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The Anti-Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles as a Reconstruction-Era Event

Summary and Keywords

Long regarded as a violent outburst significant mainly for California history, the 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre raises themes central to America’s Civil War Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1877, namely, the resort to threats and violence to preserve traditionally conceived social and political authority and power. Although the Los Angeles events occurred far from the American South, the Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre paralleled the anti-black violence that rose in the South during Reconstruction. Although the immediate causes of the violence in the post–Civil War South and California were far different, they shared one key characteristic: they employed racial disciplining to preserve traditional social orders that old elites saw as threatened by changing times and circumstances.

Keywords: violence, Reconstruction, Asian American, Los Angeles, racial disciplining, anti-Chinese massacre, Los Angeles School, whiteness, the West, Civil War

On October 24, 1871, a gunfight broke out around 5:30 in the evening in Los Angeles, California. Over the next six hours, that isolated exchange of gunfire expanded beyond the confines of a localized feud and metastasized into a cataclysm of many parts: an unforeseen killing, a siege, a deliberately set fire, a mob run amuck, and the public life-taking of eighteen denizens of the “City of Angels.” All who were killed by the mob were Chinese residents of Los Angeles. The perpetrators who hunted, shot, and lynched the Chinese were a multifarious lot that included men, women, and at least one child from a range of ethnicities and social backgrounds, all of them mobilized by a desire to obliterate members of Chinese Los Angeles, most energized by the need to assert the safety and dominance of white Los Angeles.

Long regarded as a violent outburst that only interested students of California history, the anti-Chinese massacre should be understood for what it reveals about the Reconstruction era, the larger chapter in U.S. history that shaped the mass killing in particular ways. Usually periodized as beginning in 1865 and ending in 1877, Reconstruction involved multitudinous changes created by the Union victory in the Civil War and the emancipation of four million persons once held in bondage. Put simply, Reconstruction involved a long effort to remake America without slavery. Given slavery’s deep impress throughout the nation, it is not surprising that Reconstruction involved a struggle waged on a staggering number of fronts: constitutional, legal, social, economic, political, and racial. As a slaveholder’s wife put it in January 1865, a Southern loss in the war would produce “a general remodeling of everything.”1

To those desiring to make an America without slavery, this “general remodeling” promised a future of freedom and full citizenship. But to those whose lives and livelihoods directly benefited from American slavery, it threatened disruption, ruin, and “social equality” with those they had earlier ordered about as chattel property. For a number of white Southerners, this was intolerable. They sought to stem the revolutionary tide with the weapons of unfinished war: violence and terror.

Although the killings occurring in the former Confederacy had different aims and often were expressly political—to overthrow Reconstruction’s revolution—the mass killings in Los Angeles resembled the Southern mobbings in one key particular. The 1871 massacre of the Chinese was an instance of racial disciplining during Reconstruction. In the South, former slaveholders and whites invested in the antebellum social regime believed that former slaves should be disciplined to know their place; they may now be freedmen before the law, but they should be subordinate to white order. In California, Chinese had to be disciplined because they were unruly as well, but in a different way. Chinese in the 1870s were increasingly characterized as “infusible,” the postwar term that labeled “Asiatics” as incapable (and worse, unwilling) of incorporating into America. In addition, the postbellum Chinese were “unruly” because for a number of Americans, they were hard to categorize within the U.S. racial order. Cast by some whites as bearing visual and character kinship with African Americans, the Chinese in California became a species of the trouble African Americans posed to white society.2 It was not accidental that the Chinese killed on October 24, 1871, were culturally linked to the name of their neighborhood: Calle de los Negros, or as English-speaking Angelenos dubbed it, Negro Alley.

Reconstruction: The Setting for the Anti-Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles

The links between the anti-Chinese massacre in Los Angeles and Reconstruction were not causal; rather they were co-located within a discursive “field” of new controversies that debated the significance of race after the Civil War. Still, the relationship between the two has received little study, in part because of erroneous assumptions about California and the West being “cut off” from the national stage of events after the Civil War. Such a misunderstanding impoverishes our historical knowledge about Reconstruction. Moreover, decoupling the anti-Chinese massacre from the temporal context of Reconstruction, indeed, disassociating the history of Chinese in the United States from postwar developments, is unwarranted. The Chinese in California and freed blacks in the South both agitated white public concern about the character of the nation, producing violence in the 1870s and later, legislation restricting Asian immigration and the rise of Jim Crow laws in the 1880s.3 The lynchings in Los Angeles marked the nadir of a decade of controversies over the “proper” place of African Americans and Chinese in the postbellum emancipationist social order. What happened in southern California in 1871 was due in no small way to how Chinese were already implicated in the numerous debates about the “general remodeling of everything.” The tensions surrounding the Reconstruction era created the larger setting for the night of mobbing in a far-off town on the Pacific Coast.

Thus, the Chinese in the United States mattered at key points in the epochal developments after the war and were far from being mere bystanders to the era’s turbulence. First in California and then in far-flung locales across the nation (including the South and strike-torn North Adams, Massachusetts, in 1870), the suddenly noticed presence of the Chinese in America sparked debates in Congress, informed Reconstruction-era civil rights efforts, inspired political artwork in notable print culture forums, and troubled public discourse about what lay ahead for America after the Civil War.

