There were up to 1,500 men crowded into Santa Rosa’s Armory that winter’s night. Some were there because they were angry, some were curious and some were frightened, but all there learned that racial discrimination was now a civic duty. It was the first official 1886 meeting of the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese League.
SOURCE NOTES (37 page PDF)
Spoiler alert: this is not a pleasant story, yet it’s not nearly as awful as some try to portray.
A few days before, a meeting was held to elect a “Committee of Fifteen” which would write a mission statement.* They composed a resolution stating any Chinese presence in Santa Rosa was a “source of great evil” and detrimental to the “white race.” Chinese immigrants should leave town ASAP and Santa Rosans should sign a pledge vowing to boycott their businesses and fire any Chinese workers they might have.
Santa Rosa was actually a latecomer – and although about half the men in town showed up, attendance was relatively light. Meetings had been held previously in Petaluma (2,000 there) and Cloverdale (1,000). At Healdsburg almost the entire town came to their first meeting and their Chinese boycott was already going strong.
The resolution also asked the Santa Rosa City Council to appoint additional policemen for night duty to prevent “riotous demonstration by white persons toward Chinamen”. That was a very real concern; throughout the West, anti-Chinese sentiments had been escalating from grumbling newspaper editorials to acts of violence, even mob riots. Newspapers reported local bigwigs were having “secret meetings” to figure out how to get rid of the Chinese – although telling a reporter about it seems to defeat the whole secrecy biz.
In Wyoming, white miners went on a rampage and murdered at least 28 Chinese men with many burned alive. Three more were shot to death in Washington state over hop picking. A mob armed with clubs drove out Tacoma’s 350 Chinese residents which was followed by the razing of their neighborhood. Federal troops were stationed in Seattle because vigilantes were itching to attack the large Chinatown there, which was the home to 1 out of 10 people in the town. And matters were about to become far, far worse; even as our ancestors were getting organized in Santa Rosa, thousands of Chinese immigrants were escaping to Portland from Oregon’s interior under vigilante threats. It seemed as if an actual pogrom of an ethnic minority was rapidly sweeping the Western states and territories. The shadow of madness had fallen upon them and enveloped the sun.
Yet it’s quite possible the anti-Chinese frenzy might have bypassed Sonoma county – if not for the Wickersham murders.
Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were a reclusive couple who were brutally killed at their remote cabin west of Cloverdale in mid-January 1886. The presumption of guilt immediately fell upon their Chinese cook, who could not be found and was presumed to have fled to China. As explained in my four-part series, it’s highly unlikely he had any hand in it but everyone at the time was certain of his guilt, thanks in great part to two racist law enforcement officers who were widely quoted in the initial accounts. They told reporters there was no question the “Chinaman” slaughtered them and hinted Sarah had been raped (possibly gang raped) – a lie they continued repeating even after the Wickersham family asked them to knock it off.
The charge that an American family had been killed by their live-in Chinese servant gave bigots a new, powerful weapon to demonize Chinese people as crazy, unpredictable, and, for the first time – extremely dangerous. James Ragsdale, editor of the Santa Rosa Republican and soon to become part of the “Committee of Fifteen,” dipped his pen in the bigot’s inkwell and wrote a vicious screed:
|…The tragedy that occurred in the northwest portion of this county on Monday last, where two of our most highly respected citizens, man and wife, were murdered in cold blood by a Chinese fiend, has done much to increase the bitterness against a race that are most wicked and inhuman. It only proves the assertion that they have neither conscience, mercy or human feeling and think no more of murdering a human being than they do killing a pig. They are monsters in human form, cunning and educated therefore more dangerous and vile. Let us get rid of them and at once.|
The first anti-Chinese Leagues in the county were formed just a few days later.
Up to then, both the Republican and Sonoma Democrat had occasionally used the popular catchphrase, “the Chinese must go” in an editorial or in a reprinted item but it was framed in the abstract, as if “the Chinese” were different than the immigrants who lived and worked here. Just two days before the Wickershams were killed, the Democrat ran a sort-of travel story describing a tour of the Santa Rosa opium dens. It concluded with mention that the Chinese community here had both a Masonic and an Odd Fellows lodge.
While our newspapers portrayed the Chinese immigrants as an exotic (but somewhat suspect) underclass, the local economy depended upon them. In the towns, the Chinese did our laundry and sold us produce from pushcarts on the streets – Santa Rosa had six roaming vegetable vendors. On the farms and in the vineyards they did the hard work no one else wanted to do. And everyone in town or country who wanted a cook or house servant could find a Chinese man or boy ready to hire. Because they did all this for less money than anyone else, they were in great demand; in 1885 there was a Chinese employment agency on Fifth street.
Their low wages led to accusations they were “taking jobs away from Americans,” exactly mirroring the anti-Latino immigrant bias of today. In some cases it was true; companies used Chinese workers as strikebreakers or to replace an entire workforce.
