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Transience, Labor, and Nature: Itinerant Workers in the American West

  • Joanna Dyl (a1)

This article focuses on the tens of thousands of itinerant workers, also known as tramps or hoboes, who provided the primary labor force for the natural resource extraction industries of the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Itinerant workers' visceral encounters with nature differed from the experiences of most urban residents in this era of city growth and related anxiety about Americans' loss of contact with the natural world. This article argues that some hoboes embraced time spent in “wild” nature as an escape from work, and they consciously asserted their ability to appreciate nature in the face of claims that such appreciation was class-specific. As workers and as travelers, itinerant laborers experienced and knew nature in ways that reflected both their distinct circumstances as mobile industrial wage workers and the cultural context of a national obsession with nonhuman nature.

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1. Quoted in Kornbluh, Joyce L., ed., Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (Ann Arbor, MI, 1964), 66.

2. Cornelia Straton Parker, Introduction to The Casual Laborer and Other Essays, by Parker, Carleton H. (New York, 1920), 17. Parker, The Casual Laborer and Other Essays, 69.

3. Igler, David, Industrial Cowboys: Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West (Berkeley, CA, 2001), 144.

4. Cronon, William, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991). Gray Brechin's environmental history of San Francisco describes the city as a maelstrom inexorably drawing in resources from its contado, but he, too, pays little attention to the lives and experiences of ordinary people. Brechin, , Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (Berkeley, CA, 1999). Frank Tobias Higbie notes how itinerant laborers in the Midwest linked urban and rural economies and cultures during this period. Higbie, , Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880–1930 (Urbana and Chicago, 2003).

5. Anderson, Nels, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (Chicago, 1923), 129.

6. For a discussion of back-to-nature movements, see Schmitt, Peter J., Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (New York, 1969).

7. Daniel, Cletus E., Bitter Harvest: A History of California's Farmworkers, 1870–1941 (Ithaca, NY, 1981), 4650 . DePastino, Todd, Introduction to The Road, by London, Jack, ed. DePastino, Todd (New Brunswick, NJ, 2006), x, xix–xxi. Jack London, The Road, ed. Todd DePastino, 134–40. Hard Times (San Francisco, January 1894), California State Library collections.

8. DePastino, Todd, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago, 2003); Higbie, Indispensable Outcasts; Wyman, Mark, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (New York, 2010). Other histories of hoboes and the broader phenomenon of itinerant labor include Monkkonen, Eric H., ed., Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790–1935 (Lincoln, NE, 1984); Kusmer, Kenneth L., Down & Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History (New York, 2002).

9. Works on the IWW include Hall, Greg, Harvest Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World and Agricultural Laborers in the American West, 1905–1930 (Corvallis, OR, 2001); Tyler, Robert L., Rebels of the Woods: The I.W.W. in the Pacific Northwest (Eugene, OR, 1967); Dubofsky, Melvyn, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York, 1969).

10. Nash, Roderick, “The Value of Wilderness,” Environmental Review 1 (1976): 16.

11. Montrie, Chad, Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008); Lipin, Lawrence M., Workers and the Wild: Conservation, Consumerism, and Labor in Oregon, 1910–1930 (Urbana and Chicago, 2007); Jacoby, Karl, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley, CA, 2001); Judd, Richard W., Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge, MA, 1997).

12. White, Richard, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York, 1995), White, x., “‘Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?’: Work and Nature,” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. Cronon, William (New York, 1995), 171–85.

13. Peck, Gunther, “The Nature of Labor: Fault Lines and Common Ground in Environmental and Labor History,” Environmental History 11 (2006): 219.

14. Andrews, Thomas G., Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge, MA, 2008), 125.

15. Morse, Kathryn, The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush (Seattle, WA, 2003), 192. Other works considering these questions in the West in roughly this period include Chiang, Connie, Shaping the Shoreline: Fisheries and Tourism on the Monterey Coast (Seattle, WA, 2008); Klingle, Matthew, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (New Haven, CT, 2007); Isenberg, Andrew C., Mining California: An Ecological History (New York, 2005); Wadewitz, Lissa, “Pirates of the Salish Sea: Labor, Mobility, and Environment in the Transnational West,” Pacific Historical Review 75 (2006): 587627 .

16. Lipin, Workers and the Wild, and sections of Montrie, Making a Living, focus on union workers. Both also discuss the spread of nature recreation among working-class Americans after the 1920s. See also Sutter, Paul, Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle, WA, 2002).

17. Quoted in Kornbluh, Rebel Voices, 71.

18. Fabian, Ann, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley, CA, 2000), xii, also 4–11. For a discussion of London's tramp stories in particular, see DePastino, “Introduction,” The Road. DePastino discusses the resonance of frontier narratives among hoboes in Citizen Hobo, 117–20.

