Anti-Chinese Riots in Washington State


by Jennifer H. Lee '01

In the last decades of the 19th century, anti-Asian backlash fueled by high unemployment which increased resentment against Asian settlers, anti-Asian legislation, and growing nativism, erupted into violent riots in Washington State.

Throughout the 1880s, thousands of Chinese laborers were especially targeted for murder, assault, and forced evacuation all across the state. The reasoning behind and the implications of these acts of violence and exclusionist policies were the same all over the West Coast and almost everywhere Asians settled. In cities such as Seattle and Tacoma, where much of the anti-Asian sentiments were manifested, the effects of the early Asian American history are still evident, even if the events are widely unacknowledged.

Laborers from all across Asia journeyed to the Pacific Northwest, in search of fortune and freedom. Push factors such as war, famine, and restricted civil liberties in their homelands drove thousands of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino citizens to the other side of the Pacific. Although all these groups contributed widely to the growth of the Washington Territory, and later, state, it was the Chinese who settled first and in the largest numbers.

By the 1860s when news of the discovery of gold in Eastern Washington had reached the distant shores of China, the Chinese were suffering from severe civil unrest and even famine. However, it was the heavy tolls of unproductive harvests at home, and heavy recruitment by railroad and logging firms abroad, that attracted most of the Chinese to Washington. By the 1870s, Chinese men were already at work prospecting along the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, working in Black Diamond, Newcastle and Renton coal mines, and involved in most aspects of building the state's railways (UW).Chinese laborers also entered the fishing industry, both as the First non-Indian fishermen in Puget Sound and as the dominant labor force in salmon canning.

Sadly, it was also the Chinese who were the main targets of mob violence. Many Chinese were able to find jobs as cheap, unskilled labor in Washington's new industries. Although it was to the profit of their employer and labor contractors, the Chinese laborers' willingness to work for low wages and their frequent use as strikebreakers was to the ire of many European American settlers who saw Chinese workers as a growing threat to their own job security.

Early Washington legislation had as early as 1853 excluded the Chinese from the right to vote (UW). Following the example of California, Washington also passed legislation such as poll taxes that were biased against Chinese workers. This resentment grew to a head following the national economic depression of the mid-1880s. Facing unemployment, many European Americans viewed the Chinese labor force as a greater threat. Anti-Chinese sentiments climaxed in the fall of 1885.

The Rock Springs Massacre in September, which left 28 Chinese killed and 15 wounded in the Chinese-dominated railroad work camp (Tsai 70), set a precedent of violence that would proliferate all over Washington. On the 11th of the same month, a Chinese settlement in Coal Creak was raided, and the residents assaulted. In the mining community of Black Diamond, Chinese miners were forced out of town. Three Chinese men were killed, and two wounded when a camp in Issaquan was attacked. Angry anti-Chinese citizens formed an Anti-Chinese Congress in Seattle. The violence continued through October as home after home was ransacked and burned. Then Governor, Watson C. Squire, recognizing the danger to the Chinese, recommended that they "quietly withdraw," thus "thinning out their number that they will not be offensive" (UW).

On November 3, 1885, the disturbing trend of forced evacuation emerged in Tacoma, where a 300-man mob drove 700 Chinese out of their homes and forced into wagons. Waiting overnight in these wagons, waiting for the Portland-bound train they would be herded into, two Chinese died. John Arthur of Tacoma, wrote with "genuine delight" to Governor Squire: "Tacoma will be sans Chinese, sans pigtails, sans moon-eye, sans wash-house, sans joss-house, sans everything Mongolian" after the Chines in Tacoma are escorted out of town and put upon freight and passenger trains" (UW). Hearing the news of the violence, 150 Chinese fled neighboring Seattle. Not long after, 350 of the remaining workers were forced out. Although the riots finally ended on November 8, with the help of federal troops sent in by President Grover Cleveland, the trend of violence continued (Tsai 71).

