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Excavating Asian America in the Sacramento Delta

Summary and Keywords

The Sacramento Delta is an agricultural region in northern California with deep historic significance for Asian Americans. Asian American laborers were instrumental to the development of Sacramento Delta, transforming the swampy peat bog into one of the richest agricultural areas in California. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers constructed levees, dikes, and ditches along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers before breaking the fertile soil to grow fruit and vegetables including pears and asparagus. Asian Americans continued a permanent and transient presence in the Sacramento Delta on farms as migrant farm laborers, permanent farmworkers, and overseers, and in the small delta towns such as Isleton that emerged as merchants, restaurant operators, boardinghouse operators, and other business owners catering to the local community.

Keywords: Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, historical archaeology, Sacramento Delta, Isleton, agriculture, Asian Americans, oral history

History of the Sacramento Delta

The Sacramento Delta is located northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area in northern California, roughly forming a triangular area between Sacramento, Stockton, and Oakland. The delta itself is the region between the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries, which form small islands containing agriculturally rich soil. While the delta became world renowned for its agriculture, this region was a tule-filled peat swamp and floodplain until its transformation via reclamation projects in the mid-19th century.

It is important to acknowledge that the delta was home to indigenous communities including the Miwok and Maidu before the arrival of European and American migrants. According to accounts of early explorers, indigenous communities built villages on natural levees and lived off the delta land, foraging for fish, local game, acorns, plants, and tule roots and pollen. Indigenous populations, however, declined as Europeans and Americans flooded the region, bringing disease, dispossession, and genocide with them.1

After the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada in the 1840s, many people seeking their luck in the goldfields traveled through the Sacramento Delta en route to Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada foothills. People quickly realized that it was more efficient to travel by boat on the Sacramento River than on land by horse. Increased traffic along the Sacramento River drew attention to the delta, and people began to recognize the agricultural potential of the region because of its rich alluvial soil from seasonal flooding. Reaching this potential, however, required a lot of money, time, and labor. The untouched delta was a flooded, mosquito-infested, swampy tule peat bog that required extensive, expensive reclamation projects to build levees, drain the bog, and transform the region into farmable land.2

Reclamation projects began in 1850s after Congress passed the Federal Swamp and Overflow Act. The number of reclamation projects was small until the 1860s, peaking in the mid-1870s. The rise and peak of reclamation projects in the 1860s and 1870s is not accidental. Since reclamation required large numbers of laborers willing to do hard work at low pay, it is significant to note that the rise of reclamation projects coincides with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 and the consequent influx of Chinese American laborers into the labor market seeking new employment. The success of railroad barons in employing and exploiting Chinese American laborers proved to white landowners that Chinese American laborers were the solution to locating a large, cheap labor force for reclamation projects, particularly as white labor continued to refuse these jobs and indigenous labor sources were dwindling. In fact, in 1852, white landowners desperate for cheap Chinese American labor went as far as to persuade the California state legislature to introduce a bill to import Chinese workers for reclamation projects. While the bill failed to pass the Senate and Governor John Bigler openly opposed the legislation, it is clear that Chinese American laborers were seen as the ideal solution to meet demands for cheap labor by the mid-19th century.3

Reclamation was difficult, dangerous work. Laborers began by clearing shrubs and trees, and then drained the bog by building dams, drainage ditches, and floodgates. After draining the area, laborers built levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers by cutting the newly exposed peat into blocks and stacking them on top of natural levees. Levee building was slow, difficult, and back-breaking work. Laborers could not use heavy machinery or horses to move the peat blocks because they were heavy and would sink into the peat terrain. Instead, laborers used shovels and wheelbarrows to move peat and clay blocks for the levees, usually working in waist-deep bog while battling swarms of mosquitos. Finished levees usually ranged from ten to fifteen feet wide and three to five feet high, all made of peat blocks. While subsequent floods have washed away most of these original levees, they form the foundation of many contemporary levees and levee roads. In addition to being low-paid, difficult work, building levees was also exceedingly dangerous. Chinese American laborers succumbed to malaria and overwork, were crushed by escaping wheelbarrows laden with peat, and drowned after being swept away by strong river currents. Given the difficult and dangerous nature of reclamation, it is no surprise that white laborers refused these jobs. Reclamation, however, was a necessary step toward establishing agriculture in the delta.4

In addition to transforming the physical landscape, reclamation contributed to the growth of large-scale commercial agriculture by allowing a few wealthy individuals to acquire very large tracts of land at very low cost. After the United States annexed the west from Mexico in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and California became a state in 1850, all land that was not part of a Spanish-Mexican land grant became public domain. The federal government granted millions of public-domain acres to the state of California, including the swampy floodplains in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. By the mid-1850s, California made land in the delta available for purchase by private individuals at a low price. To entice buyers, the state offered subsidies for landowners who purchased land and invested money in reclamation. This offer meant huge profits for individuals and companies that could afford to purchase the land and invest in reclamation. Property values for land that originally cost $1 to $3 an acre before reclamation exponentially increased after reclamation to $20 to $100 per acre.5 The California legislature further augmented this profit in 1872 by allowing landowners to be credited for their reclamation expenses if they spent less than $2 per acre. In conjunction with the state legislature abolishing acreage purchase limitations in 1868, these policies allowed wealthy individuals to purchase substantial tracts of land at very low cost with the potential to make a very large profit from either land sales or agriculture. Most landowners opted to lease their newly reclaimed land instead of sell, which meant that a handful of rich, white landowners or development corporations owned the majority of the Sacramento Delta. In fact, by 1940, the top 5 percent of large landowners in the delta owned 33 percent of the total region acreage.6 Many of these landowners were investors who did not even know how to farm, but instead had speculated on increased land values after reclamation, making a fortune off of the lives and labor of Chinese Americans.7