The new presence was graphically illustrated by Thomas Nast, the famed Harper’s Weekly illustrator, who did his part to convey the sudden significance of Chinese in the United States when he captured the gamut of postbellum crises and anxieties through his drawings. During this period he drew more than forty scenes commenting on the Chinese and their plight. One year before the Los Angeles massacre, he characterized the Chinese (and more importantly, the new environment of public anxiety over them) in a telling illustration: In “The New Comet—A Phenomenon Visible in All Parts of the U.S.” Nast showed white Americans visibly unnerved by what portended in the sky: a comet with a Chinese face auguring a future already shadowed by white unease over the freed African American.4

Other characterizations fueled economic desires in the South. The Chinese figured in the imaginations of many white Southerners as they faced a transformed labor predicament in their fields, having lost their enslaved labor source. The Chinese came to preoccupy many instances of Southern discourse and inspired commercial attempts to import them into agricultural fields in Louisiana and Mississippi. Looking at their fields after the war, white Southerners believed they found a new way to discipline African American farm hands, considered an ever-growing necessity since the freedmen were no longer as “tractable” as when they were slaves. The solution lay in importing Chinese agricultural laborers, an answer that first beckoned from Cuba, where Chinese laborers had worked during the Civil War, and then California, where Chinese had built growing communities since the 1840s. In 1869, the appeal of this labor force lay in “the cheapness” of their labor but also in what Southerners attributed to the Chinese as “the peculiar adaptedness of that race to the climate of the South and to the production of Southern staples, and in the cheap and convenient transportation afforded by the Pacific Railroad.”5

Importing Chinese laborers would do more than augment the number of laborers in Southern fields. The obsession was to discipline the larger numbers of African Americans. Complaining that the “negro” was made “lazy, insubordinate and unreliable” by “too sudden [an] introduction to political rights and equality with the white race,” many white Southerners believed the imported Chinese labor would constitute “the counteracting influence” of an “equally capable and far more docile and manageable race.”6 The vast majority of white Southerners, both men and women saw Chinese labor as a way to frighten African American freedmen and intimidate them into socially coercive labor situations. The journalist Whitelaw Reid reported that he heard “men of all ages and conditions” exclaim across the region: “We can drive the n[pejorative] out and import coolies [the term used for Chinese laborers] that will work better, at less expense, and relieve us from this cursed n[pejorative] impudence.”7 The grim accounting that white Southerners wanted done in the fields was labor discipline, the type that would make freedmen forget both political and social equality and instead cower before the harsh market-driven urgency of Chinese laborer competition. These gains were quickly summed up by one Mississippian: “Give us five million Chinese laborers in the valley of the Mississippi and we can furnish the world with cotton and teach the negro his proper place.”8

White Southerners not only wanted the Chinese laborers’ bodies, but attributed to them the docility necessary for restoring traditional order amidst emancipation’s repercussions. Southerners said Chinese workers subscribed to the “oriental philosophy of indifferentism,” meaning indifference to politics, thus making them servile to the traditional racial social order.9 In doing so, white Southerners conveniently ignored reports that Chinese laborers in Cuba had shown a capability to exhibit “refractory discontent” and “angry insubordination.”10 White Southerners continued these fantasies until political realities made them obsolete. With the suppression of Republican African American political officeholders and the retreat from Reconstruction that started in 1877, the perceived need for Chinese abated as the post-Reconstruction state legislatures inaugurated unopposed methods of controlling African Americans.

Both in the South and throughout the nation the political and commercial discourses acted upon the Chinese, but in California the Chinese saw the years after 1865 as a moment when they could act for themselves and speak on their own behalf. On the West Coast, Chinese Californians appraised the changes of Reconstruction and saw themselves participating in the era’s legal transformations. In one key moment of federal civil rights lawmaking, they lobbied for legal protection and got it, although unfortunately, only to a limited extent. In 1870 and 1871 Congress passed two Enforcement Acts to enable federal redress of state-level deprivation of rights. The Enforcement Act of 1870 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 are textbook cases of the “military acts” that sought to remedy the actions of those whites who opposed Reconstruction and intimidated African Americans through violence and state denial of newly won civil rights. But buried inside the Enforcement Act of 1870 was a provision protecting Chinese from discriminatory taxes and local violence in California. Section 16 of the Enforcement Act of 1870 announced “That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States . . . shall have the same right . . . in the United States to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to the like punishments, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and none other.”11

While mentioning neither the Chinese nor California, Section 16 dealt with both. The previous year, in June 1869, a Congressional delegation met with representatives of the Chinese community in San Francisco as part of a fact-finding expedition to the West Coast. The meeting proved to be an eye-opener for the legislators, as they heard about discriminatory tax laws that the California legislature had passed that targeted Chinese Californians. Worse, both the California State Supreme Court and the California legislature had banned the testimony of Chinese in the courts, thus leaving Chinese vulnerable to depredations and violence. The senator who sponsored the language that eventually became Section 16 made the legislative remedy for the Chinese clear when he spoke on May 20, 1870. “We are inviting to our shores . . . Asiatics. For twenty years every obligation of humanity, of justice, and of common decency toward these people has been violated by a certain class of men . . . It is as solemn a duty as can be devolved upon Congress to see that those people are protected.”12 For the anti-Chinese newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, the provisions that would protect “any person” meant that Reconstruction’s protections were being extended to persons such as the Chinese who were not citizens. Inferring correctly the legal import of the words of Section 16, the Examiner complained publicly that under the new law, “no State legislation can apply to a Chinaman which does not apply equally to all people.”13

