Joy Lanzendorfer| Longreads | February 2019 | 12 minutes (3,300 words)

On February 6, 1885, David Kendall, a city councilman in Eureka, California, was shot. Two Chinese men, possibly from rival gangs, were firing at each other from across the street when a bullet hit Kendall and killed him. Within 20 minutes of his death, a mob of 600 white men marched into Chinatown, intending to burn it to the ground.

Disturbingly, this wasn’t unusual. Violence against Chinese people and Chinese-Americans was a regular occurrence on the West Coast. However, this event was different because of what happened next. Instead of destroying Chinatown, the city decided to order the Chinese to leave. Within 48 hours, most of the Chinese residents were forced onto boats bound for San Francisco. This “peaceful” method of expelling them from their homes was quickly imitated. Towns up and down America’s West Coast, but also as far north as Vancouver, Canada, and as far east as Augusta, Georgia, began forcing out their Chinese populations. Jean Pfaelzer, author of Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans, considers it ethnic cleansing.

“The intention … was to round up all the Chinese people in over 200 towns across the Pacific Northwest and drive them out so they would never come back,” she says.

Today, Eureka is a predominantly white coastal town situated between redwood forests and the Humboldt Bay. In 1885, about 200 Chinese people — including 20 women — lived downtown. Anti-Chinese sentiments had been brewing in the United States for some time. Three years before, the Chinese Exclusion Act had barred laborers from entering the US. Before that, the Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women.

In Eureka, the Chinese were the focus of government-sanctioned vitriol. They were blamed for stealing jobs from white people, and for the slummy state of Chinatown, which they had little control over. Since they weren’t allowed to own property, they rented low-quality shacks made out of remnants from lumber mills. A slough of filthy water ran through the center of town. A local described the Chinese “huddled together in small tenements, a great number of which were closely built upon a single block of ground called ‘Chinatown.’ … [It] had no sewer system, and all the sewage remained with them on the surface of the ground.”

Kendall’s death gave the white residents the excuse they wanted to get rid of the Chinese. But as the mob gathered, a bell ringer went through town, shouting to assemble at Centennial Hall. There, the throngs were convinced to hold off violence for 24 hours while the Chinese were driven out. A committee of 15 men, including a city councilor and prominent businessmen, strode through Chinatown informing residents they must be on the dock to leave by 3 oclock the next day.

That night, the mob looted Chinatown. Teams went into the countryside to inform Chinese people living there that they too had to leave. When some 60 men fled into the forests, they were tracked down and dragged back to the dock. By morning, gallows had been erected with an effigy hanging from it. A sign read: “Any Chinese Seen on the Street After Three Oclock Today Will Be Hung to This Gallows.”

The white townspeople … celebrated the anniversary of the expulsion of their Chinese neighbors with a festival.

The next day, between 310 and 480 Chinese people — depending on the account — were herded to the wharf. They stayed in a warehouse under guard to protect them from the mob as skiffs transferred them from the docks to two boats anchored in the bay. It took 23 trips to get them all on board. Then the tide went out, forcing them to spend the night in the harbor. Meanwhile, the white mob ransacked Chinatown, stealing their remaining belongings. On February 8, the boats sailed for San Francisco.

The white townspeople congratulated themselves for their “civilized” actions. A year later, they celebrated the anniversary of the expulsion of their Chinese neighbors with a festival. Towns in the area, including Arcata, Ferndale, Fortuna, and Crescent City, began driving out Chinese residents too. By 1890, the Humboldt County business directory boasted that it was “the only county in the state containing no Chinamen.”

But it wasn’t only local towns that took note of Eureka’s actions. Other cities followed their lead.

“By this point there was a telegraph,” says Pfaelzer. “And actually the telegraph officers’ union was very racist, and they just kept spreading the word and spreading the word. My image of it is people like us sending out emails or posting it on Facebook. It spread very quickly.”

Like many other immigrant groups, the Chinese came to California during the 1849 Gold Rush. They experienced persecution from the beginning — the Foreign Miners’ Tax was largely aimed at them and made up half the state’s revenue until 1870. Later, more Chinese came over to help build the railroads. By the time it was completed in 1869, 63,000 Chinese people lived in the United States.