After building the levees, Chinese American laborers made the former swampland farmable. The first step was removing the remaining tule reeds, which was tedious work to remove by hand. The fastest and cheapest method was to burn the tule. Fire, however, was also the most dangerous method because tule peat is flammable, and fires often grew out of control. Some of these fires burned until seasonal winter rains naturally extinguished them. After clearing the tule, Chinese Americans broke the soil by hand, removing tule roots in the process. The tule roots and soft peat made it impossible to use a traditional horse-drawn plow. Chinese Americans eventually developed technology for this work including “tule cutters,” “tule knives,” “tule busters,” and a special horseshoe that prevented horses from sinking into the peat.8 This labor-intensive task, however, took at least three passes across the field before it was ready to be sowed. After breaking the peat, Chinese American laborers began cultivating the earth, beginning the era of large-scale commercial agriculture in the delta.9

After planting crops or orchards, Chinese Americans continued to be integral to the agricultural economy in the delta. A small number of Chinese American laborers worked on the farms year round, tending the crops and pruning the orchards. Seasonally when the produce was mature, farm owners required large numbers of laborers to harvest and pack or can the produce for the market in California and, after the development of better produce-transportation technology via railroads, across the country. Since these farmers were commercial growers rather than subsistence farmers, farms generally grew a single type of crop, which all matured at the same time. Consequently, agribusiness in the Sacramento Delta created a high demand for laborers during harvest. This demand and expansion of commercial agriculture led to the development of a mobile migrant labor force that traveled along the West Coast, following crop harvest seasons and subsequent demands for labor—a system that still exists today. Chinese American labor made up the first wave of migrant farm laborers, eventually joined by other ethnic and racial groups.10

This agribusiness system ultimately created a racial hierarchy that became a permanent part of socioeconomic stratification in the delta. Wealthy white landowners employed ethnic and racial minorities to work as laborers in farms and canneries, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicans, Russians, Italians, and Portuguese from the Azores.11 Landowners believed that different ethnic or racial groups were better suited for particular tasks: Chinese Americans worked on fruit ranches and grew onions and potatoes, Portuguese American farmers raised truck vegetables, Italian American laborers raised beans and barley, and Japanese American farmers specialized in potatoes, onions, celery, asparagus, and sugar beets.12 These same groups were also excluded from racially segregated areas of towns, such as the “Whitetown” part of Isleton.13 Instead, these groups generally lived in the less desirable outskirts of town closer to the levees, in segregated worker camps on farms, or in cannery housing. In contrast, Anglo American, English, and German farmers who were not wealthy enough to be landowners often were able to rent better farmland and live in more desirable areas in town due to their white privilege.14

This racially stratified socioeconomic class system was a lived reality in the delta, reinforced structurally by the California Alien Land Law, a system that historian Nayan Shah describes as a “racial cartel” that protected property rights for white landowners.15 While most Asian American farmers in the delta did not own their own farms because white landowners found it more profitable to lease their land rather than subdivide and sell, white farmers felt threatened by success stories of Asian American farmers throughout California and the West Coast. To hinder this success, the California state legislature passed the Alien Land Law in 1913 that prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning property and limited leases to three years. While the phrase “aliens ineligible to citizenship” is race neutral, in practice, it only applied to Asian immigrants, who were the only racial group excluded from becoming naturalized citizens. Despite finding loopholes and other means of resistance, the Alien Land Law made it increasingly difficult for Asian American farmers to move up the agricultural ladder above being farm laborers, further institutionalizing racial and class stratification in the delta.16

The Growth of Isleton and Other Delta Towns

After its transformation from swampy bog to arable land, small towns formed in the delta where people settled permanently. Rural Chinatowns and Japantowns formed on the outskirts of many of these small delta towns, including Isleton, Walnut Grove, Locke, and Courtland. In the case of Walnut Grove, the Sacramento River separates the white part of town from Chinatown and Japantown. These Chinatowns and Japantowns became community centers for Asian Americans in the delta, both permanent and transient populations, with key businesses and community buildings including general stores, grocery stores, restaurants, boarding houses, temples, laundries, barbershops, gambling houses, herbalists, soda shops, and Asian language schools.

While these peripheral settlements were known as Chinatowns and Japantowns, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans were not the only ethnic and racial groups who lived in these segregated enclaves. Instead, these Chinatowns and Japantowns were multiracial and multiethnic communities for everyone excluded from the racially segregated white parts of town. Consequently, in addition to Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, these enclaves were also home to Filipino Americans, South Asian Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Portuguese Americans (particularly those from the Azores), Russian Americans, and other “not-quite-white” ethnic immigrant whites.17

Josiah Poole founded the town of Isleton in 1874 on Andrus Island in Georgiana Township. In the 1870s, Poole purchased 800 acres of land on Andrus Island with the intention of making Isleton one of the agricultural centers in the Sacramento Delta. Poole strategically planned Isleton along the east bank of the Sacramento River for easy access to transport crops and people via boat. In 1875, Poole constructed a wharf for steamboats to stop in Isleton as they traveled up and down the Sacramento River between San Francisco, Sacramento, and Marysville. Poole began his foray into agriculture in 1876 when he established the California Sugar Manufacturing Company, which grew sugar beets on 70 acres of land. This farming venture, however, was only successful for one season before a flood in 1877 destroyed Poole’s second crop of sugar beets. After this failed crop, Poole sold his land on Andrus Island to his son-in-law, Phillip Hogate Gardiner.18

