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By the late s, a vigilante group known as Las Gorras Blancas formed in opposition to the fencing of the lands that had traditionally been open for grazing. This group was known by the white hoods they wore to protect their identities, as well as the use of guerilla tactics that were waged in their attempt to reverse patterns of Anglo settlement in northern New Mexico. Las Gorras Blancas also attacked the property of railroads as a protest against the low wages paid to the predominantly Hispanic workforce of the region.

These groups also recognized that the railroads threatened to disrupt their way of life by transforming the communal-based economy of the region into a Capitalist system based on private ownership of land. These groups mixed ethnic and cultural identity with class consciousness. At the same time, many Hispanic ranchers divided on questions of ethnic solidarity in favor of class consciousness with poor Anglo farmers against land speculators—many of whom were wealthy landowners in Mexico.

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Some nuevo Mexicano leaders turned to politics, uniting voters of various ethnic groups beyond their class interests but usually failing to enact the legal reforms needed to return the lands to communal ownership. By the s, the many of these political leaders joined the Populist Party and fought for higher wages for Hispanic railroad workers and traditional land and water rights for the areas predominantly Hispanic sheepherders. The most dramatic fence war occurred in Wyoming in The large landowners built fences around their lands, which severed the access to water and prairies for many local ranchers.

These small ranchers sought to collectively drive their cattle to market as had been the tradition prior to the arrival of the railroad. However, the big ranchers in Wyoming responded by hiring fifty gunmen to intimidate the ranchers and stop the cattle drive.

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Several of the organizers and cowboys were murdered, leading to an outburst of vigilante justice on all sides. Eventually, the federal government intervened by sending the US Army to restore order. Although these troops helped to prevent bloodshed, they were also ordered to intervene on behalf of the large property owners and put an end to the cattle drives. By the time the troops arrived, most of the witnesses to the murders had also disappeared.

The result was an end to the tradition of ranching on the open prairie. Within a generation, many of the small landowners had also vanished. In addition to at least a dozen fatalities, the independent spirit of the open prairie that had defined the West for generations had been lost. In its place was the beginning of the modern cattle industry based on mass production and efficiency.

Mining had led to the rapid growth of communities in California following the discovery of gold.

Begging in America, 1850-1940: The Needy, the Frauds, the Charities and the Law

By Virginia City, Nevada, boasted its own stock exchange and hundred saloons. A decade later, the town had been practically abandoned. The story of Virginia City was repeated throughout the West as the discovery of gold, silver, copper, zinc, and lead created boom towns and ghost towns from California to Colorado. I have but two or three Lady acquaintances in this country. Ladies are not plenty. There are a great many in the mining towns that take the form of a woman, but oh so fallen and vile. Prospectors and miners lacked the resources needed to construct mines. In response financial markets emerged in leading West Coast cities such as Sacramento, as well as all the various subindustries that depended on mining and miners.

Once the railroad reached the Southwest in the s, copper mining quickly became the leading industry of southern Arizona.

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Discoveries of mineral wealth fueled the growth of railroad lines that connected formerly isolated mining camps and led to the growth of new communities. However, the discovery of gold in along what would become the Alaskan-Canadian border led to the creation of a community that could not wait for railroads.

Few of the prospectors in the Klondike ever struck it rich. However, recognizing that these prospectors would require food and supplies, Alaska entrepreneurs like Belinda Mulrooney made a fortune. Mulrooney moved from east Juneau, Alaska, and established a mercantile business, hotel, and restaurant that provided her with enough steady revenue to also engage in the mining business. Mining towns were the most dangerous and diverse communities in post—Civil War America.

Entrepreneurs and laborers from every corner of the globe descended on each discovery of precious metal. The dangers of life in the mines, which killed just over 1 percent of their workforce per year, often paled in comparison with the violence of the mining camps and makeshift towns. Here an army of miners lived among immigrant laborers who processed the ore. These laborers were not prone to organization. However, in a number of mining communities they at least temporarily overcame language barriers and prejudice to collectively bargain for some of the highest wages paid to workers in industrial America.

Eventually, these mining towns either disappeared when the mines were exhausted or developed into manufacturing centers such as Boise, Idaho, and Butte, Montana.

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The rapid business growth of the West was dependent on immigrant labor and the emergence of the national transportation and communication networks of railroads, telegraphs, canals, and steamships. Non-English-speaking immigrants from Europe usually settled in clustered groups throughout the West. These communities permitted immigrants to retain language and customs for several generations. Churches and fraternal organizations formed the core of these clusters and helped to maintain a sense of tradition and community.

Ethnic clusters created migrant majorities in large areas of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Copper mines surrounding Butte, Montana, even sent dozens of recruiters throughout Ireland leading to a continued predominance of Irish labor. Butte was unique in that it was one of the few mining towns that developed into a major city. The predominance of Irish laborers and absence of preexisting Anglo-owned shops and factories allowed many Irish laborers to become business owners.

