Delta Narratives, pt. 3: Building Communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Economics and Ethnicity
Dr. Jennifer Helzer and Dr. Bob Benedetti look at the diverse cultures that shaped the communities of the Delta
Throughout history, the Delta has been a crossroads – a place of environmental change and agricultural fortune, as well as a destination for newcomers as diverse cultures forged distinct communities during the Delta’s land reclamation phase and subsequent agricultural development.
The Delta Narratives project, commissioned by the Delta Protection Commission, is a collaboration between scholars, museum professionals, and archivists to research ways in which the Delta experience relates to regional and national history. As part of the project, four essays were produced which were focused on the themes of transportation and communication, reclamation and restoration, the building of ethnic and economic communities, and the changing perspectives of writers and visual artists which were then presented in a series of brown bag seminars.
In this third of four parts, Dr. Ben Benedetti, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science at University of the Pacific and co-associate director of the Delta Narratives Project, and Dr. Jennifer Helzer, a cultural geographer and professor geography at CSU Stanislaus in the Department of Anthropology and Geography, discuss the ethnic groups and cultural heritage of the Delta.
In the 1850s, powerful economic, political and social forces led to major changes in the Delta; there was the California Gold Rush, levee construction, agricultural development, and the migration and settlement of domestic, European and Asian cultural groups, Dr. Jennifer Helzer began.
“The great migration linked to California’s Gold Rush is purported to be the largest movement of people to a single area in North America,” she said. “Other areas have comparable numbers associated with their frontier migration, but California’s distinctiveness lies in the rapidity of frontier migration. Moreover, the region’s settlement was complicated by Hispanic colonizers, topographic features that restricted their movement into, and settlement of, certain areas in California. There were some ranches that were established during this early period of the Gold Rush and immediately thereafter.”
The population growth in the Delta was mostly focused on the towns that supplied the miners, Stockton and Sacramento; other urban areas were mostly the result of transit stops along the waterway from San Francisco.
“It was the arrival of subsequent immigrant groups that provided the stimulus for the founding of new Delta communities that were organized around ethnic bonds and the economic needs of this emerging agricultural region,” she said. “As the opportunities for gold receded, the inhabitable lands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys proved enticing to settlers. Diverse cultures forged distinct communities during the Delta’s land reclamation phase and subsequent agricultural development.”
“The family farm, which had long been a part of the American myth and reality, was in evidence during this period, as exemplified here in Levi Painter’s farm near the town of Courtland in the Delta,” Dr. Helzer said. “But it was the small corporate farming and agribusiness that significantly shaped the region’s history. Only corporate partners could afford reclamation and the equipment like the clamshell dredge pictured here – equipment like this necessary for the success of the Delta’s unique agricultural landscape.”
“Much of the urban development in the Delta is tied to its labor history and the role that different ethnic communities played in providing both a skilled and unskilled workforce to complement the capital investment of corporate industry,” she said. “The close association between the requirements of a labor force and the development of communities resulted in trends that ultimately weakened community bonds. Agricultural workers were low paid, and they had little time or money to invest in civic activities. Norms that enforced separation, even segregation, between races and cultures divided communities and denied them the critical mass necessary to prosper.”
“Furthermore, the access of Delta laborers to housing in Stockton and even Sacramento meant that there was an alternative to living in smaller Delta towns, and as a result, urban centers in the Delta were boom and bust, prospering as long as a particular industry with particular needs was flourishing, only to fade when the industry declined or changed.”
“In the post Gold Rush era, Chinese laborers were the first among the newcomers to arrive in the Delta,” she said, presenting a Sanborn fire map, noting that these maps exist for every city, small and large. They show restaurants, gambling houses, drugstores, dwellings, and other things and are a useful tool for historical and cultural geographers to understand what the enclaves were like. “Sacramento and Stockton had early Chinatowns; they were important recruitment centers for Delta laborers. Individual landowners in the Delta and land corporations utilized a system of contract labor to hire Chinese laborers, and they made significant contributions to levee construction. They are estimated to have reclaimed at least 88,000 acres of the Delta between 1860 and 1880.”
Dr. Helzer noted the picture of a tule shoe, an invention by Chinese laborers in the 1850s that helped them to build the levees. “The tule shoe is an oversized horseshoe, and prior to having these, there were stories of the horses getting stuck doing the land reclamation, and so it was an important invention and an interesting icon about the work that was done there.”
