Against Chinese Immigration

by Malcolm Macdonald, February 15, 2017

Last week's piece concluded with information about the rising tide of anti-Chinese attitudes in Mendocino County and the entire West during the late 1870s. By the autumn of 1878 the sentiment had spread across the nation. Congress passed legislation excluding Chinese immigration; however, President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bill.

California stepped up to lead the way. In May, 1879 the Golden State adopted a new constitution which not only granted the government in Sacramento the power to decide who could reside in California, the document also banned any company and all government entities from employing a person of Chinese ancestry.

By mid summer 1879, anti-Chinese feeling was pretty much a set-in-stone doctrine on the political landscape, as evidenced in this brief notice in the Sonoma Democrat, “At a recent meeting of the members of the executive committee of the Democratic State Central Committee by resolution it was ordered that the Democratic County Committees were instructed to have printed on their tickets 'Against Chinese Immigration,' There is not a Democrat in the land that will vote any other way.”

In the town of Mendocino a late August, 1879, incident provides clues to the local mindset, “Last Wednesday night between ten and eleven o'clock Dr. Wheeler became aware that somebody was prowling about his henhouse. He shouldered his rifle and went to investigate the matter, and found the fellow busy hunting for chickens. It was too dark to see who or even where the fellow was, but a ball sent in the direction of the noise frightened him away, and from the blood found on the fence in the morning it is supposed that he was hit. It was, no doubt, a chinaman.”

The paragraph was written by one of Mendocino's leading citizens, possibly its most influential, the editor/publisher of the Beacon, William Heeser, who also served as a member of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. It would be easy to assume that Heeser's last line, “It was, no doubt, a chinaman,” is a straightforward agreement with the prevailing mindset of the time. On the other hand, Heeser was prone to wit, whimsy, irony, facetiousness, or occasional satiric sarcasm. “No doubt, a chinaman,” might be read as a paraphrase for 'everyone will suppose the chicken thief to be a chinaman.' Despite the objectionable connotation of “chinaman” in contemporary lexicon, in 1879 even the most liberal, openminded Anglos used this term. Early in that year Heeser editorialized against passage of the new state constitution, though he did not appear to have mentioned the Chinese issue.

Further support for Heeser's “No doubt, a chinaman,” statement as mere facetious commentary is evidenced in the following week's Beacon. Heeser drops the “chinaman” reference in this brief report, “It has not been ascertained who the person is that wanted to sample Dr. Wheeler's chickens last week. Doctors are as silent as the tomb on the matter.”

Whether or not Heeser's words prove him to be more or less prone to anti-Chinese opinion than the average Californian of the era, he certainly was aware of another brand of prejudice. In March of 1878, Heeser used part of his front page to pass on this account from the Water Valley, Mississippi, Sentinel. Heeser titled the article 'Life in Mississippi.' The Water Valley Sentinel counterpart of Heeser stated, “Married at 3 p.m., on Thursday last, at the residence of Rev. Harry West, colored, opposite the depot in Coffeeville, by the Rev. Harry West, Mr. Dokes, white to Miss _______, negro (name of the dusky bride not known), all from Lafayette county, Miss. We understand that this marriage extraordinary created no little excitement in the usually quiet town of Coffeeville. About 7 o'clock the same evening the happy couple reached our town on a freight train, en route for their home. It was soon reported up and down our streets that a 'white man with a negro wife was on a freight train just up.' Some of the young men of our town, as we learn, immediately determined to treat the new groom to a new suit of tar and feathers as a marriage present. He was on top the caboose, but some of the smaller boys were ahead of them and were pelting him with brickbats. He took refuge in the caboose and closed the doors securely. The train soon pulled out, and thus he missed his merited suit. We understand he says his name is Dokes and that he lives about six miles from Taylor's depot in Lafayette county, Miss. We are no advocate of lynch law, but under the circumstances do not think a coat of tar and feathers would have been amiss. Such an outrage upon moral law should not be tolerated and passed over in silence.”

In a less political vein, readers may be gladdened to know that summer weather patterns of the 21st Century were not much different than those in 1879. The August 23rd edition of  The Mendocino Beacon from that 19th Century year states, “The weather for the past week has been uncomfortably damp and cold, and on Thursday morning the fog changed to rain, which continued throughout the whole day. Even this change was preferable to the dense, cold fog.”

Even Dan Gladden would be gladdened by the website: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com

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