But in truth, good manual labor jobs were scarce at the time not because of the Chinese but because the national economy wasn’t so hot; effects of the Depression of 1882-85 began to be felt locally with an uptick of newspaper articles about “tramps” in the area. “These men, with few exceptions are in destitute circumstances and are compelled to move from place to place in search of employment,” sympathized the Democrat paper, while at the same time noting that many were responsible for burglaries and other theft. The paper suggested that the first Anti-Chinese League meeting have an aftersession so everyone could discuss what should be done to “protect the women and children” who were hesitant to leave home lest a vagrant break in.
Meanwhile, there were now an estimated 600+ Chinese living in Santa Rosa according to the Democrat – likely an all-time high. Some had just arrived from Cloverdale and other places where Anti-Chinese Leagues were already acting out.
A week after that big League meeting at the Armory, the Committee of Fifteen visited these locations as “forty or fifty citizens accompanied the committee on its rounds,” the Democrat observed, which probably made it look like quite the vigilante mob.
Committee president John Kinslow – speaking “in good pigeon-English” [sic] – told them that as of the end of the month, “all white men would cease to patronize them” and they should leave. From the description in the Democrat it appears some of the immigrants misunderstood and thought he was offering to pay for their passage back to China, which most greatly desired but could not afford.
The committee also divided Santa Rosa into seven wards, each with a few men expected to walk the neighborhood and ask residents to sign the boycott pledge. Lists of the ward men appeared in both town newspapers and are reproduced in the source notes. Both lists have 49 names, of which only five appear in any other articles about the League. Aside from some spelling differences the lists are the same with two exceptions: One adds “James Gray” in ward five and the other includes “Burbank” in ward two. On the basis of the latter mention, the Press Democrat published two articles and an editorial in May, 2018 claiming Luther Burbank was a racist and leader of the Anti-Chinese League – see discussion here.
As the month of February rolled on, news was mixed. There were regular items about Chinese immigrants trickling out of town, countered by articles of some vowing to stay. The Democrat found one Chinese laundry with half its workforce idle, followed a few days later by a story that the white laundry wagons “didn’t have enough aboard to make a decent load for a poodle dog.” An interview with an immigrant called Hoodlum Jim said the boycott only served to “get rid of the scum of the race, and the others were glad of it, but the better class would stay here, just the same.”
It was remarked that “white labor is scarce in Santa Rosa” while many Chinese men were out of work and crowding into the tenements on Hinton avenue to save money. It was also written that they were going hungry, reduced to foraging for greens along the banks of the creek and on the Plaza. It’s difficult to understand how that could be the case, given that Chinese truck gardens had been feeding the entire town not so long before.
Oddly, the only real conflict in Sonoma county centered on Duncan’s Mills. The League in that vicinity had a torchlight rally and marched on the little Chinatown there to demand the residents clear out. The mill owners contacted the U.S. Marshal and asked him to appoint a deputy to protect the Chinese workers. Complaints over this went on for weeks, with the Republican paper and the Leagues squawking over the involvement of a federal officer instead of local police, plus that it was really a labor issue because the mills brought in Chinese workers instead of hiring white men from the community. (UPDATE: There was some vigilante activity in Bloomfield, including an attempt to blow up a laundry and salting of a water source.)
The March 1 boycott deadline came and went, but apparently little changed. A banner was hung over a downtown street reading, “The Chinese Must Go; We Mean Strictly Business!” In terms of threats, that ranked down there with a schoolyard bully drawing a line in sand while toothlessly bellowing, “you step over this and you’re really gonna get it!”
In truth, there was little the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese Non-Partisan Association (hey, new name!) could do to force the immigrants to leave, short of violence. Attention of the League – uh, Association – turned to Plan B: Boycotting fellow Americans who weren’t boycotting the Chinese. That sort of “nuclear option” was discussed at the beginning, but it was not believed matters would come to that. The Committee’s subcommittee on the issue hashed it over; local farmers were saying they depended on Chinese workers. If there was to be a boycott of the farmers as well as those who wanted to hang on to their Chinese domestics and other workers it would cause “strife and bitterness” in the county. “We do not believe that a general boycott can be made successful at the present time,” the subcommittee concluded.
By the end of the month, the Committee of Fifteen was hunkered down in its racially-pure safe space muttering about retribution against “backsliders.” State Assemblyman Allen suggested they should publish the names of all those who signed the pledge but still “either allowed their families to patronize the heathens, or did so themselves.” He was voted down.
In Santa Rosa, the fight came to a head over strawberries.
A Sebastopol man named Crawford raised what were considered the best strawberries around, but he used Chinese workers. Two hardcore members of the Committee paid a little visit to a downtown grocer who sold his fruit. They suggested they step out of the store to discuss the difficulty, but the grocer said they could talk right there, in front of his customers. The grocer said he had signed the pledge, but one of the Committee men remarked he did not think the grocer was “sincere in his action.” (Feel free to re-read this paragraph while imagining the Committee men as played by Sopranos goons Christopher and Paulie Walnuts.)
After receiving his own little visit from Committee “investigators,” Mr. Crawford took a wagon load of his strawberries to Santa Rosa. He hitched up on Fourth street, according to the Democrat, and began selling his berries. “His price to Chinese boycotters was $1 a box, and to all others thirty cents. It was but a very short time before he was entirely sold out.”
