Ludlow Massacre: April 20, 1914

Profile. By Howard Zinn, film clip by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller, and song by Woody Guthrie.
The Ludlow Massacre was one of deadliest attacks on striking workers in U.S. history.

  • Time Periods: World War I: 1910 - 1919 | Themes: Labor, Organizing | Reading Levels: Adult, High School | Resource Types: Profiles

Howard Zinn first learned of the Ludlow Massacre from a song by Woody Guthrie, which Zinn says, “nobody had ever mentioned in any of my history courses.” To help future generations of students learn about Ludlow, here are Zinn’s description of the history from A People’s History of the United States and a video interview with Zinn about the significance of Ludlow.

Striking family at Ludlow shortly before the April 20, 1914 massacre.

Striking family at Ludlow shortly before the April 20, 1914 massacre.

Shortly after Woodrow Wilson took office there began in Colorado one of the most bitter and violent struggles between workers and corporate capital in the history of the country.

This was the Colorado coal strike that began in September 1913 and culminated in the “Ludlow Massacre” of April 1914. Eleven thousand miners in southern Colorado … worked for the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, which was owned by the Rockefeller family. Aroused by the murder of one of their organizers, they went on strike against low pay, dangerous conditions, and feudal domination of their lives in towns completely controlled by the mining companies. …

When the strike began, the miners were immediately evicted from their shacks in the mining towns. Aided by the United Mine Workers Union, they set up tents in the nearby hills and carried on the strike, the picketing, from these tent colonies.

The Ludlow Tent Colony, before the massacre, consisted of about 200 tents.

The Ludlow Tent Colony, before the massacre.


One of 1,200 striking miner families in the Ludlow Tent Colony.

The gunmen hired by the Rockefeller interests—the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency—using Gatling guns and rifles, raided the tent colonies. The death list of miners grew, but they hung on, drove back an armored train in a gun battle, fought to keep out strikebreakers. With the miners resisting, refusing to give in, the mines not able to operate, the Colorado governor (referred to by a Rockefeller mine manager as ‘our little cowboy governor’) called out the National Guard, with the Rockefellers supplying the Guard’s wages.

The miners at first thought the Guard was sent to protect them, and greeted its arrival with flags and cheers. They soon found out the Guard was there to destroy the strike. The Guard brought strikebreakers in under cover of night, not telling them there was a strike. Guardsmen beat miners, arrested them by the hundreds, rode down with their horses parades of women in the streets of Trinidad, the central town in the area. And still the miners refused to give in. When they lasted through the cold winter of 1913-1914, it became clear that extraordinary measures would be needed to break the strike.

In April 1914, two National Guard companies were stationed in the hills overlooking the largest tent colony of strikers, the one at Ludlow, housing a thousand men, women, children. On the morning of April 20, a machine gun attack began on the tents. The miners fired back. Their leader, …, was lured up into the hills to discuss a truce, then shot to death by a company of National Guardsmen. The women and children dug pits beneath the tents to escape the gunfire. At dusk, the Guard moved down from the hills with torches, set fire to the tents, and the families fled into the hills; thirteen people were killed by gunfire.

The following day, a telephone linesman going through the ruins of the Ludlow tent colony lifted an iron cot covering a pit in one of the tents and found the charred, twisted bodies of eleven children and two women. This became known as the Ludlow Massacre.

The Ludlow Tent Colony ruins.

The Ludlow Tent Colony ruins.

The news spread quickly over the country. In Denver, the United Mine Workers issued a “Call to Arms”—“Gather together for defensive purposes all arms and ammunition legally available.” Three hundred armed strikers marched from other tent colonies into the Ludlow area, cut telephone and telegraph wires, and prepared for battle. Railroad workers refused to take soldiers from Trinidad to Ludlow. At Colorado Springs, three hundred union miners walked off their jobs and headed for the Trinidad district, carrying revolvers, rifles, shotguns.

Armed strikers.

Armed strikers.

In Trinidad itself, miners attended a funeral service for the twenty-six dead at Ludlow, then walked from the funeral to a nearby building, where arms were stacked for them. They picked up rifles and moved into the hills, destroying mines, killing mine guards, exploding mine shafts. The press reported that “the hills in every direction seem suddenly to be alive with men.”

