Alaska Life

The mob violence that drove Chinese miners from Juneau in 1886 — and the one man allowed to stay

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers. The act was the first major immigration restriction in United States history. For years, American businesses had imported poorly paid Chinese workers as inexpensive labor, including for the railroads then stretching their way across the nation. The workers themselves were often fleeing extreme conditions in China, such as after the severe crop failure of 1852. When the American economy dipped, the presence of the Chinese laborers became politicized, including scapegoating them for rising levels of unemployment. Yet, Chinese nationals only accounted for 0.24% of the total population per the 1880 Census.

The law was one thing. Reality was another. Many businesses openly defied the restriction, and boatloads of Chinese laborers continued to cross the Pacific Ocean, including via ships with notable ties to Alaska, like the SS Portland. A wave of violence followed in the wake of these events. In 1885, white miners killed 28 Chinese laborers and injured 15 others in Rock Springs, Wyoming. That same year, vigilantes in Tacoma, Washington, burned down Chinese homes and businesses, driving out the entire local Chinese population. In February 1886, President Grover Cleveland dispatched troops to restore order in Seattle after mob violence drove more than 300 Chinese residents out of the city.

In August 1886, an angry mob expelled the Chinese miners from the Juneau area, removing all Chinese nationals with one exception. The following is the tale of that violence, the singular exception, and what they can teach us about hatred today.

A small gold rush that began in 1880 created a mining town on the Gastineau Channel in Southeast Alaska. The community was known by many names, including Harrisburg, Pilzburg, Fliptown and Rockwell, but the name that stuck was Juneau.

Canadian-born miner John Treadwell first visited Juneau in September 1881. He established the Alaska Mill and Mining Company, beginning with a sight-unseen purchase of a claim on Douglas Island. The enterprise soon became a complex of four mines and five mills. For a time, it was one of the largest and most productive gold mines in the world.

Despite the flow of wealth from the mines, Treadwell had an annoying problem. He struggled to staff the endeavor. So, around 1884, he began hiring Chinese laborers. As far as Treadwell cared, they were abundant and willing. In addition, he paid them less than he paid whites and Alaska Natives.

The hiring of Chinese workers in the Juneau area coincided with the decline of the local economy. By that time, much of the other mining activity in the area had played out. Perhaps around a hundred miners left the small community between 1884 and 1885. Unemployment rose dramatically among those that stayed. For some residents, discontent evolved into anger, a simmering rage that sought the easiest targets. Throughout American history, there has been an inverse relationship between the economy and outbursts of racial hatred. In other words, as the economy goes down, incidents of explicit racism go up.

On Jan. 12, 1886, the fragile peace broke. An explosion tore open a log cabin on Second Street in Juneau. The six to eight Chinese men inside were unharmed, though undoubtedly terrified. The bombing occurred within the heart of town and damaged several neighboring buildings, which temporarily undercut support for the anti-Chinese crowd. Per then Alaska Gov. Alfred Swineford, “The better class of citizens, justly incensed at the outrage, held a meeting, appointed a committee of safety, and subscribed the sum of $1,400 to paid for the detection, arrest, and conviction of the guilty parties; but all efforts at their discovery failed.” A suspect was arrested but quickly released. Signs popped up around town after the bombing: “Unless the Chinese leave at once their lives will be taken.” The Chinese workers wisely retreated to the relative safety of Douglas Island.

In early August, tempers flared again. A mob confronted Treadwell and demanded the expulsion of the Chinese workers. Treadwell refused but offered the angry throng jobs, claiming he had enough work for all the unemployed. Unappeased, the mob stalked off with shouted threats that they would return.

The next day, Aug. 6, 1886, around 100 men crossed from Juneau to Douglas Island. The armed mob gathered every Chinese national in the area but one. On the advice of Treadwell, the Chinese workers surrendered without a fight. The roughly 80 to 100 Chinese men were forced onto two schooners and shipped to Wrangell. There was only enough room for them to stand. They carried no belongings beyond what they had on their persons at the time of their capture. There was no food aboard, though Treadwell dispatched a boat with 15 sacks of rice for the refugees. They arrived in Wrangell. After that, they depart from recorded history. However, none of the likeliest outcomes are good ones.

The Deputy U. S. Marshall on the scene, Jack McKenna, described himself as “powerless to enforce the law and have exhausted every means possible to prevent trouble.” By which he meant that he had informed Gov. Swineford and nothing more. McKenna later denied there had been any violation at all. He resigned after being rebuked by Swineford.

As soon as Swineford learned the Chinese men had been shipped away, he asked Capt. Henry Nichols of the nearby USS Pinta to retrieve and return them to Juneau. After the first request, Nichols stalled, asking for a meeting. After a second request, Nichols stalled again, declaring the assignment an “apparent impossibility.” After the third request, Nichols replied that he had very important business to handle in Yakutat and was suddenly unavailable for any special requests.

