That caught my attention while searching for random subjects to feed to this blog. First, when you sentence 200 people for anything, there must be a story behind it. Second, what the heck were Coxeyites?
So, here's what I learned about Coxeyites and why so many of them were sentenced in Boise back in 1894.
The official name of those commonly known as Coxeyites or Coxey's Army was the Army of the Commonwealth in Christ. They were unemployed workers who organized for what was the first significant protest march on Washington, DC.
In 1894 there were plenty of unemployed people. The country was in the middle of the worst economic depression to date. Those out of work began to get behind Jacob Sechler Coxey, Sr. He had a big idea about infrastructure in the nation. A Socialist Party member, Coxey wanted to issue $500 million in paper money backed by government bonds. That money would land in the pockets of workers building roads nationwide. The idea would be echoed in the New Deal programs of the Great Depression a few decades later.
To say that he had some support is akin to saying there are a few stars in the sky. Tens of thousands of jobless men began to make their way toward Washington, where their voices might be heard.
There were a few problems associated with the march. First, these were men without money. How would they get to DC? Once they got there, where would they stay? What would they eat?
A large number of Coxeyites came from the Pacific Northwest. Many of them had formerly been railroad workers who blamed their problems on the railroads. So the army of workers hopped freights headed east.
As they traveled across the country, members of Coxey's Army were cheered along and often given food by local supporters. Railroads were less eager to help.
Coxeyites, frustrated by that lack of eagerness, began commandeering trains to take them east. In reaction, the railroads began throwing every obstacle they could in the way of men. They parked dead train engines on the tracks in Montana and Kansas, emptied water tanks—essential for steam engines—and even tore up tracks. The Coxeyites often just laid new track around the obstacles. To refill the purloined engines, they would stop at wells and use buckets and cups to dump water into the tanks.
Troops were called up in some states to stop the Coxeyites. But, more than once, the unemployed men turned the tables on those who would keep them from their destination, capturing the firearms meant to capture the Coxeyites.
At Huntington, Oregon, just a few miles from the Idaho border, about 250 Coxeyites demanded that the Union Pacific Railroad give them a ride east. UP resisted at first, fearing that caving in would set a precedent that would result in hundreds more Coxeyites demanding free passage up and down the West Coast.
Ultimately, the company relented and agreed to let the Coxeyites ride across Idaho "under protest."
This was a victory for the men and was cheered by many locals across Southern Idaho. In Pocatello, when about 300 Coxeyites pulled into town, sympathizers raised money for food and assisted them in many ways.
Meanwhile, Union Pacific officials decided letting the men ride for free was a mistake. As feared, they began getting demands from other members of Coxey's Army for a free ride. It was time to put a stop to it.
At the railroad's request, U.S. Marshall for Idaho, Joseph Pinkham, sent men to the border with Oregon to keep more men from coming into the state and headed a cadre of marshals and volunteers that went to Montpelier to keep the Coxeyites from entering Wyoming.
Coxey's Army had other ideas. They spent a day and most of a night arguing with the citizens of Montpelier, then with Marshall Pinkham, in what one newspaper reporter called "the most exciting day in the history of southeastern Idaho." Pinkham arrested a local man who was encouraging the Coxeyites to ignore a federal order to stand down. The crowd of the unemployed demanded his release, but Pinkham did not acquiesce. The tense standoff broke when Pinkham's train retreated from Montpellier with the arrestee.
A short time after the Pinkham train left, several of the men broke into the roundhouse and stole a locomotive. That engine jumped the tracks at a switch, disabling it. The men stole two more engines in Montpelier and charged into Wyoming at 6:22 in the morning.
That Montpelier triumph was short-lived for the Coxeyites. The train-nappers were overpowered in Green River and arrested.
The men found themselves back on a train, the occupants of guarded cattle cars on their way west, not east. About 200 were delivered to Boise for trial related to the stolen locomotive caper in mid-May 1894.
Housing 200 prisoners would prove a challenge. At first, they were to be housed at the prison. When authorities determined there wasn't room there, they decided to quarter them in the old post office. Again, not enough space.
When the Coxyites pulled into town, the boxcars they rode in rolled into the roundhouse and stopped. And, that's where they were housed, in and out of the boxcars and within the roundhouse, to begin with, guarded by two companies of troops and a posse of deputies.
The roundhouse and surrounding grounds, where the newspaper reported the prisoners "frolicked around on the grass like boys out for a holiday," quickly became known as Camp Pinkham. For his part, Pinkham looked out for his prisoners' interests. He ordered a 28-foot by 100-foot building erected for them to sleep in while waiting for Judge Beatty to come back from a trip to North Idaho.
On the judge's return in late May, the trial began. Justice was swift. On June 5, the judge handed out the sentences. Those who led the Coxeyites in stealing the train in Montpelier got the worst of it, each sentenced to six months in jail. The remainder of the men got sentences of 30 to 60 days. They would be housed in a temporary prison near Huntington, Oregon.
So, the Coxeyites who chose the path through southern Idaho on their aborted journey to Washington, DC, spent their summer in a crude enclosure along the bank of the Snake River instead.
Several delegations of Coxey's Army did make it to Washington, DC over that summer. Their protests changed little, but it marked the beginning of many marches on Washington for various causes that continue to this day.