Racism forced Chinese laborers out of Sonoma County

During the second half of the 19th century, the white community in Sonoma County was determined to expel Chinese immigrants.

They called it the Chinese question or the Chinese problem. It was feverishly discussed within the white community and in racist terms in local media.

In letters to editors at local papers, several white readers suggested it be done with the veneer of civility.

“Let our people keep cool and work intelligently to rid our land of this Chinese curse, and before long we will have accomplished in a quiet way the desired end,” one reader wrote to the Petaluma Courier in 1886.

People from China started immigrating to California after the gold rush of 1849, and in Sonoma County they worked on railroads, vineyards and in the domestic sphere.

Chinese laborers were paid less than their white counterparts, and anti-Chinese sentiments rose through the 1860s onward as white workers built resentment over Chinese workers.

The first restrictive federal immigration law in the U.S. was the Page Act of 1875, which effectively prohibited Chinese women from entering the country.

Anti-Chinese leagues formed across the North Bay, and stayed active even after Congress in 1882 passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which curbed immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years.

It was a Santa Rosa attorney, Hon. Thomas J. Geary, who as a congressman extended the anti-immigration law by writing the 1892 Geary Act.

Geary later served as the district attorney for Sonoma County, according to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Chinese residents were often referred to in 19th-century Sonoma County newspapers using racist descriptions and described as a “difficulty” to white society.

“The people of Petaluma and vicinity, in mass meeting assembled, do hereby declare that the sentiment of this entire community is solid against further Chinese immigration, the great, overshadowing curse of the Pacific coast,” an anti-Chinese group wrote, as reported in the Petaluma Weekly Argus on March 10, 1882.

See photos and news clips about local Chinese immigrants in the gallery above. Warning: clips from old Sonoma County newspapers contain offensive, racist language.

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