But pushback to the anti-Chinese movement was happening all over northern California. The Sacramento Bee ran a story about a housewife seen buying vegetables from a Chinese peddler and a “spotter” rushed over to confront her, demanding to know the name of her husband. When she indignantly refused he sneered, “You must be a lover of the Chinese.”
Yet the bigots in Santa Rosa kept wandering even farther into the weeds. The Committee of Fifteen appointed a Committee of Nine “to act on the outside, to keep their eyes open, talk with the people, see what is going on and report to the League.” For those who were unwilling to cooperate with the boycott “the League should not hesitate to treat them with severity.”
That Committee of Nine immediately went into executive session to appoint another secret sub-subcommittee of nine to ferret out the traitors to the white race who were not discriminating enough against Chinese immigrants. Oh, good grief…
Further, it was proposed that a committee “should go to all the business men in town and present the membership roll and request them to sign the same and pay the initiation fee of 25 cents. If they refuse then the League will know where to find them…there were but two sides to this question — either for or against the cause.”
Healdsburg appears to be the only place that followed through and publicized names of Americans who refused to boycott, and by summer their racist hatred of Chinese people had spiraled down into foolishness that bordered on lunacy. The Healdsburg paper reported a secret society had been formed:
|…signs may be frequently seen done in chalk on the sidewalks. They, to us, unintelligible signs are in the form of a large arrow or dart, surrounded by figures and small signs. By following the direction of the pointing arrow you are led to a similar one on the next corner, and so on until you reach the place of meeting. At the last meeting, beyond the river, some forty of our citizens were seen to pass into a building. All our efforts to learn anything in regard to the organization have so far failed. It is a branch or lodge of a secret order existing in this state, whose sole object is to rid the country of the Chinese.|
By every measure, Santa Rosa’s anti-Chinese campaign was a flop. The last League meeting I can find mentioned was poorly attended and came only seven months after the group was formed. A newspaper item revealed the League’s dues-paying membership at its peak was merely 43.
While the boycott certainly created economic hardships for the Chinese community, it was by no means catastrophic. One Chinese wash house closed and some landlords evicted immigrant tenants. The population was reduced to roughly 100-125 residents. From the Sonoma Democrat:
|…the Chinese population in this city has decreased about one-half since the anti-Chinese movement started, and they are still going. There are a few who manage to live by taking in washing, and some who are still employed as servants; the latter, however, are very few. Within the last week three Chinese house servants have been discharged, and they were working for people who have not signed the pledge. How they live is becoming a mystery. Dozens of them may be seen loitering on Hinton avenue every day…|
|1885 map of downtown Santa Rosa showing Chinese businesses and residences. Some of the locations on 9th avenue (better known as Hinton av) are estimates|
It may seem a victory that the population had dropped by half after the League began in February, but even that claim is shaky on closer examination. House servants, pushcart sellers, laundry workers and the like were the smallest categories of Chinese immigrant labor – most men worked in the country for much of the year, staying in tents or bunkhouses near where they were employed. (The state Labor Commissioner said that year there were “30,000 Chinamen employed in the hop fields, vineyards and orchards.”) These men only came to live in the towns during winter, so it was the customary pattern for them to begin drifting out of Santa Rosa and other urban areas as spring approached.
What happened as the seasonal work ended that year is a mystery. Now that the League had fizzled the local papers lost interest in writing about all things Chinese, and returned to the old pattern of only covering the men when someone was arrested or created a commotion. There was one mention that because hop-picking was over “the Chinese are returning to San Francisco by the carload,” so perhaps some of the Sonoma county immigrants chose to spend their winter in the big city than come back here.
But the League had no long term impact; the 1890 census – taken during peak growing season, when farmworkers were away from town – shows 151 Chinese living in the city of Santa Rosa, a boost of at least 30 percent from the year of the League. (There were 277 found in the whole Santa Rosa Township during 1890.)
In the years that followed, Santa Rosa’s Chinese community migrated to the corner of Second and D streets to form a compact little Chinatown (see 1908 map here). There would be little or no growth of that neighborhood in the years that followed, but not due to any discrimination by the town or racist nonsense from white citizens; it was because a different place had emerged as a hub for Chinese-American culture and commerce in Sonoma county – Sebastopol’s two Chinatowns.
* Membership of Santa Rosa’s “Committee of Fifteen” was never explicitly listed in the newspapers, which only named those in attendance at meetings. Membership seemed to fluctuate over the first part of 1886. Some either did not attend meetings regularly or dropped out while new names appeared. Looking over all newspaper coverage, there seems to have been an overall core group of thirteen men, with eight of them being very outspoken. In rough order of frequent mention: John Kinslow, David Sheward, Assemblyman Samuel I. Allen, Lawson Ross, Frank Muther, Peter Towey, James W. Ragsdale, Jacob Harris, Ellis Morrow, Charles Bane, M. V. Vanderhoof, John F. Smith and Frank Berka.
|Poy Jam, who opened Santa Rosa’s long-standing Jam Kee restaurant. Shown here in a studio portrait taken in Oakland, c. 1875, he was Song Bourbeau¹s maternal grandfather. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum|