Settling the sunset land: California and its family farmers, 1850s-1890s

Kindell, Alexandra
Major Professor
Pamela Riney-Kehrberg
R. Douglas Hurt
Committee Member
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In "Settling the Sunset Land: California and its Family Farmers, 1850s-1890s," I relate the lived experiences of late-nineteenth-century rural California farmers to larger themes and patterns in North American history. The current literature on California's early development has excluded the majority of farmers in the state, concentrating instead on a few "great" men who developed the state's agribusiness interests. My dissertation shifts the focus to the manner in which settlers lived and worked in the first fifty years of statehood. Because so little has been written about rural California, I use a wide range of sources to document the existence of family farms and the transference of rural social values from the East and Midwest to the Far West. Using census records, newspapers, diaries, agricultural journals, letters, and booster literature, I show that settlers and civic leaders believed that family farming was the natural foundation for California and that agribusiness was not the inevitable trajectory for the state's economy;Starting with the gold rush, I examine the shift from mining to agriculture in the state. Miners left the placers to start farms and find wives. Leaders applauded the incipient agricultural communities and encouraged more men and women to settle the state. Californians' concerns about the state's social and economic stability led boosters to focus much of their attention on farm families, and promoters joined land owners in making small plots available through various colonization plans. Colony agents advertised economically viable farms and morally sound communities for families. Farmers set up homesteads in the mineral districts, in the coastal counties, and the Central Valley, adapting their agricultural skills acquired in the East, Midwest, and South to the unique conditions they found in these regions. Many families balanced market crops with subsistence agriculture as they had in eastern agricultural areas. By examining individual lives, it appears that settlers had the same expectations and lived much as they had elsewhere. As a result, newcomers remade the landscape and connected California to the larger economy of the nation. Families unintentionally laid the foundation for later endeavors that transformed the state into an agricultural empire.