The obstruction from McKenna and Nichols left Swineford effectively powerless. The governor visited Juneau on Aug. 9 to inspect the scene. He carried a proclamation condemning the “evil disposed and lawless persons at Juneau,” but with the mob dispersed, he did not distribute it. Even Treadwell refused to make a complaint.

Swineford’s annual report is ridden with impotent rage and exhaustion when covering the expulsion. He wrote, “packed into the vessels as they were like sardines in a box, they must have suffered dreadfully during the week they were on the way. Viewed in any light, it was a gross outrage upon a people who, however undesirable their presence, are yet entitled to full and complete protection under the laws and treaties of the United States.”

The one exception to the expulsion, the only Chinese man allowed to stay in Juneau, was a baker known as Joe. No one knows his real name with any certainty. Various officials recorded his name as As Hie, Hi Ching, Hi Chung, Chew Chung Thui and Ting Tu Wee. The locals primarily called him China Joe. Given a lack of better options, he will be referred to as Joe here.

In 1864, Joe crossed the Pacific and landed at Victoria, British Columbia. Eight years later, he moved to the isolated Cassiar region of British Columbia and ran a bakery at a mining camp by Dease Lake.

The winter a year or two later was particularly harsh, freezing river access earlier than expected and thus blocking steamers from delivering winter supplies. The area prospectors were in a dire position. No one, apart from Joe, had enough food to last through spring. The journey out of the remote district was long, treacherous, and not a viable option.

In a position of extreme leverage, Joe chose the kindest, most charitable path. He refused to sell his stock to those that would have price gouged. Instead, he charged what he always charged, organized a ration system, and shared his supplies regardless of ability to pay. Without him, the miners would have almost certainly starved, devolved into violence, or both.

Joe stayed in the Cassiar until the rush died. Like the miners, he chased opportunity, his travels taking him to Wrangell, then Sitka. In the summer of 1881, he arrived in Juneau and bought a small lot at Third and Main. There, he built a small bakery that he ran until his death.

His good reputation traveled with him. In Juneau, as everywhere else, he was known for his many acts of kindness, small and large. For example, there were always cookies or bits of candy for children. Juneau historian R. N. De Armond claimed that Joe was so beloved that his business was one of the few left unscathed by the annual Halloween vandalism. Ed Beattie, who had been one of those cookie-loving children, authored an article about Joe for the September 1949 Alaska Sportsman. “I’ve often heard it said, and with good foundation,” wrote Beattie, “that back in the early part of the century, there was only one man in Southeastern Alaska without an enemy. That man was China Joe.”

Still, the anti-Chinese mob of August 1886 did not forget about Joe. Some number of them crossed into Juneau and approached his bakery with every intent of expelling him as well, violently if necessary. Fortunately for Joe, a group of supporters surrounded his house and slung a rope across the road.

The ne’er-do-well throng approached and stopped in front of the rope. Per Beattie’s maybe slightly exaggerated account, one of Joe’s friends addressed the mob. He declared, “Now, that rope represents the deadline. The man you want is in his house. If you still want him you can have him — if you can get him.” The following silence was broken only by the sound of cocked rifles.

Beattie wrote, “Not one man of the delegation approached the deadline. You could not have found a more shame-faced group anywhere. They were working men, such as China Joe had cared for, and their hearts were deeply touched. Their one desire was to retreat as gracefully as possible and forget the part they had taken in the affair.”

Years later, the area old-timers formed a pioneers association. One individual refused to take part in any group that included a Chinese member. In the vote that was taken to decide the matter, Joe received 249 votes in his favor. The other man received one.

When Joe died in 1917, the funeral procession was one of the longest in local memory. He is buried in the pioneer section of Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery. The name on the marker says Hi Chung. Below that, it adds “China Joe.”

The inclusive treatment of Joe in no way excuses or lessens the despicable and cowardly actions of 1886. Yet, that kindliness toward Joe demonstrates a path away from racism. People in Juneau liked Joe because they knew him, far more than they ever grew to know the Chinese laborers. Engagement with people different than oneself, people with different experiences and cultures, promotes knowledge and understanding. With understanding, people can begin to empathize with one another.

Key sources:

Beattie, Ed. “China Joe.” Alaska Sportsman, September 1949, 18-19, 24-27.

Crouse, Tripp J. “100 Years After China Joe’s Death, Juneau Historian Remembers Immigrant Pioneers Protected.” KTOO, May 16, 2017, ktoo.org/2017/05/16/100-years-after-china-joes-death-juneau-historian-remembers-immigrant-pioneers-protected/.

De Armond, R. N. The Founding of Juneau, Centennial Edition. College Place, WA: Color Press, 1980.

Hinckley, Ted C. “Prospectors, Profits & Prejudice.” American West 1, no. 2 (1965): 58-65.

“The Most Historical Character.” Pathfinder, January 1920, 10-11.

Report of the Governor of Alaska for the Fiscal Year 1886. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Officer, 1886.


Sponsored