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This Day in Labor History: September 2, 1885

[ 68 ] September 2, 2012 |

On September 2, 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming decided to exterminate the town’s entire Chinese community. Whites killed at least 28 Chinese miners in the Rock Springs Massacre, demonstrated the power of white supremacy to the Gilded Age white working class, and is a prime example of how employers have fomented racial tension throughout much of American history.

White Americans hated the Chinese.

There isn’t really much reason to complicate the above sentence when talking about the 19th century. Its truth is indisputable. From the moment, whites crossed the deserts in search of California gold and realized, what!, there are Chinese people here! (and Mexicans and Indians and Chileans and a lot of other non-whites), they wanted to eliminate them. In California, they very quickly stole the mine claims from the Chinese and forced them do to traditional female labor in this all-male society (this is the root of the Chinese laundry and ubiquitous small-town Chinese restaurant). The Chinese, desperate to find economic opportunities not existent in their home country, still continued to come to the United States, despite the racism and violence they faced.

This led to the first successful labor movement in the American history–the working-class led movement to end Chinese immigration. This is an important point–the Chinese Exclusion Act was the culmination of a working-class movement. That 1882 act ended Chinese immigration for 10 years, but was no guarantee to the permanent dominance of white supremacy.

Of course, employers understood how they could take advantage of this racial animosity to divide their labor forces. The railroads jumped all over Chinese labor. The Central Pacific Railroad used the Chinese as nearly slave labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad, starving them when they protested over their terrible conditions. 10% of the 12,000 Chinese laborers who worked on building that railroad over the Sierra Nevada died on the job. The conditions weren’t that much better for the Chinese in Wyoming in the 1870s and 80s.

The Union Pacific Railroad, who owned a tremendous amount of western land thanks to federal handouts to entice railroad construction, first brought in the Chinese to their western Wyoming coal mines in 1875 after white labor struck over low wages. When Union Pacific broke the white union, only 50 whites were hired back to go with the 150 Chinese laborers. The numbers of Chinese miners grew over the next few years, with whites angry first that the Chinese were taking away jobs that rightfully belonged to whites and second that they took jobs for less money and worse conditions than whites would tolerate. Many of the white miners belonged to the Knights of Labor, which opposed Chinese immigration (as did most labor organizations during these years). Throughout 1885, beatings of the Chinese increased in towns throughout Wyoming. In August, miners placed notices across the western Wyoming mining camps demanding the expulsion of the Chinese.

On September 1, white miners met at night and while we don’t know exactly what happened in that meeting, it seems clear that the plans for the next day were set. The next morning, 10 members of the Knights walked up Chinese laborers in a mine and told them they had no right to work. They then beat 2 Chinese miners, 1 to death. Over the next few hours, a mob gathered in the center of town. Armed with rifles, around 150 whites marched into Chinatown.

At first, the miners gave the Chinese an hour to pack up and leave. But they got tired of waiting around. 30 minutes later, they opened fire, killing a Chinese miner named Lor Sun Kit. The Chinese panicked and began fleeing out of town in any possible direction while the whites beat, robbed, or killed everyone they could find.

Said the survivors in a report to the Chinese consulate in New York:

Whenever the mob met a Chinese they stopped him and, pointing a weapon at him, asked him if he had any revolver, and then approaching him they searched his person, robbing him of his watch or any gold or silver that he might have about him, before letting him go. Some of the rioters would let a Chinese go after depriving him of all his gold and silver, while another Chinese would be beaten with the butt ends of the weapons before being let go. Some of the rioters, when they could not stop a Chinese, would shoot him dead on the spot, and then search and rob him. Some would overtake a Chinese, throw him down and search and rob him before they would let him go. Some of the rioters would not fire their weapons, but would only use the butt ends to beat the Chinese with. Some would not beat a Chinese, but rob him of whatever he had and let him go, yelling to him to go quickly. Some, who took no part either in beating or robbing the Chinese, stood by, shouting loudly and laughing and clapping their hands

That night, nearly every building in Chinatown was burned. The majority of the dead were burned in their homes, either unable to leave because of illness or injury, or unwilling to leave and tried to hide in a cellar or some other seemingly safe place.

The survivors fled to Evanston, after being picked up by passing Union Pacific trains, but that town was no more welcoming to the Chinese than Rock Springs. The governor of Wyoming appealed to President Grover Cleveland for federal troops to quell the rioting; the latter, always willing to send in federal troops to crush organized labor (even if in this case they deserved it), obliged. Six companies of troops arrived in Rock Springs a week later to escort the Chinese back to Rock Springs where they found ashes and the unburied bodies of their friends and family, half-eaten by dogs and vultures. The Chinese just wanted out of Wyoming at this point, but Union Pacific had no interest in giving up their cheap, exploitable labor. They first asked for railroad tickets to another state and then asked for two months of back pay the company owed them. Union Pacific refused all requests. The Chinese at first refused to work, fearful for their lives, but then the company stopped feeding them, leaving them a choice of whether to work or leave Wyoming on their own.