Under Gardiner’s direction, Isleton began to grow. In 1874, Gardiner established a general store, the first business in Isleton. Gardiner helped establish a post office in 1879. Poole served as the first postmaster in Isleton until November 8, 1881, when Gardiner assumed the post and served as postmaster in Isleton for seventeen years.19 Gardiner also helped establish schools for the Isleton youth and used his connections to the Southern Pacific Railroad to connect Isleton and Andrus Island to the surrounding regions via railroad.20

The Isleton Chinese American community grew with the town. When Poole established Isleton, Chinese American laborers were already in the surrounding area after building levees and working on local farms. The first Chinatown in Isleton was on the southwest periphery of town along Jackson Slough Road. This Chinatown flourished in the 1880s with shops, restaurants, and businesses catering to migrant laborers traveling through the delta to work on nearby farms. This Chinatown burned to the ground, however, in December 1915, and Chinatown residents were not permitted to rebuild their homes and businesses at that location. While the area around Jackson Slough Road had been on the outskirts of town in the 1880s, by the 1910s as Isleton grew, it became a desirable location to live, particularly after City Hall was built nearby.

To entice these Chinese to move from Jackson Slough Road, John Gardiner, Philip Gardiner’s son, offered to rent land on the east side of Isleton to rebuild Chinatown. The new Chinatown, along Main Street between 1st Street and 2nd Street (currently F Street and E Street, respectively), was once again in the town periphery between central Isleton and the canneries. Moreover, this part of Isleton was right next to a levee on the Sacramento River, making it a less desirable location than the previous Chinatown location on Jackson Slough Road.21

Japanese Americans also moved to the new Main Street Chinatown. Before the fire destroyed the Jackson Slough Road Chinatown in 1915, Japanese Americans homes and businesses were interspersed with those of Chinese Americans. After the move to Main Street, however, Japanese Americans intentionally separated themselves from Chinese Americans. Japanese Americans believed they suffered fire losses because they had lived in Chinatown and Chinatowns were notorious for burning down. The Isleton Japanese American community consequently established Japantown on Main Street, separated from Chinatown by 2nd Street. Japanese American reopened their restaurants, bathhouses, Buddhist temple, Japanese language school, and general stores, catering to the Japanese Americans in Isleton and on the surrounding farms.

The Main Street Chinatown and Japantown, however, also burned on May 31, 1926. The fire started near the segregated Oriental school at the west end of Chinatown and traveled east, ravaging Chinatown and Japantown on Main Street. The Sacramento Bee reported that the fire ravaged the “Oriental colony,” destroying 110 Chinese American and Japanese American homes and businesses causing an estimated $500,000 to $750,000 in damage and leaving 1,500 “Orientals” homeless.22 The fire spread quickly because nearly all the structures were wooden, built directly adjacent to each other. Firefighters also concentrated on saving the Isleton Cannery at the east end of Main Street rather than Chinatown and Japantown. The Sacramento Bee reported that the fire started after a stove explosion. No one knows for sure, however, and residents have speculated whether the fire was arson aimed at the Isleton Asian American communities, particularly since this commonly happened to Chinatowns throughout the West Coast.23 Regardless of how the fire started, the results were devastating; historic photographs after the fire show that the fire razed to the ground everything in its path.

The Chinatown and Japantown communities rebuilt their homes and businesses at the same location on Main Street after the 1926 fire. Many people left space between structures and tried to use alternative construction materials to try to fireproof their buildings, such as brick or using thin pieces of tin to cover a wooden structure. By 1928, Chinatown and Japantown were once again bustling communities, although some structures were never rebuilt. A comparison between the 1925 and 1928 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, for example, illustrates this lack of reconstruction on certain lots.24 However, the 1928 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map also provides evidence that Chinatown and Japantown residents did rebuild many businesses, including grocery stores, gambling halls, barber shops, restaurants, an herbal shop, pool halls, laundries, hotels, and a Japanese movie hall.25

In addition to businesses along Main Street, Isleton was home to a number of canneries that canned delta-grown produce and employed many residents of Chinatown and Japantown, both Asian American and European American. Isleton was home to the Bayside Cannery, Libby McNeil Cannery, California Co-operative Cannery, National Cannery, and a Heinz Pickle Factory. These canneries primarily canned pears and white asparagus, particularly during the 1900s and 1910s, when Isleton was known as the asparagus capital of the world.26 It is also important to recognize that National Cannery was Chinese American—owned and—operated and employed workers of all ethnicities. Many canneries provided housing for workers in small dwellings adjacent to the cannery. Much like seasonal labor demands for crops, cannery work was also seasonal with huge demands for labor immediately after harvest season. During this time, canneries often operated twenty-four hours a day. Cannery activity in Isleton began declining by the 1920s, particularly in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Sun Garden, the last operating cannery in Isleton, closed in 1966.27

It is important to recognize that property ownership in Isleton and the Sacramento Delta was a complex issue for Asian Americans for two reasons. First, as discussed above, a small number of people owned very large tracts of land in the delta and found it to be a better investment to rent rather than sell their land. Some of these white landowners also did not want to sell their land to Asian Americans, preferring to employ them as laborers, tenant farmers, or sharecroppers rather than help them rise up the “agricultural ladder” as fellow independent farm owners.28

