The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 6, Number 2, Pages 28-37
Spring, 1981

The Anti-Chinese Riots in Seattle

by Lenore Ziontz

The expulsion of the Chinese from Tacoma in 1885 is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Less well known is the story of mob violence against Seattle's Chinese community in 1885-86. Although many citizens opposed such action, several hundred Chinese were driven out of Seattle in the winter of 1886. Lenore Ziontz, a free lance writer living in Mercer Island, Washington, describes this episode and explores why it occurred.

During the second half of the nineteenth century in Washington Territory a few hardy pioneers strove to wrest a home from the wilderness. When Chinese immigrant laborers arrived from California and Oregon, they were at first welcome. White settlers cheerfully accepted help from whatever source might provide it.

The first Chinese immigrants to America came to California in the early 1850's. They laid railroad track from the Pacific Ocean across the continent as far as Salt Lake City, and they provided services for miners in the California Gold Rush. Their laundries and restaurants generally did an excellent business, and their success encouraged increasing numbers of poor Chinese to come to this country, some of whom found their way to the Northwest. The Civil War, following closely on the heels of the Gold Rush, absorbed the energies of a great many able-bodied young men and created a labor shortage throughout the United States. Additionally, in Seattle, Indian hostilities which had occurred in 1856 discouraged white population growth for more than a decade. Even the resourceful Henry Yesler was forced to close his sawmill because he was unable to find workers to man it. Then the Chinese began to arrive and went to work in the lumber industry, the hop fields, the fisheries, and other areas.


The Civil War, following closely on the heels of the Gold Rush,
absorbed the energies of a great many able-bodied young men and
created a labor shortage throughout the United States.


In the 1860's Chinese laborers lived all over the Territory. However, few worked in Seattle until construction of the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad began. This project was Seattle's response to the decision in 1873 by the Northern Pacific Railroad to terminate the transcontinental rail line in Tacoma rather than in Seattle. By 1876, there were approximately 250 Chinese residents in Seattle. In 1877 and 1878, Chinese laborers constructed a stretch of Seattle and Walla Walla track between Renton and Newcastle, enabling Seattle-owned coal to be brought from the mines east of the town to Elliott Bay. It provided a link between the mines and Lake Washington. The coal was then barged across the lake and carried through Seattle over a special wooden and iron surfaced tram-line to coal bunkers on the Bay. The new ease in transportation of the coal increased the need for Chinese miners to work extracting it.

Another big project using Chinese labor was construction of the first canal connecting Lake Union with Puget Sound. David T. Denny, one of Seattle's original settlers and major entrepreneurs, and his Lake Washington Improvement Company arranged with Wah Chong, the largest Chinese labor contractor in the region, to excavate a course for the water link. By 1885, the project was sufficiently completed to allow logs cut from around Lake Union to be floated through a small canal and wooden lock from fresh to salt water. The Chinese also worked building board sidewalks and grading and paving Seattle's streets and roads. There were Chinese laundries, drug stores, and other businesses. The future looked bright.

Within a few years, however, the pattern of labor availability changed in the West. Growing European immigration gradually created a surplus of unskilled workers, even in the remote Pacific Northwest. Until the mid-1870's, no voices in this part of the country were raised against the Chinese presence. But as it became harder for white laborers to find work, complaints about "Chinese cheap labor" began to be heard. The national legislative response to this problem was known as the "Chinese Exclusion Acts." In 1882, passage of the first of these laws suspended entry of Chinese workers into this country and forbade any further granting of citizenship to those Chinese already here.


Difficulties in developing an American society on the frontier meant that people felt
that it was important for everyone to subscribe to the same laws and institutions.


There were several reasons why workers in this country perceived the Chinese as competitors rather than fellow workers. Difficulties in developing an American society on the frontier meant that people felt that it was important for everyone to subscribe to the same laws and institutions. White citizens often maintained that only those who planned to make this country their permanent home should reap the rewards of earning money here. It was said of the Chinese that, "...if they made a dollar a day, they saved ninety cents and sent it back to China." Under frontier conditions it seemed divisive to have people around who spoke a foreign tongue and wished to associate only with their own fellow countrymen. In truth, the Chinese did tend to be isolated from other settlers, but this was largely due to language and social barriers.