White miners throughout Wyoming went on strike to protest the return of Chinese labor to the mines, but the strike was defeated and the Chinese remained. A few whites were arrested, but all were released in a month. No one ever faced charges for the murders.

The expulsion of Chinese laborers from workplaces and towns around the West continued through the 1890s.

On a closely related note, I sadly must mention the passing of Alexander Saxton, author of The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. This powerful book opened new doors in American labor history, complicating traditional narratives of a heroic labor movement bound by democracy, noting that racial ideology was absolutely central to any understanding of working-class history. One of my critiques of the field of labor history is that, more than any other U.S. history subfield and the social movements to which they relate, many of its practitioners seek to serve the labor movement. This is often deeply problematic, as a lot of labor historians buy into the myths and grand narratives of labor’s past. Saxton helped defuse some of these myths. I also didn’t know his own personal history, which is pretty amazing.

This is the 41st post in this series. The other posts are archived here.

Comments (68)

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  1. Wayne Monk says:

    We’ll meet again,
    Don’t know where,don’t know when.
    But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      So I’m supposed to half excuse this by saying that all Americans were racist? I’m not sure what good that does.

      Need I say again that white miners beat, shot, and burned 28 Chinese people to death.

      Any context I would provide (which I did by talking about California) would not make this any less horrific.

      • Wayne Monk says:

        We’ll meet again,
        Don’t know where,don’t know when.
        But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I mean, why criticize slave owners for raping their slaves? Everyone did it! It was the times!!

        • gmack says:

          It’s hard to express how wrong I think Wayne Monk’s arguments are here. First, it is true that racism was acceptable and widespread in the 19th century, but this fact is quite obviously the very subject of Loomis’ post (see, for instance: “White people hated the Chinese”). The whole series of events described here tells us most of what we need to know. The fact that white workers organized and executed a massacre and were effectively unpunished, and the treatment of Chinese workers by factory owners tell us pretty much all we need to know about the prevalence of racism in the era.

          Similarly, it is equally true that future historians may be appalled at the racism of our era, as evidenced by, say, Joe Arpaio, or the treatment of Muslims post-September 11. But again, I fail to see what difference this makes. There has been widespread racism–and opposition to racism–throughout U.S. history. It hasn’t gone away, which is part of the reason why it might be worth documenting, criticizing, or thinking about.

          • arguingwithsignposts says:

            it is equally true that future historians may be appalled at the racism of our era, as evidenced by, say, Joe Arpaio, or the treatment of Muslims post-September 11.

            Heck, some of us today are appalled by those things.

      • Uncle Kvetch says:

        Need I say again that white miners beat, shot, and burned 28 Chinese people to death.

        Yeah, but Wayne Monk would be the King of America by now if all the breaks didn’t keep going to less-qualified Negroes. So it all kinda evens out.

        • c u n d gulag says:

          And it was all just hunky-dory that they had prebuscent and teen girls in brothels.

          It was the standard of the times, you see, and it was legal and fine because Mayors, Chiefs of Police, and that era’s “Job Creators” ‘frequented’ them.

          So we shouldn’t look down our noses at those people for having sex with underage prostitues. Everyone was doing it!

          Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeesh…

      • Not all racism is created equal. Which is to say that “racism” isn’t a simple on-off kind of thing: what defined “race”, and which races were considered acceptable, varied greatly with time and circumstance.

        The anti-Chinese animus of working-class whites in the 1800s wasn’t based on negative stereotypes about Chinese people, but on the way in which mine and railroad owners used the “coolie” Chinese contract labor migration system as a tool against the interests of unions and unionizable labor.

        Were there racist ideas about Chinese also part of the public discourse at the time? Yes, but only in combination with the anti-populist deployment of Chinese labor could there be enough hatred to enact both slaughter and immigration exclusion.

        The racism was real, but it was also a tool of capitalism, in this instance.

        • Matt says:

          The anti-Chinese animus of working-class whites in the 1800s wasn’t based on negative stereotypes about Chinese people

          Sadly, this isn’t true. If you read the popular press at the time, or reports of meetings and the like, they are completely full of negative stereotypes of Chinese people expressed by working-class whites. There’s no point in trying to hide it.

          • I’m not “trying to hide it” but to point out that those stereotypes by themselves wouldn’t have manifested the level of violence or legal action had it not also been deliberately deployed along class lines.