Unfortunately, the statutory victory in 1870 lacked the teeth of enforcement and implementation. Section 16 may have been a victory for the Chinese Californians, but it proved hard to vindicate. While it was a civil rights gain in the statute books, its provision for Chinese safety was muffled due to the lack of clear pronouncements, a failing that reflected the lukewarm commitment to Chinese civil rights by lawmakers and the increasing electoral costs of supporting such rights. Perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic can be found than in the career of a U.S. senator from the West who supported Section 16 expressly as a measure to protect the Chinese from increasing hostility. Senator William Stewart of Nevada had served as the district attorney for Nevada County in California, where he prosecuted a murder case that unfortunately led to the California Supreme Court in 1854 declaring Chinese incapable of testifying in cases involving white Californians. In 1870, Senator Stewart stood up for Section 16 and Chinese civil rights on the floor of Congress, congratulating his country and his colleagues for “provisions which extend the strong arm of Government to the protection of the Chinese.” Unfortunately, eighteen years later, Stewart stood on the floor of Congress and pandered to the anti-Chinese movement that was roiling the nation in the 1880s. He urged immigration restriction of the Chinese because they were diseased and degraded.14

William Stewart was not the only public figure during the 1870s and 1880s to be inconsistent on Chinese rights, nor was he the only politician to twist emancipationist legacies into immigration restriction. That process showed itself early in California’s history with Reconstruction and it disclosed precisely on the matter that William Stewart thought so unjust when he was the district attorney for Nevada County, California: that Chinese could not testify in cases involving whites and thus were made legally vulnerable to white violence. The ever-resonating and endlessly ramifying effect of California’s way of limiting Reconstruction’s gains made the link between the anti-Chinese massacre in Los Angeles and Reconstruction that much more intimate and that much more tragic.

Reconstruction’s Paradoxes: Chinese Californians as the Limit to Reconstruction-Era Changes

California was indeed its own cauldron of change and opposition to change during the emancipationist spring of the mid-to-late 1860s. One recent study of California’s relation to Reconstruction noted the complexity of the postwar environment in the Golden State, which “precluded any kind of straightforward transition from bondage to freedom.”15 The transition was complicated by the variety of unfree labor systems that exploited African Americans, California Indians, and Chinese, and an environment of bound labor that further exploited along lines of gender. “Emancipation and Reconstruction, uneven and incomplete processes across the United States, were especially complex in California.”16 This complexity ensured that “emancipation had radically divergent consequences for different groups of Californians” with emancipation having “especially contradictory outcomes for Chinese men and women.”17

This proved especially true when it came to testimonial competence. For decades, California’s lawmakers had refused to shield the Native Peoples and then Chinese from a disability to testify in law cases involving white persons, a disability common in the slaveholding South. In 1850, when California was the scarce-born thirty-first “free” state in the Union, its legislature mandated that no “Black or Mulatto or Indian” be allowed “to give evidence in favor or against” a “white man” in criminal cases, and that in civil cases, no “Indian or Negro” be allowed to testify in any action or proceeding “in which a White person is a party.”18 Four years later, the California Supreme Court ruled that the Chinese could be inferred to belong to the abjected category of “Indian” and thus disabled from testifying in court in cases involving white persons.19 This monolith of racial disabling cracked during the Civil War, but only a bit and not for all disabled by these legal actions. During the war, in a fit of wartime solidarity with the Lincoln administration, the state’s coalition of Republicans and loyal Democrats in the “Union Party” acted on the President’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 by freeing African Americans from the testimonial disability in the 1850 statutes and thus removing a badge of servitude that kept them servile and made them vulnerable to the ever-present threat of white violence and predation.

The logic of the emancipationist spring in 1863 should have led to the same unfettering for Indians and Chinese, but California’s legislature refused to endow testimonial competence on both. In a prefiguring of what would happen throughout Reconstruction, the California legislature said in effect that emancipation applied to liberated chattel slaves, but extending liberation from the badges of servitude to Chinese would be dangerous. As historian Stacey L. Smith has put it, “Radical Republicans in the Union Party successfully mobilized [the effort to repeal anti-black testimony laws that propped up the pro slavery regime and African American bondage] . . . when these same [Radical Republicans] sought testimony rights for Indians and Chinese, they ran up against former Democrats in the Union Party who argued [such testimony] would collapse all racial hierarchies and degrade whites.”20 Hence, the Chinese and Indians constituted the outer limit for what could be imagined as Reconstruction’s possibility to make new citizens in a revolutionizing America. The California legislature raised the ante on this deal when it passed a statute that expressly forbade Chinese from testifying in cases involving whites, and in 1870 the California Supreme Court effectively affirmed its earlier 1854 decision that included Chinese under the testimonial ban, declaring that the postwar California statute did not raise constitutional issues as conflicting with the Reconstruction-era Fourteenth Amendment because California was a “sovereign state” and the federal government’s Reconstruction amendment did not reach California.21 In short, California was as unreconstructed and constitutionally obstinate at this point in postbellum American history as any Southern state that witnessed acts of white violence and white terror in 1870.

Reconstruction-Era Violence

Federal legislation to empower African Americans as citizens during the emancipationist phase of the postbellum years met with violence from former Confederates in the South and preexisting political interests in the North and West, both fighting to limit the circle of those capable of being new public participants in the postwar world. The violence ranged from abusive political rhetoric against the Chinese in California to physical violence in the South that manifested as furious massacres. Eric Foner’s sober historiographical judgment compares the violence of 1868 to the 1870s with that in other societies that underwent the change of emancipation. Foner writes, “In its pervasive impact and multiplicity of purposes, however, the wave of counter revolutionary terror that swept over large parts of the South between 1868 and 1871 lacks counterpart either in the American experience or in that of other Western Hemisphere societies that abolished slavery in the 19th century. It is a measure of how far change had progressed that the reaction against Reconstruction proved so extreme.”22