The Chinese played a major role in Delta agriculture, Dr. Helzer said. She noted gthat there were two main dialect groups from China that didn’t associate with one another too much, either in Stockton or in the Delta. “The picture here was taken by Roger Minick, is entitled ‘Chang’s hand,’” she said. “Mr. Chang was a long-time laborer in the pear orchards around the Courtland area, but the Chinese were really well known for their onion and potato crops, and there are famous stories of individuals who did very well. They weren’t that familiar with asparagus, but they became experts rather quickly in growing and canning the new crop.”
By the 1880s, the Chinese were one third of the state’s agricultural workforce, but exclusionary laws ultimately lead to spatial isolation of the Chinese in the Delta and the development of Chinatowns, Dr. Helzer said. In addition, restrictions of migration made them less available for labor, so over time, there was a constriction on this particular group.
“There are some noteworthy places and spaces associated with the Chinese in the Delta, the town of Locke being one of them,” she said. “One of the dialect groups, the Zhongshan, established this town in the early 1900s. It is the most complete example of a Chinese-American rural community in the United States, and it was recognized by being listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also designated as a National Historic Landmark District. In the 1920s, it was a lively hub of activity. It’s thought that at its height, about 600 residents lived there. On weekends, the population doubled. The gambling houses were full. It had a movie theater, speakeasies, and even the nearby populations in some of the labor camps would make their way into Locke.”
By the late 1800s, the second wave of settlers arrived in the region to meet the agricultural demand, Dr. Helzer said. The Japanese moved into farming in great numbers and quickly progressed to secure long-term leases to grow high value crops. They made important contributions to large-scale agricultural operations, including potato farming and cannery work.
Dr. Helzer presented a slide with a map of the Delta region titled, Oriental Land Occupation Map. “The colors in the map, the red is associated with Japanese land ownership, the green is Hindu/Sikh, and the yellow Chinese, so it was a map like this that really led, in some cases, to the Japanese being kind of marked for discrimination. It scared people. Their land ownership and how well they were doing – their success often made them the target of discriminatory policies, including the establishment of segregated schools in the Delta, and ultimately resulted in their forced relocation and incarceration during World War II in response to executive order 9066.”
Walnut Grove was one of four school districts to establish segregated schools under a 1921 law enabling the establishment of segregated schools. “These Oriental Schools in the rural communities of Florin, Courtland, Isleton, and Walnut Grove reflected pervasive systems of racial discrimination,” she said. “By the early 1920s, Walnut Grove’s commercial sector had mushroomed to include hotels, boarding houses, five grocery stores, eight restaurants, a barbershop, two drugstores, dry goods, and even a soda bottling company. In addition to these local sales, a good portion of the income for this particular enclave came from delivering provisions to labor camps throughout the Delta.”
Southern Europeans, Italians and Greeks as well as Portuguese, especially from the Azores, began to arrive in the Delta region around Collinsville in the late 1880s. Italians made significant contributions to truck farming and cherry growing, and they were important innovators of mechanized farming equipment. They also developed important labeling and packaging advances that allowed the export of quality products from the region throughout the world.
“There were some who came who were attracted to the potential for fishing and a trade that many had mastered in Italy, but they only met with some success for a short period of time, and the rise and fall of Collinsville that’s depicted in these pictures is closely associated with commercial fishing as well,” said Dr. Helzer.
Filipinos played a major role also in Delta farming, and they quickly settled in Stockton. “The fact that many of the first immigrants were young and male may have been a determining factor in their choice of settlement,” she said. “They wanted an urban lifestyle and to participate in the social activities of 1920s urban America. Their urban lifestyle was underwritten by hard labor in the Delta. They used Stockton as a base, and they were often forced to move from one labor camp to another throughout the year.”
“At one time, Filipinos made up 90% of the asparagus harvesters in the Delta and worked under some of the most difficult labor conditions in the country,” she said. “Both in Stockton and on the road, Filipinos were systematically exploited, and they faced many forms of mistreatment, including deplorable living conditions, corrupt hiring and payroll practices. Subsequently, they were one of the first groups to become active in the farm labor movement, and they played a critical role in the United Farmworkers Union. “
“The Punjabi Sikh immigrants also arrived in the Delta in the early 1900s,” she said. “The region resembled their Punjabi homeland in northern India, and they found work in the Delta’s orchards and field crops and eventually expanded into leasing their own farm land. Like Filipinos, the Sikhs also settled in Stockton, where they built the first Sikh temple in the United States. In their case, religious identity, rather than a particular lifestyle, seems to have drawn them towards Stockton rather than the Delta settlements, and also to locations up north, where they were able to buy land. The first Sikh gurdwara is pictured here. It’s a focal point of the community, not just in Stockton, but for Sikhs in our region.”
