online book
Weaverville Chinese family
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Early Contacts
current topic 1860s

Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of Chinese Americans in California:
THE 1860s

Discriminatory Legislation

In 1860, two discriminatory laws were passed in California. One forbade Chinese American children to attend public schools. The other re quired a special license to be purchased by Chinese American fishermen. It was called a license instead of a tax because unequal taxation was for bidden by law (in other words, it was illegal to tax Chinese fishermen and not Italian or Portuguese fishermen). [54]

In 1862, the first nationwide discriminatory legislation singling out Chinese (or Mongolians, as they were often called) and not vaguely directed at "foreign miners" or "aliens ineligible for citizenship" was passed. The United States Congress passed a "Cooly Traffic Law" prohibiting transportation and importation of coolies from China, except when immigration was certified as voluntary by United States consular agents. [55] Shortly afterward, the California legislature passed an act to protect free White labor against competition from Chinese coolie labor, and to discourage immigration of Chinese into the state of California. [56]

A "police tax" law was passed, whereby all Mongolians 18 years or over, unless they had already paid a miner's tax or were engaged in production of sugar, rice, coffee, or tea, had to pay a monthly personal tax of $2.50. This was ruled unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court in 1863. [57]


Chinese immigrant labor was first employed on a large scale in the cigar industry in 1859. Soon, some Chinese Americans set up their own cigar factories. As early as 1866, half of the cigar factories were owned by Chinese Americans, and by 1870, more than 90 percent of the total labor force in the cigar industry was Chinese American. A vigorous anti-Chinese campaign in the early 1880s eliminated Chinese American labor in cigar-making factories.

The industry declined rapidly thereafter. [58]

The woolen mills in California were founded on Chinese labor. White workers, except for foremen, were rare in the early 1860s. [59] Employment of Chinese Americans in shoe manufacturing can be attributed, in part, to their availability and their manual skill. Chinese Americans were first employed in shoe manufacturing in 1869, but worked in slipper factories prior to that time. By 1870, Chinese Americans owned a number of shoe factories. [60] The entry of Chinese American firms into clothing manufacturing dated from the late 1860s, and Chinese American firms and laborers soon dominated the ready-made clothing trade. [61] In addition, numerous Chinese Americans were employed in the manufacturing of soap, candles, watches, brushes, brooms, glues, bricks, powder, whips, and paper bags. [62]

Anti-Chinese elements in the labor union movement forced most Chinese Americans out of manufacturing. Union members charged that the less expensive labor of Chinese Americans was causing White unemployment and an economic depression. The real culprit was the transcontinental railroad, which brought unemployed European immigrants and cheap manufactured goods from the East Coast. Without reliable, efficient, less expensive Chinese labor, most of the factories went out of business because they could not compete with cheaper Eastern goods. Of the early manufacturers, only the garment industry has survived in California, and it continues to employ Chinese Americans and other minorities. [63]

The Lumber Industry

There were Chinese American lumberjacks in Del Norte, Humboldt, and Mendocino counties, but racial prejudice soon forced them out of that occupation. Some remained in the lumber camps as cooks and laborers. [64]

In Truckee in Nevada County, Chinese American men worked not only as lumberjacks, but also as mill hands, ice cutters, and teamsters. Most Chinese American women there were employed as railroad laborers. [65]

Railroad Construction

The most impressive construction feat of Chinese Americans was the work done on the western section of the transcontinental railroad. The groundbreaking ceremony for the Central Pacific Railroad took place in Sacramento in 1863, but Chinese American workers were not hired until 1865. From 1863 to 1865, less than 50 miles of running track had been laid, and this was over relatively level land. The construction superintendent, J. H. Strobridge, was slow to hire Chinese workers, even though they had been employed on the California Central Railroad and were praised for their work by the Sacramento Union in 1858. [66]

Chinese American workers built the section of the railroad through the foothills and over the high Sierra Nevada. They set explosive charges at precarious heights around Cape Horn in the Sierra. At Donner Summit, they worked and lived under the snow. They dug chimneys and air shafts, and lived by lantern light, tunneling their way from the camps to the portal of the tunnel to work long underground shifts. A labyrinth of passageways developed under the snow. The corridors were sometimes wide enough to allow two-horse sleds to move through freely, and were as much as 200 feet long. Through them, workmen traveled back and forth, digging, blasting, and removing the rubble. However, loss of life was heavy, for snow slides sometimes carried away whole camps. [67]

In 1867, 2,000 Chinese American workers went on strike, but were unsuccessful in obtaining the same higher wages and shorter hours as White men. [68] On completion of the railroad, their work was acknowledged by E. B. Crocker in Sacramento, who said: "I wish to call to your minds that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in large measure due to that poor, despised class of laborers called the Chinese, to the fidelity and industry they have shown." [69]

It was at Auburn that the Central Pacific Railroad first began hiring Chinese Americans for railroad construction. The Chinese American community in Auburn had been founded by gold miners, and increased in size with the influx of railroad workers. The community has survived, along with two pioneering families, the Kee family and the Yue family. Charlie Yue is said to have been the first licensed Chinese American gold assayer in California. [70]

Another town along the route of the railroad is Dutch Flat, where Theodore Judah and D. W. Strong made the original subscription to build the first transcontinental railroad. [71] Little is mentioned of Chinese American residents of the town, who numbered 2,000 in 1860. The transcontinental railroad is often credited to Judah's "vision" without acknowledging that visions do not become realities without hard work, and that the railroad could not have been built at that time without Chinese American workers. [72] One building remains of the Chinese American community in Dutch Flat, a vacant store constructed of rammed earth.