Second, Asian American immigrants legally could not own property after the California State Legislature passed the Alien Land Law in 1913. As previously mentioned, the Alien Land Laws were state-level laws that legislatures passed throughout the United States, which declared that “aliens ineligible to citizenship” were unable to own property. Since Asian immigrants were the only group unable to become naturalized citizens, it is clear that this law specifically targeted Asian immigrants, particularly seeking to hinder the success of Asian American farmers. By the early part of the 20th century, Chinese American and Japanese American farmers in particular had made a name for themselves as incredibly successful at cultivating small parcels of land with labor-intensive crops. Japanese American farmers, for example, became renowned for growing strawberries. With a ban on property ownership and limits on leases to three years, the Alien Land Law made it increasingly difficult for Asian immigrants to be involved in agriculture as farm owners, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers in California. Instead, the law pushed Asian Americans down this “agricultural ladder” to laborer in hopes of keeping Asian Americans as the exploitable cheap migrant labor source and maintaining a system of socioeconomic and racial stratification.29

These two factors directly impacted Asian Americans in Isleton. Many Chinese Americans in Isleton were exempt from the Alien Land Law, either because their families had come to the United States in the mid-19th century and they were American-born citizens or because they entered as paper sons or daughters. Paper sons and daughters were immigrants who purchased papers claiming them to be the son or daughter of an American citizen. As the children of United States citizens, these paper sons and daughters were also US citizens through birthright citizenship, allowing them to enter into the United States despite the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law. In addition to gaining entrance to the United States, these paper sons and daughters were legally able to own property under the Alien Land Law. The Alien Land Law, however, greatly impacted the Japanese American community who, by 1913, had fewer American-born citizens exempt from the law. Combined with white landowner reluctance to subdivide and sell their property, the Alien Land Law consequently made it difficult if not impossible for Japanese Americans to be independent farm owners and operators, and challenging to be either a sharecropper or tenant farmer.30

The Alien Land Law also had consequences for Asian Americans living in delta towns. While the law targeted farmers, it also impacted Asian immigrants who were merchants and business owners. Under the Alien Land Law, Asian immigrants could not own the land underneath their homes and businesses. Consequently, a dual form of property ownership developed in these towns where Asian Americans owned the structures their homes and businesses occupied, but not the land beneath it. Moreover, these land leases were technically limited to three years. Many Asian immigrants circumvented this stipulation, however, by having leases under the name of a corporation or their American-born children, or setting up more informal agreements with a trustworthy landowner who did not mind leasing land for more than three years. Asian Americans in Isleton were fortunate; the Gardiner family, who owned most of the land in the area, did sell land to some Asian American families, but this was not always the case in Isleton or in other delta towns.31

Everyday Life in Isleton Chinatown and Japantown

As mentioned above, Isleton Chinatown and Japantown were racially and ethnically diverse, despite being labeled “Chinatown” and “Japantown” (see Tables 1 and 2).32 According to the 1930 U.S. Census manuscript forms, the east part of Isleton was home to Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Portuguese Americans from the Azores, Russian Americans, and Italian Americans. Some of these groups lived in Chinatown and Japantown area while others lived just farther east in housing for cannery workers. These ethnic and racial groups lived in Chinatown and Japantown because they were excluded from the racially segregated part of Isleton known by residents as “White Town,” where whites of English and German descent lived.33

Table 1. Population by Race and Nativity, 1890–1950

Sacramento County
















African American




























Georgiana Township











African American


















African American








Source: Data come from the U.S. Census Bureau for Sacramento county, Georgiana township, and Isleton, California, between 1890 and 1950. The U.S. Census did not record data for Georgiana Township and Isleton between 1890 and 1920 because the population was not large enough. Asian ethnic groups for Georgiana Township and Isleton are included in the “Other” category.

Table 2. Isleton Population by Race, 1920–1940

















South Asian























Source: Data come from the U.S. Census Bureau for Isleton, California, between 1920 and 1940. Race statistics come from what census takers noted on the manuscript census forms.

The Isleton Chinese American community was primarily a mix of immigrants from Sze Yup and Heungshan and their American-born children, though there were also families in town whose roots in the United States date to the mid-19th century. Many Sze Yup families owned businesses in Isleton and had been in the United States for at least a generation. The Heungshan community arrived later than the Sze Yup community and was comprised primarily of immigrants and their American-born children. While many of these Heungshan families worked on farms, a number of Heungshan took over some of the businesses in Isleton by the 1920s. It is important to recognize the dialect groups represented in Isleton because these dialect and kinship networks were instrumental in how Chinese immigrants found jobs and, consequently, how these dialect groups ended up in the Sacramento Delta. This connection is particularly important for Heungshan Chinese Americans because while there was a large Heungshan population in the Sacramento Delta, they were a minority dialect group in the broader Chinese American community that was dominated by people from Sze Yup and Sam Yup.34 The large concentration of Heungshan Chinese Americans in the delta emphasizes the heterogeneity of the Chinese American population, the uniqueness of the Sacramento Delta, and the importance of kinship networks to the migration experience.

