Clemente Chavez: Immigrant Miner and Wobbly Martyr
On January 12, 1928, an immigrant coal miner and ‘Wobbly’ organizer named Clemente Chavez was shot in the head by an unknown Colorado state police officer. During two episodes of our radio show History Is Revolting we talked about Clemente Chavez, and the various events that occurred on January 12, 1928, that culminated in Chavez’ murder inside the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union hall. We also talked about the life of Chavez, and we examined a number of primary documents to explore his background in Mexico and his life as an immigrant miner in Colorado. Rather than provide a complete retelling of these episodes, we present here a sampling of some of the primary documents that tell the story of Chavez’ life. Scroll to the bottom of this post to listen to the corresponding History Is Revolting episodes.
The earliest document we can find that we think may be associated with Clemente Chavez is a border crossing document from October 12, 1914 (see above). This document shows that on that date, a person named Clemente Chavez crossed into the USA through El Paso, Texas, accompanied by his father, Roberto Chavez. While it is not entirely clear that this is our Clemente Chavez, the age (22) and place of origin (Caurio de Guadalupe, Michoacan, Mexico) listed on this document matches the information found on later Coloroado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) documents that we know correspond with our Chavez. The date of this document also matches information on a 1920 US census form that lists Chavez’ date of immigration as 1914. Unfortunately this 1914 border crossing document does not show where Clemente and his father Roberto were planning on going to within the USA. By 1917 (if not earlier), Clemente Chavez had settled in the southern Colorado coal fields (and he would eventually be joined by his younger brother John, and perhaps other members of his family).
We also located a border crossing index card (see above) that we think contains information on various border crossings in El Paso, Texas, at three different points in 1926 and at one point in 1933, of at least three different individuals who all shared the name Clemente Chavez. One of these individuals is listed as 33, from Cabrio [Caurio] de Guadalupe, Michoacan, and traveling to Walsenburg, Colorado, and having crossed through El Paso on January 8, 1926. This person is very likely our Clemente Chavez. With a wife, job, and at least one brother (if not more family members) waiting for him back in Walsenburg, we assume that this document marks Chavez’ return from a brief visit to see family and/or friends back in Mexico.
World War I Draft Registration Card
On September 12, 1918, Clemente Chavez stood before the Huerfano County draft board in Walsenburg, Colorado. Listing his home as being in the company town Farr, Colorado, and with his occupation listed as a coal miner working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, Chavez was likely working at the time at the massive Cameron mine. This document also contains information on his background and family back in Mexico. First, it might be noted that Chavez here listed his date of birth as March 15, 1889. Later records would show a variety of different dates for his birthday (see below). As well, this document lists his mother’s name as Soliaro Chavez, and it claims that she lived in Parridiquaro [sic], Michoacan. Later records (see below) suggest that this person was actually Chavez’ wife, and we speculate that her residence in Mexico was actually the town of Panindícuaro, Michoacan, which is located roughly a dozen miles from his home of Caurio de Guadalupe, Michoacan, Mexico.
Colorado Fuel & Iron Company Records
In total we found ten different Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I) personnel records connected to Clemente Chavez (see below). These records, which essentially served both as job applications and records of service at various CF&I mines throughout southern Colorado, ranged in dates from 1917 to 1926. Overall these records show that Chavez worked as a coal miner in southern Colorado for nearly a decade before he was murdered in Walsenburg. As well, they show that while Chavez did work at a variety of different mines, the location where he worked the most was Cameron. These records also show that Chavez lived for extended periods of time in the corresponding CF&I company town of Farr, which at its height contained 117 employee homes, a school, and a YMCA clubhouse.
These records also contain a number of different variations for his date of birth, including: “Not known” and “Does not know”; May 3, 1889; May 3, 1890; and May 3, 1892. Also remember that his WWI draft registration record (see above) lists his birth date as March 15, 1889. Given all of the other matching information found across various records (including matching signatures), we believe these all to be the same person. One possible explanation for the variation in dates is that Chavez was indeed unsure of his exact date of birth (though he had a vague idea), and so he simply made up a date. Apparently he had trouble remembering what his chosen date of birth was supposed to be.
Some of these records also contain information about Chavez’ background, including the name of his mother, who was listed as Maria Chavez Varg*** (Vargaede? Unfortunately this name is somewhat illegible in the documents–what do you think the documents say?). Some of these documents also give the place in Mexico where Chavez and his family came from as Caurio de Guadalupe, Michoacan. These records also show that until at least 1921, Chavez was married to a woman who lived back in Michoacan, listed variously in different documents as Solario Chavez, Solar Chavez and Solara Carranza. Finally, these documents show that from 1923 until his death, Chavez was married and lived in Colorado with a woman named Francisca (Frances) Delatorre.
