It used to be said that all Kings County, California, had was good agricultural land and two historical markers. One plaque notes the oldest house in the county. The other marks the location of the Mussel Slough tragedy, one of the deadliest events in American farming history.
Mussel Slough was the area between the Kings River and Tulare Lake, which later became part of Kings County. (A slough – pronounced [sloo] – is a swamp that forms a backwater to a larger body of water.) Two defining features of the West in the late 19th century were the arrival of white settlers and the railroads. They often went hand in hand, as the railroad wanted to encourage settlement along the rail line. Some of the land the government gave the rail corporations was later resold to settlers at a cheaper rate. As is often the case with large corporations, the work of the railroad companies – in this instance the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) – was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it connected California to the rest of the country and influenced its economic, political and social development. On the other hand, some started to question the amount of power the company had.
The accounts of what led to the Mussel Slough tragedy are varied, as are those describing the actual event. SP was given 2,500 acres in the Mussel Slough region to build a railroad. In order to encourage development along the line, SP advertised land for anywhere from $2.50-$5 an acre. Another brochure distributed by the company stated that farmers were allowed to work and settle on land that was not yet available to purchase, with the stipulation that they bought the land when it was put up for sale. The farmers were promised to be paid for any improvements they made. This was significant, as most of the land in the Mussel Slough region was arid and useless before the farmers irrigated from the slough.
Another element that led to the eventual crisis, was that SP had decided to reroute the rail line, which caused some to think that their claim to the land gifted by the U.S. government was invalid. In fact, Secretary of the Interior Orville Hickman Browning sought to reject SP’s route change, claiming that it violated the company’s original charter, and wanted to revoke the company’s ownership of the land. This caused many “squatters” to move onto the land in Mussel Slough, hoping they would be able to claim parcels once the railroad no longer owned it. However, only Congress had the legal ability to invalidate the railroad’s claim to the land, and it failed to do so. All the squatters' court cases seeking to obtain the land were rejected. At the time, SP didn’t take any legal action against the squatters, hoping to convert them into customers eventually.
Tensions began to boil over when SP sought to collect payment for the land, and the prices charged were much higher than expected. Instead of selling it to the settlers and squatters for $2.50 an acre as many had expected, the corporation charged $8-$20 per acre. Some bought the land, while others protested and took the railroad to court. Emboldened after winning a Supreme Court case in 1874, SP raised the price to $35 per acre. In response, the Settler’s League was formed to oppose the monolith.
Anti-railroad sentiments were already high on May 11, 1880, when the Settler’s League held a picnic in Hanford, California. Word reached the group that four “railroad men” were evicting settlers, which included a U.S. marshal named Alonzo W. Poole, a railroad employee and two settlers who had paid for their land (Walter Crow and Mills Hartt). A group of about 20 men left the picnic “lightly armed,” with the objective of trying to delay the evictions until a pending court case was heard. The details of what followed are sparse and contradicting, but the following is the general story that emerged.
The two groups converged at the home of Henry D. Brewer near Hanford. Walter Crow, who had paid SP for his land, resented those who hadn’t, and particularly had bad blood with James Harris from the settler’s group. Both men opened fire on each other, but Crow, a superior marksman, killed Harris and several others from the Settler’s League. It’s unsure how long the subsequent gunfight lasted, but the incident left seven people dead – including Crow, who was later found shot in the back several miles away.
Five settlers were sentenced to eight months of prison, but they were considered heroes for facing SP, so their experience behind bars was light. Three of them had their wives live with them. With such a strong resentment toward the railroad, the men who died were considered martyrs and inspired several major novels. Those in prison were released to cheering crowds of over 3,000 people. Even though the Mussel Slough tragedy is probably more complicated than how it was initially presented, the people needed to believe that it was possible to stand up to the power of a large corporation.
Although the incident at Mussel Slough has mostly been forgotten and the area no longer bears that name, parallels can still be drawn regarding farmers' relationship with big business. One modern example of this is Monsanto. Monsanto created technology that improved crop yields, but the prohibition of planting the second generation of the crop – combined with the threat of lawsuits for violating this stipulation – takes away farmer autonomy and forces them to buy from Monsanto every year. Another example is Dairy Farmers of America, which was a co-op created to give farmers countervailing agency in the marketplace. Instead, they have purchased food processors with conflicting interests and have been sued multiple times for manipulating milk prices against the farmer. Another big business relationship that farmers have to navigate is the one they have with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), like John Deere, that legally bans farmers and third parties from fixing their equipment. In 2022, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) introduced the “Right to Repair” bill, meant to address this longstanding problem with OEMs. It was only at the start of 2023 that John Deere, in particular, gave in.
When railroad companies came through the West in the 19th century, farmers weren’t used to negotiating with non-government entities – especially ones with so much consolidated power. Unfortunately, this is still a common problem in farming today. While the Mussel Slough incident has largely been lost to the history books, the dynamics of farmers having to negotiate large business interests – often at the farmers' expense – remains an unfortunate part of American agriculture.