Japanese Americans were also a large part of the Isleton labor force, composing 31.7 percent of the agricultural labor force in the Sacramento Delta in 1910.35 Japanese American businesses grew and thrived in Isleton and other delta towns catering to this agricultural community. Isleton Japantown was home to a range of businesses, including restaurants, boarding houses, fish markets, a tofu store, pool halls, general stores, grocery stores, and an ofuro, or a Japanese bathhouse. The Japanese American community in Isleton also built a Buddhist temple and Japanese language school on F Street, one block away from Main Street. Community institutions such as the Buddhist temple, Japanese language school, and ofuro indicate that the Isleton Japanese American community was large and stable enough to require these facilities. This thriving community, however, disappeared with the forced incarceration of all people of Japanese descent in 1942 after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Very few Japanese Americans returned to Isleton after the war. The Isleton Japanese American community was never the same.36

Many Filipino Americans in Isleton were agricultural workers with roots in Hawaii, convinced by labor recruiters to work on sugar plantations. These Filipino American workers eventually decided leave the hard work of the plantations and try their luck in California, partaking in a secondary migration to the mainland of the United States.37 While there were a number of Filipino Americans in Isleton before World War II working as migrant farmworkers, their numbers in town increased during the war because the internment of Japanese Americans left vacancies for laborers in the field and business operators in town. After 1942, many Filipino Americans took over the stores, residences, and other businesses that Japanese Americans were forced to leave behind. This also included the Buddhist temple, which was home to a Filipino dance hall in the 1940s before becoming a non-denominational African American church.38

Despite living in close proximity to one another in racially segregated Chinatown and Japantown, according to oral-history accounts, the Chinese American and Japanese American communities largely led separate lives, particularly the adults. Given historic enmity, Japanese perceptions of Chinese weakness compared to Japan’s growing world power, and by the 1930s Japan’s invasion of China, it is not a surprise that adults who were paying attention to events in Asia were wary of their neighbors. This ethnic division went as far as each group running its own businesses, restaurants, and even firefighting squads, even if they replicated each other.

Asian American children in town, however, had a very different experience than their parents did. In addition to being American born and less likely oriented toward events across the Pacific, all Asian American children had forced daily interaction while attending their segregated Oriental school. The growing Asian American children population did not go unnoticed by the white elite of Isleton. Even before the California legislature allowed for segregated schools to exist in 1921, delta towns had already established racially segregated “Oriental” schools for Asian American children, including Courtland, Florin, and Walnut Grove, reemphasizing the size, significance, and conscious racial stratification of Asian American communities in the delta. Isleton established an Oriental school in 1910, which was located on the west end of Main Street adjacent to the white school and closer to the “White Town” area of Isleton. The Isleton Oriental school remained in operation until 1942, when forced incarceration of all people of Japanese descent made it economically unfeasible to run a separate school for the handful of Chinese American and Filipino American children in town.39 Despite being created out of xenophobic and institutional racism, Oriental schools created forced encounters in everyday interactions as children created friendships within school walls, although, according to personal anecdotes with children who grew up in the delta, these relationships seldom went beyond school.40

One structure in Chinatown is particularly important to acknowledge: the Bing Kong Tong building, which still stands today. Located at 29 Main Street, the Bing Kong Tong was built after the 1926 fire and became a significant community location, serving as Bing Kong Tong headquarters, Chinese language school for the local American-born children, community meeting location, and recreational activity hub. The Toy family, a prominent Sze Yup merchant family in Isleton, helped the Bing Kong Tong purchase the building for an Isleton chapter.41 The Bing Kong Tong was an important community institution that helped meet Chinese American community needs, such as resolving disputes, mutual aid assistance, and helping provide services.

Excavating Asian America in the Sacramento DeltaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Bing Kong Tong building, before retrofitting.

Courtesy of the Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society, 2014.

Excavating Asian America in the Sacramento DeltaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Bing Kong Tong building, after retrofitting.

Courtesy of the Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society, 2016.

The Bing Kong Tong building has two stories. The top floor included a large meeting room that faced Main Street, an alter room for religious ceremonies, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. A number of activities occurred in the meeting room, including Tong meetings, socialization, and gaming. The bottom floor was one large room that housed the Chinese language school, aimed at meeting the growing American-born Chinese children population and educating them in Chinese language and culture.42 The Chinese language schoolmaster lived behind the schoolroom. Directly adjacent to the Bing Kong Tong at 27 Main Street stood a building before the 1926 fire, which remained an empty lot after the fire. 27 Main Street became a playground for the Chinese American children, where children would play basketball, marbles, and other games.

Asian Americans in Isleton found ways to survive and thrive during Exclusion. In addition to establishing a branch of the Bing Kong Tong in Isleton, oral-history interviews recall a Chinese American “limo” service that went from Courtland to San Francisco Chinatown daily. The driver would stop by each delta Chinatown to pick up people who wanted to travel to San Francisco or orders for goods from San Francisco Chinatown before heading back to Courtland. This transportation service demonstrates that despite being in a remote, rural location, the Chinese American communities in the delta were by no means isolated from the larger Chinese American community. They regularly visited San Francisco and Sacramento, frequented the shops of kinsmen, and visited family. These networks were a means of survival in a racist, hostile environment and directly challenge discourse that describes the Chinese as isolated.

The Asian American community in the delta declined in the period immediately following World War II. Many Japanese Americans never returned to the delta upon release from internment camps, avoiding the painful memories of the destruction of their former farms and businesses. By the 1950s, many American-born Asian Americans had reached adulthood. A number of these young men who served in the military during World War II took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended college. Upon graduation, these young adults recognized that they had no future in the entrenched racial class hierarchy of the delta that relegated Asian Americans to laborer status. Instead, they opted to find blue-collar and white-collar jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento, taking their families with them. Today, very few Asian Americans live in Isleton and other delta towns. Instead, Asian American historic presence in the delta is preserved in the architecture of historic Chinatowns and Japantowns, in the memories of local historical societies, and within the heart of many multigenerational Asian American families.