After the 1920s, Delta farmers faced significant labor shortages that included the impact of exclusionary policies and the loss of workers to World War II who were drawn to shipbuilding and other factory jobs. “They essentially left the fields, and especially those in the Delta,” she said. “During the war years, the Delta region became an epicenter for the bracero program that was initially driven by the demand for agricultural laborers to harvest sugar beets and orchard crops in the region. Lobbying efforts by growers helped to extend the program after the war ended, and these laborers were often migratory. Until changes in immigration laws, they frequently went back to Mexico for part of the year. It’s another story of a group that doesn’t have a foothold in the Delta. They didn’t make an impact on the Delta communities, as some of the earlier groups who had elected to stay.”
“The first installment of the bracero program actually occurred in Stockton, where 500 braceros arrived to harvest sugar beets,” she said. “We’re looking at a field that is harvested with something called ‘el cortito’ or the short one – the hoe. It’s an icon of one of our narratives but also of the injustice and abuse that occurred in the fields. It’s representative of the wrongs practiced on Mexican skilled laborers. The hoe measures about anywhere from 12 to 18 inches, and it’s designed particularly for sugar beets, for weeding and also piling up of the soil around the beets. People were bent over, stooped over all day, weeding rows of sugar beets. The laborers who did this work had lifelong injuries, mainly back injuries, and it became kind of a rallying point for the United Farmworkers and their efforts to demand better working conditions. The short-handled hoe was finally banned for use in California in 1975 so it took a while.”
Throughout history, the Delta has been a crossroads and a place of environmental change and agricultural fortune as well as a destination for newcomers. “The Delta’s agricultural development drew ethnic laborers to its edge cities, these places of work for short-term settlement and occasionally entertainment, as the example with Locke. But these were temporary communities because they were not tied to conventional work patterns and the development of traditional cities.”
“In more recent times, the Delta has been home to a particularly transient type of immigrant, the visitor looking for short-term recreation and respite … urban dwellers seeking isolation or retreat in the Delta hideaways long for the small town ambiance that the Delta provides,” she said. “There are numerous vignettes, especially by Erle Stanley Gardner, that illustrate the nature of these urban refugees and how they come to enjoy the towns that remain in the Delta today. The tranquil setting of the Delta and its proximity to major population centers in the Bay Area and the Central Valley have drawn people to dawdle, temporarily dwell, and even hide out in the region. Fisherman, retirees, boating enthusiasts, and other sportsman communities have colonized the Delta islands with cabins, cottages, and boat docks. The marinas and their destinations have exotic names, like Lost Isle, Tiki Lagoon, or Pirate’s Lair, that create a landscape of adventure and a Delta playground for boaters. The orchards, bird life and pastoral scenery also provide an oasis for urban refugees.”
“Today, the Delta communities serve as emerging urban clusters that lie on the outside of major urban realms,” Dr. Helzer said. “The map on the left is the one that we created for our project. It tries to really emphasize many of the different narratives, the transportation networks and the linkages between those, both historic and present day, and really highlighting some of the communities that were the focus of our work. The map on the right isn’t really for trying to read any of the fine print, only to see sort of the encroachment of the urban areas that are starting to surround the Delta.”
Dr. Helzer then turned the presentation over to Dr. Bob Benedetti.
Dr. Bob Benedetti introduced himself as a political scientist who studies state and local politics, which has led to in interest in humanities and other social sciences in an effort to understand what it was like to live in these places.
“The concept that I want to focus on today is a sense of place,” he said. “What is the sense of place in the Delta? I want to suggest that that sense of place has changed over time, and what makes the Delta so interesting is that the time frame is something on the order of 10,000 years. It’s not a place in which people have just come recently.”