          • gmack says:

            As a general point, I think it’s useful to distinguish between what we might call bigotry (the personal dislike or disgust of other races) and racism, which should be understood as something closer to a more or less coherent ideology oriented toward the seizure of power and the implementation of policy (so there’s a difference between, say, the KKK or the Nazis, on one side, and, for instance, my bigoted grandmother on the other). With this quick and dirty distinction in mind, I would think that the workers’ attacks on the Chinese were quite definitely racist.

            Another interesting issue might be to compare the anti-Chinese racism to, say, the origins and development of South African apartheid. It’s been a long time since I’ve studied it, but as I recall, the early moves toward apartheid in the early 20th century (it didn’t get fully entrenched until the 1940s, iirc) were more or less explicitly designed to separate the white working class from African workers.

        • DocAmazing says:

          Would have been nice if the working-class whites in question would have attacked the mine and railroad owners, seeing as they were the ones causing the problem.

  2. DrDick says:

    Similar patterns pertained here in Montana and continued well into the 20th century. In 1900, there were about 3000 Chinese in the state and by the 1930s there were almost none, as they had been driven out by white racism.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Wow, now I feel sick. I’ve heard similar stories told, but they were typically glossed-over summaries of events in various places.

  4. The Dark Avenger says:

    The exclusion of Chinese from American society continued well into the 20th Century. My grandmother had to have a special bill passed through Congress so she could become a US citizen despite her husband and children being US citizens and she being a British subject because she was the daughter of a Chinese mother.

    It’s nice that Wayne is here to stand up for the dead bigots and murderers of Chinese.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Chinese exclusion didn’t end until 1943. And that only because they were our allies in fighting the Japanese and it looked bad.

      • The Dark Avenger says:

        The last laws discriminating against Chinese weren’t taken off the books until the early ’60s.

        My grandmother came here in 1946, FWIW.

        One of the reasons my family came here was because the repeal of the Exclusion Act was reciprocated by the removal of extraterritoriality status for Americans in China, which meant Americans could be arrested/tortured/killed by Chaing-kai Shek just like any Chinese citizen, whereas before Americans could only be tried in American courts(which existed in Shanghai, in the American concession) for breaking American laws, and couldn’t be prosecuted in Chinese courts.

      • Matt says:

        And that only because they were our allies in fighting the Japanese and it looked bad.

        That was important, but so was a more general growing unease by many people with white supremacy, as associated with the Nazis (it obviously didn’t win the day immediately, but it was important) as was the significant number of “war brides” that service men wanted to bring home. (It’s important to note that “Chinese exclusion” is a bit of a misnomer. It excluded all “mongoloid races”, and was applied to most of Asia. Lapplanders, even, needed a special court decision to declare that they were “not of the mongoloid race”.)

    • Thlayli says:

      The Chinese Exclusion Act was the basis for the government’s claim that Wong Kim Ark was not a citizen. Which in turn led to the Supreme Court’s landmark Fourteenth Amendment decision.

  5. arguingwithsignposts says:

    Interesting that Wayne capitalized White.

  6. Laobaixing says:

    This is a really great photography project that has pictures of the sites of 19th and early 20th century anti-Chinese violence as they look today. http://www.noplaceproject.com/ It has pics of the site of the Rock Springs massacre.

  7. Bruce Vail says:

    Fascinating. But I hope you aren’t planning to memorialize every race riot in American history with one your “This Day in Labor History” pieces.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        Is there enough room on the Internet?

      • DrDick says:

        If you do, be sure to include the 1921 Tulsa riot. Pretty fucking epic, even for the times and the place.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Because the role of race in the labor movement is a lot more complicated than a listing of race riots.

        For example, today’s post suggest the Knights were a bunch of murderous bigots. That is simply not so, despite the fact that some of the individual perpetrators of the Rock Springs massacre may have had some association with the Knights.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          This series is not propaganda for the labor movement. The Knights, as were most of white American labor, were anti-Chinese in the 1880s. That is to be noted and discussed. The Knights of Labor absolutely supported the Chinese Exclusion Act and continued restriction of Asian labor, as did the AFL after it began. None of this is contested.

          • Bruce Vail says:

            No, that the Knights were anti-Chinese is not contested. They supported legislation to restrict Chinese immigration, they did not support the random murder of Chinese immigrants, or anybody else for that matter.

            I note that Wikipedia has an excellent entry on the Rock Spring massacre and that they state there is no evident to support a charge that the Knights were behind it.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              No one said that Terence Powderly ordered the massacre. But the whites who did it were almost certainly Knights.

              Again, this series is not the pro-union propaganda you seem to think it should be.

              • Bruce Vail says:

                Don’t be so defensive. If I wanted pro-union propaganda, I wouldn’t be a regular reader of your excellent labor history posts.

                Happy Labor Day!