Discussion of Literature

Despite the fact that the Sacramento Delta was an extremely important location for Asian Americans in the late 19th through the first half of the 20th centuries, there has not been extensive research on Asian Americans in Isleton and Asian Americans in the Sacramento Delta more broadly. From conversations with people, it becomes clear that many multigenerational Asian American families have roots in the Sacramento Delta, usually as migrant farm laborers who traveled through the delta for work at some point. A lot of historic research on pre-1965 Asian American communities, however, focuses on more populated urban areas rather than the permanent and transient communities in areas such as the delta.43 This research attempts to address this dearth of scholarship using oral histories, documentary research, and material culture from excavation to contribute to interdisciplinary social histories of Asian Americans in rural California and the West.

Scholarly attention on the Asian American community in the delta has largely been local projects focused on collecting oral histories. These oral-history projects have primarily been organized by local historical societies or interested individuals rather than formal projects linked to academic institutions. Notable oral-history monographs include Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow’s Bitter Melon: Stories from the Last Rural Chinese Town in America and Peter C. Y. Leung’s One Day, One Dollar: Lock, California, and the Chinese Farming Experience in the Sacramento Delta.44 These monographs both detail the Chinese American community in Locke; similar oral-history monographs have not been published for other delta towns, although local historical societies have collected oral histories.

Academic work on Asian Americans in the delta has largely been part of larger historic research projects on California agricultural history or Asian Americans in agriculture. Some key projects that discuss Asian Americans in the delta include Sucheng Chan’s detailed documentary research on Chinese Americans in California agriculture, Richard Steven Street’s seminal work on California farmworkers between 1769 and 1913, Ping Chiu’s research on 19th-century Chinese American labor in California, Wayne Maeda’s community-based research on the Japanese Americans in the Sacramento area, and Masakazu Iwata’s work on Japanese immigrant (or issei) involvement in agriculture.45 While discussions on the Sacramento Delta appear in these books, these studies focus on Asian Americans and agriculture more broadly. There are a few exceptions to these studies, including Dawn Mabalon’s research on the Filipino Americans in Stockton and Eiichiro Azuma’s graduate research on the Japanese American community in Walnut Grove.46

From a historical-archaeology perspective, almost no work has been conducted on Asian Americans in the delta. Other than the author’s archaeological work on the Bing Kong Tong in Isleton, the only archaeological project on Asian Americans in the delta is Julia Costello and Mary Maniery’s report on ceramics from Walnut Grove.47 The materials from this report were from trench excavations during the replacement of sewer and water pipes and constructing underground storm drains in 1984. This report, however, only discusses the ceramic assemblage, and it is unknown whether a report on the full assemblage exists, highlighting a weakness with reports created by cultural resource-management companies conducting construction mitigation work. While Costello and Maniery’s paper on ceramics was published by the Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, most reports from archaeological projects stemming from legally mandated construction work are not widely circulated and can be difficult to find. Known as “grey literature,” these reports are part of the work that archaeology firms complete after being contracted to oversee and excavate sites that will be disturbed or destroyed by some type of construction. It can be difficult discover that excavation took place or to locate the report, which are often only deposited in a few locations. Consequently, Costello and Maniery’s report becomes important as the only other published work on material culture from Asian American communities in the delta while simultaneously highlighting the dearth of archaeological attention on Asian Americans in this region.

Future research emerges from these past studies, forging an interdisciplinary historical study of everyday life in the Isleton Chinatown community. There are no other projects like this research on Isleton, which strives to use material culture, historic research, and oral histories to study everyday life under conditions of institutional racism. Additionally, as evident from the limited research on Asian Americans in the Sacramento Delta, this project helps us better understand the highly significant geographic region for early Asian American communities, which ultimately contributes to broader discussions on Asian American agricultural history and provides insight into the everyday lived experiences of Asian Americans through the materials they used and left behind.

Primary Sources

For archival resources on the Asian American and Chinese American community in the Sacramento Delta, there are a number of government records that provide insight into the Chinese American community in the Sacramento Delta. Sucheng Chan’s This Bittersweet Soil is a good starting place for the interpretation of extensive government-document archival research on Chinese Americans in agriculture, particularly regarding demographic information on Chinese Americans throughout California.48 Documents that Chan researched include county records of leases, mortgages, deeds, and other contracts and agreements, located in county recorder offices in California. For primary-source research, manuscript census records from Sacramento county from 1910 through 1940 provide insight on these Chinatown and Japantown communities in delta towns as well as the locations of worker camps for surrounding canneries and farms. Manuscript census records are the actual documents that census takers created when traveling door to door to collect census information. While the actual questions involved with each census year varies, general information collected each decade includes name, age, race, address of residence, occupation, citizenship status, birthplace, birthplace of parents, and education level. While U.S. Census information can be problematic, especially for racialized communities, the census data provide a glimpse into who was living in these rural delta towns. The census, for example, illustrates the multiracial and multiethnic nature of “Chinatowns” and “Japantowns” that were home to everyone excluded from the “Whitetown” area of Isleton. Since there is a seventy-two-year delay before these records are available for privacy issues, manuscript census records up to 1940 are available online through the National Archives website. These records can be difficult to locate because of their size, which requires county, township, and enumeration district information for easier navigation. Isleton is in Georgiana Township in Sacramento County. The enumeration district for Isleton varies by decade. Isleton’s enumeration district in 1930 is 34–20. To help locate an enumeration district for a different year or location, see a website created by Stephen P. Morse and Joel D. Weintraub that uses a known address or intersection to identify the enumeration district for censuses between 1880 and 1940.

