Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens

Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803277281
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 06/01/2017
Series: Historical Archaeology of the American West
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Mark Warner is a professor of anthropology and department chair at the University of Idaho. He is the author of Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity. Margaret Purser is a professor of anthropology and department chair at Sonoma State University. 

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Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens

By Mark Warner, Margaret Purser


Copyright © 2017 Society of Historical Archaeology
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4962-0035-8


Boomtimes and Boomsurfers

Toward a Material Culture of Western Expansion

Margaret Purser

On the Road to Big Rock Candy Mountain

There is perhaps no more iconic image of the fading western frontier dream in the early 20th century than regional author Wallace Stegner's Bo Mason in his novel Big Rock Candy Mountain (Stegner 1991 [1943]). Violent, mercurial, but ultimately perversely heroic, Mason pursues a gold-rush style instant wealth that not only eludes him as an individual but poisons the lives of all around him. At the heart of Bo's character was his rootlessness; to achieve the success he sought, he moved frenetically from town to town, boom to boom, and ultimately failure to failure. Moreover, his rootlessness was a quintessentially solitary trek, driven by the need not just to move but to move away from more established human settlements. "Obstacles raised by nature — cold, heat, drouth, the solid resistance of great trees, he could slog through with almost fierce joy, but obstacles raised by institutions and habits of a civilized community left him prowling and baffled" (Stegner 1991:31–32). This tension between the individual and the collective, played out against the economic whirlwind of the boom-and-bust American West, tore at the heart of fundamental cultural constructs like family and community. Central to the tension was the issue of human mobility extended through time, the sheer physical dynamism of the region's population over generations. In a key passage in the book, Stegner writes: "It was not permanence alone that made what the Anglo-Saxons called home, he thought. It was continuity, the flux of fashion and decoration moving in and out again as minds and purses altered, but always within the framework of the established and recognizable outline. Even if the thing itself was paltry and dull, the history of the thing was not, (Stegner 1991:374).

For archaeologists working in the West, much of the challenge lies in painstakingly revealing this "history of the thing itself," unfolding as it does in what are often fragmentary, nearly vestigial shreds and patches across abandoned boom towns, mining and logging camps, ranches, homesteads, and speculation townsites. When we do this, the results can present an altogether different version of western settlement, one that avoids the polarized and often highly romanticized extremes of either rootless individuals or permanent, continuous settlements. Instead, archaeology can reveal the material life of people who pursued a completely different version of "success." Ironically, these people succeeded primarily by extending and elaborating their social networks and connections. Over time, these strategies ultimately created what could be oddly shifting or fluctuating communities, many of whose members nonetheless remained in a given region for generations.

This is an archaeology that simultaneously plays to our collective disciplinary strengths and challenges a number of long-held conventions. For example, tracing the life histories of these kinds of individuals, households, and communities demands all the sophistication we have developed for articulating between archaeological, archival, and oral historical data. At the same time, defining the scope of the material world they created can often call into question our most conventional understandings about basic terms like "site," "integrity," and "function." One way to meet these challenges is to create a model of these intertwined social and material strategies that can be looked at across the region and across several centuries of time. I have called this the "boomsurfer" model, to try to capture the inherently dynamic yet enduring way of life that it produced.

What's a Boomsurfer?

Nevada rancher Leslie Stewart was the first person to suggest the basic idea that I later began to call "boomsurfing," over twenty years ago now. As a local resident, Mr. Stewart had been providing invaluable insight and suggestions for a comprehensive material culture studies project focused on the small 19th-century ranching community of Paradise Valley (Purser 1987, 1989). One day we were on a tour of the abandoned agricultural equipment all around his fourth-generation family ranch. Les had organized the route so that we moved through a rich historical sequence from earlier to more recent excavators, hay rakes, cultivators, and hay presses. We were standing in a pasture about a half mile from the ranch house when he pointed out the technological differences between two abandoned pieces: an older cultivator and a newer potato excavator, both predating World War I (see Figures 1, 2). The key distinctions? The older machine was made entirely of wooden and wrought metal parts. The newer piece had exclusively cast or stamped metal parts, some with their catalogue reorder numbers embossed directly on their surfaces.

