When gold was discovered in 1848 in northern California, there were not many Chinese in the U.S. especially beyond the western states. Such was still true in 1870, but Chinese were beginning to live in all regions, even in places that had never seen a Chinese previously. Given that the typical Chinese immigrant during this period lacked English fluency, financial resources, and marketable work skills, why and how did this secondary migration of Chinese occur?
Most Chinese in 1870 were still in western states.
Perhaps no definitive answers may be found in historical documents but it is worthwhile to speculate on the probable mechanisms. A good place to start is to look at the role of labor contractors who recruited Chinese laborers to work on railroad and other construction projects starting in the 1860s, as strikebreakers in a laundry, a shoe factory, and a cutlery factory in the 1870s in the northeast, and as a supply of cheap labor to replace blacks on cotton and rice plantations in the South.
What Happened to Chinese Contract Laborers?
One important unanswered question is what happened to the thousands of Chinese recruited to work for the Central Pacific Railroad in the mid to late 1860s after the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869? The completion was a cause for great celebration for the nation but for the Chinese it meant that overnight thousands of railroad laborers were out of work.
What happened to these Chinese after this work ended? Some undoubtedly returned to the west coast as well as to China, but it is likely that some unknown number remained and settled within a short distance of Promontory Summit, Utah, the site where the transcontinental railroad was completed. The 1880 Census listed some Chinese working for the railroad but how many were from the original workers and how many were new laborers cannot be determined. In the 1880 U.S. Census, Chinese in Box Elder County, site of Promontory, were not limited to work on railroad maintenance. Some worked in laundries, restaurants, grocery stores, and others worked as tailors, prostitutes, doctors, and engineers.
Others returned to California where they dug channels and ditches of a vast irrigation system in northern California that created a vast agricultural business.
Other railroad workers found other work such as farming and mining along the route of the railroad as census records of the late 1800s show Chinese in many small towns such as Elko, Nevada, Ogden, Utah, Laramie, Wyoming, and Omaha, Nebraska located along the transcontinental railroad route between Sacramento, California and Chicago.
Fate of Other Contract Workers
What happened to the smaller groups of about 50 to 100 Chinese workers that labor contractors, white as well as Chinese, recruited from the west coast and China in the 1870s to work in factories, laundries, farms, and plantations?
Some of the Chinese contracted to work in Hervey’s laundry in Belleville later opened hand laundries in nearby Newark, New Jersey. A history of Newark’s Chinatown found there were 2 Chinese hand laundries as early as 1880, 23 by 1885, and 47 by 1887 along with a steam laundry. In 1872, one Chinese from the Belleville laundry, Ong Yung, is believed to have opened the first Chinese laundry in New York City, and it is likely that others followed his example.
Nothing is known about what happened to the Chinese after they left the shoe factory in North Adams, MA. or the cutlery factory in Beaver Falls, PA. but it is likely that some of the shoe factory workers remained in New England around Boston and some of the cutlery factory workers settled in nearby areas such as Pittsburgh and later attracting relatives to join them.
What happened to the Chinese contract laborers in the South such as those who worked on the Augusta canal, rice plantations in South Carolina, or on the Alabama and Chattanooga railroad? There is no documentation but perhaps some remained to open laundries and grocery stores. Some Chinese in the Plaquemines, Louisiana, sugar fields apparently stayed in the region because a decade later, the U. S. Census listed 144 Chinese laborers living there.
How Did Chinese Migrate Without Help?
As noted earlier, many Chinese were motivated to flee the west coast and Rocky Mountains to escape anti-Chinese violence. However that reason cannot begin to explain how Chinese succeeded in relocating and settling in distant interior regions of the country. In the late 19th century Chinese would not have had the ability and resources to migrate from the west coast into the middle sections of the country on their own, lacking English language skills or contacts with other Chinese in remote areas of the country to help them get settled. For Chinese to migrate without assistance into regions in the 1870s where there were no or few Chinese would have been a daunting undertaking.
A Possible Resolution to Both Questions
There are two important questions about early Chinese immigrants that have largely been left unanswered. One is what happened to the Chinese railroad workers and other contract laborers during the 1870s such as those in the Belleville, New Jersey laundry, the North Adams, Massachusetts shoe factory, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania cutlery factory, the Augusta, Georgia canal workers, and laborers on farms and plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas?
The second unexamined question is how individual Chinese managed to migrate to regions far from the west coast? How they managed to migrate from the west coast to settle hundreds, and for some, thousands, of miles from the west coast to areas where they were often the first, and perhaps, only Chinese residents is an unanswered question.
The “answer” to one question may be part of the “answer” to the other question. In other words, some of the Chinese introduced to inner America by labor contractors to work on railroad and canal construction, in shoe factories, laundries and on plantations, may have stayed in these regions or nearby after their contracts ended especially since most laborers could not afford return transportation to their point of origin.
Stranded in the midsections of the country, despite being isolated and facing racism in many communities, they were still safer than if they returned to the west where anti-Chinese sentiments was rampart during the late 19th century. They were resourceful and earned their living by first starting laundries, grocery stores, and even a few restaurants between 1870 and 1880 in towns that had never seen Chinese before.
These Chinese pioneers then became the “anchors” or “contacts” for bringing other Chinese to these parts of the country. They eventually encouraged and assisted some of their male relatives, brothers, sons, cousins, fathers, and uncles to join them in working in their laundries, grocery stores, and restaurants. Thus, the answer to the question of how individual Chinese managed to move to remote areas is that they did not have to do it by their own means. They had the essential help of other Chinese already in these areas brought there earlier by their labor contractors. After their labor contracts expired, these Chinese remained in these areas to start new lives.
My father can serve as a speculative illustration of this argument. He did not know how to speak or read English when he immigrated in 1921 from China at age 20 as the paper son of a San Francisco merchant. After passing his interrogation at Angel Island to gain entry, he went directly to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he apprenticed for 2-3 years in the laundry of a grand uncle before moving to Augusta, Georgia, where he worked for another grand uncle in his laundry for another 2-3 years. Had these relatives not been in the Deep South, it would have been very unlikely that he would have chosen to settle in those places.
A similar process may have operated when these two grand uncles came to the U.S. probably just before or after 1900. They probably headed to the South as my father did because they had relatives or friends who earlier, perhaps between 1870 and 1900, came to work in Chattanooga and Augusta. There is no proof but could it be that one had come to the area to work on the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad and the other on the Augusta Canal?
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