Working Frontiers: Labor, Race, and the Environment in the U.S. West and Pacific in the Progressive Era

AHA Session 258
Labor and Working Class History Association 7
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Mae M. Ngai, Columbia University
Elizabeth Jameson, University of Calgary

Session Abstract

From the gold mines of Nevada, to the oyster beds of Puget Sound, the shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean, and the mountaintops of Luzon, American imperial ambitions during the Progressive Era encompassed a stunning variety of labor and resources. Attempts to subjugate the environment, foreign peoples, and unruly workers, also generated conflict on a global scale. This panel will explore these frictions through a variety of perspectives and sites. At the heart of these four presentations is an engagement with recent historiographical interest in the transnational and environment factors that shaped the struggles between capital and labor in America’s western empire. 

Thai Jones’ paper begins the panel by focusing on the intersections of class, environmental understandings, and property rights. Miners in the boomtown of Goldfield, Nevada, challenged their employers’ most fundamental claims to property rights by absconding with large quantities of valuable ore hidden in their boots and shirts. Attempts by mine owners to control these “thefts” would result in years of violent conflict – and, eventually, the intervention of the U.S. military. Next, Kathleen Fry’s work on race, immigration, and the environment examines the importation of Japanese oysters to Washington State’s depleted intertidal zones. In the context of the 1924 National Origins Act, this act of environmental capitalism became a racialized controversy that inspired supporters to praise the oysters as industrious and assimilable, while opponents decried them as a “new Japanese immigration peril.” Justin Jackson’s research extends these questions of race and labor to the far reaches of the United States’ Pacific empire through a discussion of Chinese workers in the American merchant fleet and military. By contrasting the anti-Chinese efforts that shaped the 1915 LaFollette Seamen’s Act with the widespread and accepted use of Chinese labor for military operations in the Philippines, this paper reveals the contingent and conditional quality of American racial hierarchies and assumptions. Finally, Rebecca McKenna will connect these themes by examining the construction of the 26-mile Benguet Road in the Philippines. In this feat of engineering and imperial will, American planners employed thousands of workers from dozens of nationalities in a grand experiment in environmental, racial, and imperial planning.

As a whole, these papers begin a conversation about the intersecting projects required in the construction of American Empire. From these working frontiers new ways of knowing – related to the environment, the “scientific” differences between peoples, and the rational organization of labor and capital – would emanate back throughout society.

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