19. For in-depth discussions of the reports of investigators and hobo life stories as sources, see Higbie, Indispensable Outcasts and DePastino, Citizen Hobo.

20. Both contemporary observers and historians have perceived hoboes as distinct both culturally and socially from these “non-white” workers as well as from local “white” workers who did not engage in the same patterns of labor mobility. For the diversity of agricultural workforces in the West during this period, see Wyman, Hoboes, who suggests that these distinctions were somewhat artificial for harvest laborers. For a discussion of female transients, see Lynn Weiner, “Sisters of the Road: Women Transients and Tramps,” in Walking to Work, 171–88.

21. A Report of the Commission of Immigration and Housing of California to the Honorable Hiram W. Johnson, Governor of California (July 10, 1914), Carton 1, folder Commission of Immigration and Housing—programs, reports, minutes, Simon J. Lubin papers, Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley, BANC MSS C-B 1059. In Chicago, Solenberger found that 625 out of 1000 “homeless” men were native-born. The percentage was even higher, 76 percent, among those whom she classified as tramps. Solenberg, Alice Willard, One Thousand Homeless Men; A Study of Original Records (New York, 1911), 20, 69, 217. In 1924, a study of homeless men in San Francisco found that 80 percent were American-born. Goodrich, W.S., A Study of the Homeless Man Problem in San Francisco (San Francisco, 1924), 30. Higbie's examination of the demographics of Midwest hoboes found them nearly identical to the laboring population as a whole. Higbie, Indispensable Outcasts, 100–105.

22. Anderson, Nels, On Hobos and Homelessness (Chicago, 1998), 2627 . Bird, Stewart, Georgakas, Dan, and Shaffer, Deborah, eds., Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW (Chicago, 1985), 104105 . DePastino, Citizen Hobo, 99–101. Bill Donahue, “Naked Joe,” Boston Magazine (April 2013): 2. Chaplin's autobiography includes repeated references to London. Chaplin, Ralph, Wobbly: The Rough-and-Tumble Story of an American Radical (Chicago, 1948), 6768 , 84, 92, 100, 105, 198. Nature writing and wilderness novels of this era are discussed in Schmitt, Back to Nature.

23. Anderson, The Hobo, 87.

24. Kelly, Edmond, The Elimination of the Tramp by the Introduction into America of the Labour Colony System Already Proved Effective in Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland, with the Modifications Thereof Necessary to Adapt this System to American Conditions (New York, 1908), xviii.

25. Groth, Paul, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1994), 135.

26. For discussions of the tramping of “skilled” workers, see DePastino, Citizen Hobo, 11–12; Jules Tygiel, “Tramping Artisans: Carpenters in Industrial America, 1880–90,” in Walking to Work, 87–117. Monkonnen has called tramps “the ordinary working people of the United States on the move between jobs and residences.” Monkonnen, Introduction to Walking to Work, 5.

27. DePastino, Introduction to The Road, xxii.

28. Eliassen, Meredith and Rudolph, Frank B., “Adventures in Nature: The Merry Tramps of Oakland,” California History 82 (2004): 617 . Beasley, Thomas Dykes, A Tramp Through the Bret Harte Country (San Francisco, CA, 1914), 44, 93. Muir quoted in Shi, David E., The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York, 1985), 196.

29. “Tramp, n.1,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, September 2013, Oxford University Press, (accessed November 14, 2013).

30. Woirol, Gregory R., “Men on the Road: Early Twentieth-Century Surveys of Itinerant Labor in California,” California History 70 (1991): 198.

31. Solenberger, One Thousand Homeless Men, 219–20. Andress Floyd, My Monks of Vagabondia (n.p., 1913), 135. A-No. 1 (Leon Ray Livingston) strongly emphasizes the role of “Wanderlust” in his books.

32. A-No. 1, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1, America's Most Celebrated Tramp, Written by Himself (Cambridge Springs, PA, 1910), 72. Beasley, A Tramp Through the Bret Harte Country, 94–95.

33. Adams, R.L. and Kelly, T.R., A Study of Farm Labor in California (Berkeley, CA, 1918), 71.

34. Beasley, A Tramp through the Bret Hart Country, 94.

35. London, The Road, 120. Elsewhere London described “the absence of monotony” as “perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life,” adding that “the hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment” (54). See also Speek, Peter Alexander, “The Psychology of Floating Workers,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 69 (1917): 78.

36. Wyckoff, Walter A., A Day With a Tramp and Other Days (New York, 1901), 105.

37. Parker, The Casual Laborer and Other Essays, 70–71, 78–79. Adams, Charles Ely, “The Real Hobo: What He Is and How He Lives,” Forum 33 (1902): 443.

38. Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 136.

