Friday, September 14, 2012

A History of Farm Labor in California (Part 3)

Bonanza Farms and Indian Labor

Up until 1860, much of California agriculture was centered around huge cattle farms, perhaps best represented by those of Henry Miller.  After 1860, a new crop began to dominate...wheat.  1860-1890 saw the rise of massive wheat farms in California.  By 1890, 40,000,000 bushels of wheat were produced in the state, making California the second largest wheat producer in the United States.

Wheat farming was, for a time, profitable for large scale growers like Hugh J. Glenn, but it also exhausted the soil.  According to Carey McWilliams, "Within a decade the land barons of the state had seriously undermined the agricultural resources of California.  The same feverish frenzy that had characterized mining in California also characterized wheat farming, which was not strictly speaking farming at all, but a variety of mining."

During the heyday of the great wheat farms, the main source of cheap labor was Indians, who had also supplied the bulk of the labor force during the Spanish colonial period.  It's no secret that when Americans took control of California, the Indians were ruthlessly exploited and uprooted.

Charles Loring Brace, a writer who visited California in 1867, expressed the popular U.S. attitude toward Native American laborers during that time period.  He describes them as "perhaps the lowest tribe of the human race--they were all disgustingly dirty, and with but little clothing on them, living, in part, on pine seeds, acorns, and grass seeds; a diminishing race."

It is, of course, ironic that writers like Brace blamed Native Americans for their own "diminishing" and not the Anglo Americans who systematically exploited and killed them.

In her 1884 novel Ramona, writer Helen Hunt Jackson portrays treatment of Native Americans in late 19th century California.  A character in the novel, Allesandro, explains how Anglo Americans treated Native Americans: "When they buy the Mexican's lands, (they) drive the Indians away as if they were dogs; they say we have no right to our lands."

Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who visited Southern California in 1876 noted that most of the labor force was Cahuilla Indians from the San Bernadino mountains.  According to McWilliams, these Indians were paid "ridiculously low wages, or no wages at all (a bottle of whiskey was one method of payment)."

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