In the history of the labor movement in the United States, there are many names and places of note.
The story of Mary Harris Jones, otherwise known as Mother Jones, begins in Ireland where she was born. After her family immigrated to Canada she trained as a teacher and eventually secured a position in Monroe, MI. She later moved to Chicago and then to Memphis where she married George E. Jones a member of the National Union of Iron Moulders. After losing her husband and children to a yellow fever epidemic, she returned to Chicago. The Great Chicago fire in 1871 destroyed much of Chicago including her home and dressmaking shop, but during the rebuilding process she joined the Knights of Labor. But the Knights of Labor’s connection to the Haymarket Affair eventually destroyed the organization, and she ended up joining the United Mine Workers where she frequently led the strikers in picketing.
Haymarket wasn’t the last time Mother Jones was witness – or party to – one of those Big Labor Events that are a part of American History.
Over time she became known for organizing the wives and children of striking workers. When the Pennsylvania silk mills went on strike in 1901, she went to north-east Pennsylvania and organized the wives. It was about this time that West Virginia district attorney, Reese Blizzard deemed her “the most dangerous woman in America.” In 1903, she led a large group in the March of the Mill Children (also known as Children’s Crusade ) from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s hometown Oyster Bay, NY. Just a few years later in 1905, she became one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies.
The year 1912 took her to West Virginia and the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike where she continued speaking and organizing despite the shooting between United Mine Workers members and the mine owner’s private army. Martial law was eventually declared and Jones was arrested and brought before a military court accused of conspiring to commit murder. While she was sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary, she was released within months – a move that coincided with Indiana Senator John W. Kern introducing the Kern Resolution (passed on May 27, 1913 pp. 1765-1779) authorizing the Senate Committee on Education and Labor to investigate conditions in West Virginia coal mines. On May 13, 1913 Senator Nathaniel Goff had this to say:
The name of “Mother Jones” has been brought into the controversy. Well, I have no fight with “Mother Jones.” I am sorry that she feels aggrieved. If half the stories they tell about her in West Virginia in reference to this and other strikes there are true, she has certainly been – whatever else she may be; grand and good and a friend of the miners she may be – but she has certainly been inciting riot and urging insurrection. She does not deny it. She is the grandmother of them all; she takes pride in it; she is an expert; she is a good talker; she is effective in speaking to great audiences; naturally, she has influence with them. (Congressional Record, p. 1643)
From there she went to Colorado to help organize coal miners striking against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company owned by Rockefeller – events that became known as the Colorado Coalfield War. The single biggest event was the Ludlow Massacre on April 20, 1914 when Colorado National Guard and company guards attacked a tent colony established in Ludlow by the striking coal miners and their families. More than 20 people were killed, including miners’ wives and children. In the wake of the massacre, she met face-to-face with John D. Rockefeller Jr. and in the end, the long-sought reforms were introduced.
Mother Jones continued on with her labor activities until she died not long after celebrating her birthday, in Silver Spring, MD, on November 30, 1930 and was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, IL.
This is an audio recording with interviewee Connard Wolfe that is part of the Coal River Folklife Collection from the Library's American Folklife Center. Connard Wolfe's father, John C. Wolfe, fought in the Battle of Blair Mountain, and participated in the famous Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strikes. It was during that time that John C. Wolfe met Mother Jones.
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