The Immigrants Who Fed Us and Made 20th Century America Possible

The Cowboy, along with the Llanero, Caballero, Vaquero/ Vaqueiros, Gaucho, Paniolos, Huasos and Drovers produced in the animals that they tended a large quantity of calories and vital nutrients per unit of labor/worker, even though it was a very low per unit of land. In film and literature, one is so bound up in the mystique of the Cowboy that one rarely notices that they were producing a critical nutrient and calorie input that facilitated a significant transformation in the urban industrial complex from the 1870s on into the 20th century. As with the American Cowboy, the Vaquero, Gaucho and Drover were mythologized, while their more mundane but more vital role as producers of food was somewhat ignored.

In a previous article – Cowboy – An English speaking Vaquero? – Hiding in Plain Sight! – I argued that everything aspect of Cowboy paraphernalia (except the six-shooter) came from immigrants, and except for the Levis, all came to the U.S. from south of the border.  I traced the lineage of many of the items back through Mexico to Spain and in some cases to the Arab/Muslim cultures and even back to Buddhist Mongolia. One important element I did not dwell on was the fact that there was no tradition either from Spain (or the rest of Europe or Africa) of managing cattle from horseback, which was necessary on the vast open range. In fact for Spain and the rest of Europe, riding horses was for the elite and for the military and not for those who tended cattle. In the New World, Spain banned “natives” from riding horses. Yet this capability was necessary for managing cattle on the open range, so a way was found via the Missions and cattle ranchers to allow an exception to be made for herding cattle.

Other than the basics of horsemanship, the natives and later mestizos had to create the technology for managing cattle on horseback. This is absolutely critical to emphasize since this inventiveness comes from a section of the population which, to this day, conventional wisdom and popular culture assumes has nothing to give but their labor and a continuing supply of labor through procreation (Proletariat  – “From French prolétariat, from Latin proletarius [“a man whose only wealth is his offspring, or whose sole service to the state is as father”], from proles [“offspring, posterity”]”).   They had to learn to capture and break wild horses. They originally used only blankets, but in time built their own saddles with the horn and eventually the dally (dally from the Spanish dar la vuelta, to take a turn) which was wrapped around saddle horn for the leverage for roping cattle.  They needed chaps to protect their legs when going into the chaparral (Spanish chaparreras, or chaparro) to retrieve a calf. The stirrups had to be transformed because there were different needs from their use by the military. They had a knife at the end of a long pole which they used to cripple cattle when they were harvested only for their hide. They became so proficient that the Spanish colonial authorities had to ban their use (with a major fine for violation) for fear that they would rid the plains of all cattle. They substituted a loop of rope at the end of the pole and eventually created the lasso or lariat (la reata) and the skills necessary to use them. They created the rodeo (Spanish – rodear– to surround or go around) to display their skills. We could go with a plethora of details but it is simply important at a time of anti- immigrant debate to correct the myth that the so-called unskilled have nothing to contribute but cheap labor. It is at our peril and theirs that we ignore the critical contribution that they made to “our American way of life.” It is an indicator of what they can continue to contribute. Humanitarian arguments should be sufficient to admit them and give them new opportunities, but some applied practical augments can also be helpful.

This vast amount of nutrient on the hoof is of little value unless it can be transported from the low population density countries or areas where is produced to the cities and countries where it is needed. For Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, it was refrigerated ships that could get their beef and mutton to the European market. For the U.S., it was first the railroads and later also trucks, and for exports it was also ships.

Unlike the hard-working Cowboys who brought the cattle to the railroads, those who built those railroads were either ignored or demonized. Their stories were “often omitted from the triumphant narrative of progress.”  The “suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders” was an untold story until recently. Ryan Dearinger examines the moving frontiers of canal and railroad construction workers in the tumultuous years of American expansion, from the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, to the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869. He tells the story of the immigrants and Americans—the Irish, Chinese, Mormons, and native-born citizens—whose labor created the West’s infrastructure and turned the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality. Dearinger’s fine book follows in the tradition of  Common Labor: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860.

We showed our gratitude to the Chinese who built the railroads going east from the West Coast by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).  This act provided an absolute 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. Sound familiar?

The large open ranges of the American West meant that herding cattle had to be done on horseback. Such large open ranges were absent east of the Mississippi and in the overseas sources from whence they came, the cattle herding horse culture had to be learned by those who went west to settle or just to be cowboys.

