16 Jun Same Old Story
This week I continued my research. There are a lot of documents to sort through, with different dates, names, and entities. So for the most part I’m just trying to do an inventory of them, making notes about each document and writing down dates and general information. Eventually I want to make a timeline of events, once I go through them all. The focus of this research is on events that happened in the salmon fishing season of 1918, in which 11 Mexican cannery workers were jailed, four for stealing a boat and seven for fighting. They worked for the Alaska Packers Association, a major company in the industry, who I also have documents from. The Mexican Embassy, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries were involved in investigating the situation. Most of the documents are from the investigation into these events, and discredit the claims of the Mexican workers who cited various abuses for their actions. For example, a number of documents characterize Mexicans in general as lazy and as troublemakers, so obviously they were making up stories of abuse. There was a journalist, Max Stern, who chronicled the plight of cannery workers and the exploitation they endured. He did so by going to Alaska and working in the canneries himself, witnessing the conditions first-hand. For the most part, workers were Chinese and were known as the “China Gang.” From Stern’s articles I can point to the history of abuse of workers, so I’m skeptical of the documentation I’m sorting through. Eventually I will look for further documents from the Mexican government, through the National Archives for example, to see if I can find any differences in the narrative. Typically, workers were contracted in places like San Francisco, and were charged in advance for transportation to Alaska in sailing vessels like the one pictured above, The Star of Alaska (now Balclutha) that now sits at Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. They were also charged for food and lodging, and even warm clothes. Often workers would come back from six-month seasons (after sometimes thinking they only had to work four months) having to pay back their credit, and would have very little left over. I see it as symptomatic of exploitative labor issues that have always been central to U.S. history, especially in regards to people of color and immigrants. Hopefully this research can shed more light on these histories and processes.