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The History of Chinese in Placer County

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, an estimated 300,000 people came to the state in one of the largest migrations in United States history. Among them were thousands of Chinese immigrants who arrived in search of California’s “Gold Mountain” or Jinshan.

The Gold Rush

China was experiencing political turmoil and economic decline. For the Chinese immigrants, who were almost exclusively male, the tales of gold in California seemed like an opportunity to make their fortune and support their families back home financially. Those wishing to make the journey were often sponsored by an association that would then take a portion of their wages or earnings once in California to pay off their debt. The voyage by ship from China could take one to three months, and travelers endured crowded and unhealthy conditions.

The 1850 census only listed 660 Chinese residents in California, but by the end of the same year, almost 4,000 had immigrated to the state. In Placer County, 3,019 Chinese settlers had arrived by 1852, making up 28% of the population. Chinese miners worked claims on almost all the rivers and streams of the area, including the North and South Forks of the American River.

1852 Drawing of a mining camp by Swedish artist Emil Lehman.

At first, they were regarded as curiosities and generally treated neutrally by other mining groups.

Daily Alta May 11, 1850

However, as the easily worked claims became scarce, and the Chinese population increased, tensions arose. While the Chinese used the same tools and methods as other miners, many sources claim they often worked with more perseverance on claims that others had abandoned. Chinese were also often hired by other mining companies, who would pay them less than their white counterparts.

In response to American fears over foreign workers, the Foreign Miners Tax was enacted in 1850, which required a $20 monthly fee for a mining license from all foreign miners.

The law was repealed but then reenacted in 1852 at a rate of $3 per month, which increased in subsequent years.

Background Image: Placer mining. Circa 19th Century. PCM Collection

In the 1860s, mining had become a more difficult undertaking as gold was harder to extract. Mining operations moved from small individual ventures to grand-scale enterprises that required more technology and capital.

Background Photo: Chinese workers at the Hidden Treasure Mine. May 10, 1893.

The Transcontinental Railroad

The Central Pacific Railroad had its groundbreaking on January 8, 1863, and began construction. However, due to a shortage of workers, the first two years only produced 50 miles of track. As an experiment, railroad superintendent James Strobridge went into Auburn and recruited 50 Chinese workers. He first hired the Chinese laborers to work as dump cart loaders and paid them less than he had the other white workers. After witnessing the Chinese laborer’s abilities, the experiment was declared a success for the railroad. By the end of 1865, they employed up to 3,000 Chinese workers.

Chinese tea basket, teapot, and cup. C. 1900-1930. Donated by 1993 by Genevieve Cassady of Berkeley.

While working on the railroad, Chinese laborers were often divided into "gangs" of 12-30 men, and while they would be provided with a cook, they were responsible for purchasing their food. From their first arrival in California during the gold rush, Chinese immigrants had kept a rice-based diet. Preserved food would be imported from China, including dried, salted, and fermented meat and vegetables while locally sourced goods, like potatoes and barley, were also available. Chinese workers often drank brewed tea instead of water, which helped them avoid water-borne diseases like dysentery. It was reported that Chinese railroad workers' diets were more varied than their fellow white laborers.

The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad was dangerous, and the Chinese were often given the most hazardous tasks. When construction had moved through the Sierras in 1866 and 1867, they endured some of California's worst winters. Snow slides and avalanches were common. In 1867, 2,000 Chinese workers went on strike, demanding limits on working hours and higher wages but the strike collapsed in a week.

The Daily Alta June 30, 1867
Heading of east portal Tunnel No. 8

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, which meant that the railroad workers, including the Chinese, left to find work elsewhere. Some Chinese laborers went to work on the construction of other railroads in the United States, while others stayed in Placer County.

Background Image: Secret Town Trestle Construction

Chinese Communities of Placer County

Chinatowns had been established in many communities in Placer County since the beginning of the gold rush. Among the largest Chinatowns were in Illinoistown, Virginiatown, and Auburn, but others could be found in Truckee, Dutch Flat, Newcastle, Rocklin, Colfax, Michigan Bluff, and more. These communities would often have general merchandise stores, laundries, restaurants, boarding houses, gambling houses, and temples.

