Lifting the Redwood Curtain


After earning his B.A. in History and Religious Studies at Humboldt State University, Michael Karp earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Saint Louis University. He is currently a faculty member in history at Bard High School Early College Baltimore.

Could you briefly describe your dissertation?

My dissertation examines the history leading up to the Great Lumber Strike of 1935 to explore how the colonial settlement of California, the Reconstruction of the Far West, and changing interrelationships between laborers, capitalism, and the natural world all contributed to episodes of violent conflict in northwestern California. By examining the region on local, national, and global scales, my project uses three events that transpired in Humboldt County, California—the Indian Island Massacre of 1860, the expulsion of the Chinese between 1885 and 1906, and the failure of the Great Lumber Strike of 1935 in the redwood industry—to explore evolving economic and environmental relationships between Native people, Euro-Americans, and Chinese and European immigrants. Through a detailed analysis of the long-term developments leading up to the Indian Island Massacre and Chinese expulsions, I argue that the failure of the lumber strike of 1935 in California signified the culmination of decades of violent conflict of land use and labor practices in northwestern California.

What drew your attention to this topic?

I first began thinking about my topic while completing my undergraduate work at Humboldt State University. At the end of my senior year, I finished reading William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and I became fascinated with the idea of exploring the environmental history of northwestern California. From Native land use to industrial redwood logging, I felt like California’s far northwestern coast had important histories that could be explored in new ways.

I also became interested in the topic because of Native American activism in the area. Each year, the Wiyot tribe holds a candlelight vigil to remember those murdered during the Indian Island Massacre of 1860, in which a group of Euro-American settlers killed nearly 200 Native women and children with axes and hatchets.

The Indian Island Massacre became the subject of my M.A. thesis. In my thesis, I argued that competition over coastal prairies in large part led to the Indian Island Massacre. Native people traditionally burned prairies and harvested various roots and tubers from them. Colonial settlers, on the other hand, drove thousands of cattle into grasslands, which disrupted traditional Native subsistence patterns. When some Native people began killing cattle for food, Euro-Americans responded violently by murdering entire indigenous communities. Aided by more research, I carried this argument over to my dissertation.

In addition to the Indian Island Massacre of 1860, I decided to detail the expulsion of the Chinese from Humboldt County in the late nineteenth century and the murder of three European redwood loggers during the Great Lumber Strike of 1935. Like the Indian Island Massacre, I argue that both the Chinese expulsions and the failure of the Great Lumber Strike resulted from struggles to control labor practices and the landscape of Humboldt County. The Chinese purges, for example, offer a window into changing economic and labor dynamics, as industrial redwood logging created new relationships between laborers and the natural world that resulted in racial tensions. Likewise, the failure of the Great Lumber Strike of 1935 in California resulted from laborers struggling to unionize in an industry characterized by a great deal of workplace violence. In examining the long-term developments leading up to these events, my project seeks to shed light on the ways in which colonial settlement, the Reconstruction of the Far West, global trade, and industrial labor violently restructured society along race and class lines and simultaneously remade humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

What particular sources proved the most useful in your work?

While I used a great deal of newspapers, lumber company records, shipping manifests, and military correspondence, oral history interviews provided critical perspectives and information that shaped each section of my project and influenced my understanding in ways no other sources could. For example, many colonial settlers claimed that Euro-Americans committed the Indian Island Massacre because the Wiyot gave arms and information to mountain tribes that attacked cattle. However, other Euro-Americans claimed that the Wiyot would never help the mountain tribes because they were traditionally enemies. A Wiyot oral history conducted by an ethnographer at the turn of the century resolved these conflicting accounts. A tribal member explained that on the night of the Indian Island Massacre, the Wiyot held a large World Renewal Ceremony to which they invited people from all over their territory. One of the Wiyot’s guests that night came from the Wiyot’s far eastern border and could speak in the language of the Wiyot’s neighboring enemies. The night of the massacre, three Euro-Americans spied on the Wiyot World Renewal Ceremony and heard their guest “jokingly” use the language of the mountain tribes. To Euro-Americans, this seemed to prove the Wiyot’s involvement in raids on cattle and settlers, and resolved to kill as many Wiyot as possible just hours later. In this instance—and several others—oral histories provided crucial perspectives on events that other sources lacked.

What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

As I move forward with my manuscript, I plan to take a closer look at how the local histories I am exploring fit into a larger Pacific World. While I assumed a Pacific World model in some sections of the dissertation, I hope to expand my analysis of growing industrial markets and labor migrations in a larger Pacific context. On a related note, I also hope to examine these three events through the lens of the history of capitalism. While my thoughts on this aspect of the project are somewhat inchoate, I feel that changes in capitalism over time influenced the outcome of each of these events. The introduction of cattle—many settlers’ primary mode of capital—led to violent conflict with Native people. The spread of the redwood industry across the globe mirrored the advance of capitalism across the Pacific Basin, during a time when thousands of Chinese migrated to various parts of the Pacific World, including California’s redwood belt. Many Euro-Americans laborers blamed Chinese for the harsh working conditions that the spread of capitalism foisted upon them. Finally, efforts to unionize against the growing wealth of lumber magnates spurred the failed lumber strike of 1935. In short, I seek to better piece these events together by taking a closer look at the role of capitalism in each of them.

As I work toward better integrating these interpretive frameworks, I hope that non-specialists would see how the globalization of the redwood industry across the Pacific World greatly influenced episodes of violence against Native people, Chinese immigrants, and working-class Euro-Americans during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. At the same time, I would hope to show readers how the rapid expansion of the redwood industry led to its demise during the second half of the twentieth century, creating social and environmental injustices in our own time. In particular, many local residents have come to rely on the production of marijuana and methamphetamines to make a living after the lumber industry collapsed. As a result, studies have shown violent crime has increased significantly in northwestern California. Additionally, as an unregulated industry, marijuana production currently pollutes soil and rivers, harming the reproductive cycle of already endangered salmon populations.


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