Beasts of the Field
A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913
Richard Steven Street



Table of Contents for Beasts of the Field



List of Illustrations          xiii

Preface          xv

book one  foundations in conquest

Chapter One

In the Nets of Heaven:  The Campesino on the Spanish Frontier          3

California’s first farmworkers are transplanted north from Baja California in 1769, a movement instigated by the grand imperial plans of two remarkable men: Padre Junípero Serra, a Franciscan missionary in the service of God; and José de Gálvez, a powerful Spanish official bent on empire. The journey is long, treacherous, and deadly.

Chapter Two

Bird Herders, Stirrup Boys, and Naked Winemakers:  Assembling a Labor Force          21

Gathered on twenty-one self-contained, plantation-like outposts, thousands of native Californians merge field labor and survival skills in the service of religion and colonization. Padre Junípero Serra and his Franciscan brothers insist they are preparing natives for an independent life. They ultimately exert an opposite effect.

Chapter Three

Always Trembling With Fear:  Controlling Mission Farmworkers          38

Unable to leave and with few individual rights, mission field hands are directed by an integrated system of control ranging from imprisonment and leg irons to whipping and public ­humiliation. Though not slaves, neither are they free.

Chapter Four

No Longer Keep Us By Force:  Accommodation and Resistance Among Mission Field Hands          60

Field hands wage full-scale revolts at Santa Inéz, La Purísma, and Santa Barbara missions. Gardeners at Santa Cruz mission hate Padre Andrés Quintana so passionately that they murder him. Most natives resist by fleeing; so many run away that the padres must constantly send armed expeditions to hunt them down.

book two  the meaning of free labor

Chapter Five

Not Free to Be Idle:  Life and Labor on the Mexican Ranchos and American Farms          89

Free of Franciscan domination, field hands in the 1830s and 1840s find themselves trading labor for a blanket, a bowl of gruel, or less. At Sutter’s Fort, farmhands are kept in line by the macabre sight of the severed and rotting head of a native boss tacked above the fort entrance. American military rule ensures compliance and keeps them at work.

Chapter Six

To the Highest Bidder:  Native Field Hands and Gold Rush Agriculture          115

With failed gold miners refusing to work in the fields, native field hands save commercial farmers from the first of many “labor shortages.” So desperate are growers to maintain control that they institute an odious law compelling natives to work as indentured servants.

Chapter Seven

They Have Filled Our Jails and Graveyards:  The Decline of Indian Labor           35

Arrested and auctioned off in an alcoholic stupor, native field hands descend into a life of vice, violence, and depression. But even as their survival grows tenuous, they are absolutely essential to the success of commercial farming in the Golden State.

book three  golden harvest

Chapter Eight

Between the Teeth of the Cylinder:  The Emergence of Migratory Labor and Farm Technology          161

As natives die out, a new class of field hands proliferates in the inte­rior valleys. Known as “bindlemen,” or “bindlestiffs,” they take their names from the tightly wrapped blankets or “bindles” containing their worldly possessions, which they pack everywhere they go.

Chapter Nine

Open-Air Factories:  Industrialization of Labor on the Bonanza Wheat Farms          178

On Hugh Glenn’s sixty-six-thousand-acre Sacramento Valley wheat farm, bindlemen work almost nonstop from June to October. Surrounded by machines, gears, pulleys, dust, steam, fire, smoke, heat, and noise, they are essentially factory laborers in the countryside.

Chapter Ten

Hell’s Fury and Liquid Fire:  The Coarse Culture of Wheat Harvesters and Threshers          205

Maimed and killed by countless agricultural accidents, the torrid pace of work, and the harsh environment, wheat harvesters and threshers craft a coarse survival culture.

book four  immigrants from the east

Chapter Eleven

Trustworthy Laborers:  Chinese Infiltration into Irrigated Agriculture          235

As bindlemen carouse, Chinese immigrants lay the foundations of commercial winemaking in Sonoma County. From this beginning, the Chinese work their way into the state’s agricultural districts in the 1860s, exerting an influence disproportionate to their relatively small numbers.

Chapter Twelve

Bought Like Any Other Commodity:  China Bosses and Gang Labor          258

Following completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, thousands of unemployed Chinese are put to work under bosses reclaiming swampland in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. Boarding and feeding their men, bosses then offer them to farmers as a cheap and reliable workforce, just as irrigated fruit and vegetable growing undergoes a spurt of rapid growth.

