A Brief History
The Chinese Expulsion Period (1850-1910)
In the 1850's a political upheaval in China known as the Taiping Rebellion, combined with a series of natural disasters, created catastrophic conditions that led to the deaths of at least 20 million people in that country.
When news of the discovery of gold in California reached China during this same
period, tens of thousands of desperate Chinese workers set out for America in
hopes of finding a better life. By 1855, 20,000 Chinese laborers were recorded
as living in California.
Most of the new immigrants did not speak English, and they often banded
together with their countrymen in work camps and in city neighborhoods.
Due to the hardships of travel and the uncertainties that awaited them, almost
all of the new Chinese coming to the U.S. were men. Their families and loved
ones were back in China, and the men here focused intently on their work in
order to make enough money to help those they left behind.
Chinese immigrants with particular skills settled in the cities where they established trade and service businesses, but many of the people who came to this country were laborers. Initially they set out for the mining camps in California and Idaho, but soon Chinese workers were in demand throughout the West by companies looking to hire reliable but cheaper labor.
As soon as they landed the Chinese were subjected to blatant racism by many of
the Euro-Americans in this country. At first there were only isolated incidents
of intimidations, threats and robberies. By 1850, however, organized mobs started
to chase off entire populations of Chinese, first in mining camps and later in cities.
Government officials not only tolerated the racism and violence, in most cases they
encouraged and abetted it. Beginning in 1852, when California enacted a “Foreign
Miners Tax”, elected officials openly targeted Chinese immigrants with many
repressive and discriminatory measures.
In many states the courts ruled that said no one "of Mongolian descent" was
allowed to testify in court against any white person. Not surprisingly, Euro-
Americans interpreted these decisions as meaning they could do anything they
wanted to the Chinese without fear of recrimination.
In spite of this institutionalized racism, many employers recruited Chinese workers
because the Chinese were not opposed to working long hours, were highly
productive and often accepted lower wages. During the 1860's the railroads hired
thousands of Chinese workers to help complete the Transcontinental Railroad.
They often worked where few white men would go, such as blasting out the long
and dangerous mountain passes in the Rocky Mountains Cascades and the Sierra
In 1869 the eastern and western sections of the railroad were joined in Utah, and within days as many as 12,000 Chinese railroad workers lost their jobs. Many of these men headed to the coal mines and rural areas of the West. The sudden influx of this unemployed workforce, coupled with an unrelated downturn in the nation's economy and the already vehement anti-Chinese racism in most of the country, set up a course of events that would be repeated throughout the last thirty years of the 19th century.
Almost immediately “the Chinese menace” was falsely blamed for economic problems in many areas, and prejudice soon turned to outright hatred that consumed much of the country. Labor unions and other organizations railed against the Chinese, with both the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) and the Knights of Labor at the forefront of verbal and physical attacks on Chinese immigrants.
An example of the AF of L's role in the Chinese Exclusion was a highly inflammatory report to Congress titled Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs. Rice - American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism - Which Shall Survive?. Although this report was not written until after most of the worst incidents of Chinese exclusion had already happened, it provides a sobering summary of the thinking that had driven much of the labor unions' activities during these times.
During the 1860's attacks on individual Chinese had become commonplace, but in 1871 the first major massacre of Chinese in the U.S. took place in Los Angeles when a mob stormed through Chinatown. They killed at least 18 Chinese and looted many of the businesses and residences in the area. Over the next decade dozens of other cities in California, including San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Chico, Eureka and Truckee, experienced anti-Chinese riots and/or efforts to expel all Chinese from the community.
By 1882 the anti-Chinese fanaticism had reached such proportions that a crowd of more than 5,000 people gathered in San Francisco to demand "relief from the Chinese plague". That same year Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining" and other jobs from entering the country for ten years and denying naturalization rights to Chinese already in the country.
In 1885 a raging mob attacked the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming, killing at least 28 Chinese miners and burning down mostl of their community. Federal troops were called in to restore order, but by the time they arrived all of the Chinese had been driven out of town.
Intent on being "more civilized", a mob in Tacoma, Washington, led by the mayor, rounded up all of the Chinese in the community and forced them to leave town. They then burnt down all of the Chinese dwellings and businesses. Similar expulsions took take place in Seattle and other cities throughout the 1880's.
One of the worst incidents of anti-Chinese violence occurred in an area known as Hells Canyon in Oregon. There a small group of whites attacked Chinese miners without any provocation. At least 34 Chinese are known to have died in the massacre.
Between 1850 and 1910 there were hundreds of incidents of significant mob or group violence against Chinese immigrants in fourteen Western states. The complete toll of the violence will never be known.
It is only within the last twenty-five years that serious research into this subject has been undertaken outside of the occasional doctoral dissertation, and new information is being uncovered every year. This summary provides just a glimpse into this terrible time in our past, yet the lessons to be learned from that era seem as relevant now as ever. I encourage anyone who reads this to seek out more information your library or at your local historical society.
Primary sea route of the earily Chinese immigrants
Preamble. Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof:
Therefore, Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.