middle and high schools that can be accessed by teachers across Colorado and that will deal, in part, with the "hidden history" of class struggle in the West.


We have only scratched the surface of Colorado Coal Field War archaeology. But, the results to date are promising. We have learned that the tent colonies and company towns have archaeological integrity, that there is a congruence between what we see on the ground in these places and what we see in historic photos, that we have buried deposits and features that can give us detailed looks at past activities and lives, and that the assemblages are probably sensitive to questions about ethnic co-residence and interaction.

Our plan for next year is to continue excavation of the tent platforms and other deep features exposed at Ludlow in 1998. At Berwind, we will intensify investigation of the older portions of the town and our exploration of the possible African-American quarter. We will also initiate new work at Gray Creek, another company town but one owned by Victor American Fuel Company. This will provide an opportunity to compare worker life in towns owned by different coal companies.

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Perhaps most importantly, we will continue with the public outreach element of the project. The events of Ludlow have considerable popular appeal, as evidenced by the publication of stories about our work in all of the major newspapers in Colorado each of the last two summers (figure 28). The events are of a recent past to which people can relate because it is in the time of their parents and grandparents. Our focus on everyday life humanizes the participants in these events because their activities are ones that our modern audiences also experience. Our excavations thus become a form of memory that recalls the sacrifices made by the strikers at Ludlow, and reminds us that the rights of working people were won at a terrible cost (figure 29). By excavating coal field war sites we make these events news again, as well as expand public understanding of both the scientific status, and the wider political value, of historical archaeology.
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This paper has been significantly influenced by the ideas and research efforts of Colorado Coal Field War project director Mark Walker and crew chiefs Claire Horn, Paul Reckner, and Margaret Wood. We are indebted to crew chiefs Kristen Jones and Beth Rudden, and other members of the trail-blazing 1997 field crew including Melissa Clark, Shawn Collins, Eric Husman, and Terri McBride. Finally, we would have very little to say if it wasn't for the work of our 1998 Denver University field school students Dan Broockmann, Justin Henderson, Maureen Hoof, Sonya Loven, Debi Marsh, Sarah Postellon, Meghan Steed, Howard Tsai, and Kara Weaver, and our volunteers from Fort Lewis College Kristen Arbuckle, Bob Hedges, Christie Kester, Micah McClung, Karen Ramsey, and Matt Torhan. Many, many thanks to you all.

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