One hundred and fifty Chinese workers bound for salmon canneries at Blaine leave Seattle on April 2, 1900.

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 9/02/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10919
On April 2, 1900, 150 Chinese cannery workers travel north from Seattle to Blaine, Whatcom County, aboard the steamer George E. Starr to manufacture cans for the next season's pack. Ten days later, 52 Chinese immigrants arrive in Seattle from Portland on board the steamer Ruth and head north to a Western Fisheries Company cannery in Icy Straits, Alaska. Many similar trips will be made during the first decade of the twentieth century on a fleet of vessels that carry canning supplies and workers in preparation for annual salmon harvests. For several decades following 1870, Washington's salmon-canning industry has depended heavily on the labor of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, first Chinese cannery men and then Japanese and Filipinos, who clean and pack salmon from the Columbia River north to British Columbia and Alaska. By 1900, Seattle is a major arrival and departure point for cannery workers, some living in the city and working in plants along its waterfront and others traveling to jobs throughout the region, living in cannery towns or on large fishing boats.

Abundant Resources, Few Workers

For centuries, regional Native American tribes enjoyed an abundance of fish, which they used for food and trade. After entering treaties with the U.S. government in the 1850s, they continued to fish and hunt, exercising a right promised by the federal government in return for the surrender of most of their ancestral lands. As U.S. boundaries expanded and the West was settled and industrialized, abundant natural resources -- gold, silver, land, trees, fish, and more -- drew settlers of many ethnic backgrounds to the West Coast. These included young Asian immigrants, first from China in the 1860s and 1870s, and later from Japan and the Philippines. Recruited and placed by labor contractors, who themselves were Asian, they were hired to grade streets, build railroads, and work as domestics and farm laborers and in canneries, where they primarily cleaned and packed fish. Working long hours at low pay, they seldom rose to higher-paid positions.

The Hume brothers' cannery on the Columbia River (established in 1866) became the first in Washington Territory to hire Chinese when in the early 1870s it supplemented an already-diverse crew with 15 Chinese workers -- two tinsmiths, a cook, and a dozen cleaners and packers. The Chinese workers proved dependable and within the next decade nearly 3,000 were employed in a dozen plants on the Columbia. The number of canneries continued to grow at many locations, including Astoria, Oregon; Seattle, Bellingham, Fairhaven, Anacortes, and the San Juan Islands in Washington; and various places in British Columbia and Alaska, all providing fish for the world market.

The U.S. Exclusion Act of 1882 barred new Chinese immigrants from entering the country, and as job competition grew, anti-Chinese sentiment erupted into riots in 1886. Hundreds of Chinese were forced to leave Seattle by boat. Chinese cannery men were not targeted for expulsion, but by the early 1900s many had left the city permanently, and only a small Chinese population remained. Those who continued to work in the region's canneries were aging, and plant owners looked for sources of younger cheap labor. Alaska and British Columbia canneries hired local Indians, both men and women, who were skilled workers, but their numbers were small and they were considered unreliable because they frequently left to hunt and fish for their own families' needs. In the early years of the twentieth century, cannery owners began hiring many incoming Japanese, as well as Filipino immigrants, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and European American women and children, all to take the place of the Chinese. By the 1920s, women were doing much of the cannery line work.

Seattle as Hub

In 1877 George T. Myers (1869-1933) built a small kettle-salmon operation in Mukilteo, where he reportedly produced 10,000 to 15,000 cases of salmon a year. Myers moved his plant to Samish and then to the Seattle waterfront, probably about 1880 (sources vary as to the date). Located at the foot of Blanchard Street, this is thought to have been Seattle's first cannery. Myers later moved his facility to the foot of Dearborn Street and continued in the canning business in Seattle as G. T. Myers and Company (offices at 568 Colman Building) until his death in 1933.

Seattle became an important hub for fishing, canning, and exporting, as well as the seasonal coming and going of workers. With the arrival of Chinese workers in the 1870s, a Chinese community formed, first near the Yesler Mill on the Seattle waterfront and then expanding east in later years into what became Seattle's Chinatown/International District. Chun Ching Hock (1844-1927) and Chin Gee Hee (1844-1929) -- immigrants from southern China -- were early Seattle-based labor contractors who provided a steady supply of workers in the late nineteenth century. Contractors received pay for each person placed and usually provided primitive living quarters for the workers, who were expected to supply their own additional needs. Cannery workers were often itinerants; while some had both a home and work base in Seattle, many more traveled out of the city to other locations and lived in bunkhouses, cannery towns, or on fishing boats. Although canning was seasonal, employers extended the work by hiring crews to make cans, first by hand and later by machine, in preparation for the next catch. While some canneries experimented with canning vegetables as well as a variety of fish, salmon canning was the most profitable.

