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Beginning in the early 1850s Chinese began to emigrate from China to Oregon and North from California not only in search for gold, but to escape the racial animosity faced in California. Although many were able to find employment in mining and other industries, unfortunately, they encountered a political and social climate in Oregon that was not much better than California’s. In Oregon there was an ongoing and heated debate over the state’s fate as a pro or anti-slavery state and continuous battles with Native Americans to claim their lands. White settlers’ prejudicial attitudes toward the Chinese immigrants were based on fear, fear that the newcomers would take jobs or the land they felt should be theirs.

Local and National Anti-Chinese Laws

Discriminatory laws on the state and federal level were enacted to prevent Chinese immigrants from equal employment opportunities, discourage permanent settlement, and eventually bar immigration altogether. In 1859 the Oregon Constitution stated that any non-resident from China was forbidden ownership of mining claims and real estate. Just a few decades later in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited laborers from entering the United States, and the ten year policy was renewed in 1892 with the Geary Act and made permanent in 1902. The 1924 Immigration Act further prevented the Chinese population from growing as it severely limited the number of immigrants admitted to the United States to just two percent of the current population. Because of these acts, those who had returned to China were unable to return, women were rarely admitted, and overall the Chinese population in Oregon dropped significantly. It was not until 1943 that the Chinese Exclusions Acts were repealed when the United States needed China as an ally in World War II.

Consistent Hardships

Despite these laws, Chinese continued to immigrate to the United States. Some immigrants claimed to be merchants when laborers were specifically barred, sometimes the laws were not enforced at ports of entry, and some were smuggled into the country. Unfortunately, once the hardships of arriving in Oregon were overcome, new immigrants had to endure employers and landlords who often took advantage of them by paying low wages and charging high rents, a press that used newspapers as a tool to spread anti-Chinese sentiments, and sometimes discrimination that manifested itself in violence.

Hells Canyon

"Chinese Massacre Cove" the site of the Snake River Massacre, taken from the Oregon side of the river looking south and down into the cove, 2005.
Photo Credit: Marcus Lee.

Discrimination Manifested in Violence

The prejudice and mistrust of Chinese immigrants sometimes led white laborers to acts of theft, assault, and murder. Often they were not protected by local police in urban areas; in rural areas, if a confrontation between a white laborer and a Chinese laborer occurred, the law was not on their side.

A tragic example of this is the Snake River Massacre of 1887 in which a white gang robbed and murdered as many as 34 Chinese miners. The murderers fled and only a few were brought to trial but those few were acquitted.

In the 2009 book Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon author R. Gregory Nokes conducts in-depth research of the massacre to uncover the tragic truth that the local law enforcement did not fully investigate the case and that the local community kept the incident hidden from the historic record as some of the killers were from prominent families. While the Chinese community rallied to bring the gang to justice, they never were.


From more information about the book click here and for information regarding the contemporary efforts to create a Chinese Massacre Memorial click here.