The Chinese generally lived in crowded and unhealthy conditions, and white Americans imagined that they did so because they were an inferior people. Few whites made any effort to understand the constraints on Chinese behavior. They knew only that the Chinese came to this country in order to send money home and that they planned to return to China. They inspired fear because they seemed so strange and, as in many cases when men seem different, rumors about Chinese attacks on white women were common.

The Chinese working in America in the nineteenth century were able to endure miserable working and living conditions because their emotional attachments lay in China. Americans did not fully appreciate that whatever assistance a Chinese son sent home often meant the difference between life or death to his entire family. Sons remembered the famine, disease, and war at home. Even though far away, emigrants were culturally and emotionally bound to their family units.

These are some of the reasons why the Chinese laborers who came here were unable to view America as the new home that most other immigrants did. The Chinese were alien to the American majority and these differences had their basis in race, culture, and history. But despite their isolation and despite the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Chinese continued to enter the country. They were smuggled across the border from British Columbia by Americans who added to their incomes in this fashion. So long as there remained any economic opportunity, Chinese attempted entry by any means possible. By the mid-1880s there were 3,278 Chinese people working in Washington Territory.

Then in 1883 there was a sharp downturn in the national economy. In the west the Chinese became a focal point for blame. Within two years anti-Chinese feeling reached fever-pitch. In Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1883 several Chinese workers were killed. The next day in the Issaquah Valley, just east of Seattle, three Chinese hop pickers were shot to death while they slept. Public feeling against the Chinese was so intense that when the killers were brought to trial, it was impossible to obtain a conviction. Public officials and leading citizens made no secret of their hostility and dislike of the Chinese and consequently the least responsible elements of society felt they had a license to intimidate and harm.

Anti-Chinese emotion became so threatening that Orientals who had previously been scattered throughout the territory now gathered together seeking a measure of security in Seattle's more concentrated community. When there was not other work, they did laundry, and the number of Chinese laundrymen listed in the "Seattle Directory" rose dramatically between 1884 and 1885. The Chinese quarter became more and more crowded.

To break up such concentrations of population the Seattle City Council passed the "Cubic Air Ordinance," requiring living space of 8' x 8' x 10' for each person living in the city. This was a discriminatory act aimed directly at the Chinese. Constrained by poverty, segregation, and the current tension, they lived under the most cramped conditions imaginable.


Then in 1883 there was a sharp downturn in the national economy.
In the west the Chinese became a focal point for blame.


Caucasian fraternal groups and workingmen united in an organization called the Anti Chinese Congress. The Congress was dedicated to quick removal of all Chinese from western Washington. They announced that by November 15, 1885, all Chinese must be gone from this region or remain at their peril.

As the announced deadline approached, the promise of a violent showdown drew drifters and ruffians from all around the territory. They smelled an opportunity for sanctioned mayhem, particularly because it was common knowledge that most of Seattle's police officers were in sympathy with those who favored "direct action." October 3, 1885 witnessed the largest parade the city had ever seen. That parade was in reality a huge anti-Chinese demonstration. Many respected Seattleites marched in it, making common cause with people with whom they would not ordinarily associate.

Clarence Bagley, a leading Seattle historian, asserts: "It was not always the most vicious element in every community that took the lead in the anti-Chinese agitation and in the rioting and murders that followed in due sequence; it is to their everlasting shame that a large part of the sober, industrious and peaceable citizens joined the other class and became law-breakers and criminals with them, as well as at all times apologists and defenders."

Seattle Mayor Henry Yesler called a meeting to urge restraint and respect for law and order, but even he stressed that the Chinese should be removed. Reasonable citizens organized to resist the coming violence as the anti-Chinese forces whipped themselves into a frenzy of hatred.

October of 1885 saw many of the more thoughtful men in town enlisting in para-military squads to prevent illegal action against the Chinese. These civic-minded volunteers were sworn in as Deputy Sheriffs. In the coming riot, they would make a stand against mob rule. But they too were as eager as any to see the last Chinese depart.

Tensions first reached a climax in Tacoma, where about seven hundred Chinese lived, many of whom were employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad or sold food, lodging, or other services to Chinese railway employees. Tacoma experienced the same kind of unrest and anti-Chinese feeling as Seattle and had enacted its own "Cubic Air Ordinance" in April of 1885.

