Ethnic Participation during the
American Period, 1846-1930

by MaryEllen Ryan and Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

The American introduction of single-crop intensive farming created a need for an ever increasing supply of field labor, as well as offers of grower contracts to industry-subsidized agricultural colonies. The agricultural empires created after the completion of the railroads throughout the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys demanded a particular type of laborer, one who would appear when needed, want little in the way of housing and wages, and disappear from the scene when the harvest was over. The need was satisfied with the sequential recruitment of a number of immigrant ethnic groups. From the late 1880s, a recruitment drive was organized and supported by valley growers. With the support of an approving government, this effort was beginning to surpass all previous efforts by the time this overview's temporal span came to a close.

The portion of the population that flowed to California before and just after the Gold Rush with the intent of settling in the country were predominately extended family groups or single male members sent to assess the possibilities and to gain a toehold in farming land ownership. A number of settlers were attracted not to the farmland, however, but to the small towns that were growing in association with pueblos, old mission settlements, and advantageously situated rancho headquarters. These settlements attracted skilled craftsmen and tradesmen, often from a variety of European countries. It was in these settlements that the first record of black immigration was noted, although a systematic study of black settlement in central California is lacking at present.

The 1852 California Census was ordered in the state's 1849 constitution in order to provide a basis for legislative representation. The 1852 statistics for Monterey County indicated that of the total population of 2,728 persons, 6 were Negro males, none were Negro females, 11 were Mulatto males, and 6 were Mulatto females. A total of 108 foreign males and 29 foreign females were listed as well, along with 328 Indian males and 308 Indian females. European countries represented were France, Prussia, Chili, Ireland, Scotland, and England. Personal information listed for the Negro entries included that of Edward Scott, no age listed, born in Maryland, last residence in Pennsylvania, apparently married to an Indian, Maria Gabristas, with three children entered as Mulatto, and George Byrnne, age 75, who was born in Massachusetts but who listed his last residence as Peru. Mulattos identified were Joce Uniaga, a farmer born in Salisco, with California born wife Rosa and four children; and Antonio Tapia, laborer born in Salisco, with California born wife Maria and two children. All four entries were listed with the Monterey City enumeration.

Enumerated among the soldiers stationed with the Artillery at Monterey Presidio were Negro Patrick Scott Huntington, age 34, soldier. No Negros or Mulattos were listed among San Antonio Mission/Soledad area entries. San Juan Bautista entries listed James Anthony, colored, as an innkeeper with his wife and child, born in Massachusetts and emigrated from Missouri; and Joseph Mayes, black, occupation carpenter, born in Maryland with last residence New York.

The federal census of 1850 was not carried out to the same degree of detail regarding previous residence, but supports the 1852 state census in recording that most blacks were attracted to the settlements where their skills were required. In Monterey County, with the Monterey City enumerations, were blacks Francis Tamer, occupation cook; James Anthony and wife Mary, later listed in 1852 in San Juan Bautista as innkeepers; George, age 65, living with the Anthonys; William Brown; Sam, age 18, in household with Lt. Alfred Sully and wife; and Philip Sacarto, age 14, in a household with a lawyer and a physician, born in Panama.

As California's valleys swung into the wheat-growing era with the demise of the dominant cattle industry in the late 1860s, the first migrant laborers to provide much of the seasonal work force were not ethnic in identification but rather of a migrant social class. The blanket men, or trampers, were single and Anglo; according to journalist and advocate of land reform Henry George in 1871, the blanket men or bindlestiffs traveled the country roads "...with blankets on back, the labourers of the California farmer, looking for work, in its seasons, or toiling back to the city when the ploughing is ended or the wheat crop is gathered" (McWilliams 1935:25). Although they were supplanted by widely available Chinese labor with the completion of the railroads, the blanket men were to become an important labor source once again in the 1890s when Henry Miller took advantage of depression unemployment to extend his irrigated domain in the San Joaquin Valley.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 left a Chinese labor force of some 10,000 single men available. Attracted to California at first by the discovery of gold, then contracted for in great numbers by the Central Pacific Railroad after 1863, the Chinese withdrew to Chinatowns in the western cities where they were a highly visible minority subjected to physical harassment, legislative restriction, crowded conditions, and, with the increasing demand for field labor, exploitive contracts. The Chinese fishing industry also developed at this time, concentrated for the most part at Monterey Bay. Far more visible, however, were the Chinese that came to the fields. From the growers standpoint, the Chinese were the ideal solution to labor problems. Their status as a minority fighting for subsistence gave acceptance to substandard wages. They had no families, following the sojourner custom to send money home to the family in Canton for investment in home village land, and were given with the meanest quarters in the field. They boarded by arrangement with Chinese contractors, seemingly disappearing at day's end. At season's end they vanished into San Francisco without a trace, only to reappear the following season ready for work.

Demand for Chinese field labor increased during the 1880s as wheat farms were supplanted by orchards, row crops, and vineyards requiring skilled, intensive effort. Chinese immigration in Monterey County increased from 230 in 1870 to 1,667 in 1890.