Mining for Borax and Other Minerals

Borax was first discovered in Borax Lake in Lake County in 1856, by Dr. John Veatch. Four years later, he found borax in Little Borax Lake, four miles to the west. The California Borax Company operated at the big lake between 1864 and 1868, extracting 590 tons of borax. The operations caused a terrible stench, endured willingly only by Chinese Americans, who had been driven out of the gold mining areas and could not find other employment because of racial discrimination.

In 1868, the company moved all of its operations to Little Borax Lake. This small lake supplied the entire borax needs of the country from 1868 to 1873, the last year of operation, producing 140 tons valued at $89,600. The discovery of enormous beds of the mineral in the deserts of California and Nevada ended all production in Lake County. [73]

Chinese American workers were needed at Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley since they would work there year-around, even in the extreme heat of summer. In addition to gathering the dry borax, they also built roads across the desert and repaired them after storms. [74]

Quicksilver (mercury) mines also employed Chinese Americans. They are known to have worked at the New Almaden Mine in Santa Clara County, at the quicksilver mine in San Luis Obispo County, and at the Sulphur Banks Quicksilver Mine in Lake County. Mining quicksilver was hazardous because of the noxious fumes, which could cause death or disability. The Sulphur Banks Quicksilver Mine contained an additional hazard in the underground hot springs, which flowed around the quicksilver deposits and could scald miners to death. [75]

Economic Impacts

When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, its backers expected it to bring prosperity to California. Instead, it brought an economic depression. The railroad flooded California's markets with cheap manufactured goods from the East Coast, and made many of California's fledgling manufacturing industries non-competitive. This situation was exacerbated when the railroad brought large numbers of unemployed European immigrants to California from the East Coast. [76]

A scapegoat was needed, so the economic depression was blamed on unemployed Chinese American railroad workers. Actually, they were eagerly sought for employment in other parts of the country. In January 1870, 250 Chinese were employed by General John C. Walker for construction of the Houston and Texas Railroad. [77] In February, the Colorado legislature passed a joint resolution welcoming Chinese immigrants "to hasten the development and early prosperity of the territory by supplying the demand for cheap labor." [78]

In June 1870, 75 Chinese Americans arrived in North Adams, Massachusetts to work in Calvin T. Simpson's shoe factory. In September, 68 Chinese Americans went to Belleville, New Jersey to work in the Passaic Steam Laundry. In 1872, 70 Chinese Americans arrived in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania to work in the Beaver Falls Cutlery Company. [79] In 1873, Chinese American workers were brought to Indianapolis, Indiana, and to Augusta, Georgia to work on construction projects. [80] It appears that there were not enough Chinese American workers, for in 1870, 200 Chinese were brought from Hong Kong to work in the Arkansas Valley. [81]

While some of these workers were used as strikebreakers, it should be kept in mind that White unions would not allow Chinese Americans to join them at that time. Furthermore, White unions would not support strikes by Chinese American workers, nor would they agree to the principle of equal pay for equal work, regardless of race. [82]

Rather than damaging the economy and bringing on a depression, which they were charged with doing, Chinese Americans greatly aided the development of the state of California. A full assessment of their contribution has not yet been made, but their contribution in land reclamation and railroad construction alone is impressive. Reclaimed lands, which originally cost $1 to $3 per acre, increased in value from $20 up to $100 per acre. In the mid-1870s, a former surveyor general of the state estimated that the increase in the value of the property in the state due to Chinese labor building the railroads and reclaiming tule lands was $289,700,000. [83]

Settlement Patterns

In Chinese, San Francisco was known as Dai Fou ("the big city"). Sacramento, which many Chinese miners passed through on the way to the northern mines, was known as Yi Fou ("the second city"). Marysville, which was the supply center for the northern mines, was called Sam Fou ("the third city"). In all, there were 286 cities or towns with such large Chinese American populations in 1870 that the names of these cities and towns were translated into Chinese characters phonetically. Wells Fargo Express Company agents had to learn these names in order to deliver mail and packages from China. [84]

Early Chinese immigrants settled throughout California. By 1860, they had settled in all but five counties of the state, and by 1870, they lived in every county, working in a wide variety of occupations. [85] The first permanent Chinese settlement in Los Angeles was made in 1856, when three men decided to stay there. Within four years, they had been joined by at least 16 others. [86] In the 1860s, Chinese workers were brought to Santa Barbara County from Canton by Colonel W. W. Hollister to work on his Goleta Valley estate and to serve as bus boys, chefs, and waiters in his hotel. [87]

Segregation of Chinese Americans began in the mining districts, where Chinese Americans were forced to live in the least desirable sections of towns. In Marysville, Yreka, and elsewhere, Chinese Americans could live only along the river, which was subject to flooding. In Mendocino, they could live only on the swampy headlands next to the ocean. In Fiddletown in Amador County, there was no undesirable section of town, so a natural boundary, a stream that ran across the main street, was used to divide the Chinese American from the White section of town. While some White businesses were allowed to locate in the Chinese section, no Chinese American homes or businesses were permitted in the White section of Fiddletown. [88]

Once segregated, Chinese American communities were often denied public services available to other taxpayers. By the 1860s, the city of Ventura in Ventura County had a community of about 200 Chinese Americans. Recent evidence has been uncovered to show that they were denied use of Ventura's water and sewer facilities. They probably could not rely on the municipal fire department either, for in 1876 they established their own fire brigade with a two-wheeled cart and 100 feet of hose. This company was active for at least 30 years, and was often mentioned as being first on the scene. [89]

NEXT> The 1870s

online book Top

Last Modified: Wed, Nov 17 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

ParkNet Home