Dr. Benedetti presented the Wikipedia definition for ‘sense of place’:
“What’s interesting about that concept is that it’s essentially the way in which people themselves define an environment,” he said. “It’s not the environment itself in some sort of platonic hole; it’s the way people look at it and how they define it. It’s usually not only a natural environment but also is wrapped into the social environment in the way they related to each other living there. So it’s a combination of natural and cultural features, so it’s something that is imposed but has an echo in the natural environment. What I’m going to be talking about today is that sense of place and how it changed in the Delta.”
Dr. Benedetti then presented a drawing by Laura Cunningham, an artist who draws California’s landscapes as they looked during the time Native Americans lived here. “The estimation is that there were Native Americans in the Central Valley for somewhere between 10,000 and 8,000 years,” he said. “Different groups came through. This particular group is one of the last groups that the Spanish would have contacted. This is a Miwok village.”
“What’s interesting here is that she’s tried to capture what I’m calling a sense of place,” he continued. “The Miwok were very interested in integration with the animal kingdom. They saw themselves as fellow travelers with the animals of the area. Most of their religious myths relate to animals, and in fact, during a flood-like situation where all the humans are wiped out in the valley area, it is the coyote and a few other animals that bring them back. So the animals have the power to recreate human beings – evolution if you want, going the other way.”
“Here, the bird life of the Delta is shown as very significant as it was to the Native Americans,” he said. “The fact that they lived near a major waterway because of the richness of the fish that they lived on. And the presence of the oak trees … the acorns were simply a complement to the bird life and the fish life, which was very, very rich in the area. So their sense of place was really as an Eden; it was a wonderful place that, as long as they worked in concert with the animals, this was going to be a wonderful existence for a long time.”
“It was so wonderful that they could get on with their neighbors even though the final count was 325 different languages were spoken in the Delta region,” he said. “You had people next to each other that had no idea what the other one was saying, but because the area was so rich, there didn’t seem to be the kind of conflicts that you’d normally expect with that kind of diversity living cheek to jowl. It’s also an interesting example of ethnic toleration – something that didn’t always follow in the next generations when the West came in the area.”
The Spanish came later to California in the latter part of the 18th century – around the 1780s – 1790s, Dr. Benedetti said. “When they came up the coast, it was often very confusing for them,” he said. “It was a long time for them to find San Francisco Bay, and when they came, they weren’t sure quite what they were going to do here, but our new saint, Junipero Serra, helped them out with that and started to found missions, which were also supposed to be ways to produce agricultural materials for export.”
The Spanish did export America to the rest of the world, particularly the Manila Galleons, he said. The missions provided resources for the galleons; they also transported things from down to Mexico and other Spanish ports, so Spanish trade was very important. The missions were to be stopping places, which is why all of the missions were on the coast or fairly close to it, he said.
“The other reason that the Spanish found it very difficult to navigate into the Central Valley area and the Delta was because of the swampy conditions,” he said. “They, in fact, did not go there initially to recruit Native Americans; the Native Americans were curious and came to them. But soon the relationship between the missions and the Native Americans soured, and a lot of Native Americans left to go back to their villages in the Delta area. The Spanish sent military to pick them back up so that they would have a continuing labor force, and when the military went in, they found it a dangerous place.”
“As things evolved, the Delta for the Spanish was a place not to go,” he said. “It was hard to get through; it was where the natives looked like this. This is a Spanish print. They were ready to get you. They were hiding behind supposedly every bush and fearsome, so the Delta was a dangerous place and a place where you wouldn’t go unless you absolutely had to, was the Spanish view of the Delta as time went on.”
“The Spanish never figured out how to navigate the Delta, and they certainly didn’t see in the Delta what the next generation saw,” he said. “To the people who came during the Gold Rush and then later who stayed for agriculture, the Delta was a highway; it was there in order to get people from one place to another, basically from San Francisco to Stockton and Sacramento, and it was a very highly used highway, particularly once steam came in.”
“There were boats there all the time, taking people, Mark Twain among others, all the goods and services, not only the gold but all of the agricultural products,” he said. “The train comes in a little later, so early on, boating was a primary way to go around the Delta and into San Francisco until the 30s. It was almost 75 years of this being a highway.”
“Now on a highway we have rest stops,” he said. “There were places where visitors could come on, get off if they had business there. There were places for goods to be brought and put on a wharf, so they could be picked up. There were places to get a drink or go out and take a walk before you got from San Francisco up to Sacramento. They were a place for the steamboats to get extra supplies to keep the steam running.”