It was Mr. Stewart who pointed out that the older gear could be repaired locally, possibly even by the ranchers themselves, but certainly at the local blacksmith's shop. Repairs to the more modern equipment required sending away for replacement parts, or for a new machine altogether. He then pointed out two related consequences. First, in an economy where cash was rare and potentially only available once a year when crops or cattle were sold, running an account with a local blacksmith could be far more pragmatic than making cash purchases through mail order. Second, this meant that the older equipment could be in use, carefully curated and maintained, well after the newer gear became available nationally. So what might look sharply anachronistic in an archaeological context might actually represent a strategy for long-term success, rather than a "failure" to shift rapidly to the newest available technology (Purser 1992, 1995, 1999).

It all depended on what one's goals were. This key insight became theheart of the boomsurfer idea: in times and places of uncertainty, people develop sets of material strategies that foster stability, often at the expense of conventional economic concepts like "profit." In the years since, I have been able to flesh out this basic concept through a variety of my own research projects (Purser 1991, 1992, 1999; Hayes and Purser 1990; Purser and Shaver 2008). I have also benefited enormously from the generous collaboration of a whole series of Sonoma State University CRM graduate students who found the concept useful and tested its application in a wide range of focused projects throughout California and Oregon (Storey 2002; Ballard 2004; Goetter 2005; Rhoades 2007; Converse 2011).

Together we have crafted a working analytical framework that has grown well beyond the initial lessons of that abandoned Nevada ranch equipment. "Boomsurfer" is a term intended to describe not so much a specific group of people but rather a suite of strategies that a wide range of people employed across the 19th-century American West from time to time to survive the brutal boom-bust economic swings of that particular place and time. The archaeology of the American West can be seen as the material record left by myriad peoples who found themselves adapting to both economies and environments that were often radically unfamiliar and highly unpredictable. The experimental and unstable nature of early industrial capitalism encouraged a tendency to view the West as a giant repository of extractable resources. The result was the rapid intensification of extractive industries in more localized ecosystems and terrains that were often extreme, yet inherently fragile, and could fluctuate catastrophically and without warning.

Again and again, across a diverse range of physical environments, economic activities and cultural contexts, individuals, families, and larger social groups developed strikingly similar practices for surviving from one rush to the next and for ameliorating the uncertainty of lives punctuated by fire, flood, earthquake, and other disasters. These strategies stand in sharp contrast to the iconic practices usually ascribed to the "Wild West" capitalism of railroad tycoons and robber barons. But neither are they characterized by the rootless wandering and social isolation that doomed Stegner's Bo Mason. Boomsurfing approaches tended to be as dependent on social ties, intensive labor, and investment in a veritable crazy-quilt of diverse economic activities as they were on substantive capital outlay, cutting-edge technological innovation, or any particular occupational or entrepreneurial specialization.

Boomsurfers also seem to have measured success less in outright individual profit than in stability, or at least the ability to stabilize their location, household unit, or extended group subsistence through both economic and climatological peaks and valleys. They were often engaged in multiple economic activities simultaneously; tended to lease, squat, or simply use land and resources rather than buy them outright; invested labor rather than capital; and rarely bought what they could not take away with them when they left. Yet despite this apparent emphasis on transience and impermanence, these people ultimately created entire communities whose precise location might shift up and down a set of mining districts, drift around an agricultural region, or stretch from one boom site to the next but nonetheless could, and did, persist for generations.