On September 7, the Knights of Labor, a national alliance, was locally organized in Tacoma under the leadership of Daniel Cronin of Seattle. This organization tried to secure a following among workingmen by political action, worker education, and workingmen's cooperatives. However, on occasion, the Knights chose to select human targets to blame for the hunger and suffering of America's workingmen. In Seattle and Tacoma, the Knights of Labor were in the forefront of the anti-Chinese activities.

The Chinese were convinced that it was necessary that they leave the region but their departure did not proceed quickly enough to calm the anti-Chinese forces. On the morning of November 3, a mob of several hundred men took "direct action" in Tacoma. They told everyone in the Chinese ghetto to pack up and be ready to leave Tacoma forever by 1:30 that very afternoon. At the time the mob proposed to cart the Chinese and their belongings off to the train station.

Lum May had owned a dry goods store in Tacoma for a number of years. When 1:30 in the afternoon of November 3 arrived, some of the men in the mob dragged Lum May's wife out of her home and onto the street. While they did her no real physical harm, the fear, noise, and excitement drove her instantly mad. Later, a Dr. Thomas Minor certified that he had know her to be sane before this incident but that she never regained her reason afterward.

The Chinese were forced to spend the entire day and the night that followed at the train station. One of them, a man named Goon Gau, sent a telegram to Watson C. Squire, the territorial governor. In his telegram Goon said, "People driving Chinamen from Tacoma. Why sheriff not protect?"

Governor Squire was truly concerned and earnestly wished to keep the peace. He answered the telegram, "Telegram received. I have telegraphed facts to the government at Washington." The Chinese were forced to remain without shelter that night. It was cold and stormy and at least one of the elderly died of exposure. A thoroughly cold and frightened group of Chinese people were finally loaded in boxcars on a train bound for Portland the next day.

Many of those who composed the mob had no real feelings either for or against Chinese people. They were that element of society that is interested in rioting, burning, and looting-not in social issues. They were simply hoodlums, but they were encouraged by "responsible" citizens, who encouraged them through inaction and prejudice.

On the day of their departure, every building the Chinese had occupied was put to the torch. Later "Ah Chung Charley" was arrested as a suspect in the arson but was acquitted in trial. He had been one of a very few Chinese permitted to remain to look after abandoned Chinese property and it was a bitter irony to accuse him of being the person who destroyed it. (There was some poetic justice in the fact that much of Tacoma's dirty linen had been in the Chinese laundrys at the time of this entire affair and was forever lost to its owners.)

A good many Seattle citizens found the Tacoma incident shocking and alarming. A meeting was called in an effort to keep the peace while some Seattle newspapers and the Knights of Labor kept emotions stirred up by urging "removal action." Judge Thomas Burke spoke for restraint. He pointed out that a man can be a good neighbor whatever his race and reminded each person that many of those in his audience had suffered oppression. Burke felt certain that having been a victim, a man could not turn around and become a victimizer. He said that every man who had known persecution "...will not deprive any of God's creatures, not even the defenseless Chinaman, of the protection of that law which found the Irishman a serf and made him a free man."

In that speech Judge Burke noted that the Mayor of Tacoma had allowed this terrible incident to take place. Burke remarked that the Mayor was not an American, but a German, and he alleged that Germans are frequently perpetrators of racial and religious discrimination. Some people applauded the speech, but many disliked it. The Seattle Daily Call termed the speech "silly and viperous."

As a result of the events in Tacoma and the Seattle meeting which followed, Governor Watson C. Squire wired the Secretaries of War and Interior in Washington, D.C., informing them that he was present in Seattle and had personally evaluated the situation. Squire asserted that the Chinese in Seattle could not be protected without federal troops.

Squire's telegram brought prompt results. On November 8, l88S, 3S0 soldiers arrived in Seattle from Fort Vancouver with orders to remain until November 17. The presence of the troops restored order but did not entirely protect the Chinese. Sometimes the soldiers themselves accosted the luckless Chinese and extracted "tax" for protecting them.

By this time most of the Chinese had lost their jobs due to the insistence of the anti-Chinese groups. Although the Chinese were no longer in competition for jobs, their opponents were not satisfied. Some were incensed by a few wealthy and previously respected citizens who insisted on keeping and protecting their Chinese domestics. David Denny was one of those who shielded his employees from the rabble and would not bow to demands that he sever his ties with his employees.

