The USA Hobos — a Fine Lineage of Freighthopping Outcasts
Emerging in the 19th Century in the U.S., hobos traveled on trains and created a code of ethics and a beautiful language of symbols.
At the end of the 19th Century, the United States was overflowing with hobos, a large group of domestic nomads who traveled in search of work. Unlike the homeless or the well-known tramps, hobos boarded cargo trains as outcasts and traveled exclusively by railway.
According to diverse historians, hobos and the term which defines them appeared at the end of the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. By the 1900’s there were an estimated 700,000 of them–people who cast their fate to the wind and charted empirical maps across the country. During the Great Depression, in the 1930s, this floating population grew exponentially amid mass unemployment. There were famous and legendary hobos, some branded as savage or murderers, and many of whom wrote about their lives and journeys
The lives of these characters was markedly solitary and dangerous: they were up against the hostility of the communities where they traveled, and on occasion train officers would file them off wagons in sparsely populated areas and would often beat them. These adversities forced hobos to create a closed community ––a fellowship–– and an entire culture around their lifestyle. For example, they came up with their own terminology, a language of symbols and a code of ethics which, among other things, established the value of their freedom, prohibited them from harming the environment or littering, instilled respect for the communities where they transited and urged them to support each other.
Their secret language, which by the way was fascinating, included a system of visual symbols that provided useful information to those leading this lifestyle. It also communicated advice, instructions and directions, and prevented other hobos from avoiding certain places or drinking water from certain rivers. These secret signs were inscribed in strategic places.
The lifestyle of the hobo philosophy, one founded on freedom, non-attachment and fraternity, attracted notable figures, especially famous writers including Jack London and George Orwell, who embraced their existential credo. Kerouac wrote Lonesome Traveler in 1960 based on his experiences as a hobo.
The tenacious hobos of yesteryear still exist in the United States. They hold conventions and there are various groups and sites for their communities. The National Hobo Convention has been held since 1901, drawing them together once a year.
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