More Archaeology of Man Camps: Some methodological and historical perspectives

In my occasional free time, I’ve continued to do research on the archaeology of work camps and other temporary settlements associated with construction, resource extraction, or manufacturing. In particular, I’ve drawn heavily on the contributions to a special issue of Historical Archaeology titled Communities Defined by Work: Life in Western Work Camps (36 (2002)).

These articles have helped me to focus my ideas and approaches for my own project.  As I have mentioned here before, I am interested in doing an archaeological survey of so-called man camps associated with the Bakken Oil Fields in Western North Dakota. Unlike the projects presented in the Historical Archaeology volume, which tended to date to turn of the 20th century, the camps that I plan to study are still very much in use.  While the ephemeral nature of historical work camps has often made their study difficult, an approach that documents archaeologically the ongoing use of work camps will provide a useful corrective to this difficulty. Moreover, my work will be done in collaboration with a team of anthropologists, social workers, and “traditional” archaeologists allowing our research both to draw upon a range of methodologies (oral history, collaboration with social service providers, survey archaeology) and to provide analysis for a range of contemporary (and pressing) social, anthropological, and historical concerns.

There are several key themes in the recent study of the archaeology of historical work camps that can easily be ported over to the study of contemporary camps.

1. Margins. The location of work camps in marginal landscapes is a consistent feature in their development. When camps appeared in areas with established settlement, they tended to be set apart from traditional, long-term housing. More frequently, however, camps tended to be established to support work in areas with few centers of settlement. The capital needed to establish the camps and to fund the work undertaken, tended to come from established and often distant economic, political, and demographic centers. As a result, camps tended to be marginalized economically, socially, and politically and can be profitably studied using core-periphery models for how established centers projected authority, capital, and power into the periphery. Work camps in Western North Dakota, traditionally a economically and politically marginal area, clearly fit the model for how the core seeks to exploit resources located in marginal territories.

2. Structured life. As a part of the projection of core interests to the periphery, camps tended attempted (in some cases) to reproduce the social structures characteristic of the center.  The architecture and organization of camps often distinguished clearly between groups who controlled production and labor. Managers and specialists had better housing that often came close to what they might expect in the center and laborers tended to have more modest dwellings that were less rigidly organized and physically substantial. In some cases, squatters camps or other even more temporary settlements would appear on the periphery of camps where individuals with fluid or poorly defined relationships to the work at the camps would live. A colleague of mine who did professional cultural resource management work on the Bakken ranges described sleeping in his truck on the work site because housing was both expensive and scarce.

3. Resistance. As much as the core attempts to project certain relationships into the periphery, there remains ample space to resist. Resistance practices in historical work camps ranged from consuming alcohol in supposedly dry camps to refusing to live in the designated camps.  The most dramatic forms of resistance, of course, involve outright revolts, strikes, and other forms of physical “unrest”, but there were a range of less conspicuous forms of resistance to the structures imposed from the center (and imposed by capital). Interestingly, some forms of resistance – binge drinking, absenteeism, work slow-downs – follow closely the methods used by early and pre-modern workers confronting the reality of capital driven labor for the first time.

4. Reuse. One of the most interesting aspects of the man camps in Western North Dakota is the reuse of housing in new ways. Apparently parts of the Olympic village from Vancouver and trailers used for Katrina refugees have found there way to the Bakken range to house workers in the oils fields. Historical period camps likewise saw the reuse of housing, structural and architectural components, and other discarded materials to expand upon the limited resources available to camp residents.

These four points, for now, provide a departure for hypothesis building and method making for my field work out in the Western part of North Dakota. We are in the grant writing stage and one of the most exciting possible outcomes is that “my” team will be able to rent an RV to conduct our research out west. In other words, we’ll be living in our own academic work camp, in temporary housing, and experiencing some of the same challenges as the communities that we are studying while we are studying them. Stay tuned for more on this project in the next few months.

Received wisdom has that these houses set diagonal across their blocks just south of the Corinth canal were built to house the managers of the canal construction project in the 1880s.  We’d walk buy these houses nearly every day on our way from Isthmia to the beach near the canal’s mouth in the Saronic Gulf. Does anyone know anything more about these houses?

Corinth Canal Camp



  1. For some further architectural discussion, check out Charlie Hailey, Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space (MIT Press, 2009)


  2. Ah, Mutiny on the Bakken. I am sure the nerves can get frazzled up there. Some of the man camps are truly like prison camps, and contribute to an undercurrent of negative behaviors.

    However, I’ve been really impressed with the level of control the rules and regulations have contributed to. Man camps, historically, have been much worse places than I am reading about in the area at this time.

    My own dad worked in man camps decades ago and it was… memorable.

    Some companies are really doing a great job of trying to house employees in nicer accomadations, such as are offered by Bakken Residence Suites. I’m amazed at the photos showing that the units are literally studio apartments. This has a tremendous effect on the morale of the employees. Companies rarely give out the generosity of their hearts, so I’m sure this makes a difference in the bottom line. Happier employees give more at the work places. Not rocket science.

    This is a fascinating period in what will soon be history. Maybe the last westward boom?


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