Hops, the bitter plant used for beer flavoring, were in high demand in national and international markets in the last half of the nineteenth century, and conditions in river valleys of the Puget Sound region were especially favorable for hop growing. As a result, hop farming was a growth industry in the Puyallup, White River, and Snoqualmie valleys for about 25 years, from the late 1860s until the early 1890s. During the harvest season in late summer, the labor force consisted mostly of Indigenous seasonal workers who traveled to the Puget Sound hop fields from throughout the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and Alaska.
Workers From Near and Far
Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), a leading hop grower in the Puyallup Valley, reported that 2,500 Native Americans and Indigenous people of Canada came to the Puyallup Valley during the hop harvest of 1882. Six years later, in September 1888, the Karshner family, including 14-year-old son Warner, arrived in Puyallup from Kansas. "It was hop-picking time, and the town was overrun by Indians," recalled Warner Karshner (1874-1951), who later became a physician and state senator. Most of the native workers came from "adjacent reservations" (Karshner, 79). Members of the Puyallup, Snoqualmie, Muckleshoot, Duwamish, Sammamish, Lummi, and Nisqually tribes were among those who took part in the harvest.
Members of the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe journeyed two weeks by canoe to the Puyallup Valley, according to a history of the tribe by Jerry Gorsline. Families from the Yakama and Spokane tribes were among those who came from east of the Cascades, and they "usually came by horseback" (Karshner, 79). With the completion of Stampede Pass in the late 1880s, Native Americans from the inland Northwest could board a Northern Pacific Railroad train to the Puyallup Valley. Still others came from the Northwest Coast and as far north as Alaska, including Tlingits and Haidas, making the long canoe journey gradually over the course of months. During the 1885 hop season, about 6,000 Indigenous people from British Columbia -- one in four Indigenous people then residing in the province -- migrated south for the harvest. In 1890, 98 canoe-loads of Alaska natives came to work in the Puyallup Valley.
In his book Ox Team Days, Meeker noted there were at least 20 paddlers in each canoe. Among the passengers and items carried in them were "squaws, papooses, dogs, wigwams, mats, boxes, and baskets," according to Karshner, who added that all of these "were often loaded to the waterline" (Karshner, 79). In some cases, entire villages were vacated as tribal members departed for the harvest season. When Quileute members left their village at La Push, non-Native settlers set fire to it, according to Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History, a 1988 book by Robert H. Ruby and John Arthur Brown.
Changing Indigenous Economies
The setting for the hop work was one in which Native economies were rapidly changing. "The desire of indigenous people to join the Anglicized labor force was more often a symptom of losing conventional forms of subsistence, land, and resources due to colonization than it was a desire for assimilation," writes historian Vera Parham (Parham, 327). For Native Americans and Indigenous people of Canada who worked in the fields, wage labor was a familiar practice, one that Coast Salish and inland tribes had used prior to the arrival of white settlers. Native families would hire fishing crews during peak fish runs, for example, paying their workers with shell currency, food, or material goods.
Native Americans who were brought into the reservation system maintained economic livelihoods far beyond the reservations, and many refused to live on the reservations altogether. Native Americans often traveled throughout the region in pursuit of wage labor opportunities. "Working for pay did not mean that Pacific Northwest Native Americans were giving up their culture, because in reality the wages allowed them to retain cultural practices and survive in a capitalist world," writes Parham (Parham, 329).
For many years hop field work was the top form of migratory labor involving Native Americans in the emergent capitalism of the Pacific Northwest. A talented harvester could make as much as $3 per day at times, and a season's pay could sustain a family throughout the year. Meeker paid workers in silver as much as he could at first, eventually switching to a ticket system that workers could exchange for gold.
Hop growers such as Meeker spent considerable effort recruiting their workforce. They sent recruiters to reservations near and far to invite workers into the fields. In 1889, Meeker went to Prince Rupert, British Columbia on a quest to find harvesters. Henry Emmanuel Levy (1843-1929) of Snoqualmie Hop Ranch made a yearly visit to Victoria, British Columbia to hire 1,200 to 1,500 workers.
Hop growers anxiously awaited the arrival of their workforce in late August. "The question of question with the hop-growers," according to Ezra Meeker, was "will enough come?" (Hop Culture, 20). Agents greeted Indigenous workers at key locations and directed them to the hop fields, providing wagons and horses to complete the journey to their final destination.
In this competitive environment, some workers were able to move from hop field to hop field in pursuit of higher pay. Hop grower Allen Miller lost his entire 1877 harvesting crew when another farmer offered better wages. "The Indians are quick to perceive the situation and ready to profit by the anxiety of growers and to drive the best bargain possible," wrote Meeker (Hop Culture, 20). On the other side of the Cascade Mountains, the Yakima Valley was home to a burgeoning hop industry as well; Native American workers on William Ker's (1852-1925) Yakima hop farm, led by Yakama Indians SoHappy and Columbia Jack, held a strike in 1894 to push for higher wages, resulting in a pay increase and a successful return to work.