That extreme reaction took its toll in the South, and the grim inventory includes these events. A Memphis riot between April 30 and May 2, 1866 took forty-six African American lives and wounded eighty. Violence in New Orleans on July 30, 1866 took thirty-four African American lives and injured more than 200. Two hundred eighty African Americans died during an Easter Sunday mobbing in Colfax, Louisiana in April 1873. The incidents expanded across the South: Camilla, Georgia in September 1868; Laurens, South Carolina and Eutaw, Alabama in October 1870; Meridian, Mississippi in March 1871; Vicksburg, Mississippi in December 1874; Clinton, Mississippi in September 1875; and Hamburg, South Carolina in July 1876.23 This violence aimed to intimidate political activity by African Americans and white sympathizers of Reconstruction in the South. The mobbings and murders sought to discipline former slaves into formally emancipated racial subordinates. As one historian notes, “The purpose [of these violent acts], and to a great degree the result . . . was to demoralize and intimidate the freedmen.”24

The 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese mobbing did not have the same electoral political stakes as raised in the Southern locations, but it exuded a strong anti-Asian disciplinary function. If African American freedmen had to be kept in place through violence in Meridian, Mississippi in March 1871, then Chinese Angelenos eight months later were likewise punished for threatening the stability of local white authority. Protection of white residents against the upstart threat of Chinese, who were rumored to be “killing the white men by wholesale” during an urban fracas, became a rallying cry. Unwarranted, but spreading like wildfire, the rumor mobilized white Angeleno anxieties about the Chinese, a pent-up hostility that took public form when some called to “clean the Chinese out of the city.” This rhetoric of cleansing was made easier to express because Reconstruction-era California public officials had excluded the Chinese from political emancipation. To “clean the Chinese out of” Los Angeles meant a purge and a reversal. The purge would take the form of one night of violence. But the reversal sought to stem something that had been proceeding for at least thirty years, namely, increased Chinese immigration, which took new form during Reconstruction.

Chinese Immigrants and Settlement in Los Angeles

The Chinese who lived in Los Angeles in 1871 participated in a larger flow of Chinese migration to the United States, a movement first witnessed in New York in the 1820s. Twenty years later, the migration flows from Asia to California established the more familiar history of Chinese settlements in San Francisco, Stockton, Sacramento, and northern and central California.

After the Civil War, these migration flows continued, but the surge of such migration during the middle 1860s happened under the aegis of Reconstruction era innovations that forged new promises concerning rights and social benefits, matters that figured in new treaty relations between the United States and China in 1868.

That year, in the midst of Congressional debate about the Fourteenth Amendment, the postbellum legacy that made the Reconstruction a constitutional revolution, the U.S. government negotiated the Burlingame Treaty with China. Named after Anson Burlingame, an American who mediated diplomatic relations between the two nations, the Burlingame Treaty declared that free emigration would mutually benefit both nations. It is not insignificant in the context of Reconstruction that the treaty described these rights in the same language used in the Fourteenth Amendment to signify new Reconstruction-era rights. The Treaty mentioned immigrant “privileges and immunities,” the same undefined provisions stated in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment that the Congress debated in the same year.

The Burlingame Treaty achieved its purpose. The number of Chinese entrants to the United States swelled from 6,707 in 1868 (the year the treaty was debated) to 12,874 in 1869 and 15,740 in 1870. In 1870, the number of Chinese in the United States was 63,199 with 49,277 in California, most of the Chinese having settled in San Francisco and northern and central California. Los Angeles’ share of the Californian Chinese population was 234.25 While most Chinese settlement concentrated for several decades in northern and central California, developments in the 1870s produced a substantial Chinese community in Los Angeles. Growing diversification in the southern California economy to supplant a declining cattle business faltering through drought played a major role in luring Chinese to Los Angeles.26

Still, the small Los Angeles Chinese community in 1870 witnessed significant demographic distortions with some significant social consequences. Historical studies by Raymond Lou and Scott Zesch reveal that 80 percent of the city’s 234 Chinese were male and that two-thirds of the thirty-four Chinese women were under the age of twenty. Although observers and even historians have assumed that many of the young women were sex workers or prostitutes, Lou and Zesch show cause for being skeptical about such blanket characterizations. The 1870 census, court records, and news accounts reveal two Chinese Angeleno women working in laundries, several prominent Asian men with wives, three Chinese households with one man and one woman, and “another nine mixed dwellings may have housed as many as fifteen couples.” Zesch concluded that “more than half of the thirty-four Asian women living in Los Angeles may have been wives” or were living in some cohabiting male-female relationship.27

By re interpreting the demographic profile of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1870, one moves beyond the stereotype that Chinese women occupied only one situation, that of prostitution. Unfortunately in 1870, the social institution of heteronormative marriage and the various kinds of male-female co habitation created unbearable social tensions among the Chinese in Los Angeles and contributed to continued stereotyping of the Chinese by non Chinese Angelenos. This was especially the case on the eve of the 1871 massacre.

Indeed, traditional accounts often traced the lynchings that happened on October 24, 1871 to a precipitating fight between rival groups of Chinese males over possession of a Chinese female. Preceding that outburst, Southern California English language newspapers delighted in reporting marriage conflicts within the Chinese community, reveling in the strange-sounding Chinese names and Chinese wranglings, fights, flights, and court proceedings. Later-19th-century American newspapers wallowed in this “comical” Chinese narrative. Yet the fights may have also represented Chinese immigrants’ desire to establish the kinds of social roots actually legitimated by the white civic norms of Los Angeles, including marriage and the formation of communities, public and private aspirations that their non-Chinese neighbors were often not willing to acknowledge. Read against the grain in this way, it becomes both telling and ironic that the massacre of 1871 was told (and incessantly retold through the years thereafter) as caused by one of these relationship disputes.

