On February 7, 1886, violence breaks out in Seattle as a mob starts to forcibly expel most of the city's Chinese population. The next day one man dies and four are injured when they attack Home Guards protecting Chinese residents. Martial law is declared and will last for two weeks. President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) will order United States troops to Seattle, where they will remain until summer. Though most of Seattle will rebound quickly from the crisis, it will take the city's Chinese community 20 years to recover.
Seattle's earliest Chinese residents are believed to have arrived in the early 1860s, but they didn't begin moving to the new city in significant numbers until the mid-1870s. At first, they were welcomed. The Chinese built railroads, graded streets, worked in logging camps and coal mines, and some worked as servants.
By 1885, there were an estimated 950 Chinese in Seattle -- roughly 10 percent of the city's population. But sentiment turned against the Chinese as America struggled with hard economic times in the 1870s and again in the mid-1880s. Caucasian workers, including many immigrants, came to view the Chinese as threats to the few available jobs. The Chinese were said to be "willing" to work for lower wages, though in fact they had no choice in the matter.
The passage of the national Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 suspended for 10 years nearly all Chinese immigration into the country. By the mid-1880s, there was widespread anti-Chinese sentiment directed toward those still here, especially in the West. It was echoed in Seattle, where even the city's "better elements," led by Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) and Mayor Henry Yesler (1810-1892), agreed that the Chinese had to go. They advocated that the expulsion of the Chinese be accomplished by orderly and legal means, but not everyone agreed.
A Rising Tide
In September 1885, anti-Chinese violence broke out in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where a gang of white coal miners rampaged through the Chinese section of town, killing 28. The outbreak reached King County a few days later when a group of white and Native American hop pickers fired into the tents of Chinese hop pickers in Squak (renamed Issaquah in 1899), killing three. Later that month, Chinese miners in Black Diamond (located in southern King County) were run out of town.
These incidents, far from arousing sympathy for the Chinese, instead stoked the conflagration building against them. On November 3, a mob drove out nearly all of Tacoma's 350 Chinese residents; to the north in Seattle, the threat of violence was so real that federal troops were stationed in the city for 10 days in November to keep the peace. Passions then seemed to cool, and by the beginning of 1886 some hoped that the crisis might have passed. As February 1886 got underway, more than half of the Chinese who had been in Seattle a year earlier had left on their own, which left between 350 and 400 in the city. Many of those who remained behind had lost their jobs and could not find other employment.
A Committee of Fifteen
This wasn't enough for those intent on a more forceful resolution. On the stormy night of Saturday, February 6, an anti-Chinese meeting was held at the Bijou Theater in the "lava beds," Pioneer Square's red-light district located between Yesler Way and Jackson Street near 2nd and 3rd avenues. The Chinese were accused of violating Seattle's cubic-air ordinance, which required all lodgings to have at least 512 cubic feet of air space for each person sleeping there. Most of the city's Chinese residents lived in crowded conditions and were not in compliance with the ordinance. This gave people who wanted them out the excuse they were looking for, and a "committee of fifteen" was appointed to inspect Chinatown the next day.
As day broke on Sunday, February 7, several groups of five or six men -- accompanied by members of the Seattle police force -- spread out through Chinatown, which was located in the vicinity of the red-light district. They approached each home and asked its terrified occupants various questions about the city's cubic-air and nuisance regulations, knowing that the Chinese would be unable to give a satisfactory reply. Others entered the home, hauled out its contents, and put them in wagons. The residents and their belongings were then taken to the Ocean Dock at the foot of Main Street, where the steamer Queen of the Pacific (Queen) was docked.
At first, the affair went smoothly and quietly -- so quietly that for several hours many in the city didn't know what was happening. Then word began to spread and a delighted crowd began to gather in Chinatown, either to watch or help. By 10:30 a.m. fire bells and church bells were ringing, a signal for the (Seattle) Home Guards and Seattle Rifles to assemble. At the same time, Sheriff John McGraw (1850-1910) assembled a posse of deputies and confronted the mob. But the posse, badly outnumbered by the mob and ignored by the police, could do little. Governor Watson Squire (1836-1926) happened to be in Seattle and late that morning issued a proclamation ordering the mob to desist and disperse. It was answered with widespread derision.
By 1 p.m., more than 300 Chinese and most of their possessions had been herded together at Ocean Dock. The plan was to put them on the Queen, which was bound for San Francisco. Here a snag came up. Jack Alexander, the Queen's captain, refused to allow them onboard until their fares had been paid. Few of them had the funds to pay, but this wasn't a problem. Men spread through the crowd and solicited donations. Many in the crowd gave liberally, and eventually there were nearly 100 Chinese onboard the Queen.
The law was not sitting idly by while this was happening. Shortly before the steamer was to sail Captain Alexander was served with a writ of habeas corpus, charging that the Chinese were illegally restrained onboard his ship. He was ordered to appear in court the next morning and bring the Chinese with him. The Queen and its Chinese passengers settled in for the night, while the rest of the Chinese on the dock were housed in a nearby warehouse.
The police patrolled Seattle that night, but "up to midnight the city was virtually in the possession of the mob" ("The Chinese"). A plot to put a number of Chinese confined in the warehouse on a train bound for Tacoma during the wee hours of Monday, February 8, failed when authorities learned of the scheme and had the train leave early. As Monday morning approached, an uneasy quiet fell over the city.
