Asian Pacific Pioneers Along the Columbia River

Dramatic cultural variations in way of life, language, religion, customs and world view were an important part of life in many eastern Washington communities along the Columbia River. As the pioneers persisted and struggled to build new lives for themselves, part of the struggle often involved discrimination, oppression and exclusion directed at people who were racially different.

The fur traders were the first white men to settle this area. They were not much interested in acquiring lands, and they worked with the local tribes of Indians rather than trying to remove or assimilate them into white society.

When gold was discovered near Kettle Falls in the late 1850’s, hundreds of miners stampeded to the area to try to make their fortune. Asian Pacific pioneers tried to find their place among this throng of people. They had the added burden of battling oppressive legislation that attempted to keep them from finding permanent residence. Their labor was essential for the rapid growth of the state in the 1800’s. Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos were recruited to work on railroads, lumber mills, canneries, building canals and agriculture.

Hawaiians were the first of these immigrants to work in large numbers in Washington. They originally came as sailors involved in the fur trade with China. These sailors were often hired off of these ships to act as boatmen for the fur traders based at the mouth of the Columbia River. The earliest account of a Hawaiian traveling inland Washington is 1819. Later more than 1000 were recruited to work as farmers, sheepherders and labor jobs. In 1849 they were denied the right to become citizens, and in 1850 the right to own land. Many intermarried with the Native Americans.

The Chinese were the first Asians to arrive in eastern Washington in large numbers. In the mid-nineteenth century, China was suffering from famine, over population, the Taiping Rebellion and clan warfare. Though formal emigration out of China was illegal until 1868, by 1864 hundreds could be found placer mining along the Columbia River. In 1870, the Chinese miners outnumbered the white miners two to one. Large mining camps were established along the Columbia River from Chinabend almost to the mouth of the river. Small businesses started to flourish in the shadows of these mining camps. Laundries, produce, and camp stores were catering to all of their needs, and the needs of neighboring communities. "In 1870 there were probably not more than 800 whites north of Walla Walla and east of the Cascades, while the number of Chinese was probably somewhere near 1500."- John Esvelt, A Brief History of Kettle Falls.

Fifteen thousand of people were recruited directly from China to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad. The Oregon and Navigation Company railroads also hired many Chinese workers to work in Stevens and Whitman counties.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first of a series of exclusion acts passed by the U.S. Congress. Few Chinese women came before 1880 and the 1882 Exclusion Act prevented the Chinese from sending back to China for their wives and families. The Exclusion Act served to justify the discriminatory attitudes of the white settlers and further discrimination and violence against them. The Chinese became easy scapegoats for white frustrations.

During the 1880’s deplorable treatment of the Chinese was common in eastern Washington. They were viewed with suspicion, contempt and fear. The cultural differences were difficult for many of the settlers who were mostly of European backgrounds to understand. Although the Chinese were careful to avoid confrontation, they became victims of sporadic outbursts of violence from whites and Native Americans. The tax levied on foreign miners (specifically anyone of a different color or race than the white majority) was more than most placer miners could earn working the Columbia River. As a result of these difficulties most of the Chinese drifted from eastern Washington to large urban cities. A few remained as businessmen in Spokane and Davenport.

The racism did not go away with time. In 1921 two Chinese brother's ages 75 and 80, that had lived in the Kettle Falls area for more than 30-years, were severely beaten. One did not survive. The other passed away 16 years later in their home. With his passing went a largely unrecorded era of the emigration, toil and death of an almost faceless society. These two were probably the last survivors of the hundreds of Chinese engaged in placer mining in the early days.


Last updated: February 28, 2015

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