Monday, September 10, 2012

A History of Farm Labor in California (Part I)


In the mid-1930s, at the height of the great depression, a novel written by a young John Steinbeck shattered the carefully-constructed myth of California as a “land of sunshine and abundance.”  Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath told a gut-wrenching story of migratory farm labor exploited by wealthy land owners. 

Around that time, another book came out that is less well-known today, but perhaps equally illuminating.  That book is Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California, written by a young lawyer/journalist named Carey McWilliams.  First published in 1935, McWilliams’ book is a carefully researched work of social history.  Factories in the Field may be read as the research that backs up Steinbeck’s fiction. 

I read Factories in the Field this summer, and was blown away by this largely unknown history.  It’s a story of greed, corruption, exploitation, violence, and human struggle.  It’s a story that is ongoing, that still affects what we eat and how that food is produced.  I have decided to write a series of articles, chronicling the major parts of McWilliams’ important book.  If we understand our shared past, maybe we might better understand our present.

Part I: Land Monopolization

By the time California became a state of the Union, much of its land was already spoken for.  By 1870, the powerful railroads held nearly 20,000,000 acres of land.  By 1871, 516 men in California owned 8,685,439 acres of land. 

“Our system,” said governor Haight, “seems to be mainly framed to facilitate the acquisition of large blocks of land by capitalists or corporations either as donations or at nominal prices.”

According to McWilliams, “The ownership patterns established by force and fraud in the decade from 1860 to 1870 have become fixed; the social structure of the state is, in large part, based upon these patterns.  California more than once has been referred to as a colonial empire, and, by and large, the description is accurate.”

After the Gold Rush of the 1850s, landowners in California began to realize the financial potential of agriculture.   Contrary to American mythology,  the bulk of California farmland did not go to small farmers.  Rather, it went to railroad companies, land barons, and corporations, who held enormous influence over elected officials.  If you have been watching the show “Hell on Wheels” you have some idea of the power of the railroads in 19th century America.

According to Walter V. Woehlke, a writer for Sunset Magazine in the 1920s, “Wheat and cattle barons controlled the bulk of the fertile land in large tracts, having acquired their principalities through purchase of the old Spanish grants or though evasion of the laws protecting the public domain.”  The result of this situation was “a class of landless tenants and drifting homeless farm laborers.”

In his 1872 travel book, Afoot and Alone, Stephen Powers describes "the notable phonemona of California...the multitude of its tramps, the so-called blanket men.  I seldom met less than a dozen or fifteen a day.”

It is to these blanket men and bindle stiffs, to the exploited Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican laborers of California’s past and present, that I dedicate this series.

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