Chinese Exclusion Act Background Readings
Provided below are a series of background readings that you can share with students to further enhance their study of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Each title links to a PDF document that may be downloaded and/or printed for classroom use. Items with asterisks (*) link to external websites.
China was a country torn by conflict in the 1800s. After the Opium Wars with England, China was devastated by poverty and famine. In 1851, reports of gold came from the West, having been discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. Nearly 3,000 Chinese came to the U.S. in the hopes of making their fortune.
Millions of newcomers from throughout Europe sought out new homes in the West in the nineteenth century, especially in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The railroad was sometimes how they came or why they came.
The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act came after a long period of anti-Chinese discrimination. There were more than 200 incidents of ethnic cleansing in the last half of the nineteenth century, many of them occurring before the passage of the Act.
In 1885, nine-year-old Ruby Chapin was horrified by events around her. Chapin, whose family had moved from New York to Tacoma two years earlier, did not understand why her Chinese neighbors were being forced at gunpoint to leave town, their homes burned and businesses destroyed.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the United States government to legally discriminate against the Chinese people. While it banned emigration for 10 years, its powers would be extended by the Geary Act of 1892.
An 1886 eyewitness account from a Chinese resident about the expulsion in Tacoma. Lum May recounts the traumatic events and their impact on his family.
The anti-Chinese paranoia that swept Puget Sound is clear in the writing of a Tacoma city official who participated in the expulsion. James Wickersham, who later became a delegate for the Alaskan Territory, echoed white fears. In this 1916 letter, he expressed his worries about "being confronted by millions of industrious hard-working" Chinese, who would outdo their white neighbors and "gain possession of the Pacific coast of America."
The means by which Tacoma residents expelled their Chinese population was given a name--the "Tacoma Method." This article is the reputed source for that name.
Deputization of Olympia Citizens to stop anti-Chinese riots (primary source, courtesy of Washington Secretary of State)*
This is the paper which Sheriff William Billings used in 1886 to swear in prominent Olympia citizens to stop anti-Chinese riots in which a mob attempted to run the Chinese people out of town. Prompt and determined action prevented the mob from accomplishing this.
By 1870, the Chinese were 8.6 % of the total population of California and constituted 25% of the labor force. Chinese immigrants arrived on U.S. shores between the start of the California gold rush in 1849 and 1882, until the U.S. Congress enacted federal law in 1882 designed to prevent Chinese immigrants from entering or remaining in the United States.
A timeline of Asian American History
Reflections on Exclusion: We Punish Boat People (courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America)*
Exclusion is an ugly thing. It attacks a person’s sense of worth, of self, of identity. It deflates. Repeal of these laws started with the Chinese Repeal in 1943, then with changes in 1946 and 1952. But the psychic exclusion of Asians commenced long before and endured long after the life of any federal laws.