Bumming in California Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By 1931, the Great Depression was entering its low point. The male unemployment rate, already over 15 percent, would climb to nearly 25 percent within the next two years. As people lost their jobs, factories closed, and farms faced foreclosure, an increasing number of men became transient–part of a great migratory army of homeless vagabonds roaming the continent. Homeless and penniless, they took to the roads and the rails, looking for work and opportunity. These bums, and hobos, as they became known, lived daily with the struggle against hunger, while facing little more than hostility from local authorities concerned about the safety of their towns and cities. The author of the firsthand account included here, Eluard Luchell McDaniel, was one such bum, making his way around California, living each day just hoping to survive to the next. In a brief memoir, he recalls his journey around the state. It is emblematic of the hardships of the time, but also of the optimism that would eventually lead the United States back to prosperity.

Summary Overview

By 1931, the Great Depression was entering its low point. The male unemployment rate, already over 15 percent, would climb to nearly 25 percent within the next two years. As people lost their jobs, factories closed, and farms faced foreclosure, an increasing number of men became transient–part of a great migratory army of homeless vagabonds roaming the continent. Homeless and penniless, they took to the roads and the rails, looking for work and opportunity. These bums, and hobos, as they became known, lived daily with the struggle against hunger, while facing little more than hostility from local authorities concerned about the safety of their towns and cities. The author of the firsthand account included here, Eluard Luchell McDaniel, was one such bum, making his way around California, living each day just hoping to survive to the next. In a brief memoir, he recalls his journey around the state. It is emblematic of the hardships of the time, but also of the optimism that would eventually lead the United States back to prosperity.

Defining Moment

There is a lot of debate among historians for the specific cause of the Great Depression. Certainly, the 1929 stock market crash had a big impact on the collapse of the economy, but scholars point to a host of other factors at play throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. Some of the theories include a poor banking structure with little federal oversight, a declining farm market, a monetary policy built on the gold standard, and the instability of the European economy. Whatever the cause, beginning in 1929 and reigning throughout the decade until the start of World War II, the Great Depression affected every facet of life. Hundreds of banks failed, family farms were foreclosed on and liquidated, factories closed, and people lost their jobs by the tens of thousands. The first to be affected were the young and old, but soon, Americans of all ages began to feel the pains of economic uncertainty.

As unemployment steadily climbed into the double digits, a great number of Americans found themselves not only without work but also without homes. Ramshackle towns made out of tents, cardboard boxes, and sheds sprang up across the nation. Dubbed “Hoovervilles” in (mocking) honor of President Herbert Hoover, these camps, along with men standing in long lines at soup kitchens, became among the starkest symbols of the country's financial collapse.

While the political winds began to shift toward the more populist policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, many men began to crisscross the country in search of work. Tens of thousands of homeless and desperate men, known as bums or hobos, hitched onto freight trains or simply walked, doing whatever odd jobs they could find along the way or, more often, relying on the charity of strangers. It wasn't an easy life. Travel by freight train was dangerous. Men died or were injured while trying to board trains, or through exposure to the elements. Local police and train security workers, nicknamed “bulls,” were known to use violence as a means to dissuade trespassers.

Although grim and difficult, the stories of the men who rode the rails during the Great Depression became an essential part of American mythology. The notion of opportunity out West helped to strengthen American optimism even at the nation's worst moments. As the Depression gradually ended and World War II began, many of the men who lived off the charity of others, who rode the rails in search of work, would rise to defend the country from the armies of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

Author Biography

Eluard Luchell McDaniel was born in Mississippi in 1912. Having left home at an early age and unable to make ends meet in the first years of the Depression, he rode the rails to California at the age of fourteen. In San Francisco, he met the noted female photographer Consuelo Kanaga, who would later become famous for her photographs of African Americans. Kanaga employed McDaniel as a handyman and chauffer and helped him finish high school and, eventually, college. McDaniel became a union organizer, founding, among others, the Alabama Sharecroppers' Union. He wrote stories for the Federal Writer's Project, a WPA program. In 1937, McDaniel volunteered to fight the fascist forces of Francisco Franco in Spain, becoming first a driver and later an infantryman. He distinguished himself in several engagements, earning the nickname “El Fantastico” from the Loyalist troops he served with. Wounded in battle, he returned to the United States in 1938 and joined the Merchant Marine. Eventually, forced out of the maritime service for his Communist ties in the 1950s, McDaniel found work in a factory in San Francisco, where he remained until he retired. McDaniel died in 1985.