The Material Culture of Boomsurfing

For archaeologists, the material signatures of these strategies are written across a wide range of artifact categories and research domains. They help to explain, for example, the oddly archaic, carefully curated assemblages of machinery, tools, structures, and other material culture on many western sites, the logic of which lay in functional flexibility, localized maintenance, and portability rather than in state-of-the-art technological sophistication. They provide an alternate interpretation for the strategically impermanent architecture and infrastructure found in relic boomtowns across the region. They help knit together the social and economic relationships between far-flung mining camps, crossroads towns, scattered ranches, and the stage stops in between. In short, the analysis of boomsurfer strategies provides a mechanism for comparison across all relevant scales of analysis in the study of the material culture of western expansion. Developing such a framework helps to articulate between the smaller scale, site-based nature of our archaeologically derived data and the larger, regional scale and more thematic interpretive frameworks emerging in current archaeology as well as a range of related disciplines, from history and geography to vernacular architecture and cultural landscape studies.

In the past I have focused on these trends, particularly those categorized as the "New Western History" (Purser 1999). I have also emphasized boomsurfing strategies as primarily economic ones, articulated in one way or another with larger regional economic trends tied to key extractive industries like mining, timber, and early industrialized agriculture. Now I would like to shift the focus to the more social aspects of boomsurfing and explore the same material signatures from that angle.

Boomsurfing connects the material practices so far described to the actions and decisions of diverse individuals and groups in the immediate social context of known historical communities. In so doing, it extends the relevance of this idea well beyond the western regional focus and resonates powerfully with the larger discussion about the complex interplay between social and economic processes in the development of modern capitalist societies. One area of this research has focused on the relationship between individuals and some larger group, and on the tension between economic choices that favored some form of collective good and those that favored individual self-interest. The concept of social capital has become a critical but highly contested one in this larger discussion.

The idea is an old one, emerging in the work of 19th-century theorists like Marx, Weber, and Bellamy and taking shape in the work of John Dewey and other pragmatist writers at the turn of the 20th century (Portes 2000; Farr 2004). More recent applications by historians, political theorists, and anthropologists borrow from the later redefinitions by Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Putnam, and others in sociology and cultural anthropology since the 1980s (Bourdieu 1986; Putnam 1995, 2000).

The concept of social capital begins with a focus on "the development of shared social norms and values based on cooperation, trust, reciprocity, and obligation" (Ville 2005:185–186). Some have broadened it radically to analyze "the entire range of institutions, practices, devices, and learned behaviors that enable collectivities and individuals to render physical spaces productive and social and cultural spaces agreeable" (Greene 1999:491). Others argue the reverse: that the concept needs sharpening and in particular that social capital, focused on the existence of some inclusive notion of collective good, needs to be clearly distinguished from social networks, which are inevitably exclusionary and privilege the interests of some over others (Daly and Silver 2008). Considerable debate also remains about the relative strength of any of these kinds of strategies in the grindingly extractive apparatus of modern capitalism (Adkins 2005; Fine 2007). In particular, levels of social capital can be quite high within certain social groups in a given community, without ever challenging successfully the existing power hierarchies of race, class, or gender (Adkins 2005; Austin 2006).

What makes this discussion intriguing for researchers working in thehistorical American West is the integral role played in the development of social capital by various kinds of mechanisms for creating collectivities in some broader society. These can be conventional cultural mechanisms like gender, kinship, or ethnicity. But they also include institutional ones like voluntary associations, churches, schools, or professional organizations. These were precisely the kinds of institutions that attained a dramatically heightened profile in the highly diverse and mobile instant communities and intensely volatile industrial capitalism of the later 19th- and early 20th-century west. At the same time, traditional cultural categories and symbols became very dynamic, strategically manipulated, and often deeply contested in those same contexts (Purser 1991; Praetzellis and Praetzellis 2001; McGuire 2002 ).