Marriage to Francisca Delatorre
A state of Colorado marriage record report (see below) shows that on May 9, 1923, Clemente Chavez and Francisca Delatorre were married by the Catholic priest J.B. Liciotti in Walsenburg, Colorado. This document lists Chavez’ age as 34 years, placing his date of birth in 1889. Delatorre’s age is recorded as 18. Despite the age gap, Delatorre was certainly a legal adult. On our radio show however we speculated about how old she might have been when the two actually began their relationship, and the various ways in which this relationship might have been problematic (both with today’s standards and also put into historical context). Certainly they had known each other for more than three years before they were married, as we can see from a 1920 US census document (see below). This document shows that in 1920, Clemente Chavez lived as a “boarder” with the family of Francisca Delatorre, who was 14-years-old at the time. Chavez was listed as being 29-years-old, which would place his date of birth at some point in 1890 or 1891. Also in the home (which was located in Cameron) were Salvador Delatorre (Francisca’s father, a 40-year-old coal miner from Mexico), Petra Delatorre (Francisca’s mother, born Maria Petra Alcala in 1885 in Mexico), and five of Francisca’s sisters (ranging in age from 2 to 16, and born variously in Colorado and New Mexico).
Sadly, young Francisca Chavez (Delatorre) died shortly after her husband was murdered by Colorado state police. CF&I spy reports noted that she died at 10am on February 1, 1928, as a result of pneumonia. Her funeral procession reportedly consisted of “twenty-six cars pretty well filled up and seventy-six marching ahead of the funeral procession.” (CF&I Records)
State Police Murder Clemente Chavez
In part 1 of our on-air discussion, we covered in detail the events of January 12, 1928 that led to the shooting death of Clemente Chavez. We will also probably make another blog post dedicated to telling the story of that day. As such, we will not be providing a detailed summary of these confusing series of events here. Instead we just want to briefly state that county coroner Edward Slates and held a “coroner’s inquest.” Ten witnesses and three physicians testified before a “coroner’s jury,” which then blamed the state police for Chavez’ murder. According to newspaper reports, the jury found that police were “unprovoked” when they showed “total disregard for human life by firing thru windows into the street outside.”
Clemente Chavez Honored as a Martyr
Rather than spend more time on the specific events that led to his death, we present here a newspaper clipping and some photos that show the funeral. The photos (see below) come from the University of Washington Libraries online archive. These archives include a number of fascinating photos from that day, including photographs of state police and union members, and an extremely graphic photo of Chavez’ dead body (shot in the head) inside the union hall.
Portion of text of clipping (see above) from Fort Collins Express Courier, January 16, 1928:
“Walsenburg, Colo., Jan. 16 — One thousand men, women and children followed the body of Clemente Chavez, 41, miner killed in the strike riot of Thursday, to St. Mary’s Cemetery Sunday and upon their return raised their voices [in] “Solidarity,” song of the IWW…”
Clemente Chavez Memorial Hall
On June 1, 1928, the IWW miners union in Walsenburg was evicted from its union hall. A copy of a confiscated letter (see below), signed by the “Walsenburg Branch of the IU 220 of the IWW,” shows us how they planned to deal with this difficulty. Located in the CF&I corporate archives–alongside spy reports, IWW member lists, and a variety of confiscated IWW documents–the letter explains the union’s predicament and its plan:
“To be without a hall is a serious hinderance [sic] to our work of organization. We spoke to every owner of available halls, but the conspiracy is a complete one, the petty bourgoisie [sic] of Walsenburg are thoroughly intimidated by the Company officials; none of them to rent to the I.W.W. There is only one thing left for us to do: Accept the generous proposition offered by our fellow worker Santiago Baca and erect our own building. The plan is this: F.W. [Fellow Worker] Bara [sic] a miner and one of our oldest members here, agreed that we may under the terms of a 15 year lease put up a building on his 50 x 60 Ft. lot…The building is to bear the name: CLEMENTE CHAVEZ MEMORIAL HALL, in remembrance of our martyred fellow worker, who on the 12th day of January of this year dropped dead on the floor of our old hall, while together with other brave Walsenburg miners he defended the home of his Union against a lawless attack of Governor Adams bloody Rangers.”
— Walsenburg IWW IU 220 Fundraising Letter, June 1928, CF&I Archives
It is unclear if the Clemente Chavez Memorial Hall was ever built, though we suspect that it was not.
The Walsenburg IWW IU 220 rapidly declined over the following months and years. This happened for a variety of reasons, including: the effective CF&I blacklist drove many IWW members from the region; a continued shift away from coal heated homes and towards natural gas furnaces led to the closure of a number of mines in the region; the impact of the Great Depression on the regional coal industry led to the closure of even more mines, etc. Given all of this, combined with the complicated and risky nature of the plan (a fifteen year lease, mortgaged homes, and all volunteer labor), it seems unlikely that the Clemente Chavez Memorial Hall was ever erected. (If you have evidence to the contrary we would love to hear/see it!)