Hateful Hunkies or Hardworking Hungarians: The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917
Meghan E. Dohogne
This paper examines the events leading up the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917 in St. Francois County, Missouri from the viewpoints of the local newspapers and accounts from the Hungarian sources. Introducing the historical background of the region with the varying retelling of events from the biased news report sources, which account for most of the interpretation of the event, shows the extreme prejudice shown toward immigrants in the Lead Belt during the beginning of WWI. However, these sources lose credibility in reporting the actual events of the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. Clearly showing the bias of these reports proves that the Hungarians are not exclusively responsible for the event.
“There is room in this country for every man who comes here desiring to become a good and useful citizen, but we believe the time is at hand when there is no room for the foreigner who is here to make money and then return to the land of his nativity to spend it.”  This quote, in the Bonne Terre Star, expressed the feeling of the local population in the Lead Belt in 1917. St. Francois County, Missouri, experienced one of the most shocking and least known events of American History. Located approximately one hour south of St. Louis and one hour west of the Mississippi River, St. Francois County was the center of the area labeled the Lead Belt. Each county comprising the region grew exponentially with the development of lead mining in the region. After the Federal Government commissioned the manufacture of lead, the Lead Belt became a bog of tension with the influx of foreign labor. To meet the demand of production, a large number of Hungarian workers immigrated to St. Francois County. Quickly, they were placed in the mines performing the least desirable work for the most meager pay. Natives to the area grew fearful of losing their jobs to the new Hungarian immigrants after being drafted to fight in WWI. The spark initiating the conflict, widely reported by area newspapers, was the Hungarian immigrant’s response to the American war effort. The Americans responded by effectively removing the Hungarian population from the Lead Belt. Executed in a matter of two days, this riot is noteworthy because of the Americans’ ability to remove an entire population so quickly. Local newspapers and first-hand accounts blame the riot solely on Hungarian arrogance disregarding excessive action by the Americans. But, an examination of multiple accounts of the riot and the circumstances surrounding it clearly indicate the Hungarian immigrants were unjustly blamed for the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917.
The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917 unfolded a series of events which shock historians even today. On the night of Friday 13 July 1917, violence erupted in the changing room of Federal Mine shaft No. 1.  Several American workers assaulted a group of foreign miners; the scene burst into pandemonium as many foreigners jumped from the windows to escape the Americans. Chaos surrounded everyone in the mine: “Rocks were being thrown thick and fast and some shots were fired.”  Threats of violence strong-armed the foreigners into cooperation. Word of the conflict hastily spread through the Lead Belt and soon American miners went from mine to mine driving away all foreign workers and their families.
On the morning of 14 July 1917 the mob regrouped. They marched to make demands on the mine companies requesting local employment only in the mines. The mob resorted to radical action after refusal from the Federal Lead companies to remove foreign workers from the mines. The mob proceeded to march to the homes of the foreigners and round up all of the occupants to ensure they left the area. They then escorted them to the depot for deportation from the Lead Belt.  Anyone who resembled a Hungarian was boarded on a train bound for St. Louis. The mob in the Lead Belt region achieved its main aim of removing the Hungarians from the area.
Missouri Governor Fredrick D. Gardner responded to this atrocity by sending in the National Guard to put down the rioters. On the evening of 14 July 1917, a special train loaded with Missouri State Troopers headed to Flat River.  Military presence in the area thwarted the Americans from further terrorizing the remaining immigrant settlements in the region. Federal units stayed in the area for a short time after the incident to ensure the peace abided. The troops’ departure marked the final large-scale disturbance between American and foreign workers in the mines. Rarely does a community take such extreme action as to entirely remove a native population from their county, but the uniqueness of St. Francois County and the events leading up to the riot caused such a feeling of hostility towards the foreigners that the immediate and total action the agitated Americans carried out was condoned in the local press. The historical background and rapid growth of the Lead Belt largely created the factors for the riot.
