This Day In History: January 13

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On January 13, 1903, the RMS Gaelic arrives in Honolulu, bringing with it the first Korean immigrants to the United States. The Hawaiian Star calls the 102 newcomers “a possible solution for the problem of labor on plantations,” foreshadowing the difficult lives that await them in the recently-acquired U.S. territory.

As the Star’s framing suggests, early Korean immigration to the United States was largely a product of American planters’ need for cheap labor. The “problem” the paper referenced was sugar and pineapple plantation owners’ difficulties with their mostly-Japanese workers, and their solution had been to send recruiters to Korea. Christian missionaries also stimulated the first wave of Korean immigration to the United States: missionaries Horace Allen and George Herbert Jones had recruited over half of the Koreans aboard the Gaelic from the Naeri Methodist Church near Inchon.

Many of the workers moved on to the Pacific coast of the mainland United States when their contracts were up, and the Korean American diaspora community went on to play an important role in the Korean Independence Movement. The racist Immigration Act of 1924, colloquially known as the Oriental Exclusion Act, put an abrupt end to Korean immigration to the U.S. for a time, but many Koreans still found their way to the U.S. as students. Another wave of Korean immigrants would arrive starting in 1950, most of them fleeing the civil war in their country. Today, there are over 1.8 million Korean Americans, and Koreatowns exist in many U.S. cities—Honolulu’s received official recognition from the State of Hawaii in 2016. January 13 is now recognized nationally as Korean American Day.