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The Anti-Chinese Hysteria of 1885-1886

Ever since the Chinese came to the United States, the prejudice against them sometimes culminated in violence. The physical hostility became particularly virulent in the 1880s. During this period, Chinese communities were harassed, attacked, or expelled in 34 towns in California, three in Oregon, and four in Nevada. Property of the Chinese in America, worth millions of dollars, was damaged or destroyed in mining regions in Alaska, Colorado, South Dakota, and other states or territories. The worst occurrences of violence were in Denver, Los Angeles, Rock Springs (Wyoming), and Tacoma and Seattle (Washington).
Labor disputes were often the spark for anti-Chinese riots. In 1875, the Union Pacific Railroad Company first hired Chinese as strikebreakers in its Rock Springs mines in the Wyoming Territory. The bitterness this caused between the (largely immigrant) white miners and the Chinese festered for a decade before exploding in the fall of 1885. The attack on September 2 by 150 armed white men against the Chinese miners had calamitous results for the Chinese community: 28 deaths, 15 wounded, the expulsion of several hundred, and property damage of nearly $150,000.
After the Rock Springs riot, anti-Chinese violence quickly spread to other areas in the West. On September 11, Chinese were attacked in Coal Creek; on October 24, Seattle’s Chinatown was burned; on November 3, a mob of 300 expelled the Chinese in Tacoma before moving on to force similar expulsions in smaller towns. The Washington governor requested federal assistance to restore law and order and on November 7 President Grover Cleveland sent the U.S. military to Seattle and Tacoma to suppress the riots.
The Wyoming Territorial government established an investigating committee, but it was controlled by the anti-Chinese labor union, the Knights of Labor. The Chinese government sent their own officials on a fact-finding mission, guarded by federal troops, and demanded reparations from the U.S. government. President Cleveland believed that the federal government was not responsible, but agreed to the compensation as a gesture of good will. In 1887, Congress approved the indemnity legislation. Cleveland was appalled by the violence, but he had reached the conclusion that the anti-Chinese prejudice was so deeply entrenched in the West, and the Chinese and American cultures were so different, that the Chinese would never be assimilated. It was the government’s duty, therefore, to protect the Chinese resident in the U.S. and to prevent the immigration of more Chinese through a new treaty to be negotiated between the American and Chinese governments.
Sources consulted:

Charles J. McClain, In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)

Richard E. Welch Jr., The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (University of Kansas Press, 1988)


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