Chapter Thirteen

The Chinese Must Go!  Community, Chinatowns, and the Anti-Chinese Movement          286

By the mid-1870s, most rural communities sport a Chinatown or China camp, where China bosses establish crews and dominate the labor market. But as they take control of more fieldwork, unemployed whites begin a campaign of terror.

Chapter Fourteen

More Manpower from a Pint of Rice:  Sugar Beets, Short-Handled Hoes, and Chinese Exclusion          307

Tormented, harassed, and banned from further immigration, Chinese field hands nonetheless continue to earn the favor of agricultural elites, who defend the Chinese with racist arguments.

Chapter Fifteen

Snapping Their Fingers in Our Faces:  Human Pesticides, Labor Shortages, Child Labor, and the Response to Exclusion          334

Growers attempt to counter the increasingly militant Chinese bosses by launching the so-called Boy Experiment, one of several desperate schemes to bring schoolchildren and other workers onto the farms. When the Scott Act further restricts immigration, farmers conclude that loss of Chinese field hands constitutes the main impediment to prosperity.

Chapter Sixteen

Worn out, Bent, and Discouraged:  Chinese Labor (Almost) Disappears from the Fields          371

Following a series of industrial depressions and mob actions, Chinese field hands remain on many farms until, by the process of natural attrition, their numbers begin declining after 1900. Old-timers cluster in small, rural communities where they live out their last days, a society of men stranded in California without families.

book five  japanese farmworkers

Chapter Seventeen

Running From Vine to Vine:  Japanese Farmworkers and the Beginning of Labor Militancy          407

Japanese immigrants fill the void left by dwindling numbers of Chinese. Striking, raising wages, and securing collective bargaining agreements under bosses known as keiyaku-nin, they initiate the first successful farmworker unions.

Chapter Eighteen

Blood Spots on the Moon:  The 1903 Oxnard Sugar Beet Workers Strike          440

A union of fifteen hundred Japanese and Mexican sugar beet laborers walks out of the fields around Oxnard, shuts down the industry, restores wages to previous levels, and eliminates a company union. But when the American Federation of Labor refuses to admit the Japanese contingent, the Mexicans drop plans to join the American labor movement.

Chapter Nineteen

Exact Everything Possible:  Keiyaku-nin, Mexicans, Sikhs, and the Quest for Labor Stability          470

As keiyaku-nin press their advantages and win one wage demand after another, growers fight back with tactics ranging from murder to intimidation.

Chapter Twenty

Handle the Fruit Like Eggs!  The Japanese Shift from Field-Workers to Farmers          497

By pooling resources, living frugally, working marginal land, farming labor-intensive crops, muscling in on farmers, and taking over fields they had once handled as foremen, the Japanese acquire land, and with it, the basis for family life.

book six  bindlemen

Chapter Twenty-One

Blinky Joe, Red Mike, and Hobo Sam:  Bindlemen on the Move          527

As the Japanese fade from the work pool, bindlemen take up the slack, holding down more than half of all harvest jobs in 1910. With the possible exception of Indian field hands, no group is more exploited or ill-treated.

Chapter Twenty-Two

As Rotten as Ever:  Jungle Camps, Slave Markets, and the Main Stem          548

Riding trains between harvests, living alongside the railroads in “jungle camps,” and holing up for the winter in the cities, bindlemen survive the agricultural circuit by devising and abiding by their own laws and institutions. Ordering life and holding men together, these “rules of the road” mark a unique transient culture.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Privilege of Quitting:

Death, Discontent, and Alienation          572

Possessing a rich and inexhaustible storehouse of adaptive devices, bindlemen do not passively accept their lot. While unable to sustain traditional organizing activities, they avoid and resist regular labor and develop their own incipient form of working-class radicalism.

Chapter Twenty-Four

I’ve Been Robbed:  The Struggle to Organize Farmworkers          596

Establishing union locals in the main stem and slave market areas of West Coast towns, soapboxers for the Industrial Workers of the World move right in among bindlemen. After winning a dramatic confrontation at Fresno, they are beaten so badly at San Diego that they completely reassess their approach, devise new strategies, and take the struggle into the fields.

Abbreviations          629

Notes          635

Acknowledgments          871

Index          877