Family Feud

A tug-of-war for Irish orphans on the Arizona border a century ago mirrors race hatred today.

Through the shocking lens of the September 11 terrorist attacks many Americans and the media are re-examining race and religious relations. Linda Gordon, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, has written a model study of another moment in race-hatred history; this time it's 1904 in the Arizona Territory. The book examines the complexities of racial and social status as well as gender roles in the twin mining towns of Clifton-Morenci by recounting a four-day incident that engulfed the towns in a near riot.

What happened to 40 New York City orphans on the Arizona border nearly 100 years ago is a hot, often taboo topic in Clifton-Morenci. Some of the former orphans are still alive. The book is fresh fodder for local college classroom discussion, according to current students, who say it is considered incendiary in Clifton-Morenci. The book is not banned there; the local library confirms its presence on the shelves, but word has it that the towns' leading class (the whites) claims things never happened the way Gordon says.

On October 1, 1904, a train bringing 40 Irish-Catholic orphans, three nuns and a male agent from the New York Foundling Hospital arrived in Clifton-Morenci on a carefully arranged mission to place the children with Mexican families. This particular "orphan train" marked the first time the hospital had arranged to place their orphans so far west, but the hospital was no novice in its placements.

All the Mexican families had been carefully selected and each had been approved by the parish priest via mail. Some of the prospective couples had even gotten married by the priest in order to satisfy his requirements for a good, Catholic home.

When the train arrived in Clifton, several of the Anglo women in the crowd were so interested in the fair-haired, beautifully dressed white children they went to the Mexican church to witness the first group of 16 children being claimed by their new families. The orphans bound for Morenci stayed on the train that night with the nuns to await their placement the following day.

By the next day, these wives of Clifton's white ruling class had goaded their husbands into action. Clifton's deputy sheriff was pressed into traveling to Morenci to arrest the priest and the male agent of the Foundling Hospital. At the town's main hotel, where some of the Morenci orphans who had yet to be placed were staying, an angry mob--complete with tar, feathers and rope--had gathered. The sheriff demanded of the nuns, at gunpoint, that the children be reassigned to white families. When the agent refused, the New Yorkers were told that if they did not reclaim the children themselves, the crowd would do it for them. The children were returned to the hotel after a posse told the adopting families that they must give them up.

All the children were brought to the town square, where they were distributed among the Anglo townswomen. A mob had gathered in the square, threatening to hang or burn at the stake the local priest and the male Foundling Hospital agent, who were run out of town the following morning. The action then moved back to Morenci, where white Clifton citizens joined the fray at the hotel, where the terrified nuns were holed up with 21 remaining children. Until order was restored by an Arizona Copper Mining official, the nuns' five hotel rooms were invaded by angry crowds who jeered the sisters, calling them "slave dealers and child sellers."

Under armed guard, the remaining orphans returned to New York City the following day. Of the 40 who first disembarked in Arizona, 18 remained with Anglo families and one went on to a California family. The sisters went back to New York with the intention of using the courts to get back all the children. But it was not to be.

The court ruled that the best interests of the foundlings had been served by their rescue by the "Americans" in Clifton-Morenci. The case was then heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in early 1906, where it was decreed that because the adoptive parents were Mexican Indian, they were unfit by "mode of living, habits and education ... to have the custody, care and education" of white children.

Gordon's tight, deeply researched journalistic narrative of the four-day incident is precisely focused against the backdrop of its times. The 1903 copper mine strike in Clifton-Morenci, which polarized whites and Mexicans further; vigilante mentality; the racial makeup of a quickly changing West; and political and religious complexities are analyzed in relation to the dramatic story. Gordon succeeds in showing how we all take part in producing the racial systems we live in. The Mexican adoptive mothers wanted to take in a piece of Anglo culture in which each child "might become a true americano," Gordon writes, while the Anglo women used their moral status as defenders of respectability to save the orphans from the horrible fate of growing up Mexican.

As Gordon concludes, "The echoes of the orphan story reach far from Clifton-Morenci. It is not only an Arizonan but also an American story, simultaneously an allegory that symbolizes our legacy of race hatred and a parable that offers lessons for reducing that hatred. Like William Blake's grain of sand in which one can see the world, the story allows us to learn something big by studying a very small story."