Now out of work, most of them moved to the West Coast looking for employment. At the same time, the economy slumped. Tense racial relationships were fanned by labor unions and the Chinese became scapegoats as white people blamed them for the low wages and the lack of jobs.

“The rhetoric of the anti-Chinese movement focused a lot on Chinese immigrants as an economic threat — that ‘cheap coolie labor’ would undercut the American workingman,” says Beth Lew-Williams, author of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America. “But behind these economic fears were racial assumptions. At the time, most white Americans believe the Chinese were an innately servile race that could never assimilate and become upstanding American citizens.”

Racists also stoked the fear that if the Chinese stayed, they would overtake the white population. In 1869, The Workingman’s Advocate, a newspaper in Chicago, wrote that a “new and dangerous foe looms up in the far west” and that the Chinese would soon “swarm through the Rocky Mountains, like devouring locusts and spread out over the country.” Governments on every level began passing laws restricting the Chinese. San Francisco, for example, made it illegal Chinese people to live in small spaces or peddle wares in baskets attached to a pole. In California, Chinese citizens couldn’t own land, testify against a white person in court, or attend public school. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 came after years of regional restrictions.

With these laws came violence. One of the worst cases happened in 1871 in Los Angeles. Like in Eureka, it began when a white man was wounded in a gunfight between Chinese tongs, or gangs. A mob descended on Calle de los Negros, a poor, diverse neighborhood where Chinese people lived. A frenzy of violence followed as Chinese residents were seized and hanged by the neck. They included a well-respected doctor, a woman, and a 14-year-old boy. By morning, 18 people were dead. According to Doug Chan of the Chinese Historical Society of America, the Los Angeles Massacre of 1871 is probably “the largest number of lynchings in a single day in United States history.”

After these murders, eight men were convicted of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin, but they were released after only three weeks.

In 1885, however, as the “Eureka Method” spread, anti-Chinese violence exploded. In that year alone, over 100 towns followed Eureka’s lead. According to Driven Out, this included “Riverside, Santa Cruz, Stockton, Napa, San Buenaventura, Tulare, Antioch, Wheatland, Bloomfield, Sonora, Sumner, Washington Territory, and East Portland, Oregon.”

The No Place Project is a website devoted to documenting anti-Chinese violence. Tim Greyhavens travels the West Coast photographing the locations of vanished Chinatowns and other locations of recorded violence against Chinese people. His pictures speak volumes in what they’re not showing. Instead of homes and businesses, they often depict parking lots or grassy fields — places of emptiness.

“One of the first things I had to get past in my own mind was that there was nothing of interest to photograph,” says Greyhavens. “I would sit on a corner [where the Chinese had been], looking around, going, ‘This is the most mundane, boring street corner you could find.’ Then I realized that’s the story. These incidents are so far buried in the past that it’s right under our own noses and we don’t even know it.”

For Greyhavens, the worst case of violence was in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he says the white people resorted to “almost feral viciousness” against the Chinese. A week after the Eureka purge, coal miners attacked Chinese workers who wouldn’t join them in a strike over low wages. The white mob went on a rampage, burning 79 buildings, killing at least 28 people, and injuring 15 others.

Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans continued fighting for their rights. In the process, they helped define civil rights that we depend on today.

In an 1885 letter, Chinese witnesses described the white hoard descending on the Chinatown in Rock Springs, where they attacked everyone in sight.

… Some of the rioters would let a Chinese go after depriving him of all his gold and silver, while another Chinese would be beaten with the butt ends of the weapons before being let go. Some of the rioters, when they could not stop a Chinese, would shoot him dead on the spot, and then search and rob him. … Some, who took no part either in beating or robbing the Chinese, stood by, shouting loudly and laughing and clapping their hands. There was a gang of women that stood at the ‘Chinatown’ end of the plank bridge and cheered; among the women, two of them each fired successive shots at the Chinese.

… After having been killed, the dead bodies of some were carried to the burning buildings and thrown into the flames. Some of the Chinese, who had hid themselves in the houses, were killed and their bodies burned; some, who on account of sickness could not run, were burned alive in the houses.

According to these witnesses, Chinese who fled the mob returned to find their homes “burned to ashes, and there was then no place of shelter for them; they were obliged to run blindly from hill to hill.” US troops finally intervened and escorted the Chinese back to Rock Springs. There, they were met with a gruesome sight.

