Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Kelly’s Industrial Army, made up of unemployed laborers, grew out of the Panic of 1893. Two men, Coxey and Browne devised a plan to arouse public and congressional interest for passing bills that would benefit the unemployed.

J. S. Coxey believed that a “living petition” of the unemployed in Washington, D.C. would arouse necessary attention. His picturesque western-clad comrade, Carl Browne, had curious religious beliefs, thus Coxey’s group that formed a parade in Washington in 1894 was labeled the “Commonweal of Christ” and received plenty of publicity from the press.

Coxey and Browne had worked out a strategy for saving the nation from further economic chaos. Two bills would be introduced that called for a large amount of federal money to be spent on roads and other public improvements, thus putting to work masses that were unemployed.

At the same time that Coxey’s “Commonweal of Christ” were parading in Washington, Kelly’s Industrial Army was formed in an effort to make an even louder noise in an intended march of thousands to Washington. “General” Charles T. Kelly was chosen to command this group of the unemployed. Although he was a tall, pale, pensive-looking man, he gained the men’s respect and held authority over the group described as rabble.

Rails refused to carry the army which also met with occasional local resistance as they crossed the country, thus the men were forced to walk, and numbers involved fluctuated greatly. Fifteen hundred men left California on this expedition; 968 reached Ogden, Utah; estimates at Council Bluffs were placed at 1,800; and only 863 were counted by Drake students when they reached Des Moines.

Farmers and local agencies along the way provided as much food as possible, partly in support of the march, but also out of fear that the army would help themselves to whatever they wanted if people didn’t cooperate. The people of Des Moines decided to provide material so that the army could build crude boats to journey down the Des Moines River, thus ridding themselves of the problem.

An estimated 1,400 men crammed onto a fleet of 150 boats and started down the river on May 10, 1894. On May 14, they reached Ottumwa where a small riot broke out. The mayor had hired and paid for campgrounds for the army, but when the men arrived the owner of the campgrounds demanded a dime each for admission. A scuffle broke out which was soon stopped by the mayor who agreed with Kelly and allowed the men access to the grounds as promised.

On May 16, Kelly’s Army camped at Pittsburg and passed through Keosauqua on the following day. The people of Keosauqua furnished 600 loaves of bread, 100 pounds of coffee and a fat beef. Between 3:00 PM and 8:30 PM, the army crossed over the dam at Bonaparte. That night they camped at Farmington. Citizens of Bonaparte and Farmington combined to give the group 1,600 loaves of bread, 2 beeves, a large amount of coffee and some beans. Two days later they reached Keokuk where they camped three miles below the city.

Between Keokuk and St. Louis, more of the group defected the army than joined, and only a small number actually reached Washington, D.C. The idea was that if they could only get to Washington, somehow the lawmakers would see that they were breadwinners, they were honest and sincere, and their demands were justified. “We will combine with Coxey when we reach Washington,” they said, “or we will go it alone if necessary.”

History does not merit their efforts as very successful because most of the men did not complete the journey, yet the media highlighted their progress across America from California to Washington, and liberal attention was given to their cause. It hardly could be called a failure since it pioneered the peaceful demonstration, and set the stage for rallies, marches, and protests during the 20th century for such things as women suffrage, prohibition, and Civil Rights.

What I think is most interesting about the May Day parade and rally by Coxey’s “Commonweal of Christ” army, is that although the parade was cheered by an enormous crowd estimated in the thousands, the moment Mr. Coxey tried to speak from the Capitol steps, he was arrested, fined, and sent to jail for carrying banners and walking on the grass at the Capitol Building!

We have grown accustomed to peaceful marches and demonstrations. What a difference a century has made. A demonstration one hundred years ago probably carried much more weight than today. They got the attention of people while evoking fear as much as they built up sympathy for their cause.

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick