One hundred and forty years ago, February 7, 1886, was one of the worst days in Seattle’s history. It was the day that Seattle settled the “Chinese Question” by having a mob of 1,500 force out the Chinese from Seattle.
The “Chinese Question”—what to do with the troublesome Chinese—initially gained significance in Seattle at the People’s Party meeting held prior to the 1884 Seattle municipal elections. At this predominately working people gathering, it was announced that the City had just made a mistake of constructing the Jackson Street grade across non-taxable government land. “There is $87,000 worth of Jackson grade script outstanding,” the speaker warned, and “Wa Chong, the contractor, holds $10,000 worth of the Jackson Street script, and an attempt it is being made to saddle this amount off onto you and me, and other taxpayers.”
In earlier times, the Chinese were tolerated, and even welcomed by a fair amount of early Seattle settlers. After all, many of the Chinese were brought here to help do work at low wages that were often shunned by whites, such as laying tracks for the railroad and grading streets. Indeed, the arrival of Chinese was once seen as a sign of progress.
But by the mid-1880s, economic times grew worse and many men in Seattle and the region were out of work. Perceived as “unfair laborers” who were willing to accept lower wages and “tools of the Capitalist,” the Chinese became targets.
Not satisfied with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred Chinese workers from entering the United States and prohibited the nationalization of Chinese, nearly all of Seattle wanted the Chinese expelled. According to Murray Morgan, the author of Skid Roll: An Informal Portrait, they wanted the Chinese expelled because of “hate.” Recalling the turmoil of that time, Morgan quoted the Seattle Call newspaper: “The two-bit conscience of the scurvy opium fiend … the treacherous almond-eyed sons of Confucius … chattering, round-mouthed lepers … those yellow rascals who have infested our Western country, the rat-eating Chinamen.”
In Seattle, the anti-Chinese forces in the area quickly split into two groups. One group favored “Direct Action”—the direct and immediate removal of the Chinese from the city. The second group—the “Law and Order” group—favored a more orderly process of removal through legislative action. The first group was led by labor unions and laborers. The second group was comprised of business leaders and other civic leaders. Both groups agreed that the Chinese should be removed; they simply disagreed about how to expel them.
Around this time, Dan Cronin, an organizer for the Knights of Labor, arrived in Seattle from Eureka, California, where he had led a number of anti-Chinese efforts. Here, he formed a secret organization to expel the Chinese. The Committee of Nine, as it was called, was active in Seattle as well as Tacoma.
On September 28, 1885, Cronin organized a meeting in Seattle at Yesler Hall that established the Anti-Chinese Congress, a delegation representing eight communities and seven labor unions. Tacoma Mayor R. Jacob Weisbash was elected the leader of the Congress at the gathering. One of the earlier resolutions passed by the Anti-Chinese Congress was a resolution to expel all the Chinese by November 1, 1885.
On October 24, 1885, a huge turnout of about 2,500 of the City’s residents participated in an anti-Chinese demonstration. It was a telling statement of how the whole of Seattle felt about the Chinese. Notified of the hostile situation in Seattle, F.A. Bee, Vice-Consul for the Chinese in the United States and stationed in San Francisco, wired a telegram to Territorial Governor Watson Squire asking about protection for the Chinese.
Meanwhile, on November 3, in Tacoma, a mob of hundreds, armed with guns and clubs, marched to Chinese shanties that dotted the city’s business district along the waterfront. Smashing doors and breaking windows, they told the Chinese to pack and to grab their belongings while kicking and dragging them out of their quarters. The elderly and sick were permitted to ride on the wagons. The rest followed on foot, wrapped in blankets, carrying possessions on their backs. Because of the mud, some Chinese took off their sandals and walked barefoot. Many cried. Armed whites on horseback rode beside the Chinese, herding them like animals. A group of club-carrying whites escorted them to the railroad tracks and put them on box cars headed for Tacoma. All of the Chinese were directly removed from Tacoma by the anti-Chinese mob. But to make sure that the Chinese would not return, some of the mob went back to burn down the Chinese quarters along the waterfront.
Meanwhile, both anti-Chinese groups agreed to meet with the local Chinese. Mindful that Tacoma had forcibly evicted their 700 Chinese, the Chinese in Seattle were terrified. Not surprisingly, the meeting with five Chinese leaders ended with an agreement for the Chinese to depart. The Chinese only asked that they be permitted a reasonable amount of time to gather their belongings, dispose of property and collect unpaid debts. Some 150 Chinese, justifiably frightened, decided they couldn’t leave fast enough. They left by ship during the next three days following the Tacoma riot.
But the agreement to leave and the departure of a sizable number of Chinese were not enough to relieve tensions. On November 8, the Secretary of War ordered federal troops to Seattle, ostensibly to protect the Chinese. The following day, 350 soldiers from Fort Vancouver arrived with the Governor. But the troops were just as vicious as those seeking to oust the Chinese.