The entire conflict took on the aspect of class antagonism. Established Seattle property owners had an investment in public order and institutions. Some workers and the unemployed could only benefit by challenging existing as immoral and un-American. In response the Daily Call insisted that the ministers were only interested in protecting their churches' income. On November 17 the Army departed as scheduled, and the city simmered through the winter.

The crisis came to a head on the morning of Sunday, February 7.

At 7:00 a.m. the acting-chief of police, along with some other Seattle policemen, lead a mob of men to "Chinatown." In those days Chinatown lay behind Seattle's mills and warehouses between Second and Fourth Avenues on Washington and Main Streets. Assessments as to how many Chinese were then living in Seattle varied from 200 to 400. Perhaps another 300 were normally in the city on a transient basis. Additionally, in the winter of 1885-86 many workers from elsewhere were in Seattle because they were unemployed and looking for some security by huddling with others of their race.

The ring-leaders of the mob began banging at the doors of Chinese residences. When doors were opened, this self-appointed squad of vigilantes forced their way in and carried out whatever meager personal possessions they discovered. They piled goods and people onto wagons and drove them down to the docks. The mob intended to load these Chinese on the steamer Queen of the Pacific, departing that day for San Francisco. Soon they had deposited 400 shivering Chinese men, women and children on the dock. Meanwhile, the churchbells of Seattle rang to alert voluntary militias - armed men who were prepared to assist the Chinese and restore peace.


The Seattle Rifles and the University Cadets took the rear, and in the middle of
their protectors stood the harassed Chinese, carying their pitiful bundles.


The Queen of the Pacific did not leave Seattle as scheduled because the captain of the ship insisted he would not take any Chinese as passengers until their fares were paid. He kept the mob at bay by instructing his crew to attach hoses to the ship's boilers and spray with live steam any rioters who dared set foot on board without permission. This delay allowed sufficient time for the law to intervene.

Judge Roger S. Greene issued a writ of habeus corpus contending that the Chinese were being deprived of their liberty without due process of law. The order required that the captain of the Queen of the Pacific produce the Chinese in court on the following morning. In addition, several leaders of the rabble were jailed overnight. The latter action discouraged the mob and permitted many of the Chinese to reach the courthouse for the hearing on the next day.

Through an interpreter, the judge explained to the Chinese that they might leave or stay in Seattle as they wished. He assured them that if they stayed, they would be protected. Only sixteen of the eighty-nine Chinese present in the courtroom elected to remain. No doubt most of them remembered the federal troops and the protection they had earlier received at their hands.

Following their court appearances, the Chinese were returned to the dock. Sufficient funds were raised from among the rioters and the peace-keepers to pay the captain to take all who would safely fit aboard ship to San Francisco. However, there were a substantial number who could not be accommodated on the steamer. So there was no alternative but that these Chinese return to their homes to await passage on the next steamer due to depart Seattle. This inability to get rid of all the Chinese infuriated those who just the previous day had routed the Chinese out of their homes. There would be further irritants in store for the mob.

The forces for law and order the "Home Guards," the "Seattle Rifles," and the "University Cadets" - now had physical control of the Chinese. When the rabble grasped this turn of events, they became even more incensed. Their growing rage made it more and more apparent that trouble could not be averted.

It was clearly necessary to escort the remining Chinese to their homes if they were to reach them safely. The Home Guard lined up in front. The Seattle Rifles and the University Cadets took the rear, and in the middle of their protectors stood the harassed Chinese, carying their pitiful bundles. The procession began up Main Street from the waterfront, and at First and Main they were met by the crowd which was estimated to be two-thousand strong. Shouts rang out from the angry mob, "Kill them!" "Put them in the bay!" "Drown them!" At first the Home Guard tried to avoid any shooting, and the fighting was largely pushing and shoving. But then, the rioters tried to seize the guns of the Home Guard and the situation became critical.

