The Tacoma Riot of 1885 and Seattle Riot of 1886 drew national attention to the burgeoning coastal cities in Washington territory for their forced expulsion of their Chinese populations by angry—and largely white—mobs. The actions were part of a brutal wave of anti-Chinese violence that rocked the American West in the second half of the 19th century, displacing more than 20,000 Chinese people; between 1849 and 1906, there were at least 200 purges of Chinese residents in California alone. In response, the U.S. government issued more restrictive immigration policies that created a precedent for race-based immigration quotas.
Chinese in the American West
The first Chinese settlers in America came in the wake of the California Gold Rush of 1849, which drew prospectors from across the globe. Railroads raced to connect the East and West coasts as part of America’s rapid Westward expansion.
By the 1860s, Chinese immigrants began settling in the Seattle area. They found work digging mines, canning salmon, logging in nearby forests and laying railroad tracks. The new arrivals were overwhelmingly male; the discriminatory Page Act of 1875 had sharply curtailed the number of Chinese women entering the United States.
Anti-Chinese resentment was fueled by white laborers, many of whom were recent immigrants themselves. Racial biases meant employers paid Chinese workers less than their white peers—a disparity that caused them to be accused of undercutting their competition.
“Many Chinese workers sent remittances back to their families in China, so lived fairly frugally,” says Gordon H. Chang, professor of history and humanities at Stanford University and author of Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. “White workers, many of whom were supporting families locally, saw the Chinese as a difficult group to compete with. Employers were savvy in knowing how to play off ethnic groups against one another.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act and Growing Anti-Chinese Violence
The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years and denied Chinese immigrants the right to become U.S. citizens. “The 1882 act is a political act passed in part as a palliative measure to placate the white population without provoking the Chinese government to close its doors [to trade],” says Chang. “Because it was a compromise, it didn’t satisfy most of the adamant anti-Chinese elements in the West.” Problems with enforcement, loopholes and time limits further angered anti-Chinese labor interests.
Increasingly frustrated by the law’s “failed promise,” local communities turned to violence, says Beth Lew-Williams, associate professor of history at Princeton University and author of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America. In some cases, angry laborers massacred Chinese miners at places like Sqak Valley in Washington territory and Rock Springs in the Wyoming territory and Hell’s Canyon in Oregon. More often, says Lew-Williams, systematic expulsion became the method of choice: “Vigilantes used boycotts, arsons and assaults to swiftly remove the Chinese from their towns and prevent their return.”
The Tacoma Riot: November 3, 1885
On September 28, 1885, the Washington branch of the Knights of Labor held a meeting to address the “Chinese question.” Led by the city’s German-born mayor, Jacob Weisbach, the group set a deadline to remove all Chinese from the Tacoma-Seattle corridor: November 1, with committees formed to enforce the decision should the Chinese refuse to depart. “Tacoma is unique because…the removal of the [Chinese] population was so completely orchestrated,” says Jean Pfaelzer, author of Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans.
On November 3, 1885, fire bells rang out, signaling the gathered vigilantes to round up the remaining 300 Chinese residents of Tacoma. They carried clubs and pistols to “drive us like so many hogs,” recalls eyewitness Tak Nam. Local merchant Lum May recalled the mob of 500—which included the town’s mayor, judge and city councilors—"broke forcibly into the houses, smashing in doors and breaking in windows.”
“Chinese residents were told they had just a few hours to pack. They were marched to the railroad crossing nine miles outside of town on foot,” Pfaelzer says. Driving rain soaked bodies already bogged down with whatever worldly belongings they could carry. Once at the tracks, they were forced to purchase their own fare to Portland, Oregon. Those who couldn’t afford a ticket or who didn’t fit on the first train began to walk along the rails their countrymen had laid. Two men died from exposure.
Within four days of the expulsion, Tacoma’s two Chinatowns had been burned to the ground. Though the identity of the lead perpetrators, known as the “Tacoma 27,” was well known, not a single one was convicted.
Seattle Riot of 1886: February 6-9, 1886
Fear of growing violence prompted 150 Chinese residents of nearby Seattle to flee. Washington’s governor, Watson Squire, contacted President Grover Cleveland, who sent federal troops to Seattle for 10 days to keep the peace. “The federal troops are what keep Seattle from burning to the ground,” says Pfaelzer. “But as soon as they’re removed…all hell breaks loose.”
By February, more than half of Seattle’s Chinese population had fled, leaving just under 400 residents. On February 7, 1886, an angry mob led by the Knights of Labor invaded Chinatown. They rounded up every resident they could find, putting them into wagons and dragging them to the harbor. Eyewitness Chang Yen Hoon recalled: “During the riotous proceedings the residence of Mr. Chan Yee Hee was invaded by the mob and his [pregnant] wife was dragged downstairs from the second story and out on the street by the hair of her head.” She later miscarried.
At the harbor, the mob attempted to force the amassed group to board the steamship Queen of the Pacific, bound for San Francisco. There was just one problem: They didn’t have the fare to book passage. “Nobody wants to pay to send them to China, and deportation laws were complicated,” says Pfaelzer.
By day’s end, 89 people had been loaded onto the Queen of the Pacific, leaving 215 trapped in a warehouse, surrounded by the mob. A plan to deport the remaining Chinese via rail to Tacoma was thwarted, sending the mob into a spiral of destruction. They began attacking the homes of citizens who employed Chinese house servants—including Mayor Henry Yesler’s.
That Monday, U.S. Justice Roger Greene called for all Chinese on the ship and in the warehouse to be brought to court and asked if they wished to stay or leave. Only 16 came forward wishing to stay, yet funds were still short to purchase passage for the remaining population. The Knights of Labor grudgingly agreed that the remaining Chinese could stay until a second ship, the Elder, arrived the following week.
As the Chinese residents filed out to temporarily return to their homes, the mob outside the courtroom opened fire. A military escort surrounded them and fired back. Five mob members were shot, with one succumbing to his injuries. Governor Squire declared martial law and issued a curfew to all residents of Seattle.
When the Elder sailed out of port six days later, most of the remaining Chinese population was aboard.
Impact of the Seattle and Tacoma Riots
A sum of $276,619.15 was paid to the Chinese government by Congress as compensation for the expulsions. The displaced, meanwhile, never saw payment.
The forced removal of Chinese immigrants became known as “the Tacoma method”—and spread across the West. Congress, seeking to restore the peace, passed a more stringent Chinese Exclusion Act, the Scott Act, in 1888. “Local violence helped to birth race-based border control policies that continued until the mid-20th century,” says Lew-Williams.