The Fatal Night

The tragedy of October 24, 1871, began with an outburst among some Chinese Los Angelenos that may have been contained had it not been for the galvanizing power of anxiety over white lives, a stirring that accelerated matters into public revenge and then mass killing.28 Prior to October 24, trouble brewed in the Chinese district situated in the Coronel Adobe on the Calle de los Negros, or “Negro Alley.” Located near the Los Angeles Plaza, the street was notorious for vice and abjection and harboring the city’s criminals. Most accounts of the massacre published since the 1880s cast the source of trouble within the Chinese district itself, namely, a feud between rival groups of Chinese Los Angelenos. In fact, subsequent historical investigation has uncovered a relatively brief gunfight between two Chinese that resulted in no casualties.29 The bloodletting happened only when a self appointed peacekeeper intervened.

The interference of a white rancher and former saloonkeeper, Robert Thompson, propelled matters into mass violence. Thompson was not a policeman but during the afternoon of October 24, 1871, possibly thinking he could successfully end the dispute between immigrants, he fired point-blank at Chinese Angelenos firing at him from behind a door. It was Thompson who was shot, and he died shortly thereafter.30

Thompson’s killing was the available accelerant that turned fears and rumors about Chinese immigrants into demands for retribution. After Thompson’s death, a crowd of white Angelenos lynched a Chinese resident named Wong Tuck. The crowd pummeled Tuck, whose life snapped at the end of a rope thrown over a makeshift hangman’s scaffold at New High and Temple Streets.

News of Thompson’s killing warmed passions aided by the flow of alcohol served in the saloons bordering the Calle de los Negros and the excitement of a three-hour gunfight. What happened in the hours after the Chinese fight was bitterly ironic. The original Chinese antagonists who started the altercation actually escaped during the melee, leaving many remaining Chinese at the mercy of white Angelenos. For example, two Chinese women, Cha Cha and Fan Cho, attempted to leave the besieged Chinese quarter but were met by a hail of fifteen to twenty shots; exactly what happened to them and other Chinese women in Los Angeles remains unknown.31

Press reports began detailing what would become a massacre. An Associated Press employee telegraphed his San Francisco counterpart that something terrible was happening. The first report sent out at 7 in the evening, and the next at 9 p.m., described “fears of a general slaughter” in Los Angeles. Fifteen minutes later, this general fear became graphic: “Eight Chinamen have been hung and more will be hung as soon as the ropes can be applied. There is intense excitement and a general riot is impending.”32

The Los Angeles rioters acted efficiently, killing eighteen Chinese in about four hours. It was possible that the vengeance moved quickly because the mob knew that a garrison of federal troops in nearby Wilmington could be mustered to suppress further killing, a parallel to Reconstruction-era scenarios in the South where anti-black mobs acted in the shadow of nearby federal troops. In the South and California, anti-black and anti-Chinese violence took its license as an angry response to a crisis in post–Civil War era whiteness. In Los Angeles, the mob defended the racialized status quo upon hearing rumors that Chinese “were killing the white men . . . in Negro Alley,” thus they rushed to punish such impertinence and insubordination.33

Aftermath and Consequences

The 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre was not the first, nor would it be the last act of mass violence targeting Chinese immigrants in 19th-century America, but at that moment it was the most horrific and noticeable. Los Angeles itself was an old Spanish, Mexican, and Californio city, but it was young as an American municipality. Prior to the massacre, few in the eastern United States knew much about Los Angeles. After the massacre, newspapers in Chicago and New York could not help but harp on the ironic name of that faraway place where angels acted like devils.

The massacre was horrible enough for the Chinese in Los Angeles, and its disposition in the California courts evinced only cruel dismissiveness. A court decision convicted eight rioters, but they eventually had the last laugh. On May 21, 1873, the California Supreme Court reversed their convictions on the grounds that the original indictments were “fatally defective” because they failed to allege a crime. The state Supreme Court declared this in a two-paragraph opinion that the law-trained writer Scott Zesch noted “cited no statutes or judicial precedent.”34

In the years after the massacre, members of the Los Angeles Chinese community did what they could to seek redress and bear witness. They largely remained in the city (a mind-boggling decision in many respects) and contributed to the economic development of southern California by helping construct the rail infrastructure that would link Los Angeles to the rest of the state. They also bore witness to what happened on October 24, 1871, to the best they could. One of the Chinese residents brought a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles seeking damages against city officials for not having done more to prevent the death and destruction inflicted by the massacre. He lost.35 A number of Chinese residents commemorated the massacre through annual observances performed in the city.

Unfortunately, the massacre was a harbinger of worse to come for Chinese in Los Angeles and throughout the United States. Violence increased rather than ended and anti-Chinese hostility took illegal, extra-legal, and legal forms, the last became national policy when Congress enacted the restrictive immigration regime known as the Chinese Exclusion system. Starting as a set of Congressional statutes, it grew to include judicial opinions and U.S. Immigration Service administrative actions that worked together to inhibit and reduce Chinese immigration to the United States. Foreshadowed in 1875, enacted in 1882, reauthorized in 1892 and 1902, and finally established without need for renewal in 1904, the Chinese Exclusion system provided the template for immigration restrictions that targeted other communities of Asian migrants to the United States.

As Congress enacted and renewed the Chinese Exclusion system violence—shootings, forced exclusions, arson, mob action—against Chinese living in America increased. The 1880s witnessed ninety-one instances of anti-Chinese violence, the years 1885 and 1886 forming a midpoint apex with thirty and forty-three events apiece. Even Milwaukee, Wisconsin, heard the rallying cry of “The Chinese Must Go” when in 1889 it became the site of a citywide anti-Chinese urban disturbance, an example of how anti Chinese sentiment could travel east of the Mississippi River.36


The night of horror in Los Angeles left few physical traces in the city’s built environment. Today, a street that witnessed one of the murderous hunts fronts a housing complex catering to elderly Asians, most of whom lived in Chinatown for decades. Only recently has the city memorialized the massacre with a street placard that describes what happened, sketching the horror in a few words.