According to one account, “The uniformed visitors committed a number of brutal attacks on the Orientals, of which six were formally reported. Four Chinese were beaten up in apparently unprovoked assaults; one had his queue cut off; and another was thrown into the bay. In addition, according to one reporter, a group of soldiers visited the Chinese quarters on the night of November 9 to collect a ‘special tax’ from each Oriental. This foray was supposed to have netted approximately $150.”
During the month of November, 15 of the leading agitators were indicted for conspiracy to deprive the Chinese of the equal protection of the laws and equal rights under the laws, under the Act of Congress known as the Ku Klux Act. But on January 16, after a protracted trial, they were all acquitted.
Over the next several months, the citizens of Seattle waited for legislative action to remove the Chinese and awaited the outcome of conspiracy trials of leaders of the anti-Chinese direct action group. Seventeen persons were charged with conspiring to deny Chinese their legal rights under the equal protection laws. Following 14 days of testimony, the jury deliberated for 10 minutes and handed down a “not guilty” verdict, which would serve to motivate and encourage the call for direct removal of the Chinese.
On December 3, 1885, the Seattle City Council passed the so-called “Cubic Air Ordinance,” similar to those enacted in California towns. The ordinance provided that each resident of Seattle was entitled to a sleeping compartment 8’ x 8’ x 8.’ Dr. Smart, a city health officer, was instructed to enforce it vigorously as a weapon against the Chinese, who were known to live in very congested housing.
On February 5, the Seattle City Council passed additional ordinances to expedite the removal of Chinese from the city. One ordinance prohibited the operation of wash houses in wooden buildings. Another prohibited the sale of goods in the streets. Still another instituted a license fee for itinerant and non-residential fruit vendors. All of these laws were aimed at the Chinese.
The passage of these ordinances did little to diminish the cry of the anti-Chinese forces to immediately get rid of the Chinese. On the night of February 6, the Direct Action agitators and idle transients finalized their plans to expel the Chinese at a mass public meeting.
The next morning, on February 7, 1886, the Direct Action group carried out their plans to expel the Chinese. The events of that morning were recalled by the King County Sheriff at the time, John H. McGraw: “On Sunday morning, February 7th, about 9 o’clock, a messenger came to me and informed me that the Chinese were being forced from their homes and driven to the steamship Queen of the Pacific, to be transported to San Francisco. I immediately went to the Chinese quarter of town, and there I saw groups of men in and about different Chinese houses assisting in packing up the goods and effects of the Chinese and loading them on to express wagons, and met squads of Chinamen going towards the wharf, each squad being under the escort of three or four white men, followed by a rabble. The mob, which I found in possession of the streets at this time numbered 1,500, composed of the discontented element in Seattle, reinforced by delegations from Tacoma, Portland and other places.”
Sheriff McGraw ordered the mob to disperse and had a deputy read an official proclamation to disband. But the crowd responded by jeering defiantly.
When the Chinese were brought to the waterfront dock, they were told by Sheriff McGraw that they would not be obliged to leave and that they would be protected. Most of them expressed a desire to leave but did not have enough money to pay for the passage whereupon the mob collected for their tickets. Many of the Chinese were willing to take advantage of the free tickets while others preferred to remain in Seattle, but were undecided whether to go or stay.
During the afternoon, a writ of habeas corpus was issued by the District Court to the master of the steamship requiring him to bring before the Court the Chinese persons then on board of his vessel who were alleged to be unlawfully deprived of their liberty.
The next morning the Chinese were marched to King County Courthouse. There, Judge Roger S. Green told them that those who stay would be protected. This message was from the same “law and order” judge who earlier said, “The presence of Chinese is an evil, but the project of driving them out by lawless violence is suicidal … because it would frighten capital.” Having just experienced the anger and hatred of uncontrollable mob, all except 16 Chinese chose to leave.
After their courthouse appearance, the Chinese were taken back to the waterfront dock under the guard of Sheriff McGraw and his deputies. But the Queen of the Pacific could only take 196 passengers. So, a hundred or so Chinese were left on the dock with their baggage and unable to leave.
Subsequently, Sheriff McGraw and some of those who had been officiating as a committee of the anti-Chinese element decided to return the remaining Chinese to their dwellings. But on their way back to the Chinese quarters they were met by mob of several hundred attempting to turn the procession of Chinese in the direction of the railroad depot. Sheriff McGraw and his deputies under Captain George Kinnear, however, quickly advanced in front of the Chinese, when some of the mob attempted to wrestle guns from the guard. During the struggle which ensued several shots were exchanged between the guards and the mob, resulting in the killing of one of the assailants and the wounding of two others, and in the wounding of one of the special police officers of the city there on duty. The other military companies—the Seattle Rifles and Company D—very quickly came to the support of Captain Kinnear, and the crowd ceased to struggle, although they refused to disperse immediately. When the mob did break up, the Chinese went to their quarters.
The events of February 6 and 7 provoked Governor Squire to proclaim a state of insurrection, declare martial law, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and request federal troops. At first, his demand for troops was turned down by an Army officer on the grounds that troops can be sent only upon “last emergency.” But, when prominent citizens of the city became alarmed and wired a telegram to their Congressmen, President Cleveland sent eight companies of troops.
