Immigrants of Yesteryear

Fighting for a living wage or just fighting to live?

Fighting for a living wage or just fighting to live?

Rock Springs, Wyoming 1885. A massacre that killed 28-50 Chinese miners seems a pretty solid case of racism–but no. Life and the hearts of men are never that simple.

The  ideal of masculinity in the late 19th century was on a collision course with a new corporate manhood. One claimed a man to be an independent contractor with decision-making rights. The other believed the people who paid the wages had the say.

Then came the Chinese, willing to work for next to nothing and willing to undercut the wages of everybody else (incidentally the white miners were also immigrants from all over Europe).

For some years they worked side by side in uneasy and unaddressed tension. They slept on different sides of this coal town built solely to fuel the railroad while the railroad fueled the hostility. The Knights of Labor fighting for the working men loathed the Chinese. Everyone’s wages were cut or kept low. A living wage was defined differently by the Europeans who planned to stay in the US and set about having families and the Chinese who were willing to live six men to a room in hopes of having enough money to go home one day back to wives and children in China. As long as the Chinese took lower pay more Chinese would be hired and white jobs lost.

At the time it was illegal to hire illegal new Chinese workers, but no one knew who was legal or illegal. In the workers’ minds the Union Pacific robbed them of their manhood every time they hired a “coolie” (a low skilled indentured worker).

And then it happened. An argument over room assignments (in mines there are rooms) turned violent. Different accounts blame one side or the other for the first shovel or pick to the face but soon all hell broke loose. Miners gathered and spontaneously went mad on the streets of the little Chinatown of Rock Springs, shooting, maiming and butchering men they’d worked with for years. Setting fires to the houses and to the small savings within the wooden structures, men released a crazy rage.

Men who worked for family, now set upon humans for blood. What good could come of it? Imagine killing someone and then going home to your family. But were they racist? Or were they union men against a population who didn’t respect the value of manhood and undermined it by their very presence?

Is there freedom in settling for just above nothing if at home in China you have nothing? What does freedom mean when it comes to wages? Are the owners free? Are the workers? Do unions or even communist dictatorships work? Corruption, corruption. The railroads were corrupt and broke. They cut wages and hired desperate foreign people while some insiders skimmed money all along the ride.

The whites who made a ghost town of Chinatown were never charged. People all over the West felt the same uneasy way about the Chinese. They took but didn’t give back, some said though the lawmakers made it impossible for them to really call the US home. Miners in a quickly moving train of corporate, unknowable power turned on the ones settling for scraps.

Books I’ve Known and Loved

Just some priceless stuff I have laying around.

Just some priceless stuff I have laying around.

The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Sigh. Yes, I’m the sort of American who wishes I had the guts and courage of say Lewis, Clark or Sacajawea “Janey” (and boy do I hate Night at the Museum for its weird romance between Sacajawea  and Theodore Roosevelt! Sacrilege on both counts!) Movie fans used to Transformers-style action will be bored out of their minds on this one. I loved every detail. I think it’s the brand new world thing that gets me–yeah, I know, it wasn’t new to the Indians (except when they first began trifling with the precious ecosystems of the America upon their own arrival).

So I have some “native” blood. There I’ve said it. It’s way back in time and the girl married a white member of my family. I guess she thought he was cute or maybe she liked his weaponry. I see no conflict in loving Janey and not being in awe of every Indian. I can also really love Clark without loving the fact he had a slave. There are certain people–individuals– whom I like and others I don’t. I just hate the whole grouping thing with a passion. Too much race pride leads to, well, all the bad things that go with ego. I hate stating what group I belong to on job applications–especially when I’m not a joiner and often times feel alienated from every group I’m supposed to belong to, but back to the journals.

My journals look just as frame worthy.

My journals look just as frame worthy.

Here’s what you should do for fun. Read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage first because Stephen Ambrose was super cool. He seemed to believe we Americans were complex and faulty, but at times quite spectacular. We think of road trips cross country in a kind of Jack Kerouac cliche way. Hipsters drinking– that bores me.

But a small bunch of guys, one girl and a mini-arsenal venturing on foot and by boat with hostile Indians lurking and grizzly bears sharpening their teeth in wait and BIG rivers with rushing currents and bugs and no GPS. No cell phone to call the rescuers and no reality TV crew eating donuts a few feet off–now that’s my kind of living–okay, more like my kind of reading.

These guys got malaria and venereal diseases in the old-school way–by sleeping with Indian chicks the hospitable chiefs sent to them as gifts. There were no cars and diners.

In high school I used to daydream about Walden Pond–I think I could walk a little ways out to a cabin in New England after the embittered Indians were long since pushed off and write about civil disobedience for a few summers.