The victims of 1871, usually described as “the eighteen killed” are often as summarily noted as the official placard; their names and fates are rarely mentioned, but a brief roll call testifies to the violence they faced and the turbulent years that produced it. The two women, Cha Cha and Fan Cho were shot, but we do not know their fates and they are usually not counted amongst the killed. Chee Long Ton, reputed to be a doctor and called by white Los Angelenos “Gene” Tong, was shot through the head, then hanged. Wa Sin Quai, “resident of Negro Alley,” was shot in the abdomen and legs. Chang Wan, resident at Doctor Tong’s house, was hanged, as was Long Quai. Joung Burrow was shot though the head and left wrist. Another with no name, but later thought to be the cigar manufacturer Won Yu Tuk, was hanged. Wong Chin was hanged, three cartridges were later found in his pocket. Tong Wan was shot, stabbed, and hanged. Ah Loo, Wan Foo, Day Kee, Ah Was, Ah Wen, Lo Hey, and Wing Chee all were hanged. Ah Cut, a liquor manufacturer, was shot in the abdomen and extremities. Fun Yu was shot in the head and died three days later. An unidentified Chinese male, probably Wong Tuck, was hanged and found in a cemetery.37

The Chinese caught in the October 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre, like the African Americans murdered throughout the post–Civil War South, witnessed to the breadth of violence that forestalled changes in America’s social and political order. That the Chinese were as much a part of the turmoil of revolution and counter revolution of the 1870s was not lost on men and women of the time. As a congressman put it when debating the first of the Chinese Exclusion laws, the act would be “the first break in the levee. I would deem the new country we will have after this bill becomes law as changed from the old country we have to-day as our country would have been changed if the rebellion of 1861 had succeeded.”38 Reconstruction, the era that saw far reaching civil rights legislation simultaneously “became the era of Chinese exclusion,” a development darkly realized on an October night in 1871 on a street called Calle de Los Negros in the heart of the City of the Angels.39

Discussion of the Literature


At one time considered the “dark and bloody ground” of American historical writing, the historiography of Reconstruction is as eventful as Reconstruction itself, taking dramatic turns, each of which had far-reaching consequences for grappling with the American past. Put very simply, the contested ground of Reconstruction historiography can be mapped broadly with these landmarks. Beginning in the first years of the 20th century, graduate students under the tutelage of William Dunning at Columbia University produced dissertations, master’s theses, and monographs that composed the interpretation known as “the Dunning School,” a body of work about Reconstruction that interpreted postwar efforts to change the South as generally misguided, even “execrable” and “diabolical,” because Reconstruction would empower former slaves. The adherents of this school built their interpretations on the cornerstone of their racial assumptions, which according to Eric Foner, stressed “negro incapacity.” For the “Dunning School,” efforts such as that pursued by Congressional Republicans under the aegis of “Radical Republicanism” not only were foolish but were doomed to fail and led to “the degradation of the South.” In the 1930s, the countercurrent to the “Dunning School” was powerfully articulated by the African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America, a study that not only resisted the racial assumptions of the Dunning School but argued for the agency of freedmen and white sympathizers to build a new social order that was both racially equal and equalitarian for working peoples. Running through Reconstruction historiography in the 1930s onward was the theme of how the postwar years witnessed yet another stage in the struggle over how capitalism was to take shape and to what extent the “Second American Revolution” of capitalism vs. agrarianism could have taken different directions. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, historians chipped away at the Dunning School and produced new studies of the efforts to remake the South by Radical Republicans and freedmen and how new freedom produced new forms of agency by African Americans. Culminating developments in the 1930s–1970s, Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University published a synthesis of the new Reconstruction historiography in 1988. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 18631877 sought to tell the postbellum years in as sweeping and coherent a manner as the Dunning School but with an eye to replacing the center of the story. Instead of the “degraded South” and a cast of white protagonists, Foner placed African American agency at the center of his narrative, emphasizing how “blacks were active agents in the making of Reconstruction.” That in place, Foner synthesized the many dimensions of Reconstruction that historians in the 1960s and 1970s showed: the political, the social, the local, the experiential, the gendered, and the cultural. Expansion of themes and consideration of different sites also marked Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, the latter taking form as “The Reconstruction of the North” and “The Politics of Depression,” the depression being the economic crisis of the 1870s. Since 1988 and Foner’s achievement, the movement by a number of recent historians of Reconstruction has been toward new broader frameworks and even more sites of study, the West being very prominent. It is within this general terrain of scholarship that recent work on the anti-Chinese massacre of 1871 should be located.40

The history of the Chinese in postbellum America and the anti-Chinese massacre in 1871 are intimately linked with Reconstruction. Recognizing these connections owes much to the developments in Reconstruction historiography that have been forming since at least the 1980s. Within the general flow of scholarship that challenged the frankly racist outlook that dominated historical writing about slavery and the Civil War in the years prior to the end of the Second World War, a growing number of contemporary scholars have expanded the geographical scope of Reconstruction studies by balancing the traditional focus on Southern sites with studies of change in the North. A way to enhance this expanded perspective is to triangulate both the North and the South with a focus on the West during the postbellum years. One of those historians, Stacey L. Smith, has made the most recent arguments for moving beyond the traditional North-and-South view of Reconstruction. She wrote, “Reimagined as integral rather than peripheral to the story of American slavery and American freedom, the Far West becomes a starting point for rethinking this most turbulent era in U.S. history.”41