Another helpful archival source includes Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Created for fire-insurance purposes, these maps contain detailed information about building location; type of construction material; location of outhouses, fences, sheds, and other architecture; the type of activity in the building (shop, residence); and, for racialized communities that were deemed potential fire hazards, specific notations about the dwellings and businesses of certain racial groups. Chinese laundries, Chinatowns, and Japantowns were seen as potential fire hazards, as targets of arson or the related occupational hazard of laundries. Consequently, mapmakers specifically noted when Asian Americans occupied businesses or dwellings. Likewise, these mapmakers often noted the locations of gambling halls and boarding houses. While these specific notations were created under racist discourse about Asian Americans, these additional notations help provide a geographic record for historical and archaeological research. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps can be located digitally through ProQuest through some university and local libraries, searchable by county and town. Physical copies of the maps are available at certain research and public libraries.

Some photographs of Isleton and the Sacramento Delta are available through the California Digital Library archives, published in photograph collections such as Bitter Melon and the Arcadia Images of America series books Isleton, Locke and the Sacramento Delta Chinatowns, The Chinese Community of Stockton, and Towns of the Sacramento River Delta.49

Oral-history interviews are another rich primary source for historical study. Students can either conduct new interviews after identifying subjects, or consult transcripts from previous interviews. Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow’s Bitter Melon includes profiles of individuals from Locke.50 Peter C. Y. Leung’s One Day, One Dollar also contains first person anecdotes about living in Locke and the Sacramento Delta.51 There are also oral-history anecdotes that have not been formally published but rather informally collected by interested individuals and descendant groups, usually published as a memory book in conjunction with a delta reunion. There is a memory book created in 1999 for the “End of the Century Delta Reunion,” for example, that contains many personal photographs and first-person memories of growing up in the delta.52 Similarly, the Locke Foundation (2015) published Remembering 100 Years 1915–2015 to commemorate Locke’s hundredth anniversary.53 This book also includes photographs, first-person memories of Locke, and short history pieces on Locke. These community publications are more difficult to locate unless you have direct contact with the descendant community or local historical society. Local historical societies are an incredibly rich resource for helping locate these community publications as well as a wealth of knowledge from members. The Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society (IBAHS) in particular also has a museum in Isleton.

Further Reading

Azuma, Eiichiro. “Interethnic Conflict under Racial Subordination: Japanese Immigrants and Their Asian Neighbors in Walnut Grove, California, 1908–1941.” Amerasia 20.2 (1994): 27–56.Find this resource:

    Chan, Sucheng. This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.Find this resource:

      Chiu, Ping. Chinese Labor in California, 1850–1880, an Economic Study. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Dept. of History, University of Wisconsin, 1967.Find this resource:

        Gillenkirk, Jeff, and James Motlow. Bitter Melon: Stories from the Last Rural Chinese Town in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.Find this resource:

          Costello, Julia, and Mary Maniery. Rice Bowls in the Delta: Artifacts Recovered from the 1915 Asian Community of Walnut Grove, California. Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology, University of California, 1988.Find this resource:

            Iwata, Masakazu. Planted in Good Soil: A History of the Issei in United States Agriculture. New York: P. Lang, 1992.Find this resource:

              Kagiwada, George. “Report on Locke: A Historical Overview and Call for Action.” Amerasia 9.8 (1982): 57–78.Find this resource:

                Leung, Peter. One Day, One Dollar: Locke, California and the Chinese farming Experience in the Sacramento Delta. El Cerrito: Chinese/Chinese American History Project, 1984.Find this resource:

                  Mabalon, Dawn Bohulano. Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                    Maeda, Wayne. Changing Dreams and Treasured Memories: A Story of Japanese Americans in the Sacramento Region. Sacramento: Sacramento Japanese American Citizens League, 2000.Find this resource:

                      Minnick, Sylvia Sun. Sam Fow: The San Joaquin Chinese Legacy. Fresno: Panorama West Pub, 1988.Find this resource:

                        Shah, Nayan. Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                          Street, Richard Steven. Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                            Tsu, Cecilia, Garden of the World: Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California’s Santa Clara Valley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:


                              (1.) Paul Shigley, “The Devil is in the Delta,” American Planning Association Delta Urbanism Series, January 2012; and Jay Lund et al., Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2007), 17.

                              (2.) Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 160–161; and Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 238.

                              (3.) Chan, Bittersweet Soil, 163–189; Thomas W. Chinn, ed., A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1969); and Street, Beasts, 238–239.

                              (4.) George Chu, “Chinatowns in the Delta: The Chinese in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, 1870–1960,” California Historical Society Quarterly 49.1 (1970): 21–37; and Chan, Bittersweet Soil, 163–189; Street, Beasts, 239, 259–267.

                              (5.) Chinn, ed., Syllabus 56.

                              (6.) George Kagiwada, “Report on Locke: A Historical Overview and Call for Action,” Amerasia 9.8 (1982): 57–78.

                              (7.) Chan, Bittersweet Soil, 163–189; Kagiwada, Locke; and Street, Beasts, 238–240.

                              (8.) Street, Beasts, 262–266.

                              (9.) Street, Beasts, 242–243; Chan, Bittersweet Soil, 192–224.

                              (10.) Chan, Bittersweet Soil, 272, 302–340; and Street, Beasts, 242–243, 258–285.