Document Analysis

Eluard Luchell McDaniel recounts his time bumming across California. A fourteen-year-old boy travelling with a small “gang” of other boys, he and his friends ride in boxcars, eating whatever food they can find along the way. Their journey is not an easy one, their anxiety nearly constant. Where will they find their next meal? Where can they find work? It ends with them narrowly avoiding prison and McDaniel deciding that his time bumming was at an end. McDaniel's story is representative of a large segment of the male population during the Great Depression, a time when tens of thousands of Americans became itinerant, migratory workers, dreaming not of riches, but simply the chance to survive.

McDaniel writes as an uneducated bum, riding the rails, would. His intent, through recollection, is to impart the hardships of being poor, homeless, and without support. He and his fellow “floaters” represented every corner of the nation. They travelled in search of food, work, and new opportunities. They were willing to work, but, at times, they were not above taking what they needed. People didn't help much then. Police made life difficult. Railroad security could be dangerous.

They picked clean a fruit ranch. They gorged themselves on raw sugar beets on a train. They gambled. They talked. Eventually they came upon a farmer willing to pay them six dollars each for two days' work. The experience that McDaniel writes about is alien to that of most people living in America today. It was a time when groups of young men might travel for days on the rumor of work. When a significant portion of the citizenry was destitute.

Eventually, McDaniel and his gang stop in a town outside of Oakland. The local police chief tells the group to clear out. Their kind is not welcome in the town. Despite the boys having money from their job, the policeman insists that they leave and threatens them with jail time if they stay. All of them have had bad experiences with the authorities in the past, McDaniel informs us, not because they were bad people, but because of the times in which they live.

When the chief of police informs the boys that they might be wanted in connection with food theft at a fruit ranch, each member of the group pleads for their lives. When they reveal their ages, the police take pity on them and let them go. These are not hardened criminals on a spree through the state, they are just kids trying to survive, searching for the American dream. In exchange for being set free, McDaniels and his friends agree to stop bumming and play it straight.

Essential Themes

McDaniel's account offers us a unique insight into the lives of the people most affected by the Great Depression. Little more than a teenager, without any form of support and seemingly without any prospects, McDaniel faces a daily struggle against hunger. Trying to survive the worst economic downturn in the nation's history, McDaniel and his friends are under threat of near constant harassment by the very authorities who should be helping them. Going from town to town, travelling wherever the train takes them, groups of boys and men live in a constant state of stress. And yet, there's a shared comradery and optimism among McDaniels and his group. Their lives are hard and uncertain from one day to the next, but one gets the sense that they believe that things might get better. The very act of travelling west is indicative of this optimism. At no point does McDaniels wallow in pessimism, but continues on, hoping against hope. This is fairly typical of the American experience of the Great Depression. While countries like Italy, Germany, and Spain descended into dictatorship and authoritarianism, in 1932, the United States elected a populist president and, despite legal and political challenges, invested fully in his ideas of shared responsibility. While citizens in other countries blamed their governments for the Great Depression, overthrowing one after another, Americans largely blamed themselves, resolving to do whatever was necessary to pull themselves back up again. McDaniels was soon rewarded for his optimism, with work under FDR's New Deal. Although the Depression continued on for the rest of the decade and the ranks of bums would swell, that belief in a brighter future would help the United States not just survive, but thrive.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
  • Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
  • Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: The New Press, 2005.
Categories: History Content