Okay, so here’s a tidbit from the journals which you can read in their entirety online for free:

“Arrived at Bruno’s Island  [4] 3 miles below    halted a few minutes.    went on shore and being invited on by some of the gentlemen present to try my airgun  [5] which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired myself seven times fifty five yards with pretty good success; after which a Mr. Blaze Cenas  [6] being unacquainted with the management of the gun suffered her to discharge herself accedentaly    the ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards distanc cuting her temple about the fourth of the diameter of the ball; shee fell instantly and the blood gusing from her temple    we were all in the greatest consternation    supposed she was dead by [but] in a minute she revived to our enespressable satisfaction, and by examination we found the wound by no means mortal or even dangerous; called the hands aboard and proceeded to a ripple of McKee’s rock*

Can You Write Stories for These Pictures?

Under the Lilacs book illustration.

Under the Lilacs book illustration.

I’d never heard the term domestic genre stories but I LOVE it. These are the great stories of the late 19th century that spoke to the trials and travails of ordinary life and often with beautiful illustrations. I assume they’re the works that some people deem “of no literary merit” but I disagree. Any book with illustrations like these I know I will enjoy.

If the stories are a bit sentimental who cares? Why is that any worse than the ones about monsters or post- apocalypse? Who gets to decide literary merit? If a book sells then a bunch of people find merit in it.


Back to domestic genre stories. The average person is not in love with a vampire or on a desert road strewn with radioactive debris from World War Three. Why are we so interested in the weird? Are there domestic genre stories out there today? My books are about families. I’m not sure how sentimental they are but I certainly wouldn’t mind having Alice Barber Stephens illustrate them!

Alice Barber Stephens


Here’s Why the Met is a Treasure


“Seeking to assuage the sorrow brought on by the war and to heal the nation’s fractured spirit in its wake, painters turned away from martial and political content. Responding to the assertion of women’s responsibilities after the loss of so many men in combat, artists depicted them in new roles and grappled with issues surrounding their new options. Expressing a longing for prewar innocence and the commemorative atmosphere associated with the nation’s Centennial, many painters portrayed children. And, as the agrarian basis of American life gave way to urbanization and industrialization, artists who lived, studied, worked, and exhibited their paintings in thriving cities looked to the countryside for their subjects. Painters of this era were, however, likely to show rural locales as temporary or nostalgic retreats from urban existence rather than sustainable habitats.” Weinberg and Barratt, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Follow this link for more insight into  American Scenes of Everyday Life 1840-1910. The online exhibit allows you to notice beautiful details and gain better understanding of the artists and citizens of the day and it’s just plain beautiful!

An Ideal Woman and Why We Hate Her

Oh, don't you look  so smug in your perfection!

Oh, don’t you look so smug in your perfection!

“. . . she carried out her duties as mistress of a small family with ‘piety, patience, frugality and industry’. Moreover,

‘… her ardent and unceasing flow of spirits, extreme activity and diligence, her punctuality, uprightness and remarkable frugality, combined with a firm reliance on God … carried her through the severest times of pressure, both with credit and respectability …’ (The General Baptist Repository and Missionary Observer, 1840).” bbc history of victorian women

Here’s why we don’t like you, dear: You make us look bad–and selfish. You save money, dress with no hint of muffin-top or dirty flip-flop feet and in general seem to  actually take your place in society seriously.


We moderns scoff at manners and “rigid” rules. You see the value in a well-run household. And damn those studies that actually prove children thrive  in predictable, nurturing settings! And the homemade family suppers you insist upon–turns out you were annoyingly right about them as well.


Keeping busy at the church? Statistically people who attend church regularly are more active in their community so just being spiritual doesn’t seem to cut it. As much as we brow beat you, dear, and try to convince you that being an office manager is as important as raising the next generation of adults and that being a salaried employee automatically makes you happy and that free love and the abandonment of your place as moral arbiter will make you EQUAL to men, you demur with that look of placid innocence we despise.


You don’t have to have rabid Facebook wars–pro-choice vs pro-life–that honestly would make you sick. You give us that scolding look that shows how shocked and dismayed at how hostile and ugly we’ve allowed ourselves to become. At least pretend to have some manners, you say. Our language shocks you and how we laugh when children repeat it!


You’re not sure you believe in evolution at all. Unless there’s a species that devolves. You wonder at how often we speak of happiness instead of goodness and we laugh at you mockingly. If there’s no such thing as truth then there’s no such thing as goodness. You’d know that if you were paying attention to something other than being perfect.


You look at us like we’re mad.


Horse Power, Hurray?

Watch out for the bump in the road!

Watch out for the bump in the road!