The Lead Belt region in St. Francois County, MO developed quickly as the progress of mining in the region grew. “This area was the largest Lead Belt in the world. Lead mining shaped the history and character of the area.”  The first miners in the area were French, as it was part of the Louisiana Territory. Lamott and Renault obtained a charter in creating the Company of the West and Louis XV granted their right to mine the lower part of the territory. Spain acquired the territory in 1763. The Spanish government appealed for Americans to settle in the Lead Belt. The authorities offered settlers free land, the only stipulation being settlers pay survey fees.  In 1798 a Virginian, Moses Austin, obtained a land grant and began mining the territory. The expectation of finding mineral riches, compounded with urging by the Spanish, brought a steady increase of immigration to the Lead Belt during the last half of the 18th century. 
The rise in the price of lead and the increase in demand boosted growth in the Lead Belt. During the 19th century, a number of mines developed in the area. Henry C. Thompson suggested the rise in the price of lead by two cents promoted by the increase in import duty placed on lead by Congress and the increase in demand from the European helped raise the value of the Lead Belt. In 1867 and 1868 production improved and the new capital was invested in equipment. With these advances, the Lead Belt needed workers to fill the mines. Luckily, the Lead Belt attracted new settlers and the populace grew. The population in St. Francois County in the 1870’s and 1880’s had increased from less than ten thousand residents to over thirteen thousand. The consolidation of lead industries fostered the establishment of mining towns. By 1917, the year the riot occurred, the major communities and their lifestyles developed as a result of the mining industry.
The Lead Belt was filled with residents who labored in the mines. Tension between the various groups of inhabitants eventually resulted in the outbreak of the riot. Those who originally worked in the mines were mostly locals coming as small farmers, timber cutters, and rock quarrymen. They often worked in the lead mines to supplement their meager incomes. Foreign miners, who often irritated the local population, contributed to the large population growth of the region. Like most immigrants entering the United States at this time, they emigrated from Europe consisting primarily of unskilled workers. The foreign population decreased in percentage from 1890-1910 in the state as a whole, but the foreign element in St. Francois county was on the rise.
The local population disapproved of the growing foreign population. On 30 June 1899 State Mine Inspector George E. Quinby reported that mining in the county employed a total of 881 men. Quinby went on to predict that number would exponentially increase in the coming years.  As the need for labor in the mines grew and cheap labor settled in the area, the mines began to fill with these immigrant workers. The majority of new miners employed were Hungarian. The mining companies prepared special residential districts for the immigrant workers. Throughout the residential districts, Hungarians tended to stick together. Their kinship flourished through practicing their traditions and customs from Europe. The number of Hungarians living in Missouri jumped from 902 in 1900 to 14,574 in 1910.  Americans particularly disliked the number of Hungarian immigrants settling in the Lead Belt. Locals derisively termed this native group “Hunkies”, a shorter version of Hungarians. The term became so common that when the riot occurred, the term referred to any foreigners whether Hungarian, Russian, Italian or Polish. These foreign workers were mostly single men all boarding together in the residential housing camps. The customs of these foreigners contrasted those of the native population and were often frowned upon by the locals. In the mines, foreigners labored in the least skilled and lowest paid position- as underground shovelers. Local Americans refused to work in such a demanding position for such little wages. But even in this lowly position, the locals loathed alien intrusion on their workplace.
Locals often went to extremes in preventing the new foreign workers from gaining employment in the mines. Though foreign workers were meeting the demand for labor in the mines. On 19 July 1902 the Catherine Lead Company located in Madison County MO, was forced to close down operations because local miners refused to allow the company to bring in outside workers. The president of the company stated that the Hungarians were only brought in to do the work that Americans would not do because of the low wages the company was paying. The miners rejected this explanation and shut down the mine.  The locals and press were not convinced that bringing in other workers to complete the work correctly solved the labor shortage. They were not content with the alien invasion of their workforce.