With the swell of immigration into the U.S. from 1900 until World War I, the population of many cities exploded. These included Seattle, whose commerce grew with heavy development on its waterfront. The city had become the home base of the Puget Sound fishing fleet and with plentiful fish harvests in the early years of the twentieth century, more canneries were built and an important commercial industry developed. To accommodate new waterfront trade, Seattle needed more and better docks. In 1901 the Northern Pacific Railroad built Yesler Pier No. 1 and then, as this dock became quickly overcrowded, built Yesler Pier No. 2. The Seattle Times reported:

"This dock, Pier 2, will be hastened to completion on account of the pressing need for it to relieve the pressure of business already accumulating at Yesler Pier No. 1. At that dock, although it is not yet completed, there are already stored immense piles of salmon from Alaska and Puget Sound canneries and every steamer from the north brings down thousands of cases to be stored there until their shipment to the East" ("One More Large Dock").

Comparative figures for the salmon industry show that Alaska, British Columbia, and the Columbia River had the highest canning capacities in the region in 1890, but by 1900 Puget Sound ran a close second, trailing only Alaska.

Bound for Blaine

On April 2, 1900, 150 Chinese workers traveled north from Seattle aboard the steamer George E. Starr, headed for canneries in Blaine, located in Whatcom County at the Canadian border. Ten days later, 52 more Chinese workers boarded the steamer Ruth in the city, bound for canneries in Icy Straits, Alaska. Besides passengers, the boats carried canning supplies for the fishing season. The Seattle Times noted: "From San Francisco as well as Seattle a fleet of vessels as well as canning cargoes have either sailed or are preparing to depart ("The Water Front").

The April 1905 issue of Pacific Fisherman placed the number of Puget Sound and Alaska canneries at 139. The 1907 Polk's City Directory for Seattle listed a dozen fish packers and canners in the city, several based at or near Colman Dock. Newspaper accounts of the time show a growing concern for overfishing and a need for more fish hatcheries.

Mechanizing the Industry

Northwest Indians had maximized their fish catch with the development of nets, weirs, channels, and platforms, and preserved their harvest by drying it over open fires. At first non-Indian settlers traded for dried salmon, but as the commercial fishing industry grew, machines were invented to harvest and market more fish. A shift from handmade to machine-made cans increased production, and a new device was invented to help pack and fill them.

A bigger change came in 1903, when Seattle inventor Edmund A. Smith (1870-1909) patented a machine that would rapidly clean and dress fish during the canning process. Smith called his invention the "Iron Chink," the latter word a then-common racial slur referring to the Chinese workers the machine was designed to replace. But the invention was costly and wasted fish, and despite being showcased at Seattle's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, it was slow to catch on. By 1915 it was used mainly in larger canneries, where it was more cost-effective. Each machine was said to replace about 20 workers.

Japanese Cannery Workers

Goon Dip (1862-1933), who owned a dry-goods store in Portland, visited Seattle in October 1905 to sign up local Chinese to work the following summer in Puget Sound canneries. Goon was at that time the largest labor contractor, as well as the most influential Chinese person, in the region, with nearly every cannery on the sound looking to him for Asian workers. Goon was appointed honorary consul by the Chinese government for Seattle's 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. With a shrinking Chinese labor pool, Goon began hiring newly arrived Japanese as well. To help bridge the language barrier, he hired a few Japanese as subcontractors and foremen, thus initiating a complex worker hierarchy in the canneries.

Japanese immigration to the U.S. differed from that of the Chinese. While only a small number of Japanese were employed in the canneries in the early 1900s, by the 1920s they represented about a third of the workforce. Immigration restrictions in 1908 temporarily stopped the flow of young Japanese, but many Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) continued to work. Unlike the first Chinese immigrants, who were almost exclusively men, Japanese arrivals included women and this helped to keep family units intact. A family provided many Japanese workers with a home base while they traveled to seasonal work as far away as Alaska, and this stability and support helped weaken the absolute authority enjoyed by labor contractors and foremen. It also led to more Japanese than Chinese children being born in North America (both in Canada and the United States).

Japanese Issei often worked under Chinese foremen, and the relationship between contractors, subcontractors, and employees was often tense. Antagonism between Chinese and Japanese workers was common. As early as 1910, Japanese workers in the Puget Sound region began to break away from the Chinese-dominated contractor system and began contracting for themselves. They also farmed and worked as businessmen and professionals. Many continued in the fisheries and canneries until World War II, when Japanese Americans as well as immigrants from Japan were interned in the spring of 1942. The rapid depletion of Japanese workers during the war, either through internment or U.S. military service, opened up employment opportunities for arriving Filipinos.

