Mussel Slough and the Contradictions of Squatter Capitalism
In the early 1870s, the San Joaquin Valley was among the first of California's agricultural areas to be singled out for extensive commercial potential. In books and pamphlets by the Central and Southern Pacific Railroads and by local boards of trade, the valley's hundred-mile-wide, five-hundred-mile-long corridor was praised for its endless pastures and vast acreages of grain (e.g., Hittell 1874; Nordhoff 1872; Orr 1874; see also Starr 1981 and 1985). But in nearly the same breath, the authors of these tracts expected that bonanza farming and stock raising would not last forever. In isolated pockets, such as Mussel Slough near the southern end of the valley, in the Tulare Lake Basin, there had already begun more intensive agricultural practices based on irrigation.
Through the remainder of the decade and into the 1880s, Anglo-Californian boosters interested in seeing the San Joaquin Valley become densely settled grasped at every improvement, every homestead, farm, and town, as proof that--after the setbacks of drought, flood, and mined-out veins--California was finally coming into its own ( Preston 1981). 1 Attention thus began to shift away from the grain kings and baronial ranches toward a more intensive development process: incoming settlers and the growth of a local labor market; subdivision of the large estates; and the extension of the railroad--the single largest private landowner in the state--southward through the San Joaquin Valley.
In the booster's mind, these forces ought to have worked happily together. But in the spring of 1880, a bloody confrontation erupted at Mussel Slough. The result of a dispute between the railroad and a faction of squatters over land titles and prices, "Mussel Slough" quickly became a rallying cry of anti-railroad factions throughout the state ( McKee 1948). While descriptions of the event would soon be found in nearly every general history of California, as indeed they are still to be found, 2 Mussel Slough has become legend, especially through FrankNorris