Beginning in 1981 with Eugene Berwanger’s pioneering study, The West and Reconstruction, a growing contingent of historians has examined the trans-Mississippi West and the Pacific Coast as places where Reconstruction mattered. Berwanger himself noted that mere lack of interest (and study) created the stunted impression that “postwar western politics operated in a vacuum,” cut off from Washington, D.C. and events that happened north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. This was an oversight that stemmed from the limited conception of Reconstruction that many traditional historians had, often believing that “Reconstruction . . . applied strictly to the South [and ] the West therefore could not have felt [its ] impact.”42 Such a view relied on too narrow a view of Reconstruction, and Berwanger applied a broadened sense of the unfinished revolution after the Civil War, thus seeing how that famous chapter did have its echoes in Western debates about the changing structure of postbellum government and the changes in American race relations.

In 2006, Heather Cox Richardson, speaking from an interest in race and policy during the postbellum period, announced a new trend in Reconstruction historiography, one that could corral sites of study in the West and herd them alongside re-examinations of events in the North and the South. She wrote that America’s half-finished revolution was not only a making (and remaking) of America without slavery, it was a public reimagining of a new nation, a process whereby the debates in the public sphere quarreled over “what America would stand for and who would be a welcome participant in that nation.”43 Such an all-consuming project encompassed all regions of the nation and its effect could be particularly vexing in the West, “the most racially mixed area of the nation.”44 Going so far as to suggest that Reconstruction can be fruitfully renamed as the “Era of Citizenship,” when “Americans defined who would be citizens and what citizenship meant,” her conceptualization not only ties the West with the North and South, it also makes room for thinking harder about the Chinese in the United States during this formative period.

The Anti-Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles

Of the two topics considered, “the anti-Chinese massacre in Los Angeles” and “Reconstruction,” the former has not received the scholarly attention bestowed on the latter, but developments since the 1970s have revived interest in the Los Angeles incident of 1871 and made it the inspiration for both new historical writing and cultural revisiting, the latter taking the form of journalism, websites, and a stage play that opened in 2011.

One can point to two broad developments that made the killings suddenly arresting: the growth in Asian American studies and the emergence of the “Los Angeles School” of urban cultural studies. Asian American studies has matured quickly since its early appearance on a few university campuses in the 1970s. In the subsequent four decades, historians working on Asian American topics have broadened approaches to the study of Asians in the United States to include transnationalism, borderlands dynamics, the study of empire, and racial governmentality as well as deepened work in the gendered dimensions of Asian American communities. In addition, the field has expanded the meaning of Asian America beyond the study of Chinese and Japanese in the United States to include the many ethnicities and identities that can be categorized under Southeast Asian and South Asian classifications. By doing so, by the 2010s Asian American studies had positioned itself to study the ever-proliferating diversity and multiplicity of Asian-derived communities. One signifier of this dimension was captured by the U.S. census in 2010, when it counted nineteen different Asian-derived self-classifications just in the U.S. Midwest.

Asian American studies has alerted a range of both scholarly and popular writers to incidents such as the anti-Chinese massacre because this violence can be transformed into an interpretive “window” into the dynamics of racial conflict, specifically as it involved a category such as “Asian American,” which falls astride (and outside) the usual way “race” is talked about in America, that way being an exclusive focus on black and white relations.

The other major influence that made the Los Angeles massacre a lens is the formation and maturation of “the Los Angeles School” of urban cultural studies. First garnering widespread attention in the 1990s, the focus on Los Angeles and its contradictions has produced a far-ranging amount of work in a short spurt of twenty years. Historicizing has always been an imperative for practitioners across Los Angeles studies, because history in their hands is the active means to discover the contingencies whereby an unlikely metropolis came to be and continues to exert its influence. For historians, who take much pleasure in announcing history in a city that was notorious for denying or bulldozing its history, an event such as the anti-Chinese massacre motivates inquiry into race and the uneasy multiculturalism of a region that underwent American conquest in the 19th century. When seen in this light, the massacre of 1871 becomes more than a woeful and embarrassing blot on civic pride and a spur to recuperative boosterism. It was the social flashpoint that anticipated so many racialized social flashpoints and outbreaks that reflected deeper running conundrums that have characterized the “City of Angels” from the 1870s to the present.

Primary Sources

Primary sources for further study of the Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre can be found in published and unpublished form: the former were the newspapers in Los Angeles (as well as the newspapers familiar to scholars outside of Los Angeles such as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times). The Los Angeles newspapers from 1871 to consult are the Los Angeles Star and the Los Angeles News. From October 26 through October 29, both newspapers published the eyewitness testimonies that were taken at the coroner’s inquest. Scott Zesch skillfully wove a narrative drawn from seventy-nine of these eyewitness testimonies. Other papers to consult include the Alta California, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Diego Bulletin.

Official unpublished archival material can be found in the Los Angeles Area Court Records housed at Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Key cases to examine there include Wing Chung Co. vs. Los Angeles City, Case Number 1941, June 22, 1872, 17th Judicial District Court, Civil Cases; and People vs. Richard Kerren, Case Number 1101, January 5, 1872, Los Angeles County Court, Criminal Cases.

Papers of individuals who tried to account for the massacre can be found in archival depositories in the Los Angeles Area. An example is Joseph Mesmer, “Massacre of Chinamen in 1871” and “Massacre of Chinese” in the Joseph Mesmer Papers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Primary sources on Reconstruction-Era violence that are accessible through published or digital versions depending on a library’s holdings include the testimonies taken at Congressional hearings on Southern violence.