Filipino Alaskeros

The U.S. relationship with the Philippines had been close since the latter became a formal American possession with the 1898 Treaty of Paris. When the Philippines gained independence in 1947, the strong bond continued. For Filipinos, the U.S. was a land of promise. As early as 1911, a small number of Filipino immigrants arrived in Seattle to find work on farms and in fisheries, but the largest wave of immigration came in the 1920s, when young Filipinos were offered scholarships to study in the U.S. While their goal was to get a good education, many ended up working in low-paying jobs as cannery workers.

The Great Depression of the 1930s created serious job competition, and Asian cannery workers' hopes of attaining the American Dream faded. The nation's hard times were in large part to blame, but in cannery workers' eyes, so was an unfair labor-contracting system. Seattle became the center for efforts by "Alaskeros" -- Filipino migrant workers -- to unionize. On June 19, 1933, the American Federation of Labor issued a charter establishing the Cannery Workers' and Farm Laborers' Union Local 18257. From its formation, the union was torn by conflict, and in 1936 union leaders Aurelio Simon (1898-1936) and Virgil Duyungan (1899?-1936) were shot and killed because of the union's opposition to labor contracting.

In 1937, Local 18257 joined the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) under the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and became Seattle Local 7. During World War II, many of Seattle's Filipinos chose to serve in the military rather than work in the canneries. In 1947, UCAPAWA became the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers' Union of America (FTA), and in 1950 the Seattle local affiliated with International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) Local 7-C, becoming Local 37 a year later.

Violent tragedy struck again in 1981, when Local 37 officers Silme Domingo (1952-1981) and Gene Viernes (1951-1981) were gunned down outside the union offices in downtown Seattle. They had been trying to reform the corrupt system of dispatching workers to Alaska canneries. A former president of Local 37, Constantine "Tony" Baruso (1928-2008), and three other men were convicted of the murders, in which Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos (1917-1989) was also implicated.


Sources: Chris Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned Salmon Industry, 1870-1942 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); "Filipino Cannery Unionism Across Three Generations, 1930s-1980s," University of Washington (UW) Seattle Civil Rights and History Project website accessed August 10, 2014 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/Cannery_intro.htm); Crystal Fresco, "Cannery Workers' and Farm Laborers' Union 1933-39: Their Strength in Unity," UW Seattle Civil Rights and History Project website accessed August 10, 2014 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/cwflu.htm); Micah Ellison, "The Local 7/Local 37 Story: Filipino American Cannery Unionism in Seattle 1940-1959," UW Seattle Civil Rights and History Project website accessed August 10, 2014 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/local_7.htm); Jeff Stevens, "June 1, 1981: Domingo and Viernes," Radical Seattle Remembers website accessed August 28, 2014 (http://radsearem.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/june-1-1981-domingo-and-viernes/); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington History, "The first salmon cannery on the Columbia River opens at Eagle Cliff, Wahkiakum County in 1866" (by Kit Oldham), "Goon Dip (1862-1933)" (by Walt Crowley), "Anti-Chinese Activism" (by Walt Crowley), "Bulosan, Carlos (1911-1956)" (by Cynthia Mejia-Giudici), "Automated salmon cleaning machine developed in Seattle in 1903" (by David Wilma), and "Filipino Cannery Workers" (by Cynthia Mejia-Giudici), http//:www.historylink.org (accessed July 28, 2014); Seattle Polk's City Directory (Seattle: R. L. Polk and Co., 1907), p. 1418; "Marine Notes," The Seattle Times, April 4, 1900, p. 8; "The Japanese Tidal Wave," Ibid., April 24, 1900, p. 1; "Where Salmon is Crowned King," Ibid., December 22, 1900, p. 7; "One More Large Dock: Northern Pacific Will Build Yesler Pier 2," Ibid., October 26, 1901, p. 23; "Chinaman Being Displaced," Ibid., June 11, 1904, p. 5; "Many Canneries Will Operate This Year," Ibid., April 15, 1905, pp. 1-2; "At the Hotels," Ibid., October 19, 1905, p. 7; "To Operate Only Four Canneries," Ibid., March 30, 1905, p. 4; "Greed of Powers May Cause Next War," Ibid., April 7, 1908, p. 3; "Small Number of Chinese Should Be Admitted," Ibid., April 9, 1906, p. 5; "New Corporations," Ibid., April 22, 1906, p. 3; "New Fish Plant Established," Ibid., June 5, 1906, p. 18; "Cannery Fleet Chartered by Bellingham Co.," Ibid., April 17, 1933, p. 12; "Goon Dip, Chinese Consul Dies and All Seattle Mourns," Ibid., September 13, 1933, p. 12; "Seattle Filipinos Anxious to Serve in Army or Cannery," Ibid., March 10, 1942, p. 2.

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