The vision of a highway doesn’t go away until the 1930s, but another vision of the Delta started to grow because of the federal government’s swamp acts. “The federal government made it very available to states to reclaim swamp land, and though early on, the state was going to do it but it wasn’t sure quite how,” he said. “The state finally let private people get involved in the project, and they reclaimed a great deal of Delta land. First they did it by having Chinese laborers dig the levees, but those passed away very quickly because they were piling peat on peat. Once they decided to use the clam diggers, they were able to build canals that would rival Venice, things that would last because they were digging into the clay substratum and using that to build the levees. So the idea was now that they had clam diggers to do this, they could create something which would be an ideal agricultural paradise where almost anything would grow.”
“The other thing they needed, though, which didn’t come until the turn of the century was some way to go through the Delta and plow the fields efficiently, and that’s when Mr. Holt came through with the Caterpillar tractor, which was invented in Stockton,” Dr. Benedetti said. “They moved to Peoria, Illinois, because it was a better place to distribute it all over the world, particularly all over the United States initially. But it was developed because it could be used in the Delta.”
“One of the things that was wonderful about the Delta is you could change your crops very quickly depending on the market, so they started in wheat and when that wasn’t any longer something that they needed to have, they could do anything else and did,” he said. “The trick was to have technology to keep the levees where you wanted them and have things like tractors to plow the fields.”
Soon after came the truck, another reason the Delta really blossomed, he said. “It was hard to get trains out there, and you had to go to the trains, just like to the boats, but once the truck came in, they could package things there and very quickly get them out of the Delta,” he said. “So the idea that you had technology which creates for you the ideal growing place, wonderful climate, water is plentiful, great soil, and you can get it in and get it out real quick.”
The view of the Delta as an agricultural paradise started to wane during the second world war, so what did it become? “What it became was a place of escape,” he said. “There had been some difficulties keeping up with the world markets in terms of agriculture, and while it was still there, it wasn’t as plentiful as it had been. There were other places in California that were doing very well in agriculture, particularly in Kern County and the rest of the valley. The Delta also had become used by the military, and as the military withdrew, those towns and places were no longer viable.”
“So it became a place for people to get away from it all, from the pressure of the Bay Area,” he said. “Also people who, in the 30s, were running speakeasies and were fearful of getting caught in Oakland would move to Rio Vista because they thought maybe they could avoid detection and in fact many of them did. I see it as a place where people who had enjoyed their fraternity life in college could keep it up in the Delta.”
“That brings us to the 60s, 70s, and 80s – what’s the Delta’s image now?” he asked. “I would suggest it’s something that the Delta really isn’t, but something we have imposed on it: it’s either a reservoir or it’s a habitat. And in fact, it really isn’t a reservoir and was never meant to be. It was a pass-through for water. Secondly, it’s always been a habitat, but much of the habitat we know now was created because of the way we dug the canals or the levees. It wasn’t always that way.”
“And in fact in geological time, the Delta is a relatively new creation, but I think in our time, our sense of place of it is very well captured in this photograph. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful sunsets where you may see, around the edges, a little bit of civilization, but you see a lot of water being held.”
Dr. Benedetti then gave his conclusions. “One of the things that we learn from looking at Delta history is the way in which human beings interact with nature and in which that relationship changes because of the way human beings impose their definition on nature,” he said. “Because we have a run of 10,000 years, we have a wonderful example of history where nature is one of the actors, but so are different people. It’s a place where nature has changed and played a role but it’s also a place where the people have redefined it over time.”
“It’s for that reason that we feel the Delta Narratives Project was a history worth preserving and talking about, and in many ways, it echoes other aspects of California history,” he said. “One of the wonderful things out there is you can still see it; you can still see segregated schools, you can still see the attempt to apply technology to agriculture, and you can still see the areas in which the Miwok built their villages and their expectation for the richness of the environment in its support of them.”
“It’s a place worth valuing not only for its natural resources and as a conveyance of water from one part of the state to another, but because it encapsulates the history of California,” Dr. Benedetti concluded.
For more information …
- Click here for the essay, Building Communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Economics and Ethnicity
- Click here for much more information on the Delta Narratives project.
- Click here to view all Delta Narratives articles posted on the Notebook.
Coming tomorrow …
- The Delta Narratives project wraps up with Dr. Gregg Camfield discussing writers and artists in the Delta.
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