Slow Progress on the Final Chapter

As I wrote yesterday, I’m continuing to tap away at the final chapter of my book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience.  

I’m feeling particularly over extended these days (and it’s largely self inflicted), but making a little progress each day makes me feel like I’m getting something done.

Here’s the first three paragraphs of the second section of this chapter. You can read the first section here.

Historical Archaeology, Extractive Industries and the American West

Historical archaeologists in the American West have long had an interest in extractive industries (Dixon 2020; 2014). This is as much because these industries defined the West both in reality and in the popular imagination as because they conformed to a view of the West as an extension of most populous settlements on the coast and in older centers in the Midwest. As we saw in the last chapter, the story of American urbanism often extends from the changing fabric, economy, and demography of the city itself to a vast hinterland of extractive industries, agriculture, and industry connected to the urban core via rail, ship, truck, and pipeline. As Timothy LeCain noted the high voltage wires that brought power to much of the American West as part of rural electrification initiatives also required the mining of copper on a massive scale (LeCain 2009). This, in turn, led to the growth of communities such as Butte, Montana, where the massive Berkeley Pit mine produced millions of tons of copper extracted from millions more tons of rock leaving today a massive and highly toxic scar on the landscape. The work of Donald Hardesty, in particular, worked to define the field of mining archaeology through his study of mining sites in Nevada (Hardesty 2010). Starting in the 1980s, he produced a series of studies that examined not only the economic and technological character of these sites, but also argued that these sites offered ways to understand the social and political aspects of western expansion (see for example, Hardesty 1991). A special symposium convened in 1999 at the Society of Historical Archaeology, led to a special issue of Historical Archaeology in 2002, that considered the place of workforce housing and communities in the organization of labor and society in the West and marked a continued shift from studies concerned with documenting sites connected with extractive industries themselves toward an interest in the lives of the workers themselves and the kind of communities that they formed (Van Buren 2002). The study of turn of the century camps in California oil fields (Baxter 2002), the site of the Ludlow massacre (Maguire and Rechner 2002), and the camps that followed the construction of the Los Angeles aquifer (Van Buren 2002) demonstrate a growing interest in the domestic lives of workers in these contexts. Kelly Dixon’s work on Virginia City, Nevada extends this research to boom town associated with extractive industries and forms of recreation, diet, and social life (Dixon 2005). This work anticipated Paul Shackel’s synthesis of the archaeology of labor and working class life where he stressed the agency and resistance among worker communities (2009).

This rich vein of scholarship shaped our initial engagement with workforce housing in the 21st-century Bakken. In many ways, the challenges of housing workers in the 21st century American West were similar to those of the late-19th and early 20th century. In 2009, a similar absence of existing housing in the sparsely populated counties of western North Dakota resulted in a series of ad hoc solution among the workers who flooded the region. As the national media breathlessly reported, workers camped out in the Williston Walmart parking lot, public camp grounds and parks, and hastily arranged RV hook-ups throughout the cities of Tioga, Williston and Watford City in North Dakota. By 2011, municipal authorities had enacted legislation limiting the number of RVs and other forms of temporary housing in the city limits, and the private sector had recognized the opportunities associated with providing temporary housing for the increasing influx of workers. As a result, a series of formal workforce housing facilities and graded RV parks with water, sewage and electricity appeared on the outskirts of the major towns in the region.

The North Dakota Man Camp Project began in 2012 which was the height of the oil boom. Like previous archaeologists interested in workers in the American West, our project also focused on the relationship between domestic spaces and social relations in the region’s man camps. To facilitate our analysis developed a working typology of camp types (see Caraher et al 2017). Type 1 camps were prefabricated camps with communal dining, recreation, and housing areas typically operated by large logistic companies. Type 2 camps were RV parks where residents typically owned their RVs and rented a space and access to water, sewage, and electricity. Type 3 camps were essentially squats established by small groups without access to water or sewage and ad hoc access to electricity. These were often illegal, informal, and sufficiently ephemeral that we heard about their existence more than we encountered them in the field. Type 2 camps, in contrast, we common, visible, easy to access, and particularly diverse class. As a result, these attracted most of our attention and allowed us to explore the diverse ways in which temporary workforce housing sites developed the material aspects of settlement and community.

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