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Silvio Manno, Charcoal and Blood: Italian Immigrants in Eureka, Nevada, and the Fish Creek Massacre

Reno, University of Nevada Press, 2016, pp. 297, $29.95.

On August 18, 1879, members of a Eureka County, Nevada, sheriff’s posse gunned down striking Italian charcoal burners belonging to the recently formed Eureka Charcoal Burners’ Protective Association. The deputies killed five and injured another six strikers. Known as the Fish Creek Massacre, these killings marked the tragic climax of a strike by Eureka’s charcoal burners to increase their «starvation wages» (p. 26).

In the 1870s, Eureka was home to a massive silver mining operation, one that drew thousands of workers, including more than a thousand Italians, to the region to perform the labor necessary to produce silver. Charcoal played a key role in that production, providing the fire needed to smelt Eureka’s silver. Like businesses throughout the late nineteenth-century U.S., Eureka’s silver mining industry practiced workplace segregation, and Italian immigrants produced most of the region’s charcoal.

In Charcoal and Blood: Italian Immigrants in Eureka, Nevada, and the Fish Creek Massacre, Silvio Manno tells the story of the strike and massacre, and provides the context that produced the region’s labor and ethnic conflicts. Through his extensive research into primary materials, Manno crafts a remarkably readable, coherent, and detailed history of Eureka, its Italian-American community, the workers who produced the charcoal that enabled Eureka’s silver mines to operate, and the Fish Creek Massacre. To this day, the killings remain a little-known incident to most Americans, and the victims of the tragedy long forgotten. By bringing the incident, and surrounding context, to light, and doing so in such an engaging fashion, Manno has performed a tremendous service to students of the American West, the residents of Nevada, and those with an interest in Italian-American history.

Those familiar with the United States labor and immigration history will not be surprised by Manno’s depictions of the violent treatment meted out to strikers, or the close relationship between capital and the state. Indeed, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, strikers throughout the American West experienced militant, often violent, forms of repression at the hands of employers, state authorities, and their allies in the press. Discussing the inequality and brutality of late-nineteenth century industrial capitalist America, Manno writes: «The Italian burners of Eureka lived in a period of American history embittered by a hostility between labor and capital…During this time of unrivaled capitalist hegemony, Americans lacked the institutional mechanisms to mediate the class-based conflicts arising between the laboring masses and their adversaries» (p. 61).

To craft this fine local labor history, Manno makes use of extensive primary source materials, particularly newspaper articles (which played an important role in the conflict), writing: «The role of the press in shaping public perception about the charcoal crisis was not insignificant» (p. 94). Although press accounts make up the bulk of Manno’s primary sources, he also utilizes the vast collection of court records stemming from the strike. Whenever possible, the author uses these materials to inject the strike participants’ own words into his narrative, allowing workers, police, judges, and journalists to contribute to the telling of the story.

Charcoal and Blood succeeds on many levels. Manno demonstrates that the strike and massacre were not only ethnic conflicts, but labor struggles in which class and ethnicity intersected at multiple levels. While the strikers, including the victims of the Fish Creek Massacre, were Italian immigrants, many of the burners’ union’s main antagonists were also members of Eureka’s Italian community. This is especially true of Italian businessmen and Italian-American teamsters who joined non-Italian employers and state authorities in violently combatting the unionists.

The book is organized both thematically and chronologically. Its first three chapters provide useful introductions to, and analyses of, Italian immigration to the American West, the charcoal manufacturing process, and Italian-American settlement and community life in Eureka. Noting that Eureka in the 1870s was a «simmering ethnic cauldron» where «violence was often viewed as a legitimate and efficient means» to resolve social disorders, Manno traces the long and troubling history of vigilantism and ethnic violence in the region (pp. 32-33).

The latter parts of the book provide a detailed narrative of the dramatic events of 1879, as charcoal burners unionized and engaged in a month-long labor struggle against their employers and local teamsters--middlemen who purchased charcoal from the burners. These chapters detail the formation of the charcoal burners’ union; the «Charcoal Crisis» (Manno’s term for the charcoal burners’ strike); the Fish Creek Massacre; and the trials that resulted from the strikers’ activities and the massacre. In a splendid conclusion, Manno discusses his attraction to the subject and his journey that took him through years of researching and writing this book on a topic so dear to him. The final product is a real page-turner, one that makes a strong contribution to the labor and immigration history of the American West.

Manno’s work is both meticulously researched and highly detailed, but Charcoal and Blood does have a few shortcomings. Most notably, the book occasionally offers condescending portrayals of the charcoal burners. For example, in a description of the strikers’ tactics, Manno compares the men to «a pack of forsaken wolf cubs, trying to fend for themselves by sheer instinct in the hostile wilderness; their growl more a deed of self-preservation than a display of aggression» (p. 128). 

In the book’s afterward, Manno states that he was «comforted by the conviction that a fragment of Italian immigration history in the American West and a strand of Nevada’s heritage had been rescued» (p. 245). The author should be commended for his efforts to unearth this buried history, and indeed, readers of this journal, along with others interested in Nevada and Italian-American history, will find much to enjoy in Charcoal and Blood. But Manno’s work will also appeal to students of the wider experiences of U.S. immigration history and the American West. It will make a fine contribution to university library collections, as well as to courses on the American West.

 

Aaron Goings (University of Tampere)

 

 

 

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