In Auburn's Chinatown, there was even a Chinese theater. In addition to mining and railroad labor, many found work in logging and some were hired as domestic servants and cooks. A number of Chinese residents of Dutch Flat worked as soaproot gatherers, a material used by the Eureka Hair Company for mattress filling.

The Daily Bee October 29, 1868

Rocklin called its Chinatown “China Garden” because of the many Chinese farmers that grew vegetables there to sell in towns and mining camps. The Chinese residents of Rocklin also lived and worked on J.P. Whitney's Spring Valley Ranch, building watercourses and fences.

Background Image: Dutch Flat New Chinatown

Chinese temples in the Chinatowns of Placer County were often called Joss Houses, a mispronunciation of the Portuguese word for God “deos.” They served as the center of cultural and social life for the Chinese and were often used as language schools, meetings halls, boarding houses, and religious headquarters.

Dutch Flat Joss House

Prominent temples in Placer County included the Dutch Flat and Auburn Joss Houses. Religious observances in Chinese temples sometimes included offerings of food and tea, and the burning of incense to carry prayers to deities and ancestors. Many temples had divination sticks made of bamboo and carved wooden moon blocks to gain insight into the future.

Background Images: Dutch Flat Procession. Circa 1900. PCM Collection

Chinese cemeteries were also located in some of the Placer County communities. After a funeral procession, the dead would be buried with coins, and offerings would be placed at the grave.

Bodies of the deceased individuals would be buried for two to ten years, after which a community member would disinter the remains and send the bones home to China for their final rest. Sometimes to later help identify an individual, a brick with information such as their home village was buried with them.

Chinese Burial Brick. PCM Collection

Racism and Population Decline

A major economic depression in the United States from 1873-1876, combined with a decline in mining and the influx of laborers after the railroad's completion, created conflicts between white settlers and the Chinese.

In September of 1877, a brutal triple homicide occurred outside of Rocklin. The victims were white, and just before dying, one of them had named two Chinese men as the killers.

The Weekly Bee September 22, 1887

Riots sparked in Rocklin, and the white residents destroyed practically every building in Rocklin's Chinatown, including twenty-five homes. Hearing the news, nearby communities of Penryn and Roseville did the same to their Chinese neighborhoods. The attorney for the Chinese Six Companies organization in San Francisco vowed to sue on behalf of the Chinese for the property and businesses lost, but never officially filed in court. Warrants were issued for the Rocklin rioters, but no arrests were made.

The Placer May 15, 1886

In 1882 the Federal Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which suspended Chinese immigration to the United States. Anti-Chinese sentiment in Placer County continued in the 1880s as anti-Chinese groups organized in the communities of Penryn, Yankee Jims, Dutch Flat, Todd’s Valley, Rocklin, Lincoln, Auburn, Bald Hill (between Auburn and Ophir) and Michigan Bluff.

Because of anti-Chinese sentiment and a decline in employment opportunities, the Chinese population in Placer County declined at the turn of the century. Between 1880 and 1900, more than 1,000 Chinese people had left the county.

However, some Chinese residents did stay in the area, and they and their families remained part of local communities, running businesses, and working in new industries. Between 1880 and 1910, the Chinese helped develop Placer County as an agricultural region, and leased land for fruit growing. A 1913 International Chinese Business Directory lists Chinese stores in Colfax, Foresthill, Loomis, Dutch Flat, Newcastle, Penryn, Michigan Bluff, and Auburn.

Background Image: Hop Sing Laundry. Old Town Auburn. PCM Collection

Chinese immigrants have played a significant role throughout the history of Placer County. They joined the thousands of people that came in search of gold and were instrumental to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Despite facing racism, they created vibrant communities. Today, you can learn more about the history of Chinese in Placer County at the Joss House and Chinese History Museum in Auburn, and at the Golden Drift Museum in Dutch Flat.

Background Image: Shanghai Restaurant C. 1910. PCM Collection