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      Why limit it to America? After all the British settlers in Kenya during the 1950s made the absolute worst crackers in Alabama look like staunch human rights advocates in comparison. Then there are the French in Algeria and the wonderful Belgians in the Congo.

  8. Joel Patterson says:

    Did not Mark Twain write an article about witnessing white men beating a Chinese man? If Mark Twain had the moral sense to disapprove of violent racism in that century, then “good people were racist” seems as factually empty as it is morally empty.

    • Laobaixing says:

      And Emperor Norton once stopped a lynch mob from descending into Chinatown. If the Emperor of the United States, and Protector of Mexico could take a stand against racism, surely his subjects could.

      • Gould says:

        My great-grandfather, a white man in San Francisco somewhere along the 1870′s or 80′s, had a job where he was paid just to walk with a well-off Chinese gent. The story is that the main idea was to avoid his getting shanghaied, but it was also apparently a popular sport for gangs of whites to grab an unprotected Chinese and cut off his pig-tail. I guess this means the private-enterprise system worked?

        • Holden Pattern says:

          Queue-cutting was a particularly nasty thing to do. Having the queue was mandatory in China during the 19th century as a sign of loyalty to the Manchu. No queue = no return to China.

  9. Joseph Slater says:

    Just want to say that the ad that appears next to this article is for a “Chinese Girls Dating Site.” Web ad algorithms sometimes produce results that are downright dadaist.

  10. Poicephalus says:

    Thank you Erik for the link to Dr. Saxton’s obit.
    What bravery. What resilience.
    And finally deciding to leave on his own terms.
    Very inspiring.

    C

  11. Poicephalus says:

    I thought it was telling that he was a Merchant Marine during the war.
    How does one embark on a journey like that?
    Do you finally see the contradictions and reject your parents’ world view entirely?
    I kept thinking about Martin Eden, despite it being a satirization.

    C

  12. AcademicLurker says:

    It’s interesting the difference between the popular historical imagination in the Western U.S. vs the East.

    On the East coast, it seems like the history of racial, religious and ethnic animosity is baked into the popular sense of the history of the place. And not just in the minds of people whose ancestors were oppressed; it’s just something the everyone knows.

    In the West on the other hand, things have been sanitized to a much greater degree (dealings with native Americans being the big exception).

    It’s not even a case of actively denying that racial oppression violence occurred, it’s just not really on most people’s radar. The extent to which “we really hate the Chinese” is a massive part of 19th century U.S. history tends to surprise people when they’re told.

    If you were to query random people on the subject you’d get something along the lines of “Chinese immigrants…yeah…they…built the railroads, right?”

    Where as even John Doe on the East coast probably knows something about the historical bad blood between WASPS and Catholics, Western vs Eastern and Southern Europeans & etc.

    • DrDick says:

      Here in the Mountain West, place names like Chinaman’s Gulch and the like are abundant and there are traditions of Chinese communities and settlers, but they mostly gloss over the conflict. It would be nice to think they have some sense of shame, but I doubt it.

      • placer says:

        Many towns in California gold country have a placard that reads something like this:

        “Big Valley had a significant Chinese population who lived in their own area of the town complete with Chinese owned businesses including a joss house and mutual aid association. Most of the Chinese section of town was burned down in XXXX and the remnants were demolished in XXXX during redevelopment.”

    • Bill Murray says:

      well it’s not like most people around here (South Dakota) know much about Native History past Custer (Gold and Last Stand) and Wounded Knee.

      I’m going with the difference being the east was white v. white whereas the west was white v. not-white

  13. Adrian Luca says:

    The History in Australia regarding Chinese immigration is uncannily similar, right down to the attacks on Chinese labor by organised labor organizations and the introduction of legislation to restrict immigration.

    It’s no coincidence that the “left wing” party in Australia’s two-party federal system uses American spelling rather than British. The Australian Labor Party took its founding racist positions directly from organised labor in the USA.

  14. Pseudonym says:

    “But those Chinese were still clearly better off in the U.S. than they would have been in China, otherwise they wouldn’t have come here. And it would be culturally insensitive to treat them differently than they had been treated by their own native country. Besides, this just means that America gets to benefit from their comparative advantage in cheap labor. Why do you hate it when people are able to mutually agree to sign contracts without government coercing them with a gun to their heads?”

  15. [...] August 25, 1925–Founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters September 2, 1885–Rock Springs Massacre September 22, 1946–Tobacco workers win contract in North Carolina, starting CIO’s [...]

  16. [...] passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was hardly the end of violence against Chinese labor, as the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming would find out in 1885. But it was the effective end of the Workingman’s Party and the end of anti-Chinese groups [...]

  17. [...] also worth remembering that today is anniversary of the Rock Springs Massacre, so this is a good time to remember that the history of American work is very much also the history [...]

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