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Petaluma’s Past: Remembering the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’ of 1882

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There is a great deal of hubbub in the news these days, talk about walling off our borders and deporting certain immigrants from this country. It has brought to mind that singular legislation of our past, in which the U.S. actually engaged in the aattempted shutting-out of an entire ethnic group from our country.

To understand it, one has to consider the times leading up to that 1882 event.

The great California gold rush of 1849-56 brought immigrants flooding to our shores from many different lands and cultures. Some of those came from China, fleeing the hardship and famine in that country. The Chinese possessed a different language, culture and dress, and they called California “Gold Mountain” for the hope that they saw here.

These newcomers were much resented by the white miners, however, for taking gold away from those whom, they believed, deserved it more. That was the start of prejudice against the Chinese on the West Coast, and most of those Chinese miners were forced to relinquish their gold claims, as they were physically driven out of the Sierras.

Prejudice grew even more in the late 1860s, when railroad entrepreneur Charles Crocker imported thousands more Chinese men to work on his Transcontinental Railroad. Crocker told his Big Four partners, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins, that the Chinese worked “harder, longer and for less money than the white laborer.”

There was also great danger in blasting railroad beds out of mountainsides, and Crocker bragged the Chinese were “fearless.” Eventually, Crocker imported over 15,000 Chinese men to work the railroad. About 10 percent of those were to die in the process. (Sadly, the only records kept of those deaths, were of bodies and body-parts shipped back to China.)

In Petaluma, animosity also grew as the situation was labeled here “The Chinese Problem.” Our Petaluma Argus newspaper suggested a boycott of anyone hiring Chinese in town. But that idea foundered when it was noted that wealthy mill owner, John McNear, was employing several Chinese.

However, fights, beatings and even murders evolved in this increasingly bad climate and, as jobs became more scarce during the recession following the Civil War, the Chinese were blamed for those woes as well.

By the late 1860s, Petaluma had grown its own Chinatown, which contained shops, laundries and many shanties, housing approximately 500 souls. Many of these Chinese worked in private homes and ranches, but roaming Chinese peddlers were also prevalent. By 1878, thousands of unemployed Californians were begging for $1 a day jobs and Petaluma leaders actually moved to cut off the water supply to our Chinese District (approximately Main Street extending to Kentucky, bordered by Western and B Street).

Many Chinese fled, then, to San Francisco, as the U.S. Congress attempted legislation banning Chinese from our country. It was vetoed at the time, by then President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Then, in 1882, a California Senator introduced a bill entitled “The Chinese Exclusion Act.” It passed, and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Act had a 10-year expiration date, but in 1892, it was extended for an additional 10 years, effectively excluding Chinese from our country. This caused many of those Chinese already here to create an underground economy centered in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Secret societies were formed there for their self-protection.

Even as late as 1891, the situation was tense.

The Petaluma Courier covered a story from Cloverdale about an attempted murder of many Asian vineyard workers by setting their house on fire while they slept. Fortunately, the men awoke in time and escaped, but it was one more example of Sonoma County being crazy about this issue.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt extended the Exclusion Act indefinitely, further requiring that all Chinese already here must register and obtain certificates to be displayed, whenever asked, or else face deportation.

Sound familiar?

Port Inspectors were the designated enforcement authority then, and American labor unions loudly applauded this prejudicial move by TR, for the increase in jobs it provided.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was in force for 61 years, until 1943, when President Franklin Roosevelt repealed it.

Ironically, just 20 months prior, FDR had initiated the 1942 Japanese Relocation Act, which sent tens of thousands of Japanese out of West Coast “military zones” into camps for the duration of the war. Why then, the repeal? China had come on board as our WWII ally and Japan, attempting to split the allies-up, propagandized to China that our Exclusion Act was based upon “America’s evil and enduring anti-Asian views.”

Those two Acts were both prejudicial errors.

In his effort to repeal the Exclusion Act in 1943, FDR had labeled it “An historic mistake,” as it had been the only time in U.S. history that an entire ethnic group was banned and deported. That action had been based mostly on the fear of losing jobs to Chinese.

FDR’s 1942 Japanese Relocation Act had been based upon intense fear of Pearl Harbor type-events on our West Coast. Too often in history, fear has caused grief and mistakes. Sometimes, however, those mistakes have molded better ideas and positive change.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of the Petaluma Historical Museum and Heritage Homes. Drop him a line at skipsommer@hotmail.com)