A Supposed Happy Ending
At 7:15 a.m. Sheriff McGraw, the Home Guard, and two militia companies escorted the Chinese to the courthouse, which was then located on the east side of 3rd Avenue between Yesler Way and Jefferson Street, a block south of where it is today (2013). Roger Greene (1840-1930), Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Washington Territory, asked each of the Chinese present to confirm whether they wanted to leave Seattle. Most said they did want to leave. They were escorted to the dock and began boarding the Queen.
More funds were raised to cover the fares of more Chinese who said they wanted to leave. After 196 had boarded the Queen, Alexander announced that the ship was full. The steamer departed, leaving at least 100 Chinese who'd paid their fares on the dock. Those holding them decided to put them on the steamer George W. Elder (Elder), which was due in Seattle in a few days.
It was approaching noon by this time. "The people on the wharf shook hands and congratulated each other over what they supposed was a happy ending," reported the Seattle Daily Post-Intelligencer the next morning. They agreed to take the Chinese back to their homes in Chinatown to wait for the Elder's arrival, even though many of the homes had been demolished. The Home Guards began escorting the Chinese east on Main. They made it as far as 1st Avenue S, where they were met by a screaming mob of about 2,000 people. The mob demanded to know where the Chinese were being taken. The guard ordered the mob to step aside and let them pass. The mob refused. A few of the guardsmen tried to arrest some of the most aggressive men in the mob.
At that, the mob attacked the guards. Fists flew, and some of the guardsmen clubbed their attackers with the butts of their guns. In response, some in the mob grabbed the guardsmen's guns and tried to yank them out of their hands, while simultaneously daring the guards to fire. Several guardsmen fired on these men and into the mob. Five people were injured; one man, Charles Stewart, died the next morning. Upon hearing the shots, the Chinese threw their packs on the ground and lay face down on the street.
The mob fell back, leaving the wounded lying in the muddy street. Stewart, still conscious though badly wounded, cursed the guards and screamed for the mob to attack them. However, upon hearing the shots, the Seattle Rifles raced up Main Street from the dock and formed into a line to support the guards. They were soon joined by another military unit, Company D, which had been stationed at the courthouse nearby.
The wounded were taken away, but a crowd of several thousand soon massed around the officers. The three units faced the crowd, aimed their weapons, and formed a hollow square protecting the Chinese men, who remained lying in the street. For at least a half-hour, maybe 45 minutes, a tense standoff ensued, with thousands screaming at the badly outnumbered officers. But cooler heads prevailed. Several men, including John Keane, "the well-known Chinese agitator," addressed the crowd directly, saying that "enough damage had already been done and it would be folly to cause further bloodshed" ("The Chinese"). The crowd slowly dispersed, and the Chinese returned to Chinatown.
Martial Law and Federal Troops
Shortly after, Governor Squire proclaimed martial law. Saloons were closed and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was put in place in downtown Seattle. Both military and local police were stationed on the corners of every block in the business district at dark to enforce the curfew. (Many managed to get passes the first night, which irked the authorities; the following day, more stringent pass requirements were enacted.) During the day, the military patrolled streets of Seattle. As the week wore on, the city began to slowly calm down.
On Tuesday, February 9, President Grover Cleveland ordered U.S. troops to Seattle. A contingent of 300 troops, made up of eight companies of the 14th Infantry stationed in Vancouver (Clark County), arrived at the City Dock during the afternoon of February 10. A large crowd was on hand to greet them. Not knowing whether the crowd would try to stop the troops, the Seattle Rifles charged the dock, bayonets drawn, to clear the crowd and allow the troops to disembark.
By Friday, February 12, the Seattle P-I could proclaim in a headline "Good Order Once More." On February 14, the Elder took away another 110 Chinese, leaving somewhere between 50 and 80 in the city. Some of these gradually left, and eventually only a few dozen Chinese, at most, remained in Seattle.
A Slow and Painful Recovery
Martial law ended in Seattle on February 22, but federal troops remained in the city until the summer. By the end of the year Seattle was eager to forget what had happened, and an economic boom in the late 1880s let its Caucasian community do just that. As Seattle historian Clarence Bagley sunnily wrote nearly 30 years later, "[by] early in 1887 our dark days and troublous times had disappeared as if by magic" ("History of Seattle ...").
The dark days may have magically disappeared for Seattle's white population, but its remaining Chinese residents weren't as fortunate. Their recovery was far more slow and painful, and it took 20 years for Seattle's Chinese population to return to its 1885 levels. At the same time, the city’s Caucasian population increased more than tenfold, to well over 100,000.
But the Chinese in Seattle did recover. By the early 1900s, Chinatown was once again beginning to thrive. Today it lives on in Seattle's vibrant Chinatown-International District, a culturally diverse neighborhood that is home to Americans of Chinese descent as well as Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, and others. In 1962, Chinese American Wing Luke (1925-1965) was elected to the Seattle City Council and became the first Asian American to hold elected office in the Pacific Northwest. In 1996, Chinese American Gary Locke (b. 1950) was elected governor of the state of Washington. He became the first Asian American governor in the nation. And at the center of today's Chinatown-International District, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is dedicated to celebrating Luke's memory and the history of Asian American experience in the Pacific Northwest.