Some of the dead bodies had been buried by the company, while others, mangled and decomposed, were strewn on the ground and were being eaten by dogs and hogs. Some of the bodies were not found until they were dug out of the ruins of the buildings. Some had been burned beyond recognition. It was a sad and painful sight to see the son crying for the father, the brother for the brother, the uncle for the nephew, and friend for friend.

While 22 people were arrested for these crimes, no witnesses would testify against them, and they were all acquitted. To smooth over trade relations, President Grover Cleveland paid the Chinese government $147,748 in damages for Rock Springs, but the money didn’t go to the victims.

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The violence spread into Oregon and Washington as well. Tacoma consciously imitated Eureka and elected a committee, called a Committee of Fifteen, to demand the 350 Chinese residents leave. At 9:30 in the morning on November 3, 1885, mill whistles blew and hundreds of white people descended on Tacoma’s Chinatown. As it was raining, this “mob in raincoats” marched through the streets, hammering on doors and ordering residents be gone by that afternoon.

Lum May, a merchant who had lived in Tacoma for ten years, described the mob in a statement where he requested $45,532 in lost property:

…A large crowd of citizens of Tacoma marched down to Chinatown and told all the Chinese that the whole Chinese population of Tacoma must leave town by half past one o’clock in the afternoon of that day. There must have been in the neighborhood of 1000 people in the crowd of white people… Where the doors were locked they broke forcibly into the houses, smashing in doors and breaking windows. Some of the crowd was armed with pistols, some with clubs. They acted in a rude and threatening manner, dragging and kicking the Chinese out of their houses.

My wife refused to go and some of the white persons dragged her out of the house. From the excitement, the fright, and the losses we sustained through the riot, she lost her reason, and has ever since been hopelessly insane. She threatens to kill people with a hatchet or any other weapon she can get hold of. The outrages I and my family suffered at the hands of the mob have utterly ruined me… My wife was perfectly sane before the riot.

I saw my countrymen marched out of Tacoma on November 3rd. They presented a sad spectacle. Some had lost their trunks, some their blankets, some were crying for their things.

Armed white men were behind the Chinese, on horseback sternly urging them on. It was raining and blowing hard. On the 5th of November all the Chinese houses situated on the wharf were burnt down by incendiaries.

On that rainy day, the expelled Chinese residents walked nine miles through the mud to a train depot. Those who had money for tickets got on a train to Portland, while others walked on through the storm.

But the incidents of violence along the Puget Sound were far from over. On February 7, 1886, as Eureka got ready to celebrate one year without a Chinatown, Seattle turned on its Chinese population. Some 300 to 400 people were forced onto the dock to be put on a steamer called Queen of the Pacific. Among these was a merchant, Chin Gee Hee, and his pregnant wife, who had been “dragged downstairs from the second story [of their house] and out on the street by the hair of her head,” according to an 1888 letter by a witness, Chang Yen Hoon. Three days later, she miscarried the child.

The history of Chinese Exclusion … illustrates how racist laws work hand in hand with violent and racist attacks.

The armed mob was surprised to learn that the captain wouldn’t allow anyone on the boat without a paid fare. They took up a collection and raised money to force many of the Chinese people on board. The boat, full to bursting, sailed to San Francisco.

When militia accompanied the remaining people back to Chinatown, they encountered a huge mob blocking their path. Violence erupted, and five white men were shot. The governor declared martial law and sentinels were placed in Chinatown. Two days later, federal troops arrived to restore order. But while the Chinese were allowed to return home, their lives were constantly in danger. On February 14, many of the remaining residents left Seattle on a steamer. Later, six men were tried on charges of unlawful conspiracy, but the jury judged them not guilty.

* * *

As for the Chinese refugees from Eureka, when the boats docked in San Francisco, they fled into Chinatown and immediately called what today would be a press conference.

“They invite the local press and they invite the San Francisco mayor and they make this bold announcement that someone will have to pay for what has been done to them,” says Pfaelzer. “And the reason it’s a demand for reparations is that they’re not just suing for their property. They’re suing for being the victims of mob violence.”

