Hoboes Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West

Mark Wyman

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

368 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

When the railroad stretched its steel rails across the American West in the 1870s, it opened up a vast expanse of territory with very few people but enormous agricultural potential: a second Western frontier, the garden West. Agriculture quickly followed the railroads, making way for Kansas wheat and Colorado sugar beets and Washington apples. With this new agriculture came an unavoidable need for harvest workers—for hands to pick the apples, cotton, oranges, and hops; to pull and top the sugar beets; to fill the trays with raisin grapes and apricots; to stack the wheat bundles in shocks to be pitched into the maw of the threshing machine. These were not the year-round hired hands but transients who would show up to harvest the crop and then leave when the work was finished.

Variously called bindlestiffs, fruit tramps, hoboes, and bums, these men—and women and children—were vital to the creation of the West and its economy. In Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West, the award-winning historian Mark Wyman captures the lives of these workers. Exhaustively researched, this narrative history is a detailed portrait of the lives of these hoboes, as well as a fresh look at the settling and development of the American West.


Praise for Hoboes

"Vivid, accessible prose . . . Wyman colorfully describes the rough camaraderie among hobos riding the rails and sharing their scant food in outdoor ‘jungles,' the only accommodations available to transients so distrusted by settled folks that any hobo venturing into a town was likely to be jailed as a vagrant. Later chapters stirringly cover the battles fought by the radical Industrial Workers of the World, the only group willing to represent migrant workers viewed by other labor unions as unskilled and impossible to organize."—Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times

"Eye-opening, even for students and scholars familiar with the history of hoboes in agriculture from the end of the Civil War to the 1920s . . . Hoboes moves ahead with energy and clarity. There are wonderful anecdotes throughout."—Jonah Raskin, San Francisco Chronicle

"Mark Wyman has written the prehistory of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Murrow's Harvest of Shame, and Cesar Chavez's La Causa. Hoboes presents a gripping alternative history of the development of the American West."—Melvyn Dubofsky, author of We Shall Be All

"This profoundly researched book is itself a rich harvest, bringing to life the forgotten workers of the field and forest in the days of riding the rails. In original and engaging fashion, Mark Wyman has mastered the epic of an America unable to do without migrant laborers but often morally unsure what to do with them, a story that goes on to this day."—Ivan Doig, author of The Whistling Season

"Mark Wyman has again written a first-rate history. For half a century, from the Great Plains to the Pacific, hoboes and other migrant workers of many races and ethnicities followed the railroads and struggled to build decent lives for themselves. Here's their story, thoroughly researched and a great read."—Walter Nugent, author of Into the West

"A highly recommended and revisionist account of how the West was made by an army of seasonal farm workers. Their hard lives and vital contributions are fully described in a book rich in anecdote and important in argument."—Donald Worster, author of Dust Bowl

"Mark Wyman has written an important study that captures the presence of transient harvest workers across changing seasons and the varied landscapes of the agricultural West from 1870 to 1920. This is a work of impeccable scholarship and insightful analysis by one of the leading historians of the American West."—Malcolm Rohrbough, author of Days of Gold

"Mark Wyman, the dean of Western labor historians, tells with clarity and often poignancy the harrowing stories of transient workers in the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, demonstrating that the migrant farm worker of today is not a recent innovation but is embedded in the history of the West."—Andrew Isenberg, author of Mining California

"Dramatically enlarges our understanding of the role of migrant agricultural workers in the economic development of the American West. Wyman illustrates that most facets of modern western agriculture have long been dependent upon such workers. A must-read for any student of the American West."—R. David Edmunds, Watson Professor of History, University of Texas at Dallas

"History in the Howard Zinn school, with working people taking the fore, finally acknowledged for their contributions in settling the frontier. The Western history many people schooled before the 1970s grew up with is an affair of steely-jawed Anglo pioneers and stalwart but inconveniently located American Indians. The more comprehensive version that has followed allows for 'Navajos and Klickitats, African Americans and Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Hindus, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans, among others.' This view shows that the West developed less by individuals than by a 19th-century version of the military-industrial complex, with railroad rights-of-way and resource concessions to the public domain. Historian Wyman (The Wisconsin Frontier, 1998, etc.) situates a sturdy narrative on this ground, writing principally of the migrant agricultural workers who came from all over the world to work the factory fields. The relationship between workers and owners was never easy, he writes. At points there were too many workers and not enough work, at others seasons in which labor was so scarce that, as one 1884 federal report put it, 'Farmers have been compelled to take what help they could get, whether they were white or Chinamen, nor has it been a strange sight to see in California women and children labor in the fields.' Thus the origins of imported labor from Mexico, a matter that reverberates in the current cacophony over immigration. The migrant worker, or 'western hobo,' had three things in his favor: the likelihood of a crop's being ruined if not harvested quickly, lack of a large labor pool in the West and rail lines to take him wherever he needed to be. The owner had money, the police, theArmy and much more. In their contending powers, and in strikes and massacres, lie forgotten episodes that Wyman ably covers. A vigorous, well-written multicultural history of the West as it really was."—Kirkus Reviews

"Hoboes is a welcome addition to the migration and labor studies of Wyman (history, emeritus, Illinois State Univ.; Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880–1930). The radical agricultural change that accompanied the building of western railroads through sparsely populated regions attracted an army of workers to harvest an enormous number of crops. Wyman details how the railroads were the means by which workers as well as crops were moved from place to place and how such 'hoboes and tramps' came to occupy the lowest rung of the social order. Political movements such as the 'burning of the bindles' in 1918, when workers burned their own blankets to force decent bedding from their employers, are covered here. With broader historic sweep than recent sugar-beet industry and migrant-labor studies . . . Wyman's book is highly recommended for both academics and the general public as a scholarly yet accessible history of a rather neglected topic of the American West."—Nathan E. Bender, Laramie, WY, Library Journal

"Historian Wyman offers a richly detailed study of the thousands of workers who followed the booming railroads west during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to pick, prepare, and load crops, from cotton, wheat, and hops to apples, beets, and oranges. These transients moved about the country, often accompanied by their families, who worked as well. They endured generally low wages, backbreaking labor, and awful living conditions-mitigated only slightly in the 1910s, for the select few who could afford automobiles and were thus granted greater mobility. Periodic efforts to unionize, especially by the radical Industrial Workers of the World, were invariably met with hostility. Wyman's extensive research translates into readable, often moving prose with details that illuminate the lives of previously obscure people and reveals a surprising ethnic and racial diversity among this often-overlooked group. The author of several books, Wyman has become a leading source on the American West and here makes a case for a more complex narrative of the region, one that ought to include hoboes in the list of 'Western heroes,' along with 'cowboys and Indians, explorers and entrepreneurs, first settlers and gunslingers.'"—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Mark Wyman

  • Mark Wyman is a distinguished professor of history, emeritus, at Illinois State University, and has written several books on immigration and the American West. He lives in Normal, Illinois, with his wife Eva.