A year later on February 7, 1886, 350 Chinese were forced out of their homes and most shipped to San Francisco. In Eastern Washington, 31 Chinese miners were executed in 1887 (Chen 152). The same year, Tacoma again expelled its Chinese residents. This time their number was close to three thousand (Chen 152).

Chinese and other Asian immigrants contributed greatly to the growth of Washington State. Of the 20,000 workers on the Northern Pacific Railroad (which ended in Tacoma), 3/4 were Chinese (UW). Surely, not all Washingtonians supported the anti-Chinese actions of the mobs, nor the exclusionist legislation. However, the effects of these mobs and of these pieces of legislation had a great influence on Washington communities.

No Chinese were allowed to settle in Tacoma for decades after the 1880s riots. Many mining boomtowns were deserted by their Chinese work force and became ghost towns instead.

Personal Commentary

I learned of the anti-Chinese riots in Washington, as I do most of my learning, through a novel, one by Annie Dillard called The Living. It was just a brief paragraph, really, about the Congress of Sinophobes and The Interests, who got together in Tacoma and decided to ship the Chinese to Portland, just like that. And that's what hit me. The way in which the wholesale expulsion of an entire community was agreed upon and executed just as any other action of any other group, in any other town. But this is where it was different. It was my hometown, Tacoma. City of Destiny, we call it now. Tacoma has sister cities in Asia, small industrial ports mirroring its hungry capitalist spirit on the other side of the Pacific. Tacoma, as I knew it, from the view afforded from my home in neighboring University Place, was lively, relatively safe...nice.

So the idea of a colored past in Tacoma baffled me. That Tacoma was once home to a large Chinese population and that it packed her up and jettisoned her off to neighboring Oregon. I needed to learn more about this. I'm partly the product of a public school system, past its academic heyday of national awards, merit scholars and the like, but still holding onto regular mentions in the Tacoma News Tribune, even if they were only sports scores. For most of my academic career, I could count the number of Asian students in my class on my hands. Maybe a couple districts over you'd find the larger Asian populations that allowed Western Washington to call itself so multi-cultural. But not in mine. So when I read Dillard' 5 description of Tacoma, I took note. There once was a large Asian, Chinese population in Tacoma. For most of Washington's 2Oth century history, it has been Japanese Americans who were the largest group here. Increasingly it's become the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Thai.

I had grown up watching Tacoma declare itself more and more progressive. I never learned European History in high school. I learned World Historical Perspectives. I grew up reading about heritage festivals and cultural museums. Tacomans knew their history, claim to fame: hometown of Bing Crosby, local heroes: Dale Chihuly, renowned glass blower, historical Union Station, the last stop of the Northern Pacific. Nobody until Dillard said anything about the Sinophobes. I truly believe that the Chinese expulsion and decades-long exclusion was a factor in why I never learned of even the presence of Chinese immigrants in Washington. I think that in those decades after the Chinese were shipped away and the remains of their existence here had been burned to the ground, Tacomans forgot why they were gone. And they continued to forget, up to me. I learned of Chinese communities in San Francisco, along the railroads (but not the ones in Washington), of picture brides; etc., but never how that was related to where I lived. In researching for this project, I discovered that none of the major museums in Tacoma acknowledge these historical events.

I'm not bitter that I didn't find out about the Chinese presence in Tacoma until I weeded it out of some fiction. I would just like to be able to share this information with others. The Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other Asian settlers contributed in so many ways to what Washington is today. Yet, for too long a time, they were kept (in the case of Tacoma, physically) from accomplishing contributing even more. Chin Chun Hook created what is now Seattle's International District, from one general goods store in 1868 (Chen 152). I can only wonder what other International Districts there would be in Washington, if so much had not been taken away by the violence of the 1880s and '90s.

Works Cited

Chen, Jack. The Chinese of America. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishing Co., 1980.

Tsai, Shih-Shan Henry. The Chinese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington Department of History, and Matthew W. Klingle. A History Burst With Telling: Asian Americans in Washington State. University of Washington. 24, October 1998.