Many of those in the crowd did not believe the guns were loaded or that these civilian militiamen would really protect the Chinese. But the Home Guard and the other militia were resolved to preserve order and protect the Chinese. There were many who felt the anti-Chinese sentiments were unfair. The leader of the Home Guard, George Kinnear, had told his men that they must use their guns should it become necessary. Although they may have fervently prayed that they would not have to, when rioters tried to wrestle the guns away, the Home Guard fired their weapons. One person was killed and four were wounded.

The general shock caused by the shootings resulted in a half-hour stalemate. The mob would not retreat and the Chinese and their defenders could not go forward. Many in the crowd were armed, and the situation threatened to become even uglier. Further violence seemed inevitable when Captain Haines, a well-known figure around town, and his company of soldiers arrived on the scene. The crowd cheered and allowed them to pass. Captain Haines and his contingent, Company "0," joined those forces protecting the Chinese. The Home Guards were thus reinforced. Now the rioters gave ground. The entire procession of citizen-militia and their charges were able to move forward and return the remaining Chinese to their homes.

Exactly why the mob allowed Company D to pass through their ranks is uncertain. It may have been that Captain Haines was known to be sympathetic to "forcible removal." It was rumored that Company D's rifles were not loaded but then, the rioters had no further appetite to test that notion. But when it was clear that the captain and his company stood with the forces for law and order, the crowd let the Chinese and their protectors leave and further violence was forestalled.

That same afternoon, February 8, 1886, Governor Watson C. Squire declared martial law in Seattle. More citizen volunteers were given guns and ammunition to help preserve order, and by this strategy those in favor of the public peace were able to keep control of the city. Once more the rioters dispersed, believing they could soon renew their campaign against the Chinese. However, the Army returned to Seattle on February 10. The presence of the military made it clear that the time for violence had permanently passed. The exhausted citizens were now relieved from their round-the-clock duty of preserving Seattle from mob rule. But the frightened Chinese continued their exodus, 110 leaving by steamer by February 14th. Gone were Mrs. Gee, the dressmaker, Tuck Wo, who had owned a grocery, Wing Sing Tong, the druggist, and all the laundrymen.

The strength and determination exhibited by the forces for a peaceful solution of the Chinese problem resulted in the anti Chinese mobs abandoning violence. Now they organized politically, calling themselves the "People's Party." At the polls the following November, they defeated those officials who had insisted on law and order.

That fall "populist" wind turned "establishment" candidates out of office all around the country. Those Seattleites who had previously controlled the community tended to believe in a conspiracy by the International Workingmen's Association to subvert the United States. This notion seemed more attractive than the more reasonable explanation that the events in Seattle and elsewhere were the reaction by hungry men to economic depression.

Congress was later to vote to pay indemnities to the Chinese government for the violence against the Chinese in Wyoming and elsewhere. Seattle and Tacoma were never named and shamed as Rock Springs was by that congressional action. Seattle benefitted rather than lost from the entire affair because it gained a national reputation as a city which valued and upheld the rule of law. But too many Seattleites had been concerned about the possibility of losing business if they took a position contrary to those impatient to rid the community of Orientals. They had not been forthright about standing up for the underdog. This lack of resolution encouraged those ready to abandon equal justice and the rule of law and take matters into their own hands. Equivocating created the necessity to call in the Army, organize volunteer militia, and declare martial law. And it allowed several hundred Chinese to be driven out of Seattle.

As it turned out, Chinese labor was too valuable to the community to be banished for long. Only two years later the illegal importation of Chinese in defiance of the Chinese Exclusion Acts had grown to be an important industry in Washington. The newspapers in Washington Territory made no mention of this activity but there were reports of it in the national press. At least two labor contractors, Wa Choong and Quong Chong, were doing business in Seattle in 1888.

The Exclusion Acts did not keep the Chinese out of the United States. They only served to make Chinese people even more helpless than they would have otherwise been when they arrived in this country. They were smuggled in and once here, lived in terror of deportation. The frightening aftermath of illegal entry is the heritage of Chinese-Americans to this day. Many are still uncertain about whether their parents or grandparents are really citizens.

For all too long there was no alternative open to the Chinese but to work for whatever wages were paid them. They were forced to live under terrible conditions and the conditions they lived under were pointed to as one more justification for white prejudice against them. However, with the passage of time, the Chinese young people were able to build on the hard work of their elders, winning the acceptance and respect that was brutally denied their ancestors in the 1880s.