Banding together, 52 expelled Eureka residents hired a lawyer. The lawsuit, Wing Hing vs. the City of Eureka, was a threat that gave anti-Chinese groups pause. By May, reporters were asking citizens in Eureka about it. Attorney AJ Bledsoe, a member of Eureka’s Committee of Fifteen, which had been responsible for facilitating the expulsion, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “The talk about actions for millions of dollars is the sheerest nonsense.” Then, as if to convince himself, he added that the city couldn’t owe the Chinese more than $2,000. “The people of Eureka are aware that, as a matter of law, they are liable for actual damages inflicted upon the Chinese but if … anyone else undertakes to collect more, they will have their hands full.”

With legal repercussions looming, some adjusted their tactics. Truckee, a small town in the Sierra Mountains, had one of the largest Chinese populations in California. Around a thousand lived in the woods working as woodchoppers for the railroad. Still others lived in Chinatown, which, by 1886, had burned down more than once and relocated across the river.

Newspaper editor Charles McGlashan came up with a new way to attack the Chinese: Starve them out. He formed the Truckee Anti-Chinese Boycotting Committee and sent around a petition pressuring people not to have economic or social interactions with Chinese people. This meant no hiring, renting, or selling to them — including basics like food.

The results were slow, but effective. As Chinese people lost their jobs or lodgings, they began getting on trains going down to Sacramento. It got so bad that the lumbermen in the woods were starving and white butchers started leaving them packets of food to eat. By June 1886, Truckee was thought to be rid of its Chinese residents and Chinatown again burst into flames. Fire engines rained water on the white part of town and people gathered on the balcony of the Truckee Hotel to watch the buildings burn. Unknown to them, two men, Tem Ah Yeck and Ah Juy, were hiding in a Chinatown basement with their valuables. They died in the fire.

McGlashan, who wanted a political career, began peddling his new “Truckee Method” around California. He was an organizer of the two anti-Chinese conventions that were held in Sacramento. Delegates from all over the state met to discuss “the Chinese question,” and people like McGlashan gave speeches. In 1886, more towns expelled part or all of their Chinese community. In California, this included San Jose, Redding, Placerville, and Petaluma. Some towns held anti-Chinese fundraisers or balls to raise money for their fares out of town. In Red Bluff, a children’s anti-Chinese club paraded through the street “armed with cotton bats,” according to Pfaelzer.

* * *

The courts ruled against Eureka’s expelled Chinese residents in Wing Hing v. The City of Eureka. Even though they had lost furniture, boats, vegetable crops, and other belongings when driven from their homes, the judge said that since they couldn’t own land, they had lost no property.

Still, Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans continued fighting for their rights. In the process, they helped define civil rights that we depend on today. Some of these include equal protection under the law, the right to education, and birthright citizenship, which guarantees that everyone born in the United States is a citizen. This law is currently under attack by Donald Trump, who last October said that a plan to do away with birthright citizenship was “in the process.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943 when China became a U.S. ally in World War II. Today, attacks on immigrants, ranging from the Muslim Ban to the border wall, have made the history of Chinese Exclusion feel startlingly relevant. Among other things, it illustrates how racist laws work hand in hand with violent and racist attacks.

“One of the things that the history of Chinese Exclusion teaches us is that border control policies have effects far beyond the border,” says Lew-Williams. “By declaring Chinese immigrants undesirable in the nineteenth century, Congress made [them] vulnerable to local prejudice and violence.”

The full extent of the Chinese-American experience in the West is still unknown, largely because their voices were ignored or dismissed by the dominant culture. Still, what is known of their experiences point to a broader, more complex, and often ugly picture of the American West. Greyhavens encourages people to investigate their local histories.

“Regardless of what town or city you live in, small or large, throughout the west, there’s probably some part of Chinese history in that town, and people aren’t aware of it,” he says. “And you could do the same thing for African-Americans or Latin-American people. There are all these histories that are part of what it took for cities and towns to become what they are now.”

For Chan, the study of Chinese-American history is essential to understanding the formation of the West. But uncovering that history is a challenge, since the contributions of non-white people have been erased.

“It’s the kind of history where people frankly try to avert their eyes, because the truth is so harsh,” says Chan. “And to understand that truth is to call into question the myth of the American frontier.”

* * *

Joy Lanzendorfer‘s work has been featured in The AtlanticWashington PostSmithsonianTin HouseThe GuardianNPRPoetry Foundation, and many others.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

Factchecker: Ethan Chiel