Immigration has always been intimately linked with American history. Through the years, an American society has emerged shaped in large part by the multitude of cultures brought here by millions of immigrants.
In the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries it was primarily immigrants from Europe that colonized America. There was some limited immigration from Asia, but these new arrivals tended to remain in the eastern part of the country. A small number of Chinese are believed to have settled in California while it was still under Mexican rule.
America’s initial contact with China after the Revolutionary War was through transpacific trade. Vessels made the long trip from Canton (Guangzhou), around Cape Horn to New England. The Chinese on these ships were primarily merchants and sailors who most often chose not to settle permanently in the new land. In 1848 it was estimated there were 325 Chinese Americans.
Following the discovery of gold, Chinese immigration to California grew rapidly. While just 450 Chinese arrived in 1850 that number grew quickly to more than 20,000 in 1852. By 1880 there were over 80,000 people of Chinese origin in California, nearly 10% of the State’s 865,000 population.
Similar to most newcomers, only a few Chinese found great riches in the gold fields. However, many of them chose to stay in California and added their skills to the labor force. Chinese laborers, it should be noted, became a crucial component in building the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad employed over 10,000 Chinese.
With the completion of the railroad, thousands of Chinese competed with the white labor force for increasingly scarce jobs. The depression of 1873 and rapidly growing Asian immigration intensified anti-Chinese sentiment in California.
An editorial from the Sacramento Union reprinted in the October 14, 1871 Marin Journal offered this analysis of the immigration issue: “Demagogues have magnified it [Chinese immigration], and the unsophisticated have been made to believe and fear.” Following a presentation of several demographic statistics the editorial concluded “…the idea of this coast ever becoming a Chinese colony can scarcely be entertained by a rational being.”
Some people at the time did preach moderation, but anti-Chinese feelings grew into a frenzy of hatred and fear. In 1877 the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) was formed in San Francisco by an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearny. Kearny warned of the “Yellow Peril”, vowed to fight the “Oriental Menace” and ended all his speeches with “And whatever happens, the Chinese must go.”
The WPC organized in Marin under the leadership of John F. O’Toole and James Fagan. As reported in the August 8, 1978 Marin Journal, the object of a San Rafael WPC meeting “…was to protest against the employment of Chinamen on the Bolinas road, and to prevent, if possible, the further prosecution of the work, unless done by white labor.” In response to a question of whether the Board of Supervisors could in a proposed contract limit the kind of labor employed, District Attorney Bowers indicated the Board was limited under law to award the work to the lowest bidder. As reported in the Journal “A committee was appointed to wait upon the Supervisors…. The leading idea was to organize a force to drive off the Chinese.”
The influence of the WPC grew and ultimately assumed a significant place on the 1879 California gubernatorial election ballot. The ballot included Republican, Democratic and Workingmen’s Party candidates. Statewide and in Marin County, the Republican, George Clement Perkins was elected Governor. However, results in Marin differed from those statewide in the runner-up vote count. Democrat, Hugh J. Glenn, finished second statewide but in Marin the WPC candidate, William F. White, came in second with the Democrat in third place.
The controversy over Chinese immigration had become so intense that the 1879 ballot included a specific question on whether Chinese immigration should be allowed. Chinese immigration was overwhelmingly rejected statewide, including by Marin voters. Marin recorded just 7 votes for Chinese immigration and 1,339 or 99.5% against. A similar percentage, 99.4%, voted against Chinese immigration statewide.
Based on the results of the 1879 election, California’s Governor declared March 4, 1882 a legal holiday so that the people of California could express support for the anti-Chinese legislation pending before Congress. Demands for an end to Chinese immigration became a major issue in all West Coast States.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882. The Act banned Chinese immigration for 10 years. The Geary Act of 1892 extended the exclusion policy and was made permanent in 1902. Chinese exclusion was finally repealed in 1943 when the Republic of China was an ally of the United States in the war against the Empire of Japan. The Chinese Exclusion Act remains as the only national law ever adopted to exclude a specific ethnic group.
Despite the intense feelings against them, some Chinese remained in Marin County. Their population shrunk from 1,827 in 1880 to just 498 by 1900. They were mostly involved in the small business communities in San Rafael, Fairfax and Sausalito or worked in wealthy households. A village of enterprising fishermen is remembered today at China Camp State Park. The settlement provided a sanctuary for immigrants fleeing anti-Chinese attitudes. In the 1880s it was home to about 500 people and included general stores, a marine supply and barber shop.
The Angel Island Immigration Station was designed to implement the Chinese Exclusion Act. New arrivals from China were subject to brutal interrogation and interment if their documents were not in order. Some left their feelings of despair carved into the wooden barrack walls in the form of Chinese poetry. About 80% were eventually processed through the station. The remainder were excluded from immigrating to America. A physical reminder of the difficulties experienced by Chinese immigrants can be viewed today at the Immigration Station on Angel Island.