ASU graduate digs deep into the dark history of mining in Arizona

Photo of Rachel Welshans. She sits in a wheel chair and is wearing a plain black long sleeved shirt and jeans. She wears square glasses and red lipstick.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Rachel Welshans grew up in Bisbee, a small town in southern Arizona with a long history of mining. Although she has lived in Tucson for nearly two decades, she still considers Bisbee to be her hometown and the place she has many connections to.

“My grandfather was a miner in Bisbee, and when I was a kid, my mom worked at a closed mine that gave tours to the public,” said Welshans. “I literally grew up around miners and the history of the mines.”

When Welshans decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree, she decided she wanted to learn about something she was passionate about. She decided to pursue history and had enrolled in a traditional capstone course for her final semester when an email came through that told her of a new opportunity. 

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences had recently launched its Online Undergraduate Research Scholars (OURS) program. The program offers in-person research experiences for online students in natural sciences, social sciences and humanities disciplines. 

“I received an email saying that a new pilot project was being offered,” said Welshans. “An OURS-sponsored class that would have an in-person element at the beginning and would involve hands-on archival research. This was an opportunity that I really did not feel I could pass up, so I ran it by my husband, got the OK for vacation time from work, and signed up that same day.”

The program offered online history students the opportunity to come to the Arizona State University's Tempe campus for a research seminar inside the archives at the Arizona Historical Society and at Hayden Library. 

“This was amazing because it let us go into the archives, go through the initial boxes that had been pulled for us, and then find a thread that interested us,” Welshans said. “It was both intimidating and freeing to have that kind of freedom in a project.”

The topic they chose to follow would eventually become their final research project at the end of the semester. While going through the documents, Welshans found that documents about mining towns kept catching her eye. 

“One specific topic that I was really interested in learning more about and seeing how it unfolded was the Bisbee Deportation of 1917,” said Welshans. “It's an absolutely despicable episode of Arizona history. Being from Bisbee, you'd think I would know a great deal about it, but it is never talked about.”

The Bisbee Deportation of 1917 was an event where the Phelps Dodge Corporation and other mining companies that ran the town of Bisbee forced roughly 1,200 striking miners of mostly Mexican descent or who were immigrants to leave on a train to New Mexico at gunpoint. The workers were told that if they came back, they would be killed. 

“Once I started finding little mentions of the mining companies or labor strikes in the materials we were going through, I was hooked,” said Welshans. “How could I not want to dig deeper? It's like being a detective. The professors and the archivists both helped me to find other sources and books on the events and it grew from there.”

Initially, she wanted to find documents and to tell the story of what happened through the eyes of those who were deported, but the documentation was not there. Instead, she found that there were two very different stories being told in news stories about the deportation, depending on where the news was coming from. 

“The local media was heavily skewed in the favor of the mining companies and the vigilantes that conducted the deportation while national media and federal sources were horrified about the entire situation,” said Welshans. “When digging deeper, it began making sense because the mining companies, and Phelps Dodge specifically, owned most of the local newspaper companies.”

Welshan completed this project this semester and is now graduating with her bachelor’s degree in history from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies (SHPRS) as the Dean’s medalist. She is also graduating with a minor in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. 

When nominating Welshans for the Dean’s Medal, clinical assistant professors of history Matthew Casey-Pariseault and Peter Van Cleave said, "While all of the students were fantastic,  (Welshans’) project and paper stood out. In fact, due to this quality, we have encouraged her to explore publication options, first with the SHPRS undergraduate journal, but then also with the Journal of Arizona History. She clearly has the archival skills and writing ability that, with a bit more work, she will be able to have this published.”

Welshans answered some questions about her time as a student at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I came to history in a little bit of a roundabout way. I have always loved history just to learn. I think it's fascinating, but I don't want to be a teacher, so I had always kind of just thought of it as a fun hobby. When I started back to school, I got married young and put aside my college plans to start a family then came back to school 16 years later. I originally was pursuing a degree in American Sign Language interpreting. I ended up changing from that to psychology, very briefly, and then ended up just getting my associate degree in liberal arts without a clear vision of what I wanted to get a bachelor’s in. After a ton of thought and waffling back and forth on what kind of degree would get me a good job, I realized that I was concerned about the wrong thing. I shouldn't be concerned with what kind of a job I could turn my degree into. If I didn't like the degree, I wouldn't like the job either. Instead, I needed to find something that I really truly loved, and then whatever I ended up doing with the degree would also be something I loved. That was a no-brainer for me. History. And so, here I am. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective? 

A: I took a linguistics class that focused on gender and class distinctions, and I was absolutely blown away by how language can be used to exclude or deride entire populations. I grew up with a mom who always corrected our improper grammar, and I do the same as an adult. After this class, I realized that what society has decided is "proper" grammar is incredibly biased against a huge swath of groups, including those who live in certain regions of the country, like the south, immigrants and people of color, to name just a few. It made me much more conscious of how I judge people for their linguistic choices and has led me to try to cut back on corrections. Though if you ask my husband and kids, they will tell you I have not cut back nearly enough. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: I really wanted to stick with a state university, but as a Tucsonan, the choice to go to ASU was pretty controversial among my friends and coworkers. However, when I was looking at online programs, there was no comparison. ASU is leaps and bounds ahead of the University of Arizona online experience. I spoke to friends who had gone through both programs and did a lot of research. The thing I really liked the most was that the professors who teach online classes are the same on-campus professors. I felt like it was the program where I was going to get the same education online as I would have in person. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: It's so hard to just name one. Dr. Peter Van Cleave and Dr. Matthew Casey-Pariseault were probably the most impactful professors I had, but there were so many others who made strong impacts and taught important lessons also. Dr. Jean-Marie Stevens was amazing and so was Dr. Marissa Rhodes. The History in the Wild class I took with Dr. Rhodes really solidified how much interest I had in public history instead of strict academic history.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: Give yourself grace. Definitely practice good time management and hold yourself accountable, but if it's Monday, you just turned in a big paper on Sunday, your next assignment isn't due until Thursday, and you just feel completely drained, give yourself permission to take the evening off. Burning yourself out won't help anything. Take a second to rest and regroup. 

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying? 

A: I did most of my studying either at my desk or my kitchen table at home. What I did when I really needed to focus was I would put on my headphones and listen to the Vitamin String Quartet. They're the group that does the covers for Bridgerton. It's the perfect study music. Familiar melodies but no lyrics to distract you. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I am going to take a six-month to a yearlong break before going to graduate school. I want to spend some time with my family. It's been hard balancing time with work, school and family. I will be expanding on my research paper with the hope of getting it published during that time, though. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: It wouldn't solve it completely, but I would do my best to make a dent in childhood hunger. Here in the U.S., I would fund free lunches for all schoolchildren. Sometimes that is the only consistent meal a child will get in the day. The fact that the U.S. makes schooling mandatory but doesn't feed the children for free is ridiculous. The problem is, $40 million would hardly stretch past that one goal. Child hunger is endemic around the world and needs so much more money and action to really truly tackle.

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