The Monterey County Chinese population was concentrated in Castroville, where a "boss man" contracted with Salinas Valley growers to provide labor as needed. The Chinese community was later established in Salinas, while the fishing industry remained in Monterey. A large number of the Chinese in the county were contracted for railroad work through 1874, while Chinese work gangs were employed on the difficult road work over coast range passes.

The late 1880s through the 1890s were times of frantic promotion of agricultural lands, with potential settlers induced to the area through substantially discounted rail fares, colony schemes and rancho tract or townsite subdivisions. Their arrival flooded the labor market, feeding the growing tide of anti-Chinese sentiment that resulted in exclusion acts and widespread riots, followed by the displacement of the Chinese by other groups of immigrant laborers.

European ethnic groups arrived in the coast counties during the 1880s-1890s under family inducement and organized promotional recruitment. The Swiss who were to have such an impact on the dairy industry in the Salinas Valley around Gonzales arrived during this period. Forced from their home villages by lack of mobility and removed by tradition from the line of land tenure, the last-born members of a family joined collections of other villagers immigrating to the coastal valleys of California, creating enclaves of Swiss culture that to this day remain important and visible features of local heritage. In Monterey County the Breschini, Tavernetti, Bianchi, Francioni, Silacci, and other families formed a contiguous dairying district along the Salinas River terraces along what is now River Road. The hard-working, cohesive cultural group met little resistance as they enculturated local values and became permanent citizens.

The location Claus Spreckels selected for his Sugar beet factory south of Salinas in 1898 had a substantial impact on field labor practices. Spreckels had moved his industry from Hawaii in 1889, where he had been totally dependent on Chinese labor, to Watsonville, where German and other Anglo labor was employed in the mill, and Chinese labor under contract in the fields. The new plant at Spreckels was part of a completely planned community and field farm system operated as a plantation, where small growers were guaranteed the purchase of their crops at the prevailing harvest rate. Spreckels also arranged promotion of St. Joseph's Colony, a German colony southeast of Salinas whose small plot farmers would produce solely for the Spreckels factory. The factory also contracted with irrigation colonies all along the Salinas River, later buying the lands and setting up their own field men in company houses designed by well-known California school and residential architect William Weeks, who had also designed the townsite architecture. The town of Spreckels is presently in the process of nomination to the National Register as an Historic District.

Scandinavian colony recruitment was heavily promoted during this period as well, with a number of Danes settling in Chualar and in Hames Valley close to the Monterey/San Luis Obispo County line. In southern Monterey County relatives and neighbors from the Isle of Fohr in the North Frisian Islands of Schleiswig-Holstein gradually settled the Lockwood area, while French Basques settled the low hills between the Jolon Valley and San Lucas.

The need for cheap field labor still existed even with this flood of immigration in the 1880s, as many of the European settlers had come with the intent of permanently settling and purchasing farming land. Spreckels and other mass employers turned to the Japanese and increasing numbers of East Indians. The Japanese had arrived under contract at first in the lumbering industry, and were available for field work. When questioned by a congressional committee in 1911 regarding the necessity to employ Japanese field workers, even though the beet industry was subsidized by tariffs and could employ others, the corporation justified its stance by asserting:

you cannot get any other kind of labor. If it had not been for the large number of these East Indians coming in here, whose labor was not so good, we would have had to take all Japs. Otherwise we would not have the means of harvesting our crop. The East Indians, however, are an emaciated lot of people and they have not the strength to do the work.... If we do not have the Japs to do the field labor, we would be in a bad fix, because you know American labor will not go into the fields (McWilliams 1935:86).
Japanese provided most of the field labor in sugar beets and hops throughout the state in 1898, and by 1908 were both indispensible and the highest paid agricultural workers in the state, providing 65 to 95% of the labor involved in producing the state's delicate and perishable fruits and vegetables.

From 1914 to 1930, the large corporation-run farms employed Mexicans and Filipinos as their migrant labor force. Japanese workers, fewer in number because of the immigration restricting Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907. This agreement tended to concentrate on Japanese owned farms, working exclusively through Japanese contracting agencies and supporting Japanese labor clubs . Upon making the shift from laborer to landowner, largely through the support of San Francisco based Japanese mortgage companies in addition to individual thrift and conscientious labor, the Japanese found themselves the focus of hostility approaching hysteria. Those who had once favored the concept of small family farms were outraged when the idea was embraced by the Japanese, while the corporate owners and growers were antagonized by the exclusive labor policies of the Japanese. Together, the antagonized groups forced enactment of the Alien Land Act in 1913, restricting ownership and transfer of property, and finally resulted in passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.

The Immigration Act did not contain any restrictions on Filipino labor, as they were American nationals. Replacing the Japanese in the field labor positions, the Filipinos stayed in the agricultural communities after harvest by doing odd jobs and gardening. Their presence was tolerated until the early 1930s, when much of northern California erupted in racial violence against the compact communities of young men. Mexican labor was first imported in great numbers during the First World War, and recruitment was increased considerably during the 1920s.

Copyright 2000 by G.S. Breschini


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