Agriculture and Immigration in California, 1866-1920
Migrants found both opportunity and hardship in modernizing California.
In the half-century between the Civil War and World War I, California became an integrated part of the expanding United States. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 vastly increased the pace of urbanization, industrialization, and agricultural development. The state’s population exploded from 380,000 in 1860 to almost 3.5 million in 1920, largely due to swelling immigration from other parts of the United States as well as Latin America, Asia, and Europe. Pulled by dreams of economic success (as promised by state boosters), these migrants found both opportunity and hardship in modernizing California.
New Wave of Chinese Immigration
One of the many difficulties involved in completing the transcontinental railroad was the problem of finding laborers willing to take on the dangerous, back-breaking work. In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad turned to Chinese workers, who soon comprised two-thirds of the railroad’s labor force. Most of the approximately 10,000 Chinese railroad laborers came directly from China, joining thousands of their countrymen already in California from the Gold Rush era.
Many Chinese immigrants viewed California as a temporary stopover where they hoped to earn enough money to return to their hometowns wealthy and successful. A song from San Francisco’s Chinatown expressed this desire: “I am returning home with purses and bags stuffed full. Soon I will see my parents’ brows beaming with joy.”
This wish to return home also reflected the discrimination and outright violence Chinese Californians faced. An economic downturn during the 1870s heightened job competition and encouraged anti-Chinese xenophobia. So-called “anti-coolie clubs” formed throughout the state to denounce Chinese immigration. White mobs attacked Chinese communities up and down California, climaxing in an all-out assault on San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1877.
The largely Irish Workingmen’s Party, organized in San Francisco by Denis Kearney, blamed the Chinese for unemployment, low wages, and poor working conditions. California politicians buckled to this mounting pressure and helped pass a federal ban on Chinese immigration in 1882, the first such law in US history. With immigration from China cut off until World War II, those Chinese already in California became increasingly marginalized. They struggled to maintain dignity and financial stability in the face of racist boycotts, discriminatory hiring practices, and threats of mob violence.
Booming Agriculture, Migrant Labor
California’s booming agricultural economy created an endless need for farm labor. Although family farming was typical in the Midwest, California agriculture was dominated by large-scale industrial farming, and huge numbers of migratory workers were hired and fired each year. A succession of ethnic groups provided this labor, beginning with Native Americans in the 1850s and 1860s, followed by Chinese, Japanese, Hindustanis, Filipinos, and Mexicans.
Excluded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) due to their race and “unskilled” status, agricultural workers suffered the worst conditions of any labor sector in California. They commonly worked 16-hour days in the merciless sun for extremely low wages while living in unsanitary temporary camps. In 1903, 1,500 Japanese and Mexican sugar beet harvesters in Oxnard staged California’s first recorded agricultural strike. It lasted two months and won the workers a pay hike, but the new union dissolved after the AFL refused to recognize it. Though dubbed California’s “peculiar institution” for its similarities to southern slavery, exploitative migratory farm labor remained widespread throughout the 20th century.
The Mexican immigrants who increasingly dominated agricultural labor in California after 1900 took on the brutal work because farm jobs were often the only ones available to them. Dislocations caused by the Mexican Revolution propelled many Mexicans northward, but once in California these immigrants encountered rampant discrimination. Middle- and upper-class Mexican men and women could often only find work as day laborers, farm workers, and maids. Mexican Californians tended to live in segregated enclaves where constant in-migration invigorated Mexican culture, traditions, and language. In urban barrios and rural colonias.
Mexican Californians blended old and new practices just as they made use of both Spanish and English, forging entirely new identities as Mexican Americans. The reality of their severe economic circumstances flew in the face of the popular celebration of California’s Spanish past that flourished in the early 20th century. Even as Californians romanticized their state’s 19th-century Mexican heritage, most turned a blind eye to the day-to-day problems faced by Mexican Californians in the present.
California Indians found themselves in a similarly dispiriting position — celebrated in the popular imagination while their ongoing plight remained generally ignored. The Native Californian population reached its nadir in 1900 at less than 20,000, the low point of a horrifying demographic decline due to disease, malnourishment, and violence. Less than half lived on reservations — most found work in California cities or in migratory agriculture.
Reformers such as Helen Hunt Jackson struggled to raise public awareness of Indian poverty and to dispel myths of the permanently “vanishing Indian.” Most reformers encouraged native Californians to assimilate into white society for survival, forcing Indians to make difficult choices about how to best maintain traditional ways. A native man named Ishi — believed to be the last survivor of his group, the Yahi — allowed University of California anthropologists to study and interview him during the 1910s. Ishi’s obvious resiliency and intelligence challenged popular racist stereotypes.
The early 20th century also saw Native Californians employing the legal system to fight for land rights, educational opportunities, and citizenship rights. In 1917, the California Supreme Court awarded Native Californians the right to vote, paving the way for the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act granting full citizenship. After the low point of 1900, California’s Indian population slowly began to increase as native communities adapted old ways to new circumstances.
African Americans made up less than 2 percent of California’s population in the decades before World War I. Numbering about 7,800 in 1900, black Californians maintained a sense of community through memberships in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and the California Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. African Americans lived mostly in California’s growing urban centers where racial discrimination often relegated them to low-paying jobs.
Some black entrepreneurs — including several notable women — managed to find financial success through hard work and good fortune. Former slave Biddy Mason used the money she earned as a nurse to invest in Los Angeles real estate, becoming a wealthy philanthropist. Mary Ellen Pleasant, another former slave, ran several businesses and restaurants in San Francisco and used her resources to fight for African-American civil rights.
A Widening Gulf
In the years between 1865 and 1920, California’s booming international population adapted to a newly industrialized, urbanized landscape. Economic inequality ran rampant as the gulf between rich and poor became a chasm. Racial discrimination and segregation belied the California dream of prosperity and equal opportunity for all. But California remained a desirable destination for thousands of immigrants who were willing to cope with challenging circumstances. They struggled to make the California dream a reality for their family and community.
Originally published by Calisphere under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.