California dips its big fat white toe into the nativist pool

            This is why history is so fascinating to me. The connections between people, events, or places is often surprising. When I first started looking at the men who patrolled the border with Mexico before the Border Patrol, I had no idea that the story would begin in earnest in California, more than 500 miles away from Mexico in San Francisco. When all the world headed to California in 1848 to find their own little gold mine, Chinese showed up also. Their very presence would eventually lead to the first major anti-immigration legislation. You may be thinking “but Americans have always been tolerant and respectful of foreigners, even those with different cultures, appearances, and languages.” (Seriously? That’s what you think? You need Jesus. And a history textbook not printed in Texas.) Unfortunately, nope. Nativism, the belief that native born Americans were superior to everyone else, was just gaining steam in the early 1850s, but it was a mostly East Coast thing, so California needed its own special racism.

Historians have tended to separate nativism and Chinese Exclusion. I kinda get that. Nativism was primarily an East Coast phenomenon and the Chinese were almost all located on the West Coast. But that approach tends to let East Coast politicians off the hook. Andrew Gyory has pointed out that East Coast politicians, most having never seen, let alone talked to, a Chinese person, used Chinese exclusion to court West Coast voters.[1] When East Coast leaders decided to use Chinese immigrants as scapegoats, they built on years of racist rhetoric that had been  directed to the Irish, the Italians, or the Jews. Irish teamster Dennis Kearney successfully used nativist rhetoric similar to that being used against the Irish in the East against the Chinese in SanFrancisco. This language and violence overlap meant that nativism and Chinese exclusion were two sides of a very unequal coin. Chinese had little effect on nativists, but the nativists would prove devastating to the Chinese community.

I must admit. I have always been slightly befuddled by the Chinese Exclusion Era. The Chinese population was never especially large before or after federal restrictions; their numbers peaked at almost 107, 500 in 1890 and the vast majority in California. [2]  Yet from 1882, when Congress passed the first Chinese Exclusion Act, through the early 1900s, the United States government became so terrified of Chinese immigration that one could look at the Congressional Record and believe that the country was on the verge of a full-scale invasion. How the government managed to scare itself is both simple and incomprehensibly stupid. The simple answer is racism. Many Americans feared the Chinese because they stubbornly refused to become just like them. Matthew Frye Jacobson refers to this resentment as Americans “bristl[ing] at the general failure of the world’s peoples [such as the Chinese] to adopt obediently the roles scripted for them by the nation’s economic requirements…”[3] (And really, who doesn’t want to be American? Patriotism and love of one’s culture were clearly invented by Americans. Right? Hello? Anybody?) But what is incomprehensibly stupid is that the Chinese were never a threat to the United States in any way. Many, in fact, were happy to work a while, go back to China, and come back again later to do it all over again. I can’t explain racism or stupid, but I can help you understand how it all went to hell and that’s a start.

White Californians considered Chinese as far below them, when they considered them at all. For white protestant guys, California was a golden paradise, where all manner of dreams could be realized. Not so much for nonwhites. For them, California was a place that offered a break from crushing poverty (many would return home after raising a little money), a place to eke out a living, mostly by serving the needs of dream chasing white men. Chinese in particular were especially punished during the Gold Rush, even as they did the work white men refused to do. California was never an even playing field. White Californians and white new arrivals kept did everything they could to keep Chinese immigrants down, making sure that their impressive work ethics would never lead to an economic rivalry.[4] But that wasn’t enough. When the Gold Rush ended, California whites simply decided that the Chinese had to go.

One of the earliest references to fear of the Chinese in California on a governmental level is the Minority Reports of the Committee on Mines and Mining Interests from March 10, 1856. The report gist of the report was that miners were upset at a proposal to lower the special tax on Chinese miners by one third. The committee lamented that “the working men of California” needed the tax left the way it was because “[t]hey believe that [it] encourage[s] the Chinese to gradually leave the State.” [Italics in the original.] The committee wanted “the Legislature to enact a law which would more effectually rid the State of the disgusting presence of the Chinese…”[5] Like virtually everyone else who hated the Chinese, the report overestimated the numbers of Chinese in California, and overstated how many would immigrate to California in the future. This would become the language of bigotry in the West. Exclusionists often described Chinese as a “horde,” soon to be invading America by the millions. But clearly words were not enough.

            Chinese in the U.S. West endured wave after wave of physical violence, especially during the years leading up to 1882. Armed white men murdered and set on fire Chinese men in Chico, California in 1877; vigilantes often roamed Chinatown in San Francisco, attacking its Chinese residents; there were also riots in Los Angeles in 1871; Denver in 1880; and, after the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, and near the Snake River in Oregon in 1887.[6] All of this was fed by violent language. For decades the Chinese had shown themselves to be no threat to anyone in the West, and certainly not in the Midwest and the East, yet arguments over Chinese exclusion raged. The federal government continued to warn Americans of the dire threat of the Chinese “hordes,” while magazines regularly published articles regarding the un-Christian and un-Constitutional exclusion of the Chinese and, less frequently, reasons why the Act should be extended. Newspapers focused on political debates but chose whose speech to print based on the newspaper’s location. For as long as they had been in the United States, Chinese immigrants’ relationship with Americans was largely one of words, especially since most of America had never even seen or met a Chinese immigrant. These words would continue to sharpen as restriction became exclusion.[7] From the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 through each of the Chinese Exclusion Acts and their many iterations, words dominated the world of Chinese immigrants, through editorials, treaties, and especially legislation.

            You have no doubt figured out that this is about to get pretty exciting, especially if you consider congressional debates exciting. But you will have to be patient. Next we will make another geographical leap and discuss Reconstruction. Its gonna matter later.


[1] Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 76.

[2] Eleventh Census of the United States- 1890; Census Reports Volume I- Population Part I, 474.

[3] Matthew Fry Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876- 1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 5.

[4] For more on the early treatment of Chinese immigrants by white Californians, see Iris Chang, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, (New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 2003); Bennet Bronson, and Chuimei Ho. Coming Home in Gold Brocade: Chinese in Early Northwest America. (Seattle, WA: Chinese in Northwest American Research Committee, 2015); Ryan Dearinger, The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016). Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

[5]James Allen, ed., Minority Report of the Committee on Mines and Mining Interests (Sacramento, California: California Government Printing Office, 1856), 4, 5.

[6] See Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). For more on anti-Chinese violence also see Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004); Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Roger Daniels, ed. Anti- Chinese Violence in North America (New York: Arno Press, 1978); Liping Zhu, The Road to Chinese Exclusion: The Denver Riot, 1880 Election, and the Rise of the West (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas Press, 2013). The 1871 and 1885 massacres were especially brutal.  In Los Angeles there were 17 dead; in Wyoming 28 dead and 70 homes were burned. For more on the Los Angeles riot, see Scott Zesch, “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre.” Southern California Quarterly, Summer, 90, no. 2 (2008): 109-58.

[7] Beth Lew-Williams posits the argument that word choice made a significant difference in 1882 as contemporaries referred to the Chinese Exclusion Act as the “Chinese Restriction Act” in an attempt to retain diplomatic ties with China. Only after restriction failed and China gave in to exclusion did the United States enact Chinese Exclusion in 1888. See Lew-Williams, Beth. “Before Restriction Became Exclusion.” Pacific Historical Review 83, no. 1 (2014):24-56.

Primary Documents:

Documents on Anti-Chinese Immigration Policy

Guide to the Chinese in California Virtual Collection

For Further Reading:

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (Search and Recover)

Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush

Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History

Coming Home in Gold Brocade: Chinese in Early Northwest America

Author: theprogressivehistorian

Immigration historian

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