To everyone driving today in your car feeling incredibly guilty for destroying the environment, let’s get some perspective. The automobile was once rightly hailed as an environmental savior. I think most horses if they could talk would agree. In movies the horse drawn carriage looks pretty romantic, but imagine living in a city with a burgeoning population in the 19th century.

The roads were choked with horse traffic and urine and manure and flies and carcasses–in summer. In many cases it was deemed easier to let the body of the often overworked and sickly horse rot a little before coming in, chopping it up and moving out of the road to some dump. Imagine walking by in your pretty clothes.

Speaking of dumps, people back them weren’t as ignorant as we like to think (or as smart). The farmers early in the century were happy to pay for soil enriching manure, but as time went on and the influx of immigrants rose, more horses and more manure meant a glut on the market. By century’s end cities couldn’t give the crap away–especially in summer when farmers needed to be on their land so mountains of manure rose to epic heights on city lots. And lovely little flies formed clouds of swarming disease.

Insurance companies penalize young male drivers nowadays for being a little reckless–add to that a spooked horse, or a horse who’s slipped on cobblestone or a horse on its last leg. Financially it made more sense to work fewer horses to the bone and replace them when they dropped dead than to house more horses in a city where real estate was at a premium. We think cars kill. But not as much as horses killed.

I worked on a horse-powered organic farm for a summer and watched in dismay a man who’d been with horses for years lose control of a team of his horses at a summer fair crowded with young kids. I watched as this same man trained another guy to cut hay in the old way–again another near-death experience. This good intentioned man kept the horses on pasture when he was in a hurry because while it looked beautiful to see the chunky, powerful work horses loping along, it just took too long to get things done.

Do horses cause global warming or cooling? Do cars? Does the sun cause global warming? Maybe cows and people eating hamburgers–or maybe it’s all a big set up; a morality play with an ever shifting backdrop of problems and solutions and new problems.

Read all the details here in a great paper about horse power in the 19th century

Picture courtesy of


“Courage mattered. Loyalty mattered. Honor mattered. Personal Pride mattered. Soldiers, and their culture, defined these as masculine values. The Gilded Age substituted gain for cause and friends for comrades.” Richard White

Charles being masculine.

Charles being masculine.

Charles Francis Adams, despite being considered an authority on the management of railroads couldn’t keep the Union Pacific stable as its president. One of the reasons, according to Richard White in Railroaded,  was the boys–the young men too young to have fought in the war seemed “weak, unruly, willful and hard to control.”

On July 9, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Colonel Adams for the award of the rank of brevet (honorary) brigadier general, United States Volunteers, “for distinguished gallantry and efficiency at the battles of Secessionville, South Carolina and South Mountain and Antietam, Maryland and for meritorious services during the war” to rank from March 13, 1865 and the U. S. Senate confirmed the award on July 23, 1866. [wiki]

When the mother of one of his young subordinates (at the railroad) wrote about the hardships of his life, Adams told her, ‘You will, I fear, have to talk in vain to men of my generation . . . [T]he hardships and dangers incurred by your son seem to me quite trifling in comparison with my own recollections of four years active service, summer and winter, in Virginia.”  Richard White, Railroaded.

Ouch. So here’s a few questions: Why do most cultures  still value the warrior? Why do most boys play soldier? Is it possible to reach true masculinity without a battle?

British Lady Takes on Montana and Wins

The happy, adventurous couple.

The happy, adventurous couple.

After taking in rich boarders (who often didn’t pay) and selling truckloads of vegetables Evelyn Jephson Cameron of England found a living taking pictures in Montana. After marrying her husband Ewen who her parents disapproved of they took their honeymoon in the West, 1889 and fell in love with the rough, majestic beauty of Montana and right then and there decided to relocate.

They bought a ranch with a simple three room cabin sitting on it and named it Eve Ranch. Ewen suffered doubts and wanted to go home to England when ranching turned out to be more expensive than they thought, but Evelyn was having none of it. She sent away for a camera. “She decided to wrestle with the intricacies of the dry plate glass negative, unwieldy, 5×7 Graflex camera.  She later purchased a No. 5 Kodet that was designed for 5 X 7 plates or film, as she liked the tonal quality of the plates.”

Sitting astride with friends.

Sitting astride with friends.

How many other 19th century women took photographs? How many other women bolstered their husbands’ confidence convincing them that they could make it? Why do modern day women scrapbook?

Evelyn is my new hero of the moment. I love her photos and admire her pluckiness. She was a Brit and she had a relaxed, friendly smile. She relished the idea that she was the first woman in Montana to ride astride a horse instead of side-saddle (I wonder though if little girls on the open plains and under the shadow of watchful big mountains didn’t sneak in rides astride all along).

Get on up, girls!

Get on up, girls!

Collection of Personal Photographs