The California Gold Rush launched an era of Chinese immigration to the United States. Over a period of about 30 years, well over a quarter million Chinese workers entered the country. Were your ancestors among them? Read about when and why they came, and how to learn more about their lives.
Early Chinese Immigration and the California Gold Rush
In 1785, the sailing ship Pallas arrived in Baltimore with 3 Chinese sailors aboard—the earliest documented arrivals from China to the United States. Within the next 3 years, Chinese carpenters and smiths were living in a settlement on Vancouver Island on the opposite coast. Throughout the early 1800s, additional Chinese immigrants trickled into the country, including students, sailors, businessmen, servants, and laborers.
That trickle became a flood when word of the California Gold Rush reached Hong Kong in 1849. Within 2 years, 25,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in California, mostly in San Francisco.i The vast majority of immigrants were men traveling alone, not families. Unfortunately, most did not find success in the gold fields. They found themselves unable to afford to return home, stranded in a land that was strange and unwelcoming.
More Jobs for Chinese Workers
Many Chinese immigrants spread out from California to work in mines all over western North America. After gold was discovered in British Columbia in 1858, Chinese workers who rushed there to mine gold often took jobs in construction, coal mines, and canneries.
In the United States and Canada, thousands of Chinese workers helped construct railroads. Both the California Central Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad hired Chinese men, who earned a reputation for being steady, productive workers. Eventually, as many as 15,000 Chinese workers helped build the Transcontinental Railroad.
Once the railroads began service, industries and farms across the West clamored for Chinese workers. In 1868, the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty, making immigration from China easier. Between 1850 and 1882, more than 322,000 Chinese immigrants entered (or re-entered) the United States, many from Guangdong and Fujian provinces.
By the 1870s to 1880s, about 25% of California’s workers were Chinese men. So were about a third of the state’s small commercial farmers and more than 70% of workers in woolen mills and cigar factories. Chinese-owned businessesi grew across the country, from shrimp fisheries to neighborhood laundries.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Despite their hard work, Chinese immigrants generally remained underpaid. Many were treated poorly in their jobs and communities. As the Chinese presence grew in the United States, so did anti-Chinese discrimination. Some of this hostility was due to ethnic and cultural prejudices. Many feared the low wages accepted by Chinese workers threatened their own incomes. Organized political resistance to Chinese workers increased after the Panic of 1873, a financial crisis that led to severe job shortages.
In the late 1870s, anti-Chinese legislation passed in California and in Congress. Then in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which completely banned Chinese workers from entering the country for 10 years. Current Chinese residents could not apply for citizenship and could be deported by courts. Those who left the United States would find it difficult—if not impossible—to re-enter. Ten years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed. Eventually the Act was extended indefinitely and was expanded to ban Chinese immigrants from Hawaii and the Philippines as well. Although many Chinese workers returned home to China, others stayed and formed families in communities across the country.
Despite objections in China, the United States continued to ban entry by Chinese immigrants until 1943. That year, a new law permitted U.S. residents of Chinese descent to apply for citizenship. The first person to naturalize under the new law was Edward Bing Kan, an interpreter for the Immigration and Naturalization Service; his citizenship took effect on 18 January 1944. New national quotas were put in place that continued to restrict immigration from China and other countries until The Immigration Act of 1990.
During the decades of Chinese exclusion, many documents were created about Chinese residents who lived in the United States. Explore the stories of Chinese-American families in North American records.