39. Wyman, Hoboes, 72–77. Deutsch, Sarah, No Separate Refuge: Culture, Class, and Gender on an Anglo-Hispanic Frontier in the American Southwest, 1880–1940 (New York, 1987).

40. Montrie, Making a Living, 35–52, 71–76.

41. A-No. 1, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1, 2.

42. London, The Road, 104.

43. Andrew Saunders, “The Story of the Three Travelers,” Socialist Voice, October 27, 1906.

44. Swift, Morrison I., What a Tramp Learns in California. Social Danger Line (San Francisco, 1896), 2.

45. Quoted in Anderson, On Hobos and Homelessness, 45–46.

46. Quoted in Bird, Georgakas, and Shaffer, Solidarity Forever, 104.

47. Anderson, On Hobos and Homelessness, 45–46. Morse emphasizes this point in analyzing the resource networks of Klondike miners in The Nature of Gold.

48. Quoted in Lewis, Orlando F., Vagrancy in the United States (New York, 1907), 24.

49. Woirol, Gregory R., In the Floating Army: F.C. Mills on Itinerant Life in California, 1914 (Urbana and Chicago, 1992), 97. Railroad companies counted 156,390 “trespassers” killed or injured between 1888 and 1905. If anything, official statistics probably underestimated the number of casualties. Higbie, Indispensable Outcasts, 52.

50. Perkins, Hayes, “Here and There: An Itinerant Worker in the Pacific Northwest, 1898,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 102 (2001): 363, 365.

51. London, The Road, 40.

52. Perkins, “Here and There,” 370–71 and 361.

53. Chaplin, Wobbly, 90.

54. O'Connor, J.K., The Travels of a Tramp (New York, 1903), 156, 186.

55. Shi, The Simple Life, 194.

56. Foner, Philip S., ed., The Letters of Joe Hill (New York, 1965), 13, 32, 34. For an account of Knowles, see Donahue, “Naked Joe,” 1–3.

57. Ralph Winstead, “Chin-Whiskers, Hay-Wire, and Pitchforks,” in Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices, 276.

58. Ralph Winstead, “Johnson The Gypo,” in Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices, 285.

59. Lipin, Workers and the Wild, 87–88.

60. Montrie, Making a Living, 3.

61. Wyckoff, Walter A., The Workers: An Experiment in Reality, The West (New York, 1898), 161–62.

62. London, The Road, 56.

63. There was an obvious gender politics to such judgments that unfortunately lies outside the scope of this article. For discussion of the gender politics of hobo life, see DePastino, Citizen Hobo, 83–91; Higbie, Indispensable Outcasts.

64. Swift, What a Tramp Learns in California, 22.

65. Perkins, “Here and There,” 358.

66. Woirol, In the Floating Army, ix–x, 1, 10–14, 55–56.

67. Edward A. Brown, “Labor Camp Sanitation and Housing in California: A History of Progress from 1913 to 1922,” November 1922, California Dept. of Industrial Relations, Division of Immigration and Housing Records, BANC MSS C-A 194, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley: 14.

68. Thomas Andrews notes this phenomenon among workers passing through the Colorado coal fields. Andrews, Killing for Coal, 121. Reformers and employers worried about how to keep men on the job. For example, see Solenberger, One Thousand Homeless Men, 150–54.

69. Elmer Enderlin, Oral History, “Miner in Fifty-Eight Mines,” The Knoxville/McLaughlin Gold Mine, Northern California, 1978–1995, vol. III (1998), BANC MSS 98/181c, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley: 83, 91.

70. Reprinted in Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices, 68.

71. Isenberg, Mining California, 86. Andrews, Killing for Coal, 147.

72. Adams and Kelly, A Study of Farm Labor in California, 28.

73. Perkins, “Here and There,” 366–67.

74. O'Connor, The Travels of a Tramp, 157–59.

75. Keough, E., “Characteristics of the Hobo,” Railway Age Gazette 52 (1912): 1566.

76. Lewis, E. R., “The Ability of the Hobo,” Railway Age Gazette 52 (1912): 1567. Even these articles in praise of hobo labor noted that the men avoided the most “disagreeable” jobs such as stone ballast work, work in swamps, and jobs handling coal. Keough, “Characteristics of the Hobo,” 1566.

77. Ralph Winstead, “Tightline Johnson Goes to Heaven,” in Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices, 91–92.

78. Forster, Charles H., “Despised and Rejected of Men: Hoboes of the Pacific Coast,” Survey 32 (1914): 671.

79. Peck suggests that “visions of redeemed nature and labor … have repeatedly shaped each other's evolution and articulation, transforming the material relationships between ‘nature’ and ‘labor’ in the process.” Peck, “The Nature of Labor,” 230.

80. Winstead, “Johnson the Gypo,” 283.

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International Labor and Working-Class History
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