                              (11.) Eiichiro Azuma, “Interethnic Conflict Under Racial Subordination: Japanese Immigrants and Their Asian Neighbors in Walnut Grove, California, 1908–1941,” Amerasia 20.2 (1994): 27–56; Chu, “Chinatowns in the Delta,” 21; Masakazu Iwata, Planted in Good Soil: A History of the Issei in United States Agriculture (New York: P. Lang, 1992), 340–342; and Wayne Maeda, Changing Dreams and Treasured Memories: A Story of Japanese Americans in the Sacramento Region (Sacramento: Sacramento Japanese American Citizens League, 2000).

                              (12.) Chu, “Chinatowns in the Delta,” 26.

                              (13.) Roger Chinn, interview by author, Isleton, CA, July 2013.

                              (14.) Chu, “Chinatowns in the Delta”; Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90.1 (2000): 12–40.

                              (15.) Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 123–124.

                              (16.) Keith Aoki, “No Right to Own?: The Early Twentieth-Century ‘Alien Land Laws’ as a Prelude to Internment,” Boston College Law Review 40 (1998): 37ff.

                              (17.) David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

                              (18.) Philip Pezzaglia Towns of the Sacramento River Delta (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2013); Roger Tointon “The City of Isleton General Plan,” report prepared for the Isleton Planning Commission and Isleton City Council, Isleton, CA, 1979; and Joyce Gombos, “Scars of Isleton Reminder of Delta levee break one year ago,” Lodi News-Sentinel (Lodi, CA), June 19, 1973.

                              (19.), U.S., Appointments of U.S. Postmasters, 1832–1971 (Provo: Operations, 2010). Collection indexed by Ancestry World Archives Project contributors. Original microfilm in the National Archives, Washington, DC.

                              (20.) Gombos, “Scars of Isleton.”

                              (21.) Bruce Crawford, Isleton (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003), 58; Gombos, “Scars of Isleton”; and Lawrence Tom et al., Locke and the Sacramento Delta Chinatowns (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2013), 99.

                              (22.) The Sacramento Bee, June 1, 1926, 9.

                              (23.) Nikolas Catanio, interview with author, Isleton, CA, September 2011.

                              (24.) Sanborn Fire Insurance Company, “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Isleton, Sacramento County, California,” 1925 and 1928.

                              (25.) Tom et al., Sacramento Delta Chinatowns, 99–116.

                              (26.) Crawford, Isleton, 79–85.

                              (27.) Crawford, Isleton, 79–85; Tom et al., Sacramento Delta Chinatowns, 121; and Tointon, “General Plan.”

                              (28.) Aoki, “Alien Land Laws.”

                              (29.) Chan, Bittersweet Soil, 192–193; Angelo Ancheta, Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience, 2d ed. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 67; and Aoki, “Alien Land Laws.”

                              (30.) Aoki, “Alien Land Laws.”

                              (31.) Chinn, interview with author; Alfred Owyoung, interview with author, Isleton, CA, October 13, 2012.

                              (32.) Data come from the U.S. Census aggregate data for Sacramento county (1890–1950), Georgiana township (1930 and 1940), and Isleton, CA (1930–1950).

                              (33.) Chinn, interview with author.

                              (34.) Chinn, ed., Syllabus.

                              (35.) Jill Shiraki, “History Forgotten, Isleton’s Japantown,” Nichi Bei Weekly, January 1, 2010.

                              (36.) Shiraki, “History Forgotten.”

                              (37.) Catanio, interview with author.

                              (38.) Catanio, interview with author; Chinn, interview with author.

                              (39.) Nancy Wey, “Chinese Americans in California” in Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California (Sacramento: California Department of Parks and Recreation, Office of Historic Preservation, 1988).

                              (40.) Chinn, interview with author.

                              (41.) Chinn, interview with author.

                              (42.) The Japanese American community also established Japanese language schools in delta towns, acknowledging the growing Japanese American youth population. The Japanese language school in Isleton was located next to the Buddhist temple at F and 3rd Streets.

                              (43.) A number of notable exceptions exist, including Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Cecilia Tsu, Garden of the World: Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California’s Santa Clara Valley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Dawn Mabalon, Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Experience in Stockton, California (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

                              (44.) Gillenkirk and Motlow, Bitter Melon: Stories from the Last Rural Chinese Town in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987); and Leung, One Day, One Dollar: Locke, California and the Chinese farming Experience in the Sacramento Delta (El Cerrito: Chinese/Chinese American History Project, 1984).

                              (45.) Chan, Bittersweet Soil; Street, Beasts; Ping Chiu, Chinese Labor in California, 1850–1880, an Economic Study (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Dept. of History, University of Wisconsin, 1967); Maeda, Changing Dreams; and Iwata, Good Soil.

                              (46.) Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); and Azuma, “Interethnic Conflict.”

                              (47.) Julia G. Costello and Mary L. Maniery, Rice Bowls in the Delta: Artifacts Recovered from the 1915 Asian Community of Walnut Grove, California (Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology University of California, Los Angeles, 1988).

                              (48.) Chan, Bittersweet Soil.

                              (49.) Gillenkirk and Motlow, Bitter Melon; Crawford, Isleton; Tom et al., Sacramento Delta Chinatowns; Sylvia Sun Minnick, The Chinese Community of Stockton (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2002); and Pezzaglia, Sacramento River Delta.

                              (50.) Gillenkirk and Motlow, Bitter Melon.

                              (51.) Leung, One Day.

                              (52.) Steven Yun, “1999 End of the Century Delta Reunion,” community memory book, 1999.

                              (53.) Locke Foundation, Remembering 100 Years, 1915–2015: Locke Centennial Book (Walnut Grove, CA: Locke Foundation, 2015).