All this makes the regional boomtowns, mining camps, company towns, ranching communities, and speculation townsites we study ideal contexts for exploring precisely these tensions between a wide range of collectivities and individuals. The approach taken here is a conventional version of the "active material culture" concept. How did the material culture of boomsurfing enable, shape, or transform the kinds of new or newly manipulated social forms that emerged in the West during the 19th century? Can we use this complex and dynamic material life to examine to what extent the concept of social capital enables any greater understanding of the society of the American West? And conversely, does the uniquely dynamic and experimental nature of boomtime community formation offer any insights into the complex interplay of social and economic factors that lie at the heart of the debates over social capital more generally? Boomsurfer strategies, after all, were and are not necessarily restricted either to the American West or to the nineteenth century (Ville 2005; Terry 2013:584).

The discussion that follows draws examples from three different field projects stretching over the past twenty years. The first and longest was the seven-year project conducted from 1980 to 1987 in Paradise Valley, Nevada, focused on a small ranching community at the margins of the Black Rock Desert during the later 19th and early 20th centuries (Purser 1987, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1997, 1999). The Grass Flat boarding house and Granite Chief sawmill projects were CRM projects that documented small 1880s and 1890s Gold Rush–related sites of the western Sierras in California. These were directed in the early 1990s by Adrian and Mary Praetzellis of the Sonoma State University Anthropological Studies Center (Hayes and Purser 1990; Praetzellis, Praetzellis, and Purser 1990; Purser 1991; Praetzellis and Praetzellis 1993). The Sacramento Delta cultural landscape project was a multi-component project with a number of participating agencies, institutions, and researchers conducted from 1995 to 1998 (Purser and Shaw 1996; Purser and Shaver 2008). Material from all these projects has been published previously elsewhere, and the details are only summarized here. Collectively they provide a wealth of examples from a wide range of later 19th- and early 20th-century western community contexts, from ranching towns to mining camps, small-scale industrial sites, and an entire inland maritime cultural landscape. They include sites and features that are domestic residences, industrial facilities, commercial operations, agricultural properties, and a whole plethora of infrastructure elements ranging from road systems to elevated electric rail trestles, water flumes, irrigation systems, levees, and navigation routes (Figure 3).


Excerpted from Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens by Mark Warner, Margaret Purser. Copyright © 2017 Society of Historical Archaeology. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures     
List of Tables    
Introduction: Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens    
Margaret Purser and Mark Warner
Part 1. Economics and Economies
1. Boomtimes and Boomsurfers: Toward a Material Culture of Western Expansion    
Margaret Purser
2. The Archaeology of San Francisco’s Gold Rush Waterfront, 1849–1851: Building a New Model of the 19th-Century Pacific Rim Maritime “Frontier”    
James P. Delgado
3. “Where Ornament and Function Are So Agreeably Combined”: A New Look at Consumer Choice Studies Using English Ceramic Wares at Hudson’s Bay Company, Fort Vancouver    
Robert J. Cromwell
4. Approaching Transient Labor through Archaeology    
Mark Walker
Part 2. Archaeologies of Race and Racism
5. “Can We Separate the ‘Indian’ from the ‘American’ in the Historical Archaeology of the American Indian?”    
Joe Watkins
6. Rock Hearths and Rural Wood Camps in Jīnshān/Gām Saan : National Register of Historic Places Evaluations of 19th-Century Chinese Logging Operations at Heavenly Ski Resort in the Lake Tahoe Basin        
Kelly J. Dixon and Carrie Smith
7. Archaeology of the Chinese and Japanese Diasporas in North America and a Framework for Comparing the Material Lives of Transnational Migrant Communities    
Douglas E. Ross
8. Digging Yesterday: The Archaeology of Living Memory at Amache    
Bonnie J. Clark
Part 3. Reassessing the West
9. The Cultural Context of Commerce: Historical Anthropology and Historical Silences along the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail    
Minette Church
10. Our Dangerous Discipline: Doing Historical Archaeology in Utah    
Timothy James Scarlett
11. The Mild Wild West: Settling Communities and Settling Households in Turn of the Century Idaho    
Mark Warner
Epilogue: Digging Holes in the American West    
Matthew Johnson

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