Telling All Americans' Stories: Introduction to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

Dancers in red lion costumes perform a traditional Chinese dance at Fort Dupont Park
Choy Mei Leadership Institute performs traditional Chinese lion and dragon dance with synchronized drumming at Fort Dupont Park

National Park Service

The history of North America is shaped by the stories of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific and the native people of the Pacific Islands. While some of the earliest Asian immigrants arrived from China, Japan, India, and Korea, immigration reforms tied to U.S. civil rights legislation brought even more groups to the United States—such as Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Indonesians, the Hmong and other peoples from South and Central Asia. Discover these wide-ranging stories preserved and interpreted in our nation’s parks, trails, and historic sites.

During the 1800s, the discovery of gold in California and political upheaval in China triggered unprecedented waves of immigration from Asian countries to the United States. Asian immigrants contributed significantly to the history of American nation-building and westward expansion.  At Fort Vancouver’s Kanaka village  Hawaiian men were among the multi-ethnic workforce in the agricultural fields and sawmills of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) operations.  At Golden Spike National Historic Site in Box Elder County, Utah, visitors can learn about the over 11,000 Chinese immigrants employed by the Central Pacific Railroad of California. Between 1863 and 1869, Chinese, Irish, and Anglo American laborers endured harsh working conditions in order to build the Transcontinental Railway.

Initially welcomed as a much needed labor source in mining, railroad, and agriculture, Asian immigrants soon became a source of resentment for those Americans who thought of themselves as white.  They began to blame Asians for the economic decline and high unemployment after the Civil War. The U.S. government passed a series of measures to stem the influx of immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted immigration by barring Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years and made Chinese immigrants already within the United States ineligible for U.S. citizenship. In 1907, a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan also limited the immigration of Japanese laborers.

The Angel Island U.S. Immigration Stationhttp in California’s San Francisco Bay was one of the primary ports of entry for Asian immigrants seeking to enter the United States despite these restrictions. While it was in operation from 1910-1940, thousands of immigrants were detained for days, months—even years in extreme instances—as they underwent medical examinations and immigration hearings. Poems written by detainees during their stay on the island survive today—etched into the wooden walls of the detention barracks.

In the wake of exclusionary immigration policies and racial discrimination, early Asian immigrants nevertheless successfully built ethnic enclaves throughout the United States. In the Sacramento delta, the small settlements of Locke and Walnut Grove were once thriving nihonmachi’s (Japan towns) and Chinatowns that were the homes of immigrants who flocked to California during the Gold Rush. The Stedman-Thomas Historic District of Ketchikan, Alaska, was home to a diverse community of Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos who helped build the region’s fishing industry.

Within these enclaves, surviving buildings tell the stories of how Asian Americans assimilated into local communities while retaining their ancestral cultures. Ah Louis, or On Wong, was a prominent Chinese-American pioneer, businessman, and labor organizer. Located in the heart of San Louis Obispo’s Chinatown, the Ah Louis Store served as the local Asian communities’ general store, bank, and post office. In Castroville, California, the Castroville Japanese Language School stands as a reminder of Japanese survival and community uplift. From 1936 to 1942, the building had served as language school, hosted Buddhist religious services, and provided much needed amenities for California’s Japanese Americans during a period of heightened racial discrimination.

While America’s population expanded with the influx of immigrants to the mainland, other groups in the Pacific fell under U.S. control at the turn of the 20th century without stepping foot on the North American continent. The United States acquired Guam, the Philippines, and the Federated States of Micronesia during the wars of 1898. One persistent reminder of the consequences of U.S. empire-building is ‘Iolani Palace, on Honolulu, Hawai’i. In 1893, a group of American, European, and native-born planter elites—with the support of the U.S. government and the aid of the U.S. military— staged a coup d’etat that overthrew Hawai’i’s sovereign,Queen Lili’uokalani. For Native Hawaiians, the palace stands for nearly 2,000 years of culture on the Hawaiians Islands and remains an enduring symbol of Hawaiian independence, even after they gained statehood in 1959.

By the mid-1900s, generations of Asian Americans had built enduring communities throughout the United States. However, Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941 revived existing hostility towards Japanese Americans. In response to public outcry against the attack and widespread fear of Japanese American disloyalty, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which forcibly relocated over 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast to one of ten Relocation Centers. The Minidoka National Historic Site is one of the places that interprets this largest forced relocation of American citizens.

Despite the denial of their civil liberties and constitutional rights, many Japanese Americans still felt it was their duty to contribute to the war effort. Initially barred from enlisting following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the armed forces later formed a segregated unit for Japanese American volunteers from the mainland and Hawaiian Islands. The men of 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team fought on the battlefields of Italy, Germany, and southern France while most of their families remained in internment camps for the duration of the war. James Hishinuma left his family farm in Colorado—listed in the National Register of Historic Places—to fight for his country. Because of the sacrifices of Hishinuma and men like him, the 442nd would go on to become the most decorated unit of its size in American military history.

Currently, over 20 million people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent live in the United States, totaling about 6 percent of the U.S. population. As diverse communities built strong roots in the United States, they retained cultural heritages that stretch across the globe. As the nation’s storyteller, the National Park Service strives to tell the stories of ordinary and extraordinary Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders preserved in our nation’s parks, memorials, and historic sites.

Visit the National Park Service Telling All Americans' Stories portal to learn more about this topic and American heritage themes and histories. 

Last updated: February 9, 2017