Chinese Labor in the West Katya Drovetsky


"Boys, by God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine" -- James Marshall

Before 1848, California was a sparsely populated area. However, when James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill later that year, the state saw a massive influx of thousands of gold miners hoping to become rich. By 1852, a state census reported that the non-native population of California had surpassed 250,000 people. Amongst these miners, a significant amount were immigrant laborers from foreign countries. In 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese immigrants living in California, which comprised 35% of the migrant population, as well as 10% of the total non-native population in the state at that time. Furthermore, by 1860 the Chinese were the single largest foreign ethnic group residing in California and comprised about 23% of the population. (Kanazawa 781-2)

Public Anti-Chinese Sentiment

"The heathen Chinee" -- poem by Bret Harte (1870)

Eager to work, immigrants from foreign countries entered the gold-mining business by working for mining companies. They also took on jobs deemed noncompetitive or below the “dignity” of Euro-American males, such as cleaning, cooking, and sewing (Moore 307). The number of miners in the goldfields from 1849-1851 grew from 50,000 to 125,000, and as the mine sites became more crowded, American hostility towards non-white national groups grew. In an issue from April 26, 1849 a popular Californian newspaper, "The Alta California", published, “The feeling is very general among the Americans and Californians that foreigners should not be allowed to dig for gold. They think that they alone should be entitled to all the advantages of the mines, and they believe that such course would secure the permanent prosperity of the country, by preventing the mines from swallowing up its whole productive industry.” (“Latest From the Mines” April 26, 1849) This animosity towards foreigners was especially targeted towards the Chinese, as their culture and appearance were the most different of white Americans. Popular anti-Chinese sentiment was expressed in this account from the time-period, “I am bitterly opposed to Chinese immigration, and am very anxious to see this in a white man’s government and a white man’s country. So long as we have room for them, I have no opposition to the immigration of the white races, but I do not believe that any colored race has the capabilities of the white ace, they are more or less naturally barbarous”(“Dictation.” Online Archives of California).

Anti-Chinese Legislation

"Chinese laborers, gold mining in California"

In response to popular anti-Chinese sentiment, California state legislature enacted a series of “anti-laws” which restricted Chinese residence and employment. For example, the Foreign Miner’s Act of 1850 required that all foreign-born miners pay $20 a month in order to maintain a mining license to work the same areas that white men did for free. The Commutation Act of 1852 forced incoming ships to pay $500 a head per immigrant passenger to ensure that non-American workers would not become a financial burden to the state. The Capitation Tax in 1855 required arriving ships to pay $50 per “incompetent [passenger]” coming to gain citizenship. Finally in 1858, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which prohibited Chinese immigration into the United States, with fees and possible imprisonment as punishment to those who were caught bringing Chinese immigrants into the country (Moore 787). Not only did all of these ordinances encourage and legitimize anti-Chinese sentiment, it also created an economic dependency on foreign-labor taxation, which would come to play a crucial role in perpetuating the unfair treatment of foreign-born workers.

Violence: the Rock Springs Massacre

"The massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs, Wyoming" -- drawn by T. de Thulstrup

Unsurprisingly, only a decade after the Exclusion Act was passed, anti-Chinese riots broke out in many towns across the western United States and various Chinatowns (areas where Chinese immigrants congregated) were burned down. Amongst the most violent outbursts was the massacre of 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885. The true horrors of the massacre are described in a letter from the Chinese Consulate General to the Chinese Consul in New York. “On the morning of September 2, a little past 7 o’clock, more than ten white men ran into Coal pit No. 6, loudly declaring that the Chinese should not be permitted to work there. The Chinese present were attacked with murderous weapons... the Chinese, to save their lives, fled in confusion in every direction. Some of the rioters… would shoot [a Chinese man] dead on the spot, ...others set fire to the Chinese houses. After having been killed, the dead bodies were carried to the burning buildings and thrown into the flames”( Chuen, Huang Sih). All of the Chinese immigrants residing in the Rock Springs area who had been fortunate enough to survive the attacks were nevertheless left homeless and poor. Those who fled did not have time to gather their belongings (those who did were robbed of them by the mob), anything left behind was either stolen or burnt, and all Chinese homes were destroyed. The Rock Springs Massacre effectively destroyed Chinese morale and rid the area of Chinese immigrants.

An Era of Exclusion

"Chinese Immigrants in San Francisco"

The exclusion of the Chinese was heavily embedded into Euro-American society in the 19th century. As immigrants flooded into California following the discovery of Gold in 1848, discrimination came to define the life of Western laborers. Chinese hatred was fueled by cultural and physical differences, as well as competition for jobs and meaningful wages. Chinese workers were thus faced with a legislation passing acts that limited their residence and employment rights, as well an exclusive society which bombarded the Chinese community with hateful riots and even violent attacks. As a result, the Chinese population in the United States declined rapidly from 127,000 in 1890 to just 86,000 in 1920 (Moore 310). Unfortunately, Chinese exclusion is just one example of how racist American ideology ultimately became much more far reaching than just anti-black sentiment, and resulted in an era of xenophobia in the United States.

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