Then there are certain events that might not be pivotal but shouldn’t be ignored in the classroom simply because they touch upon so many different instructional moments such as the Mussel Slough Tragedy.
Westward expansion, growth of the railroad including the impact on settlement, muckrakers and their role in the Progressive Era, perspective and accuracy regarding the historical record and even a bit of vocabulary instruction regarding geographic landforms can be handled by examining this little known event in California history.First of all….what the heck is a slough? On the west coast of North America a slough is defined as a treeless, secondary channel of a river delta. Mussel Slough is an area that runs from Kings River to Tulare Lake. After the Civil War the marshes surrounding Tulare Lake were drained so by the late 1800s it was a broad, dry plain that was suitable only for cattle ranches. By the turn of the century the lake was completely dry.
The Mussel Slough Tragedy occurred on May 11, 1888 on a homestead belonging to Henry D. Brewer northwest of Hanford, California. The timing of the tragedy was close to the beginning of the Progressive Era. However, to get a full understanding we have to look back to 1866 when Congress began authorizing various railroad concerns in the United States to begin building tracks across the United States linking east and west. The Southern Pacific Railroad was contracted to lay the tracks through the Mussel Slough area after land lots containing 640 acres each were set up. The railroad was given control of the odd number lots while the even numbered lots were set aside for homesteading.This meant the federal government controlled the process of getting the even number land lots into the hands of settlers while the odd number lots were under the control of the Southern Pacific railroad. Once the rail route was determined there was plenty of land left over for the railroad to sell to interested homesteaders.
It is this point in the story where things began to go wrong. Southern Pacific began to advertise land for sell to homesteaders stating the land would be $2.50 an acre and there would be no charge for improvements. In the meantime the railroad had deliberately avoided getting patents for its land grants which basically means in simplistic terms they didn’t legally record a deed to deliberately avoid taxes on the land. This also meant homesteaders made deals with the railroad to purchase land but the railroad would refuse to convey titles to them. Even so the homesteaders settled into life living along the slough and made improvements to their property such as building irrigation systems. Naturally these improvements increased the land’s value.At some point the railroad decided they actually wanted more than $2.50 an acre and in some cases when the ranchers balked they put the land back on the open market. The dispute in land ownership grew even more tense when Congress failed to pass a proposed a bill that would put the matter of the price for land to rest.
The settlers formed a group called the Settler’s League in 1878 and made appeals to federal officials and the courts. They even made an appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes during his visit to San Francisco in 1880 advising federal and court officials were being bribed by the railroad.More settlers moved into the area thinking the lawsuit would favor the homesteaders, but this made the situation worse as the railroad termed them squatters and vowed to remove anyone who didn’t pay their asking price.
On May 11, 1880 several members of the Settler’s League had met together for a picnic and all was well until they heard a group of men backed by the railroad consisting of a U.S. Marshall, a Southern Pacific land appraiser and two locals was headed their way and in were in the process of evicting people from their land.A group of homesteaders described as being lightly armed set out from the picnic to meet with the railroad party. It was reported their intention was to ask the group to delay any further evictions until the pending court case had been settled.
Both groups met up at a homestead maintained by Henry D. Brewer. A gunfight between the two parties quickly ensued with most of the settlers being killed or wounded. Six of the victims were carried to the porch of the Brewer house. A tall oak next to the porch became known as Tragedy Oak. In recent years when it blew down during a storm a piece of the tree was preserved and is displayed at a local elementary school.Seventeen people were indicted by a federal grand jury with five being found guilty of willfully interfering with marshal in performance of his duties. It has to be noted however the jail time was hardly what could be called hard time. Most of the men were allowed to have their wives with them. The ranchers who lived were heroes and those who died were remembered as martyrs.
Of course the journalist who got involved during the events leading up to the lawsuit and the gunfight and subsequent deaths just fanned the flames. It was the perfect opportunity for muckraking.While the Progressive Era muckrackers have been given the credit for many great things while they cried out to end corruption and social injustice including fighting monopolies such as Standard Oil, the establishment of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the creation of child labor laws their main tool of the trade was sensationalizing details to promote the emotional aspects of the event or actions they reported.
The exact history of the events leading up to the tragedy and the gunfight itself is muddled due to fabrications and exaggerations on each side.The event was targeted by muckrackers including W.C. Morrow who wrote Blood Money (1882), C. C. (Charles Cyrel)Post who wrote Driven From Sea to Sea or Just a Campin’ (1888), and The Octopus: A Story of California by Frank Norris (1901). You can read Mr. Post’s novel here from Google Books.
Political cartoons were published as well like the one I’ve included with this post titled ‘The Retribution Comet’. It was published in The Wasp showing railroad tycoons Leland Stanford and Collis Potter Huntington robbing the graves of the victims.Today, many historians argue the works of literature exaggerated the fault of the railroad and romanticized the ranchers according to the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal where Jefferson stated, “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.”
There are some truths. The railroad did have their hand in the pocket of many politicians and court officials. Leland Stanford, the president of Southern Pacific had also been the governor of California. Even though the railroad argued they never intended to keep the property at $2.50 an acre it was unclear to the settlers. Many of the settlers who flocked to Mussel Slough did so after the situation became inflamed and were actually squatters who were hoping the case would go in their favor.While the story did grow to what some sources describe as mythic proportions and turned out to be an archetypical story of the conflict between pioneer settlers and monopoly corporate greed many of the sources are second-hand and flawed. The true story is a gray area somewhere in the middle.
In the end the case came down on the side of the railroad, but Southern Pacific did agree to lower the cost per acre slightly, and most people stayed on their land.This site states, ““Historical accounts vary considerably and nearly all have passed along from generation to generation errors of fact and substance, ranging from relatively minor mistakes in spelling the names of combatants and tabulating the body count to important errors of chronology and sequence of settlement, the legal issues involved, the character motivation, and behavior of drama and the influence of the conflict on landholdings and errors of chronology, legal issues, and the goals of the railroad and the Mussel Slough settlers, even dominates a leading California state-approved history textbook for fourth grade public school classrooms.”
How would I use this event in the classroom? As I stated above I think this event provides the perfect opportunity to hit on so many issues – Westward expansion, growth of the railroad including the impact on settlement, muckrakers and their role in the Progressive Era, perspective and accuracy regarding the historical record and even a bit of vocabulary instruction regarding geographic landforms can be handled by examining this little known event in California history.Most certainly I think this event lends itself to a discussion on historical accuracy and how myths are formed. I think it would be interesting to present several forms of evidence such as railroad documents regarding advertising the land, newspaper accounts, political cartoons, and court documents to students and allow them to investigate the matter and decide for themselves where the truth lies…..in that large and murky gray area.