With the development of the railroad and industrial production, the horses became ever more important, pulling trolleys or wagon loads of beer or other goods, or for pulling the large-scale complex farm machinery that industry created, opening up large acreages to cultivation. These evolved into large specially-bred, powerful horse that did not have the agility needed for herding cattle on the open range.

The large-scale complex farm machinery that industry created allowed for large scale industrial agriculture in the Northern Plains. Like the Cowboy herding cattle (see below), we have agriculture producing not particularly high yields per unit of land but because of the machinery, it produced high yields per unit of labor. It was a marvelously reciprocal relationship with Industry providing better technology and agriculture providing more food to feel the Industrial cities. It is a dynamic relationship along with improved yields from plant breeding, synthetic fertilizer and pesticides which continues to the present. The railroads took the wheat to places like Minneapolis where it was milled (and after 1880s) packaged and sent off to make bread and other products. Prior to this time, Americans preferred maize to wheat because of its greater reliability. See Rachel Laudan’s wonderful essays Mutable Maize and The Mutability of Maize.

The large scale (industrial) production of wheat in the northern plains of the U.S. play a complimentary role to that of the Vaquero/Cowboy in changing diet and feeding the rapidly growing industrial cities. The U.S. went from pork to beef as the leading source of meat (and much more recently to industrially produced chicken) and from maize to wheat as the predominant grain. Pigs were often raised in the cities or nearby and were not as land intensive to raise as beef cattle. This mode of pork production would not have been able to keep up with the growth of the industrial cities as reformers were seeking to remove pigs from the cities for sanitation and other reasons – see for example  Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City by Catherine McNeur. Similar  transformation in meat (including mutton as well as beef) and wheat production as increasing amounts of food were being produced for a growing urban population in industrializing cities in Europe, North America and to a lesser degree elsewhere. For the growing international trade in beef, mutton and wheat, refrigerated ships played the role that railroads played in the U.S.

We have seen the role that immigrant culture played in producing beef for the industrial cities of the U.S. It was Mennonite immigrants from the Ukraine (then part of Russia – the Mennonites were originally from Prussia) that brought the Turkey Red wheat that transformed the northern plains of the U.S. It was hardy and could be planted in Fall and harvested in Spring. The hard soils required the steel plough to work the land and steel rollers to mill. The “invention in 1873 of a steam engine that could grind wheat in such a way to produce fine white flour” facilitated the large scale production flour (along with the revolution in packaging occurring at the same time) which was shipped to cities to be baked into wheat bread which became a staple of the urban worker’s diet.

Later as large scale vegetable (and fruit) production became feasible in California to be shipped East to the Industrial areas of the country, it was the Chinese immigrant laborers who built the railroads from the West Coast, also were the ones who drained the marches, built the levees (dykes), dug the canals that drained the marches of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta and later the Central Valley hat transformed California in a great agricultural state. The Chinese Exclusion Act came along as the Chinese laborers were being replaced by power equipment in the 1880s.

From 1880 onward in Europe and North America, there was a sustained increase in life expectancy passing forty years for the first time in most Industrial areas. That improve nutrition played an important part is evidenced by the fact that there was also as sustained increase in average height from generation to generation.

The large-scale complex farm machinery that industry created allowed for large scale industrial agriculture in the Northern Plains. Like the Cowboy herding cattle (see below), we have agriculture producing not particularly high yields per unit of land but because of the machinery, it produced high yields per unit of labor. It was a marvelously reciprocal relationship with Industry providing better technology and agriculture providing more food to feel the Industrial cities. It is a dynamic relationship along with improved yields from plant breeding, synthetic fertilizer and pesticides which continues to the present.

In summation, we can argue the scientific/industrial revolution in Europe was built upon a foundation of knowledge and technology that came from Asia and the Arab world. The rapid growth in population in the Industrializing cities of Europe required the increasing yields from potatoes and maize that came from the “New World” to feed them. The increasing yields mined the soils so Europe and the U.S. had to import nitrates from Peru and guano from islands that they claimed. The latter was unsustainable until replaced by synthetic fertilizer in the 1900s.  In other words, we are all products of a continuous process of what we obtain from elsewhere from trade or other contacts or what immigrants bring us. What counts is how we refashion it, carry it forward and make it our own. We need to recognize the full richness of the process that got us to where we are now and the necessity of sustaining the openness in its many facets which is necessary to keep it alive and vital.

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