|Gov. Stevenson. City of Boise photo.|
Chinese miners had been active participants in the gold fields from the earliest days. Every region followed much the same pattern: Whites wrote district mining codes that excluded Orientals altogether, and might enforce the rules with violence. Then, unable to find enough cheap white labor, miners changed the rules to allow white owners to hire Chinese workers. Finally, whites began to sell played out (supposedly) claims, or abandon them to the Chinese.
In January 1866, the Territorial legislature passed a law that overrode local codes and allowed Chinese to work in the gold fields … upon payment of a $5 per month fee. With two or three thousand Orientals working in Idaho mines by 1868, this represented a tidy sum for the government. That number ballooned even further after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The 1870 census for Idaho enumerated 4,274 Chinese (28.5 percent) among the Territory's 15 thousand inhabitants.
Yet they were still not really welcome, for various reasons: blind racism, perplexity at their "odd" diet and customs, and their infamous opium dens. There was probably an element of jealousy too. Chinese miners, often in communal groups, could wrest decent profits from claims that whites considered worthless. Few whites wanted to work as incredibly hard as the Orientals, but that was surely counted against them too.
|Chinese Workers with White Miner. Personal Collection.|
Predictable results followed: a host of discriminatory laws and taxes, calls for their expulsion, and unpunished white offenses against Chinese. Crimes against Orientals sometimes included mass murders that were conveniently blamed on the Indians. Members of various “Anti-Chinese Leagues” met openly to advocate their expulsion from the United States. The Idaho Statesman reported (February 27, 1886) on one such convention, which called for a boycott of businesses that employed Chinese labor.
Some elements within these organizations wanted stronger actions, although leaders said, “We denounce all violence and attempted violence on the person or destruction to the property of the Chinese.”
Stevenson’s proclamation came about partly because, in late 1855, vigilantes lynched five Chinese suspected of murdering a white storekeeper in Pierce. This atrocity even came to the attention of the Emperor of China, and the Chinese ambassador demanded an investigation. (Nothing much came of that, of course.)
With all that publicity, Stevenson had to respond to a tip that plans were afoot to expel the Chinese from Idaho, by force if necessary. His proclamation enjoined such actions "with the assurance that the law will hold those who may engage in such deeds responsible, individually and collectively, for the results of their acts."
The proclamation, and probably some internal squabbling, defused the conspiracy, so there was no outbreak of violence.
Collectively, the Chinese made a substantial, but largely ignored contribution to the growth of Idaho, and not just in terms of mining. However, the pressure against them never let up. The 1900 Census enumerated just 1,467 Chinese in the state (less than 1 percent).
|Arif Dirlik, Malcolm Yeung (eds.), Chinese on the American Frontier, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (2003).|
|Proclamation [forbidding forcible expulsion of the Chinese after the first day of May 1886], Territory of Idaho, Edward A. Stevenson, Governor; April 27, 1886.|