The Heritage We Renouce

Sacramento Delta Blues

Chinese Workers and the Building of the California Levees, 1860-1880

Revolutionary Worker #894, February 16, 1997

The recent disastrous floods in California put the spotlight on the extensive network of levees in California's Central Valley. These levees don't just protect the farmland, there was no farmland until they were built. These levees--that turned swampland into farmland--were built in the 1880s by thousands of Chinese immigrants. What happened to those Chinese laborers? Many of them farmed and worked on some of the land that they wrenched from the swamps. But by the late 1890s, nearly all of the Chinese immigrant laborers who reclaimed the Delta were driven off this land by racist laws and lynchmob terror.

The forces that drove thousands of Chinese to California were the direct result of the imperialist plunder and domination of China. Britain, France and the United States had carved China up into "spheres of influence" for foreign trade, opium traffic and missionaries. In 1842 China lost the Opium War with England, and in 1856 China suffered a further defeat in the Arrow War (the "Second Opium War") with England and France. As a result of these wars, China was forced to buy opium and to pay war reparations to England and France, and open its borders to unrestricted exploitation. Foreign-owned manufacturing crushed local industry. And to pay reparations to the colonial powers, the Chinese government hit the people with huge tax increases. The impoverished conditions of the Chinese people, who were overwhelmingly peasants, became even worse and peasant rebellions broke out.

After the 1849 discovery of gold in California, the first wave of Chinese immigrants started coming to California. Lured by stories of a "Mountain of Gold" about 1/4 million Chinese arrived in California between 1849 and the early 1880s. Many of them came as indentured bond servants who were given passage to the U.S. in return for years of work. The first wave of Chinese immigrants who came tried to work small gold mines throughout California but were soon hit with anti-Chinese laws and racist vigilante violence. In 1852 the California legislature enacted a foreign miner's tax aimed mainly at Chinese.

By the 1860s mining was no longer profitable and the Chinese immigrants who came joined displaced gold miners working to build the railroads. The Central Pacific Railroad began recruiting laborers in China in 1866 for its construction crews in California. The role of immigrant laborers in building the railroads is a story of its own--truly an incredible feat of human sacrifice and suffering. Chinese laborers shoveled, drilled, and dynamited. They labored through 60-foot snowdrifts, tunneling, blasting and laying tracks for the railroad. Many of these workers died. In one incident, when the workers struck, the company cut off all food supplies to the remote work camps and starved them for a week.

When Chinese immigrants died in America it was a common practice for their ashes or bones to be sent back to the villages they had come from in China. In 1870 one newspaper reported that 20,000 pounds of bones had been gathered from shallow graves along roadbeds. These were from the bodies of about 1,200 Chinese workers--some of the thousands of Chinese immigrants who died building the railroads.

Turning Swamp into Farmland

When the railroad was finished in 1869, many Chinese laborers hoped to return to farming, which almost all of them had done back in China. While some of them were able to buy small plots in California, thousands had no money to buy land and found work for the next decade building the levees.

There had been earlier, primitive levees built in California in the 1850s using Chinese, Kanaka (indigenous Hawaiians) and Indian laborers. But these early levees were routinely destroyed by floods. In 1868 a series of laws were passed that made it profitable to reclaim Delta lands for farming. Delta landowners took over from the railroad bosses, hiring whole work crews from the railroad to build the levees. The levee workers lived in tents right at the site of the levees and worked in crews of eight to 30 men. They built the levees by piling up parallel walls of sun-dried peat bricks and filling in the space with mud. The Chinese laborers made many innovations in construction, including developing an oversized horseshoe wired to the hooves of horses for packing and leveling dirt. Between 1860 and 1880, laborers, most of them Chinese, worked on 88,000 acres of rich Delta farmland. Building the levees was hellish, dangerous work. The workers labored waist-deep in water, draining swamps and marshes, digging up hard peat soil by hand to fill the levees. They were paid by the yard of land moved, which came to about a dollar a day.

One of the largest landowners in the Delta was George D. Roberts, president of the Title Land Reclamation Company, established by San Francisco and Oakland capitalists. Roberts had close ties to California legislators and used these connections to obtain tens of thousands of swampland acres for practically nothing. He hired 3,000 to 4,000 Chinese laborers and paid them about a dollar a day. The total cost of reclaiming an acre of land came to seven dollars per acre, and Roberts was allowed to buy the land from the state for two or three dollars an acre. In total, it cost him about 10 dollars an acre to reclaim the land, and he sold tracts for between 20 and 100 dollars an acre. In this way, Roberts made huge profits off the exploitation of immigrant Chinese workers.

During and after the time they labored building the levees, Chinese people settled in the Delta growing fruit and vegetables and working in the canneries. Many Chinese farmers grew asparagus in the 1890s. Others grew potatoes or labored on the farms of others. By 1870 Chinese immigrants made up 45 percent of all farm laborers in Sacramento County.

In the book A Different Mirror Ronald Takaki describes a form of sharecropping, where "In exchange for the use of the land, equipment, and the marketing of crops, tenant farmers raised fruit and vegetables and then divided the profits with the white landowners." The landowner's cut of the total income from the land might be 25 percent in addition to charging land rent and tool fees. This tenant farming took place on the edges of the newly reclaimed land. Sometimes Chinese farmers got land to work from small white farmowners in exchange for building levees. In other cases, they leased land on newly built islands in the Delta rivers from large corporations. Between being farmowners, working land they rented for cash, sharecropping or working as hired farm laborers, Chinese immigrants were the dominant workforce in Delta area agriculture in the 1870s and 1880s.