In most other areas of the West, the Irish and other minorities were heavily discriminated against much as they were in the cities of the East Coast and Ohio River Valley. Newcomers from Asia followed similar patterns of migration and community building in the West through schools, churches, and fraternal organizations. Like most European immigrants, Chinese and other Asian immigrants did not intend to live in the United States forever and sought to retain their language and customs. Like the Irish and central Europeans, Asian migrants experienced discrimination.

This discrimination was particularly severe for Chinese laborers on the West Coast during the s and s. Some managed to form profitable businesses, arousing the envy of white Americans. The migrants themselves were often viewed as a burden on California and the rest of the West, even though nearly every migrant was self-supporting. These groups lobbied for local and state laws banning immigration.

The efforts of such groups spread beyond the West Coast, culminating with congressional approval of the Chinese Exclusion Act of Banned the migration of Chinese laborers into the United States. Wealthy Chinese citizens could still migrate to the United States, as the law was aimed at appeasing those who believed that Chinese migrants were causing pressure on the employment market in the West Coast. Because the law was explicitly aimed at barring people of Chinese descent, it added to an atmosphere of intolerance toward Asian Americans in the United States.

This was the first law in US history to bar a group of immigrants explicitly because of their race or ethnicity. In addition, Americans new and old were quite aware that theirs was a nation of immigrants. The law specifically barred Chinese laborers but not wealthy Chinese investors from entering the United States.


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The law was strengthened or modified twice in the next dozen years before being modified to discourage Korean and Japanese migration. This political cartoon is critical of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It pictures a stereotypical laborer from Asia being excluded while foreign radicals from Europe are apparently welcomed to enter.

In many ways, hostility to Chinese migrants was one of the few unifying measures that brought the diverse groups along the West Coast together. Politicians needing a few extra votes could always count on gaining the support of the working class by blaming the presence of Asian immigrants for whatever difficulties their community was having. Rather than offering real solutions or even identifying the structural causes of poverty and worker discontent, such leaders distracted the population and pandered to existing suspicions that illegal immigration was the cause of a particular problem.


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  • The law sanctioned racism in ways that legitimized prejudice against all minorities. It also placed a stigma on all Asian Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans, regardless of whether they were citizens. Most historians are just beginning to revise their interpretations of the West to consider the experiences of people of Latin American descent. Just as African Americans faced violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Tejanos and other Westerners of Hispanic descent were frequently the target of ethnic violence.

    The children of these residents also endured segregated schools in Texas, Arizona, California, and were even forced into crumbling one-room schools in some of the industrial cities of the Midwest. In each case, segregated schools enrolled Mexican American children, regardless of whether they spoke English. Cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco also maintained separate schools for children of Chinese immigrants.

    Within urban areas throughout the nation Greek, Italian, Irish, Jewish, and Slavic immigrants were also discriminated against and restricted to the worst jobs and neighborhoods. However, these groups were increasingly regarded as white and therefore eligible to attend the public schools of their choice regardless of whether they spoke English. However, many of these immigrant communities formed their own schools in hopes of perpetuating their language, religion, and culture.

    For the children of Native Americans, however, education was directed toward the eradication of these cultural elements of their worldview through assimilation. White religious groups and the federal government established boarding schools where native children were sent, sometimes without parental consent. Here, the children were instructed in the religious beliefs, history, culture, and language of their Anglo teachers. These teachers believed that such training was vital to the future success of native children, a perspective that some natives feared was becoming increasingly evident as Western migration made their traditional way of life more and more difficult to maintain.

    In , the African American leader Frederick Douglass challenged Americans to consider the extent to which their national character and wealth was connected to its diversity. He also denounced those who uncritically presumed that nonwhite migration would somehow lead to the downfall of the nation. He was not alone. Sojourner Truth spoke on behalf of Native Americans, while Sumner pointed out that Asian children in California endured school segregation.

    White liberals who had been part of the abolitionist movement also joined the chorus. In , Charles Sumner attempted and failed for the third time to remove the word white from statutes regulating naturalization in hopes of extending citizenship to nonwhite immigrants and Native Americans.

    Not all liberal whites or black leaders expressed such open-minded sentiment toward all immigrant groups. Thaddeus Stephens had been a tireless agitator for the rights of African Americans but occasionally expressed anti-Semitic sentiment. Poor and illiterate Asians and Hispanics born in the United States and Native Americans who lived outside reservations could enjoy the right to vote, Stanton frequently reminded her listeners.

    That middle-class and college-educated white women were barred from the polls while these groups could vote often increased the indignity of early white suffragists. Historians have often conveyed the image of the West as an all-male preserve. With the exception of a few pioneering women who receive honorable mention, cowgirl-celebrities such as Annie Oakley, and a veritable army of nameless women whose virtue was bartered in saloons and mining camps, the Western woman is nonexistent. Western women are often caricatured rather than studied.

    This is not because of lack of sources because tens of thousands of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and other primary sources written by women about their experiences have survived into the present. An honest history of the West must recognize the simple fact that homesteading, ranching, mining, and city building were family enterprises. In no other region and in no other time is this truth as patently manifested as in the American West.