In Denver, eighty-two soldiers in a company on a troop train headed for Trinidad refused to go. The press reported: “The men declared they would not engage in the shooting of women and children. They hissed the 350 men who did start and shouted imprecations at them.”

Five thousand people demonstrated in the rain on the lawn in front of the state capital at Denver asking that the National Guard officers at Ludlow be tried for murder, denouncing the governor as an accessory. The Denver Cigar Makers Union voted to send five hundred armed men to Ludlow and Trinidad. Women in the United Garment Workers Union in Denver announced four hundred of their members had volunteered as nurses to help the strikers.

All over the country there were meetings, demonstrations. Pickets marched in front of the Rockefeller office at 26 Broadway, New York City. A minister protested in front of the church where Rockefeller sometimes gave sermons, and was clubbed by the police.

The New York Times carried an editorial on the events in Colorado, which were not attracting international attention. The Times emphasis was not on the atrocity that had occurred, but on the mistake in tactics that had been made. Its editorial on the Ludlow Massacre began: “Somebody blundered …” Two days later, with the miners armed and in the hills of the mine district, the Times wrote: “With the deadliest weapons of civilization in the hands of savage-mined men, there can be no telling to what lengths the war in Colorado will go unless it is quelled by force … The President should turn his attention from Mexico long enough to take stern measures in Colorado.”


Clip from the The Survey newspaper. Image: WikiCommons.

The governor of Colorado ask for federal troops to restore order, and Woodrow Wilson complied. This accomplished, the strike petered out. Congressional committees came in and took thousands of pages of testimony. The union had not won recognition. Sixty-six men, women, and children had been killed. Not one militiaman or mine guard had been indicted for crime.


The Times had referred to Mexico. On the morning that the bodies were discovered in the tent pit at Ludlow, American warships were attacking Vera Cruz, a city on the coast of Mexico—bombarding it, occupying it, leaving a hundred Mexicans dead—because Mexico had arrested American sailors and refused to apologize to the United States with a twenty-one gun salute. Could patriotic fervor and the military spirit cover up class struggle? Unemployment, hard times, were growing in 1914. Could guns divert attention and create some national consensus against an external enemy? It surely was a coincidence—the bombardment of Vera Cruz, the attack on the Ludlow colony. Or perhaps it was, as someone once described human history, “the natural selection of accidents.” Perhaps the affair in Mexico was an instinctual response of the system for its own survival, to create a unity of fighting purpose among a people torn by internal conflict.

The bombardment of Vera Cruz was a small incident. But in four months the First World War would begin in Europe.
By Howard Zinn from A People’s History of the United States, pages 346-349.


Song: Ludlow Massacre

Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

Continue reading lyrics on the Woody Guthrie website here.


Text by Howard Zinn from A People’s History of the United States. Photos from the Colorado Coal Field War Project. Song lyrics from Film clip from You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

 Learn More

Apr20ccfwpThe Colorado Coal Field War Project offers extensive resources for teachers on the Ludlow Massacre, including a series of photos on the daily life of strikers in the Ludlow tent camps, the prelude to the massacre, and the ruins of the tent community.


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There are 19 comments by other visitors:

  • Thank god for Howard Zinn, who proved that history could be written from The People’s point of view.

    Response shared by Parris ja Young — April 20, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

  • Amazing how history repeats its self

    Response shared by Alice — April 21, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

  • And in all these years, little has changed. Maybe the tactics have become more sophisticated. Ah, America.

    Response shared by jj drogg — April 25, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

  • This is the first I ever learned about this strike and massacre of these working people are their families.. . horrible. A friend has posted this on Facebook. Thanks for the information.

    Response shared by joanne turano — April 25, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

  • Why has this not been part of our education, our history? Because the corporations are scared Americans may reach a point again, to fight back against inequality, and greed. Justice for all is what all Americans must strive to aquire for all our citizens.

    Share our history of Americans fighting for the rights to have unions to represent all working Americans.