  • 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, House Report 22: Testimony Taken by the Joint Committee to Enquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States (Ku Klux Klan Hearings).

  • 43rd Congress, 2nd Session, House Report 261: Condition of Affairs in the South (Louisiana).

  • 43rd Congress, 2nd Session, House Report 262: Affairs in Alabama.

  • 43rd Congress, 2nd Session, House Report 265: Vicksburg Troubles.

  • 44th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Report 527: Mississippi in 1875.

Further Reading

On the 1871 Massacre

Zesch, Scott. The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

    On Los Angeles

    Deverell, William, and Greg Hise, eds. A Companion to Los Angeles. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.Find this resource:

      Faragher, John Mack. Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.Find this resource:

        Torres-Rouff, David Samuel. Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781–1894. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

          On Reconstruction

          Brown, Thomas J., ed. Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

            Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.Find this resource:

              Jung, Moon-Ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                Smith, Stacey L. Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.Find this resource:


                  (1.) Stephen A. West, “‘A General Remodeling of Every Thing’: Economy and Race in the Post-Emancipation South,” in Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States, ed. Thomas J. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 10.

                  (2.) Dan Caldwell, “The Negroization of the Chinese Stereotype in California,” Southern California Quarterly 53 (1971): 123–131.

                  (3.) Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997). Smith referred to immigration as the “legal scaffolding” for the new restrictive Americanism that emerged after Reconstruction. “Only the subsequent and interlinked construction of Jim Crow laws approached immigration in importance” (357).

                  (4.) Thomas Nast’s Cartoons of Chinese Americans: Chinese Cartoons—Timeline. Illustrating Chinese Exclusion 2014. © Michele Walfred. An image of “The New Comet” can be found in Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 112.

                  (5.) Jung, Coolies and Cane, 98.

                  (6.) Jung, Coolies and Cane, 98.

                  (7.) Jung, Coolies and Cane, 79.

                  (8.) Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 18631877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 419–420.

                  (9.) Jung, Coolies and Cane, 97.

                  (10.) Jung, Coolies and Cane, 89.

                  (11.) Najia Aarim-Heriot, Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 184882 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 141.

                  (12.) Charles J. McClain, In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 39.

                  (13.) McClain, In Search of Equality, 40.

                  (14.) McClain, In Search of Equality, 345, n.6.

                  (15.) Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 205.

                  (16.) Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 175.

                  (17.) Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 175.

                  (18.) People vs. Hall, 4 Cal. 399; 1854 Cal. LEXIS 137.

                  The California Supreme Court expanded the available categories proscribed from testifying in cases involving whites in the statutes. The wording of those statutes as set forth in People vs. Hall was as follows: “The 394th section of the Act Concerning Civil Cases, provides that no Indian or Negro shall be allowed to testify as a witness in any action or proceeding in which a White person is a party” and “The 14th section of the Act of April 16th, 1850, regulating Criminal Proceedings, provides that ‘No Black or Mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.’” People vs. Hall, 4 Cal. 399.

                  (19.) People vs. Hall, 4 Cal. 405.

                  (20.) Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 175.

                  (21.) People vs. Brady, 40 Cal. 198.

                  (22.) Foner, Reconstruction, 425.

                  (23.) Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), xliv. See Foner, Reconstruction, for the Colfax massacre as “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era” (437).

                  (24.) Trelease, White Terror, xliv.

                  (25.) Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 16. Los Angeles figures are from Raymond Lou, The Chinese American Community of Los Angeles, 1870–1900: A Case of Resistance, Organization, and Participation (PhD Diss., University of California, Irvine, 1982), 32.

                  (26.) William R. Locklear, “The Celestials and the Angels: A Study of the Anti-Chinese Movement in Los Angeles to 1882,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 42 (1960): 241.

                  (27.) Lou, “Chinese American Community,” 23–24. Scott Zesch, “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870–1871: The Makings of a Massacre,” Southern California Quarterly 90 (Summer 2008): 117–118.

                  (28.) The most recent book-length study of the massacre is Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

                  (29.) This draws on the account of how matters both descended into mob violence and escalated into mass killing in Victor Jew, “The Anti-Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles and Its Strange Career,” in A Companion to Los Angeles, ed. William Deverell and Greg Hise (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 115–118. The account has been modified or updated at appropriate points.

                  (30.) Jew, “Anti-Chinese Massacre,” 116.

                  (31.) See Zesch, Chinatown War, 133, for the names of Cha Cha and Fan Cho and their fate on October 24, 1871.

                  (32.) Jew, “Anti-Chinese Massacre,” 117.

                  (33.) Jew, “Anti-Chinese Massacre,” 117. See Zesch, Chinatown War, 132, for the quotation “killing the white men by wholesale.”

                  (34.) Zesch, Chinatown War, 207.

                  (35.) Zesch, Chinatown War, 205–206, 210.

                  (36.) Victor Jew, “The Violent Articulation of Chinese Otherness and Interracial Sexuality in the U.S. Midwest, 1885–1889,” Journal of Social History 37 (2003): 390. An overview of much of this violence can be found in Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans (New York: Random House, 2007).

                  (37.) Jew, “Anti-Chinese Massacre,” 122–123.

                  (38.) Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 2.

                  (39.) Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 230.

                  (40.) This fast overview of developments in Reconstruction historiography draws upon Foner, Reconstruction, xix–xxvii.

                  (41.) Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 234.

                  (42.) Eugene H. Berwanger, The West and Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 7, 10.

                  (43.) Heather Cox Richardson, “North and West of Reconstruction: Studies in Political Economy,” in Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States, ed. Thomas J. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 84–90.

                  (44.) Richardson, “North and West,” 85.