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When a Colorado governor declared martial law and blocked poor New Mexicans at the border

During a 10-day period in 1936, National Guard troops turned away penniless laborers who tried to come to Colorado from the New Mexico border.

Jeremy Jojola

Published: 2/8/2018 5:49:48 PM
Updated: 10:11 PM MST February 8, 2018

9Wants to Know Reporter Jeremy Jojola's investigation airs tonight on 9NEWS.

In downtown Denver there’s an old state office building lined with 1970s style wood paneling and beige tile. As I walked through this time warp last week, I was expecting to run into Robert Redford from "All the President’s Men."

Some things just don’t change.

9Wants to Know investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola researches the period in 1936 when Colorado's governor at the time declared "martial law" at the border.

I didn’t think I would find what I was looking for … but I still decided to take a shot at the Colorado State Archives.

Thanks to help from the clerks, several cardboard boxes were pulled out for me to rummage through, delicately of course.

Inside were stacks of ancient flimsy papers, old office memos and letters with barely-legible handwriting written with fountain pen.

After an hour of flipping through musty pages and old state government records, I nearly screamed in delight when I came across the piece of paper I was hunting for.

Colorado Gov. Edwin Johnson declared martial law at the New Mexico border for a 10-day period in 1936.

The 81-year-old document was an Executive Order signed by Gov. Edwin Johnson (D-Colorado), who declared “martial law” along Colorado’s southern border.

The document was signed April 18, 1936 -- which was right in the middle of the Great Depression.

People were looking for work and farms in Colorado were seeking to hire laborers willing to work the fields for low wages.

The Governor used familiar wording in his order.

“WHEREAS, the entering of aliens and indigent persons into this State in such large numbers constitutes an invasion that will create, encourage and cause a condition of lawlessness…..,” he wrote.

Johnson’s order declaring martial law prompted a very brief and bitter border dispute between New Mexico and Colorado.

During this 10-day-period, National Guard troops set up checkpoints and turned back poor people -- mostly Hispanics -- who were attempting to cross the state line to seek work on beet farms.

Within the governor’s old paperwork, I found telegrams dispatched from Adjutant General Neil Kimball, who oversaw the blockade.

“Twenty three turnbacks yesterday. Thirteen being sheep shearers entering through Durango,” one telegram said.

Other telegrams from General Kimball described people as “aliens,” even though they were coming from New Mexico.

New Mexico became a state 24 years before the blockade.

At the Denver Library, I found old newspaper archives that clearly showed the blockade was aimed at poor people and not the traveling rich.

“If they do not have money or means of support, do not let them pass is his [Johnson’s] order,” one Colorado newspaper printed.

“Every automobile, bus and train -- with the exception of first-class passengers -- will be stopped and searched,” another reporter wrote.

“He was taking the position that many indigent people were coming into Colorado and that he should keep them out because they were competing with Colorado people for welfare and for jobs,” Dr. Stephen Leonard of Metro State in Denver said.

During the 10-day period Colorado's governor declared martial law, trains were searched -- with the exception of first class.

Dr. Leonard said the Democratic Governor was motivated for higher office.

“It was an insult to New Mexico," he said. "It was a political ploy on the part of the Colorado Governor Edwin Johnson, who was thinking of running for the Senate.”

At the Colorado History Center, I found old news photos from that time. One photo showed a group of men planning the blockade, including some executives from railroad companies. They wanted to make sure the traveling rich weren’t inconvenienced as National Guard troops inspected train cars.

It turns out many of these old photos were taken at Third Avenue and Logan, inside the old National Guard Armory—right where 9NEWS sits today and where I typed out this article.

Other photos from the blockade show troops and the “Martial Law” sign posted on the Colorado border.

A headline from the Santa Fe New Mexican regarding a 1936 Executive Order by Colorado's then-governor to block workers coming from the state's southern border. 

As word spread about the blockade, New Mexico Gov. Clyde Tingley immediately threatened to boycott Colorado products. Newspapers in the state called the blockade illegal.

Reporters documented stories of penniless laborers from the state seeking to work in Colorado only to be turned back to New Mexico by the troops.

Ten days later, after much anger in New Mexico, Gov. Johnson pulled back on his order and the troops came back home.

In the stacks of his old paperwork, I found a statement he wrote in which he tried to explain his reasoning for the blockade.

“…..I felt it was my duty to take summary action. We had previously attempted to keep out cheap labor by a less drastic method and had failed. Martial law seemed the only remedy remaining,” Johnson wrote.

He admitted the maneuver wasn’t good for relations with Colorado’s southern neighbor.

“….it necessarily puts Colorado in a most unfavorable light, even though our purposes were for the best interest of this state,” Johnson said.

“As a teacher it’s a beautiful example of how sometimes history repeats itself, and what we have learned and what we may have not learned from it,” Dr. Adriana Nieto, a Chicano studies professor at MSU said. “I think we can learn that some things change and some things don’t. In terms of political posturing, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.”

(Special thanks to Andrew Oxford of the Santa Fe New Mexican who first reported on this back in September.)

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