Anti-Chinese Laws and Racist Mobs

The Chinese immigrants who came looking for the "Golden Mountain" did the hardest, most dangerous and lowest paid labor. They were denied the most basic rights and subjected to racist violence and terror. In 1858, 140 years before California's anti-immigration Prop 187, the state passed an immigration law excluding Chinese from entering the state. And in 1862 a "White Labor Protection Act was passed.

The constitution of California was rewritten in 1879 forbidding any man or woman of "Chinese or Mongolian" ancestry from earning a living by working for a white man. And the legislature delegated "all necessary power" to towns and cities "for the removal of Chinese." The state constitution declared that the Chinese people were "dangerous to the well-being of the State."

In 1882 the Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which decreed that a Chinese man who worked with his "hands," who was a "manual" laborer, would be prohibited from coming to America. And the people from China who were already residents were barred from becoming citizens. Chinese, like Black people and Indians, were not allowed to testify against whites in court. They were barred from public schools and forbidden to own real estate or get business licenses or government contracts. In San Francisco, laws were passed against the Chinese like a "queue tax," a "cubic air ordinance" requiring that every residence have so many cubic feet of air per inhabitant, and a "pole law" prohibiting the use of carrying baskets on poles. Laws that specifically targeted Chinese immigration stayed on the books until 1965. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943--and even then immigration of Chinese was given a quota of only 105 per year!

The white labor movement in California became a major force behind the racist campaigns to drive the Chinese out. Mobs stormed through towns where Chinese immigrants lived, burning homes and looting shops. Chinese were lynched and scalped. They had their pigtails cut off and were branded with hot irons. In one incident a mob caught a Chinese miner and sliced off his genitals. In one Nevada town a Chinese laundryman was tied to a wagonwheel and the buckboard was driven at high speed through the town until the man's head fell off. One Chinese crab fisherman who was beaten to death was branded by hot irons, his ears sliced in half with a knife and his tongue cut off.

On a single night in Los Angeles in 1871, 20 innocent Chinese men were lynched or burned alive by mobs of white men. Four men were crucified spread-eagle and then executed with knife and gun.

And in 1885, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, 28 Chinese men were murdered by local townspeople. In an orgy of bloodletting, mobs not only burned the Chinese alive but then mutilated their dead bodies.

The racist treatment of Chinese immigrants in California in the late 1800s was very connected with the oppression of Black people in the South. The anti-Chinese measures during this period were passed in Congress by a combination of Southern and Western votes. Southern plantation owners and politicians would not tolerate a policy in California that might have unsettling consequences in the South. And the more California became committed to a Jim Crow policy in relation to the Chinese, the greater was its obligation to support Southern racist policies in Congress.

After the Civil War, Southern plantation owners--who were worried that freed slaves would be "unmanageable"--considered substituting Chinese coolie labor for Black labor. Southern plantation owners visited California with this in mind. And during the 1870s, Chinese workers were imported to states like Louisiana and Mississippi and pitted against Black workers. A southern governor explained: "Undoubtedly the underlying motive for this effort to bring in Chinese laborers was to punish the negro for having abandoned the control of his old master, and to regulate the conditions of his employment and the scale of wages to be paid him."

Eventually, plantation owners in the South stopped importing Chinese labor as the system of sharecropping became established. But Chinese laborers continued to be used in other parts of the world to replace Black slaves. From 1845 to 1877 a great movement of Chinese coolie labor from China was a direct consequence of the end of slavery in the British Empire. In colonies in the Caribbean and Latin America Chinese coolie labor was used to replace Black slave labor. Over 40,000 Chinese coolies were imported to Cuba alone--of whom it has been said that at least 80 percent were decoyed or kidnaped.

Driven Off the Land

By the beginning of the 1890s an economic depression hit the U.S. and Chinese immigrants were subjected to a whole new level of attack. There is a striking and ugly parallel between this period and the atmosphere of terror directed against Mexican and Latin American immigrants in California today.

The people who had built the railroads and levees were painted as a plague on society. White workers who were losing their jobs were told that the problem was Chinese immigrants. In 1893 the Los Angeles Times wrote: "White men and women who desire to earn a living have for some time been entering into quiet protest against vineyardists and packers employing Chinese in preference to whites." A wave of racist anti-Chinese riots broke out in the Central Valley. Takaki writes that "From Ukiah to the Napa Valley, to Fresno to Redlands, Chinese were beaten and shot by white workers and often loaded into trains and shipped out of town." These violent attacks on Chinese immigrants were concentrated in the Sacramento and San Joaquín River valleys, and especially where they join at the Delta (see map). Chinese immigrants bitterly remembered this violence and expulsion as the "driving out." While a handful of Chinese towns remained in the Delta, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants were driven from the land and forced into marginal survival. For the most part, they were denied any opportunity for work except menial jobs like washing clothes and cooking.

The levees built by Chinese immigrants created huge profits for capitalists and opened up some of the most fertile and productive land in the world. In return, these immigrants were denied the most basic rights. Their communities were burned. Dozens were murdered by racist mobs. And they were forced from the very land they had created from the Delta swamps.

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