Irons, Martin (1830–1900)

By: Ruth A. Allen

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: March 2, 2016

Martin Irons, who came into national prominence in 1886 as leader of the Great Southwest Strike, immigrated at the age of fourteen to the United States from Dundee, Scotland, where he was born on October 27, probably in 1830. He was the son of Martin Irons and Jabina Taylor. After a period of apprenticeship in New York City, he became a machinist. He married Mary Mitchell Brown on July 28, 1852, in Kentucky and was listed in the 1860 census as living in Liberty, Missouri, with his wife and children. He lived in many places in the Southwest and in the early 1880s was working as a machinist in the railroad shops at Sedalia, Missouri. During his years of wandering, Irons was a member of the machinists' union and was interested in fraternal societies such as the Knights of Pythias, and farmers' organizations, especially the Grange. In 1884 he became a member of the Knights of Labor and was instrumental in forming District Assembly 101, composed of workers employed by Jay Gould's southwestern railroads. Irons was elected chairman of the executive committee of the union assembly. When, shortly after its organization, the assembly struck against the management of the Gould system, Irons was recognized as the leader of the strike.

After the strikers were defeated, the blacklist made it impossible for him to hold a regular job. He resided for short periods, sometimes under an assumed name, in St. Louis, Rosedale, and Thayer, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Fort Worth, Texas. In 1894 G. B. Harris, secretary of the Social Democratic party of Texas, gave him a home at Bruceville. Irons was an unusually effective speaker. His social philosophy was typical of the period: an amalgam of resentment against the encroaching domination of corporate business as monopolist and as employer, with agrarian insistence upon ownership of land as the basis of individual liberty. His program centered in recognition of organized labor groups as the best means of dealing with employers, reform of the money system, and reduction of moneyed interests' control of government agencies. When his health permitted, Irons continued to work for social reform until his death on November 17, 1900. He was buried at Bruceville. The Missouri State Federation of Labor gathered funds for a monument to mark the grave. In 1911, with the Texas State Federation of Labor officially in attendance, the monument was unveiled.

Ruth A. Allen, The Great Southwest Strike (Austin: University of Texas, 1942). Martin Irons, "My Experiences in the Labor Movement," Lippincott's Magazine, June 1886. Labor Movement in Texas Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Missouri Bureau of Labor Statistics and Inspection, The Official History of the Great Strike of 1886 (Columbia, Missouri, 1887).

  • Peoples
  • Scots
  • Labor
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ruth A. Allen, “Irons, Martin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022,

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March 2, 2016