Local discontent with foreigner workers resulted in slanderous articles in the press regarding foreign employment in the mines. The Bonne Terre Star ran The Mining and Engineering Journal‘s article, “The Authority on Mining in this Country” in their 12 September 1913 issue. The article concluded, “The correct solution of the problem of getting adequate labor supply for the mines is not lowering the intellectual standard of workmen sought. It is rather to make the mines safer, more comfortable, and sanitary. The lowest labor is seldom the cheapest in the long run.” They used the article to advocate the uselessness of the Hunkies, they furthered the article, “The mining companies have been making a mistake by bringing in foreigners from the South of Europe, foreigners who have no notion of ever becoming citizens, and the solution is to employ native labor.”  Locals in the Lead Belt would not rest until they felt hiring preference went to the natives. Many reviews of the labor situation ran in local papers for the next months. The Bonne Terre Star ran an update for the area on the current situation in the mines. “We were reliably informed that there are now nearly 40 more men underground than there were six months ago and considerably more American men running drills.” The local newspaper supported companies who put the needs of the local first. Since the stance was strong in the area, the majority of local newspapers, which eventually reported the events of the riot, sided with the locals. Although these newspapers covered much of the story, others were dedicated to protecting the rights of all in the Lead Belt.
The Bonne Terre Register advocated equal hiring opportunity to all in the Lead Belt. It met tremendous opposition because it positively viewed employment of new foreigners in the Lead Belt. In response to the labor shortage, the Register declared new foreigners be given the same opportunity to work. The Bonne Terre Star, reflecting widespread support of local residents harshly denounced the Register in the 27 March 1914 edition. “It is indeed a spectacle for Gods and men, when this oriflammed courtesan maintained for years by the company, flaunts its shame in the face of the community in loud protest against the employment of our home people in the mines. If the Register had to depend on the patronage of the business people of Bonne Terre, its advertising columns indicate a speedy trip to the scrap heap.”  The Star assaulted the Register just because it chose to support the foreigners in the Lead Belt. This strong statement of anti-foreign sentiment reflected the feeling in the community of unhappiness with Hungarian inhabitation. While the hiring of Hungarians in St. Francois County did not immediately result in violence, the resentment towards the immigrants by local residents festered.
Growing resentment in the Americans heightened the chance of conflict as the United States prepared to enter WWI. Native born Americans feared entering the national draft. Under the draft system, men between the ages of 21 and 30 were eligible for deployment. In WWI as the United States prepared for war with Germany, any foreigner who had not applied for citizenship in the United States was exempt from the draft. A local newspaper the Desloge Sun ran articles demanding support for the American war effort. The Sun proclaimed, “Any man who does not stand and support his country is not a true American.”  Pressure for the American miners to participate in the war effort endangered their jobs in the mines. If they were drafted into service, they would lose their jobs. The origin of controversy, beginning the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917, was rumored to have taken place in the changing room of the mines. Circulating still today, the remark which ignited the Americans into action was in response to the issue regarding preparation for WWI against Germany. In WWI Austria-Hungary was an ally of Germany making the aliens working in the mines not only foreign, but enemies. In reaction to an American asking how the Hunkies felt about the war, the Hungarian quipped not only would the Americans leave behind their jobs for the Hungarians, but also their wives. Fear of losing all they worked so hard to earn coupled with the antagonizing Hungarians, the Americans hurtled over the edge. Their feelings of hostility boiled over, and the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917 began.
The Lead Belt Mining riot as reported by the Bonne Terre Star (in the 20 July 1917 edition) blames the Hungarians entirely for the crisis. The Star claimed the first sign of the conflict did not occur until Friday night as the 7 o’clock shift was preparing to go on at Flat River.  Almost 200 men gathered and went to the Doe Run shaft as the foreign laborers prepared to go into the mines. “After the conflict in the mine’s changing room, the natives unmercifully beat the foreigners and threw some of them out of the changing room windows. As news of what was occurring in Doe Run No. 1 flashed over the Lead Belt, men and boys filled the streets of Flat River.” The events unfolded and the mob gained full control over the region. An astounding lack of local police intervention was evident. However, the Star defended the police force saying, “It was impossible for any county authority to get on the scene and get action and in addition it is doubtful if authorities could have found anyone to arrest by the time they arrived.”23 The Star reflected the community feeling: violence against the Hungarians was understandable. The victims were held responsible for the conflict. “So far as the Star has been able to learn, the immediate cause of all the destruction, misery and loss can be traced to perhaps a dozen swell headed south- Europe foreigners.”  Despite the obvious attack on the immigrants by the Americans, the local news sources claim they were justified.
The main dispute over the events that took place in the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917 occurs over who initiated the riot. While the Star claimed that it was initiated by Hungarian remarks, the Bonne Terre Register reported that other factors were in play.
According to the accounts of the Register, early on the morning of 13 July 1917 a group of strangers congregated in Flat River. They sent a dozen men into the hardware store to inquire about the merchant’s store of arms. They purchased weapons and exited the store. Shortly after, the men reentered the store with a man who appeared to be their leader. The men returned their weapons after the leader declared that guns would not be necessary. The Register suggested their “Mission” in Flat River was realized later that evening “when a dispute of riot proportions erupted in the shafts in Flat River.” They had been preparing for a conflict with the Hungarians. This largely contradicted the popular notion that the Americans were provoked into action.
A personal account taken from Walter Dempsey, a worker in the mine, further discredited the belief that the Hungarians were responsible for the riot. When asked, “Were the foreigners making comments about the war and the Americans?” He responded by saying, “As far as I know, no foreigner made any statements but the rumor that circulated…in my belief was planned by some outsiders, who in these days were called Industrial Workers of the World. I always will believe [they] were the start of the riot.” This statement from Mr. Dempsey was mirrored in many other sources. However, blaming the riot on the Industrial Workers of the World cannot be validated. Although most sources of the time favor the Americans in their report of the events, not all sources came to the same conclusion.
Accounts from the different sources vary dramatically based on their intended audience. However, the most circulated sources attribute little blame to the actions of the American miners. As more interest in this unique riot grows, a number of accounts varying the popular story of the riot are beginning to surface. Dr. Danush Goska wrote a blog reviewing a work done by Christina Pacosz on the Missouri Lead Belt Riot of 1917. In her essay, “A Great Deal of Doing: The Missouri Lead Belt Riot of 1917,” poet Pascosz describes the riot that drove her Polish father, and others like him, out of the lead-mining region of Missouri. She retells her father’s story saying, “The emotional trauma of a small scared boy is what my father recounted on those muggy, mosquito-filled summer nights where we rocked together on our front porch in Detroit’s Polish ghetto. He could vividly remember mattresses stuffed into windows, all the children huddling in a dark, stuffy room.” Few accounts exist indicating how the foreigners truly felt about being abducted from their homes. Dr. Danush Goska remarks on the lack of foreign accounts in the events of the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. She says, “I’m angry at modern day, politically correct Missourians who piously adopt the same lies that their racist ancestors adopted to lynch my people. Nowadays their ropes are words.”  The loyalty of the current residents of the Lead Belt to their hardworking ancestors could explain why there is not much work done in attempts to discover who is actually to blame for the riot.
The Lead Belt Mining riot of 1917 is an event which is not often discussed in American history. In examining the events of the riot, most sources blame the Hungarians in initiating the conflict. But in examination of St. Francois County, the people who inhabit the area, the feelings of animosity built up before the conflict, and the extreme bias of the press to the Americans, it is unjust to blame sole responsibility for the riot on the Hungarians. In merely filling the need for labor, the immigrants were violently ripped from their homes and forced to leave the Lead Belt. The Hungarians have been unjustly blamed for the events which occurred in the Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917.
Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, Fri. Sept. 12, 1913.
Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, Fri. April 18, 1914.
Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, March 27, 1914
Bonne Terre Register, July 1917 p.1
Democrat-Register, April 20, 1900, p.1.
Dempsey, L. Walter. Personal Interview. March 8, 1975 from V.L. Lawson via Lawson, V.L The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917.p23-24
Deslodge Sun, May 1917 p. 1
Dr. Danush Goska (2011 March 25). Christinia Pascosz on the Missouri Lead Belt Riot of 1917. Retrieved from http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2011/03/christina-pacosz-on-missouri-Lead Belt.html
Konnyu, Leslie. (April 1952) Hungarians in Missouri. Missouri Historical Review, XLVI. 261.
Miles, J. Tom. (1935) Miles: A Brief Authentic History of St. Francois County, Missouri. Missouri. 47-49
Lawson, V.L. (1976). The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. Missouri, 2-46
Lead Belt News, July 20, 1917, p. 1.
Lead Belt News, Nov 9, 1972 pg. 4
Startzlow, Ruby Johnson. (Oct. 1934-July 1935) The Early History of Lead Mining In Mining in Missouri. Missouri Historical Review, XXIX. 28.
State vs. J. A. Overall, in Grand Jury Indictment (1917), Missouri, St. Francois County, Circuit Clerk Records.
The Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, Fri. July 20, 1917. P.4
The Democrat-Register (Bonne Terre), Aug., 1, 1902, p2
The Lead Belt News (Flat River), July 20, 1917, p. 1.
Thompson. (1955) Lead Belt Heritage p. 71-72
 The Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, Fri. July 20, 1917. P.4
 State vs. J. A. Overall, in Grand Jury Indictment (1917), Missouri, St. Francois County, Circuit Clerk Records.
 The Lead Belt News (Flat River), July 20, 1917, p. 1.
 Lead Belt News, July 20, 1917, p. 1.
 Lawson, V.L. The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. Missouri: 1976. P. 46
 Miles, J. Tom. “Miles: A Brief Authentic History of St. Francois County, Missouri.” Farmington MO: 1935. P. 47.
 Lawson, V.L. The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. Missouri: 1976. P. 2
 Ruby Johnson Startzlow, “The Early History of Lead Mining in Missouri”, Missouri Historical Review, XXIX (Oct. 1934- July 1935) 28.
 Thompson, Lead Belt Heritage pp. 71-72
 Lawson, V.L. The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. Missouri: 1976. P. 7
 Miles, J. Tom. “Miles: A Brief Authentic History of St. Francois County, Missouri.” Farmington MO: 1935. P. 49.
 Lawson, V.L. The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. Missouri: 1976. P. 9
 Democrat-Register, April 20, 1900, p.1.
 Lawson, V.L. The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917. Missouri: 1976. P.13
 Leslie Konnyu, “Hungarians in Missouri, “Missouri Historical Review, XLVI (April 1952), 261.
 Lead Belt News, Nov 9, 1972 pg. 4
 The Democrat-Register (Bonne Terre), Aug., 1, 1902, p2
 Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, Fri. Sept. 12, 1913.
 Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, Fri. April 18, 1914.
 Bonne Terre Star, Bonne Terre, St. Francois Co. Mo, March 27, 1914
 Deslodge Sun, May 1917 p. 1
 Bonne Terre Register, July 1917 p.1
 Bonne Terre Register, July 1917 p.2
 Bonne Terre Register, July 1917 p.3
 Bonne Terre Register, July 1917 p.1
 Dempsey, L. Walter. Personal Interview. March 8, 1975 from V.L. Lawson The Lead Belt Mining Riot of 1917.p23-24
 Dr. Danush Goska (2011 March 25). Christinia Pascosz on the Missouri Lead Belt Riot of 1917. Retrieved from http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2011/03/christina-pacosz-on-missouri-Lead Belt.html