    Response shared by Sharon W Eaton — May 9, 2014 @ 3:58 am

  • Great work Howard.
    Keep fighting to keep the truth and the memory alive.
    Congratulations from Italy.
    Riccardo Mario Corato

    Response shared by Riccardo Mario Corato — June 8, 2014 @ 11:30 am

  • This is the first time for me to hear this historical account of such a savage attack and murder of innocent women and children. The rockefelers and the governor should have been held responsible and this event should have been reported in the history books.

    Response shared by Mary Pearson — June 8, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

  • The people that have the power hide the facts or sugar-coat them. This is the first I’ve heard of this. Is history always written by the victor? How many more incidents are hidden behind the power of money.

    Response shared by Jose R. Rocha — June 9, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

  • I am nearly 62 yrs. old and am still learning the horrors of our national history. Shame on us for leaving so much untold….

    Response shared by Julie Soper — August 20, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

  • Anything written is always sanctioned by others. Even this page. How can history be told if the owners of the media are scared to publish and offend? The act of owning and controlling other people has always lead to heartache. It is still happening today. Thanks for publishing this story.

    Response shared by Sharyn Eilers — August 30, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

  • All citizens need to know this history. I’m 48 years old and have never heard about it. How about it, History Channel?

    Response shared by Michele — September 1, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

  • I had knew my great-grandfather had hated Rockefeller and had been black-balled at some point in his life for being a union supporter, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that my mom mentioned the Ludlow Massacre and I started digging up stories like this and I began to realize why. He was born in Trinidad in 1899, so was almost 15 at the time of the massacre. He was a coal miner in Trinidad then by the 20’s was living and mining in Raton, NM. I grew up in Colorado and am disturbed that such an important historical event is not even mentioned in our Denver-area schools. I will make sure my children are properly educated on this important event in our family, state, and country history. Thank you for publishing this!

    Response shared by Terri K. — October 1, 2014 @ 2:23 pm


    Response shared by PATRICIA OPPOCHER — February 22, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

  • Now I know why i never liked history in school. I appreciate it now because I hear the truth. As they say history repeats it self, look around us.

    Response shared by bfly — March 27, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

  • The Ludlow exit off I-25 about 15 miles south of Walsenburg leads to a wonderful memorial to the Ludlow Massacre, at the very spot where the tent colonies were. You can see images of all aspects of the situation. There’s even a facsimile of an underground pit at the Memorial. If you drive on past the Ludlow Massacre Memorial site, turn left before the railroad, go about 1/2 mile, then turn onto a road that goes under a railroad tressle, you can see the ruins of mining towns, mining shafts, mountains of coal slags, even an old jail house. It’s really fascinating.

    Response shared by Donna Speer — April 23, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

  • The battle still goes on. It’s just more sophisticated. The Trans Pacific Partnership trade bill currently before the Senate has been prepared with input from corporations and Wall Street. However, Labor and small business owners have been excluded. We’ve seen what NAFTA has done for labor. This appears to be more of the same.

    Response shared by Dean Simonich — May 13, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

  • I am a non-traditional graduate student, age 53, finishing up my Master’s Degree. My youngest son, now age 22, is an amazing historian that has mentored me in rediscovering American history. Much of his learning has come outside the classroom in pursuit of answers to historical events. He is the inspiration for my reading Howard Zinn’s – A People’s History of the United States. However, I just stumbled across the Zinn Project site and am very encouraged to find that his legacy is being carried on. This site can be promoted to people of all ages – encouraging an openness to information not available to many of us as young students. Thank you.

    Response shared by Robin Lahr — September 6, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

  • The Ludlow massacre is but one example of the use of deadly force in the ongoing struggle between capitalism and democracy. I hope future generations will grieve the cost of maintaining some sort of democratic control over our avaricious economy.

    Of all that I have studied, Zinn’s approach to history is the missing connection. Thank you.

    Response shared by Kusheran — September 1, 2016 @ 4:04 am

  • Now read about Homestead, and the Matewan Massacre, and Bloody Mingo. Remember the old guns & knives union organizers that created collective bargaining in America with their blood. Remember that they fought for us, protected by the Second Amendment not in the far off 18th century, but in the 20th century…50 years after most of the country was celebrating Labor day as an ironic holiday.

    Response shared by cr campbell — September 4, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

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