When the next steamer arrived on February 14, 1886, another 110 Chinese boarded, leaving about 50 Chinese who could not be taken on the ship. The remaining Chinese were scheduled to leave on the next steamer while others left by train. One week later, civil law was restored, but it was not until July that the federal troops left. By that time, only a handful of Chinese merchants and domestic servants remained in the city.
Anti-Chinese sentiments in Seattle remained high even after the removal of the Chinese. In the city and county elections of 1886, the People’s Party, comprised of those in the direct action group, made a clean election sweep.
CITY OF SEATTLE—RESOLUTION 31605
Signed by the Seattle City Council and Mayor in August 2015
A RESOLUTION expressing regret for the anti-Chinese legislation passed by the Washington Territory and previous Seattle City Councils, recognizing the past and continuing contributions of the Chinese to Seattle and reaffirming the City’s commitment to the civil rights of all people.
WHEREAS, the Chinese presence in Seattle dates back to 1860; and
WHEREAS, many Chinese engaged in constructing the first railroads to and from Seattle, graded many of the city’s roads in Pike, Union, Jackson and Washington Streets, worked at local canneries and sawmills, dug the earliest portion of the lake Washington Canal, and worked as “domestic servants”; and
WHEREAS, a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment swept the United States, including Washington Territory, that fostered an atmosphere of racial discrimination depriving Chinese immigrants of civil rights and privileges afforded others; and
WHEREAS, Washington Territory passed anti-Chinese legislation including:
A measure that denied Chinese the right to vote (1853).
An “Act to Protect free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese in the Territory,” which led to the “Chinese Police (poll) Tax” (1864).
“An Act relating to Witnesses and Evidence,” which prohibited Chinese from giving evidence in the courts in cases involving whites (1864).
A law that prohibited Chinese from voting in school elections (1867).
A law that prohibited Chinese from owning land; and
WHEREAS, this was followed by legislation passed by the United States Congress including the;
Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers and prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens. This Act was the first time the U.S. restricted immigration based on race and nationality. Other Chinese Exclusion Acts were subsequently passed to extend the 1882 Act, which was not repealed until 1902.
Scott Act (1888), which prohibited all Chinese laborers who left the U.S. from reentering.
Geary Act (1892), which required all Chinese persons in the U.S.—but no other race—to register with federal government in order to obtain “certificates of residence”; and
WHEREAS, there were widespread riots in many areas of Washington Territory spurred by the sentiment to get rid of the Chinese in Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham, and other towns; and
WHEREAS, the Seattle City Council in 1885 passed three discriminatory ordinances that, while not mentioning the word “Chinese,” were aimed at the living conditions and occupations of the Chinese in Seattle:
Ordinance 694 required 512 cubic feet of space for each person in a lodging, room, or hotel. Since the Chinese were not allowed to bring their wives or families, and worked long hours, these men often lived in small, overcrowded living spaces.
Ordinance 705 required a license of auctioneers, peddlers and hawkers. United States citizenship was required for a license, and federal law prohibited Chinese from becoming citizens.
Ordinance 710 required public laundries and wash houses to obtain a certificate from the City Health Officer and Fire Department, required buildings to be constructed of brick and stone with a metal roof, and prohibited washing and ironing between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.; and
WHEREAS, on February 7, 1886, an anti-Chinese riot ensued, and an angry mob of 1,500 invaded the Chinese quarters in Seattle and forced some 350 Chinese on wagons, hauled them to the dock, and put them on the Queen of Pacific steamer. Nearly all of the Chinese who were removed from Seattle left on that steamer and subsequent boats; and
WHEREAS, the community, despite this anti-Chinese sentiment and discriminatory laws established a Chinese settlement in Seattle known as Chinatown that has existed since the 1870s and provides a commercial, residential, and cultural base for the Chinese;
WHEARES, despite decades of systematic, persevered and sustained discrimination, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans persevered and have continued to contribute and play a significant role in the growth of Seattle; and
WHEREAS, racial and ethnic diversity are among Seattle’s most important strengths and goals and Seattle’s Chinese have positively added to the racial and ethnic diversity of the City; and
WHEREAS, the City of Seattle is committed to equal rights and social justice for all; and
WHEREAS, in 2004 the City established the Race and Social Justice Initiative, which is the City’s commitment to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in Seattle;
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF SEATTLE, THE MAYOR CONCURRING, THAT:
Section 1. The City Council expresses its deep regret for the anti-Chinese sentiments and passage of discriminatory ordinances directed at the Chinese that led to the 1886 anti-Chinese riots in the city and the expulsion of the Chinese.
Section 2. The City Council recognizes the contributions the Chinese made to the development of Seattle and the continuing contribution of Chinese Americans to this City.
Section 3. The City Council reaffirms its commitment to the civil rights of all people and celebrates the contributions that all immigrants have made to Seattle in the past and present.