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HOBOES by Mark Wyman


Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West

by Mark Wyman

Pub Date: May 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8090-3021-7
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

History in the Howard Zinn school, with working people taking the fore, finally acknowledged for their contributions in settling the frontier.

The Western history many people schooled before the 1970s grew up with is an affair of steely-jawed Anglo pioneers and stalwart but inconveniently located American Indians. The more comprehensive version that has followed allows for “Navajos and Klickitats, African Americans and Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Hindus, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans, among others.” This view shows that the West developed less by individuals than by a 19th-century version of the military-industrial complex, with railroad rights-of-way and resource concessions to the public domain. Historian Wyman (The Wisconsin Frontier, 1998, etc.) situates a sturdy narrative on this ground, writing principally of the migrant agricultural workers who came from all over the world to work the factory fields. The relationship between workers and owners was never easy, he writes. At points there were too many workers and not enough work, at others seasons in which labor was so scarce that, as one 1884 federal report put it, “Farmers have been compelled to take what help they could get, whether they were white or Chinamen, nor has it been a strange sight to see in California women and children labor in the fields.” Thus the origins of imported labor from Mexico, a matter that reverberates in the current cacophony over immigration. The migrant worker, or “western hobo,” had three things in his favor: the likelihood of a crop’s being ruined if not harvested quickly, lack of a large labor pool in the West and rail lines to take him wherever he needed to be. The owner had money, the police, the Army and much more. In their contending powers, and in strikes and massacres, lie forgotten episodes that Wyman ably covers.

A vigorous, well-written multicultural history of the West as it really was.