Racialization and Racism

Civilizing swamps in California: Formations of race, nature, and property in the nineteenth century U.S. West

This paper examines the production of settler ecologies through nineteenth century swamp reclamation projects in California. It focuses on the transformation of inland swamps into agricultural land and San Francisco salt marshes and tidelands into urban real estate. I argue that swamp reclamation was both an economic and a racial project. Swamp reclamation sought to transform perceived wastelands into productive property. Swamp reclamation was also a racial project, in at least three ways. First, it aimed to transform colonial environments for the health of the white settler body. Second, draining swamps and making solid land depended on a racialized labor force. Third, swamp reclamation was accelerated through government subsidies that largely benefitted white settlers at the same time the state of California disenfranchised Black, Chinese, and Indigenous residents and supported racial immigration policies. These formations of race, nature, and property were established by law and political economy, and undergirded by settler epistemologies of space and nature. By studying the discourses and practices of swamp reclamation in nineteenth century California, this paper contributes to scholarship on the production of settler ecologies under conditions of racial capitalism.

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Volume 40 Issue 2

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