Napa County and the Anti-Chinese League

TW for racist language.

Napa Register, May 28, 1886
Napa Register, May 28, 1886

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 and was further amended in subsequent years. The act severely reduced Chinese immigration, especially for women and children. Those who remained in California often worked in agriculture, and there were many debates amongst white Americans as to the merits of such labor.

Some feared the Chinese might acquire land and establish themselves as Americans. Others believed the Chinese were taking jobs from white workers because they were willing to work for less pay. Although anti-Chinese sentiment had been present in California since the Gold Rush days, it got worse in the 1870s. The combination of the Panic of 1873 (the first step in what would eventually be the 20-year “Long Depression”), the 1876 and 1877 droughts, and wealthy men monopolizing land ownership fueled the anti-Chinese fire. Throughout American history, various minority groups have been accused of “stealing” jobs from white workers, and in the late 1900s the Chinese were the targets. In 1877 in San Francisco, a mob destroyed Chinese laundries and groceries and set fire to lumberyards in a riot that lasted 3 days. The San Francisco agitator Denis Kearney (born in Ireland) coined the phrase “The Chinese must go!” and the San Francisco Chronicle heralded him as a hero to blue collar workers.

An 1886 article reproduced and “heartily” endorsed in the Napa Register from the Fresno Republican stated “The people of California have been looking to the National Congress so intently and hopefully in the past for relief from Chinese invasion, that little thought has been given by the masses as to what is possible to be done by laws enacted by the State to mitigate the existing evil and lessen the danger of Chinese encroachment. One of the greatest dangers to be apprehended from the presence of the Chinese ins that they will gradually acquire the ownership of a vast amount of the public domain, and thus obtain a permanent foothold in the country – a foothold which once obtained will enable them, by the force of competition, to drive the white race from the most profitable fields of agriculture as well as from other industries in which the ownership of real estate would enable them to engage.”[1]

Morris Estee, owner of Hedgeside Winery, was also a member of the Anti-Chinese Convention in Sacramento, but disagreed with the boycott. The Napa Register summarized him in the May 7, 1886, edition: “I know of no of no stronger inducement for white labor to come here than to employ them…but the idea of boycotting an entire product…or an entire community, or even boycotting any white man in the sense of using intimidation or threats, or social or business ostracism; that white labor was never more abundant than now.” It went on to quote him as saying “The fact is, it is those who employ Chinese labor from choice, not from necessity, who do the harm…I assure you if I could not get white labor to save my crops I would employ Chinese; but at Napa I feel no such necessity exists.”[2]

Chinese workers at Sawyer Tannery, 1881, acc# 2000.29.48
Chinese workers at Sawyer Tannery, 1881, acc# 2000.29.48

In Napa, a boycott formed in 1886 against any business that “had any dealings with Chinamen.” The 200-man strong Napa Anti-Chinese League further vowed to “publish the names of all who should be boycotted in the daily papers,” though it does not appear that they ever followed through with that threat.[3]

The Napa Reporter discussed the issue in December 1885 with a far more unpleasant tone: “The agitation against the Chinese is increasing. From all over the Coast come reports of movements toward the expulsion of the pigtails, and it is evident that the people are arousing themselves to a pitch which will eventually result in the driving out of the Chinamen from the limits of nearly every town of any considerable size on the Coast. Our neighboring town St. Helena is one of the latest to join the movement, and an anti-Chinese league has been formed there with 200 names on the roll. From the reports of the meeting published in the local papers, we find that the most prominent citizens of St. Helena are engaged in the movement…These men do not counsel violence, but they firmly say the Mongolians must not infest the town with their presence, and they will use all lawful means to remove the heathen nuisances. These men have studied the effects of this Chinese curse, and they know it will bring utter ruin to this fair State unless it is removed.”[4]

1886 testimony from Solomon Heydenfeldt
1886 testimony from Solomon Heydenfeldt

However, many Californians supported Chinese immigrants rights and hoped to one day see them treated with respect. In his testimony to the US Senate and House of Representatives in 1886, adjuster Cornelius B. S. Gibbs testified that “As men of business, I consider that the Chinese merchants are fully equal to our merchants. As men of integrity, I have never met a more honorable, high-minded, correct, and truthful set of men than the Chinese merchants of our [San Francisco] city…As a class, I think the Chinese are more honorable than other nationalities, even our own.” Attorney Solomon Heydenfeldt – the first Jewish judge appointed to the California Supreme Court – believed the Chinese “are the best laboring class we have among us.”[5]

At the time the debates about the Chinese were taking place, there were less than 1,000 Chinese living in Napa County out of about 15,000 residents total, 93% of whom were white.


[1] “No Right to the Soil.” Napa Register, April 30, 1886. Chinese History Ephemera Box. Napa County Historical Society.

[2] “Mr. Estee on Boycotting.” Napa Register, May 7, 1886. Chinese History Ephemera Box. Napa County Historical Society.

[3] “Will It Work?” Napa Register, April 30, 1886. Chinese History Ephemera Box. Napa County Historical Society.

[4] “The Agitation Increases.” Napa Reporter, December 4, 1885. Chinese History Ephemera Box. Napa County Historical Society.

[5] “The Other Side of the Chinese Question to the People of the United States and the Honorable the Senate and House of Representatives: Testimony of California’s Leading Citizens.” San Francisco: 1888. Chinese History Ephemera Box. Napa County Historical Society.