Year of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Department or School/College
Department of History
David Beck, Jeff Wiltse
Agriculture, Allotment, Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, Irrigation, Quechan Indians, Yuma Project
University of Montana
The Quechan Indians of southeastern California’s Fort Yuma Indian Reservation have occupied the fertile floodplain near the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers for more than 300 years. Since their southward migration to this area sometime in the seventeenth century, tribal members supported themselves through the adoption of a multifaceted subsistence strategy that incorporated cultivated agriculture, the semi-cultivation of wild plants, and the gathering of wild-grown foods. To support their agricultural endeavors, the Quechans relied on the annual flooding of the Colorado River to provide both irrigation water and naturally fertilizing silt to the river-bottom lands on which they raised abundant crops such as corn, beans, pumpkins, and melons. The implementation of the federal government’s irrigation and allotment policies of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, however, undermined the Quechans’ traditional subsistence system. Despite policymakers’ visions of turning Indian people into Jeffersonian farmers by allotting and bringing large-scale irrigation projects to their lands, these two, deeply intertwined policies rarely fulfilled their grand promises. For the Quechans, the ultimate impact of the turn-of-the-century allotment and irrigation policies was to transform a once-self-sufficient, agriculturally oriented tribe into a group whose members relied, largely, on leasing and wage work, not farming, to support themselves. In addition, while government policies discouraged tribal farming efforts, the irrigation system built to serve their lands undermined the environmental conditions that had encouraged the tribe’s agriculturally based subsistence practices. During the early 1900s, dams and levees would halt the floods on which the Quechans once relied for irrigation, depriving tribal farmlands of all-important silt deposits carried by the river. By the mid-1900s, seepage from the All-American Canal was threatening the viability of the entire project. All the while, the Quechans’ removal from their traditional subsistence system—and the nutrient-rich diet it supported—rendered tribal people ever more susceptible to disease, ill-health, and even death. In short, the federal government’s allotment and reclamation policies had disastrous consequences for the Quechans, promoting both environmental and cultural changes that discouraged farming on their lands and pulled up the roots of this historically agricultural tribe.
Smith, Ian Michael, "From Subsistence to Dependence: The Legacy of Reclamation and Allotment on Quechan Indian Lands, 1700-1940" (2010). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 472.
© Copyright 2010 Ian Michael Smith