Cultural Understanding, Racial Tension
As white residents and workers interacted with Indigenous workers, they were able to form relationships and deepen their understanding of people who had occupied the lands of the Northwest since time immemorial. Some Puyallup Valley residents and farmers communicated with Native Americans in Chinook jargon, according to historian Lori Price. Describing Indigenous people who came to the Puyallup Valley, Warner Karshner wrote, "Many were fine men of strong character -- men whose word was as good as any bond. Most were industrious and worked hard and faithfully, making harpoons, gill nets, and beautiful dugout canoes. Occasionally one sat all day long in his wigwam carving figures on a cedar log .... The Indian women were largely hardworking, good old souls, loyal to their families. They were usually good pickers, using an excellent technique" (Karshner, 80-81).
Many women spent free time weaving baskets, and women often gathered to socialize on downtown Puyallup sidewalks in the afternoon, wearing colorful clothing and sometimes bringing baskets for sale. Meeker described the native harvesters as "inveterate and reliable workers, going to the hop-field as soon as they can see to work carrying their dinners with them, and remaining until pitch dark" (Hop Culture, 18).
Hop growers knew that Indigenous workers valued their traditional customs and language, and as a matter of good business and good worker relations, they tended to encourage workers to observe their own cultural ways, according to Parham. Puyallup Valley workers fished in the Puyallup River and dried salmon on racks among the tents in their encampments. But the presence of Indigenous workers in predominantly white settlements was not without tension. When a large number of seasonal harvesters arrived in Sumner in 1878, white authorities summoned a 64-man military company to "preserve the peace" (Parham, 331). The hop season proceeded without conflict between the militia members and the harvesters.
Chinese harvesters joined Indigenous workers in the fields, though in one instance, Native American and white workers violently attacked Chinese workers at the Wold Brothers Farm in Squak (present-day Issaquah). After Chinese residents were excluded from the area in the 1880s, white women and girls took over many of the picking jobs.
One early regional historian, W. P. Bonney (1856-1945), wrote of the leisure time Native Americans spent in gaming activities. In his history of Pierce County, Bonney notes, "Puyallup Valley was then the hop-growing center of the territory, and Indians of Washington and British Columbia came by the thousands annually to labor in the yards, to bet on horse races and to gamble away their earnings. The old race track laid out where North Puyallup now stands became known as 'The Devil's Play Ground,' and hop-picking time and the questionable pastimes participated in by the natives and some of their white brethren always drew a crowd of tourists and other onlookers" (Bonney, 394-395). The race track was located east of a ferry crossing over the Puyallup River known as "Carson's Ferry," which is occupied today by the Meridian Street Puyallup River Bridge. Puyallup Tribal member Peter Stanup described the races and gambling on the first Saturday of the 1877 hop season that went "all day till night," followed by a dance event (Larsen, 46).
Karshner witnessed the gambling. He described a group guessing game called "Slahal," played with bone bobbins. Games such as this went on for hours on nights and weekends. During the 1890 hop season, the Puyallup and Nisqually tribes were rivals in an extended game that lasted for weeks.
As travel around the Northwest became easier, the harvest became a tourist attraction. Tacoma residents could board the Northern Pacific or the interurban railcar for a trip out to the Puyallup hop fields. Or tourists could stay in hotels in Puyallup or Snoqualmie and go on to see the hop fields and native workers. A 1903 article in the Puyallup Valley Tribune noted the work ethic of the native harvesters and suggested that visitors to the fields could witness Indigenous people of the Northwest living in their traditional ways.
When the hop season concluded, workers began their journeys home, spending money in towns along the way as they purchased tools, baking ingredients, clothing, and more. By the late 1870s, Seattle merchants had grown accustomed to a seasonal return of Native customers as they passed through the city on their way home from the hop yards.
Snoqualmie Tribal members were involved in hop farming beyond the harvest season, taking part in the cultivation and tying of the crops. Workers left their village on Lake Sammamish to work in the Snoqualmie Valley fields for up to six weeks at a time, sleeping on woven mats. John Muir (1838-1914) visited the Snoqualmie Valley in 1890, reporting, "About a thousand Indians are required as pickers at the Snoqualmie Ranch alone, and a lively and merry picture they make in the field, arrayed in bright, showy calicoes, lowering the rustling vine-pillars with incessant song-singing and fun" (Lindblom).
For members of the Snoqualmie Tribe, work in the Snoqualmie Valley hop fields allowed them to renew their connection to places where they had freely moved prior to non-Native settlement. "For local Tribes such as the Snoqualmie, working the hop fields was one of the only ways to stay in our traditional lands while local governments and colonizers tried to push Natives out of the areas that we had lived in for thousands of years," according to Steven Mullen-Moses, director of archaeology and historic preservation for the Snoqualmie Tribe.
Growth and Decline
The Washington hop industry grew rapidly in the 1880s. The 1888 hop harvest yielded more than 6 million pounds of hops across the state, and the 1890 hop harvest reached 9 million pounds. An aphid infestation of European hop crops contributed to the rising international demand for Puget Sound hops. But by the early 1890s, aphids were a force to be reckoned with in the Puget Sound hop fields as well, and by the mid-1890s, the Puget Sound hop industry was in rapid decline. Meanwhile, the Yakima Valley hop industry was on the rise and remained the dominant hop-growing area in the Northwest.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.