Some little known facts about hoboes.

I’m reading Mark Wyman’s Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, which is very informative, extremely well-researched, and surprisingly smooth reading, and I’m discovering all sorts of things I didn’t know. (“The hobo is a migratory worker. A tramp is a migratory nonworker. A bum is a stationary nonworker”).

On my Tumblr yesterday I mentioned the railway companies’ patronage of agricultural science. Some other things Wyman talks about:

The surprising ethnic diversity of the hoboes:

…hoboes coming to harvest Great Plains wheat were the advance party of great variety–a heterogeneous conglomeration of thousands of harvesters, specializing in different crops. They were drawn from Indian tribes of the western states and territories, Alaska, and British Columbia, as well as from China, Japan, Mexico, India, and eventually Puerto Rico and the Philippines–and all parts of the United States and Europe.

[In Spokane, Washington in December, 1913] arrest totals for all charges gave this December ethnic/nationality breakdown, which probably mirrored the ethnic breakdown for vagrants: native-born whites, 260; Swedes, 36; Irish, 30; Canadians, 15; Norwegians, 14; Chinese, 13; English, 13; Germans, 11; Scots, 10; Japanese, 10; Negroes, 7; Italians, 5; Austrians, 4; Indians, 4.

The traditional portrait of the hobo is of a white man, but Wyman quite effectively drives home how incredibly diverse the hoboes were in ethnicity, and in passing quotes from an African-American hobo about how racism was much more of an issue in the outside world than in the hobo camps–that in the hobo camps, there wasn’t black and white, there were just hobos.

Of the Japanese hoboes:

By 1920 a third of Oregon’s Japanese were females, many working alongside their husbands. One recalled that “our consuming interest was to work hard, earn a lot of money, and return to Japan as soon as possible”…the Japanese took steps to make their settings more like home: in Hood River, Japanese baths were constructed, Japanese foods became available, and they began to lease farms and then to harvest crops that they themselves had raised. And soon they were hiring workers–mostly Japanese, but also Indians and whites–to handle their apples, pears, and vegetables. The first recorded Hood River property deed to a Japanese came in 1908; by 1920 Japanese farmers owned 1,200 acres.

a) Sushi was available in an Oregon town in the twenties!

b) I’ve rarely found mention of non-white farm owners, but Wyman quite effectively explodes my ignorance on that one. Not just the Japanese in Hood River, but African-American farm owners and Native American farm 0wners:

The Choctaws planted their first cotton crop in what would eventually become Oklahoma in 1825, and eleven years later 500 bales were shipped down the Red River to market. Bigger tracts had large numbers of slaves, and at the start of the Civil War one Cherokee landlord was using some 300 slaves on his 500 acres of cotton. Following that conflict the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw growers in the now-slaveless Indian Territory turned to tenant farmers to bring in the crop, counting 12,000 cotton tenants by 1882.

With tracts as large as 8,000 acres appearing in the Indian Territory, the labor question was becoming ever more important, and finally whites who were not members of a tribe were allowed to enter. It was illegal for them to lease land, but a solution was found that would appear elsewhere in the West: when labor was needed, laws could be bent. White lessees were paid what was called a “salary” but was in reality a share of production, or sharecropping under another name. By 1899 more than half of all farms in Indian Territory were growing cotton, and in 1906, the year before Oklahoma statehood, the Five Civilized Tribes, led by the Choctaws and Chickasaws, produced 410,520 bales of cotton.

White sharecroppers working for NatAm farmers–I certainly didn’t know that.

Of course, just because Native-Americans and African-Americans and Japanese-Americans were farm owners didn’t make them immune to labor strife, from whites or non-whites, and Wyman describes some situations in which non-white workers took part in strikes leading to multi-ethnic posses–Japanese strike-breakers fighting Japanese strikers, and so on.

Lastly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in those days patriotism was not a hypothetical thing. In the run up to World War One

in places like Hood River, “evidence of Japanese loyalty remained undeniable,” one historian has written; Japanese made substantial Liberty Bond purchases and some Japanese boys even went into the American military draft…

Almost hidden from view then and now is the fact that many Mexicans as well as Mexican-Americans served with U.S. troops during the First World War. Spanish-language newspapers in border states presented information on how to join the military. That the war became a time of assimilation into American life would become apparent in succeeding years. Sarah Deutsch has charted how this played out in New Mexico, where some 10,000 Hispanics ultimately served with U.S. forces, making up 65 percent of the state’s total. Most New Mexico villages provided men, a pattern followed in southern Colorado’s Hispanic communities as well. Many could not speak English–in Taos and Mora counties in New Mexico, more than three-fourths of the men in the first draft did not know enough English to be able to participate in drill. But community after community were drawn into a closer connection with the United States through the war. They no longer lived in a foreign country.

All that, and I’m only half done with the book. More to follow, including the “gasoline tramps.”

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