In Idaho, for more than 150 years, first the territory and later the state allowed anti-Asian bigotry to flourish almost unchecked through anti-Asian laws, indulgent attitudes toward racists and a pervasive xenophobic culture. In the 19th century, as mining technology advanced and mining operations required greater capital investment, miners increasingly lost control over their own labor. As a class, they were gradually transformed from individual entrepreneurs into “wage slaves,” raising the stakes on perceived differences between groups of workers. Caucasian miners in California and Nevada first felt the impact when “Chinese cheap labor” supplanted many of their jobs. Newly arrived to Idaho, Euro-Americans assuaged their own fears by voting to keep the Chinese out, and later, to banish Japanese workers as well.

Work and life were arduous for both the Chinese and Japanese in the West. Hours were long, jobs were exhausting and the pay was lower compared with that of Caucasians doing similar work. Living conditions were primitive, families were left behind and anti-Asian prejudice was prevalent and oppressive. In all those respects, Idaho followed the lead of other Western states with Asian immigrants.

THE CHINESE IN IDAHO

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Chinese people began coming to the Idaho Territory in the early 1860s, braving an environment that was already hostile to their presence. Many of the first Caucasians in Idaho were veterans of the California Gold Rush, where Chinese had been initially forbidden from owning mining claims. When the easily won gold played out in California, Caucasian miners spread to other states, soon followed by Chinese workers. Anti-Chinese attitudes, primarily fueled by economic insecurity, met Chinese miners in Idaho and eventually spread throughout the United States, culminating in the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which, among other provisions, cut off new Chinese immigration for more than 60 years.

Historically, bigotry against the Chinese decreased when they provided services that were needed or wanted, but flourished during times when Caucasians suffered economic hardship. The discovery of gold at Pierce in 1860 For another account of the Idaho Gold Rush and relations between Chinese and white workers, see Clete Edmunson’s essaybrought thousands of hopeful miners to Idaho, including many Chinese. Again, the Caucasian miners grudgingly welcomed the Chinese as laborers, but prohibited them from owning mining claims. Beginning in 1865, with gold yields diminishing, miners were anxious to move on to new gold strikes elsewhere. Having obtained the easily won gold, Caucasian miners no longer feared Chinese competition. Perceiving the Chinese as a funding source that would allow them to leave for new opportunities, the Caucasians voted to admit the Chinese as miners in order to sell or lease them their unwanted claims.

By 1867, Chinese people had also begun to arrive in the Boise Basin. The words “John” and “Chinamen” were terms often used by Caucasians in a derogatory way when speaking of the Chinese. For additional such terminology, see “Asian American Comparative Collection: Sensitivity Issues.”   In October 1868, the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman observed, “The influx of Chinamen continues unabated to the great disgust of the American miners generally, and the delight of stage companies, for John is a great traveler and a good patron of the stages.”

Chinese stagecoach passengers

Courtesy Asian American Comparative Collection, University of Idaho
Stagecoach with Chinese passengers on the back. American West, 5(4): cover, July 1968.

Besides maintaining themselves here and their families at home, the Chinese also supported local and territorial government by paying discriminatory taxes of $4 to $5 per month, taxes that Idaho copied from other states. Over time, the Chinese took up many occupations besides mining. They opened laundries; worked as cooks and servants; raised vegetables; ran pack trains; operated stores, butcher shops and restaurants; and became railroad construction and track maintenance workers.

Although the Chinese who came to Idaho were mostly men, there were a very few Chinese women in the state, also. In 1870 Idaho’s population numbered nearly 15,000 people; more than 4,200 of them were Chinese, or 28.5 percent of the population. Of those, just 129 were female, approximately one woman for every 34 men. The Chinese thus became known as a “bachelor society” because of the low number of Chinese women. By 1887 the law only prohibited marriages between Caucasians and African Americans. Between 1864 and 1887, they were forbidden from marrying Caucasian women because of Idaho’s anti-miscegenation law, which made it a misdemeanor for any Caucasian person to intermarry or cohabit with any African American, Native American or Chinese person.

One of the biggest problems the Chinese faced in Idaho was anti-Chinese prejudice, an attitude that had migrated here from California. “The Chinese Must Go!” became the bigot’s slogan and rallying cry. Local businesses often advertised that they employed only white labor, meaning, at that time, no Chinese.

Incidents of anti-Chinese violence escalated. Atrocities in Rock Springs, Wyo. (1885), and elsewhere helped lead to the 1887 massacre of at least 34 Chinese miners on the Oregon side of the Snake River, not far from Lewiston. Subsequently, Idaho hooligans ran the Chinese out of Clark Fork (1891), Bonners Ferry (1892) and Moscow (1909). Their numbers had reached a “critical mass,” different for every community, that the majority population no longer tolerated. Communities such as Wallace and Twin Falls barred Chinese residents until much later. Although economic competition from the Chinese drove these exclusionary policies, other resentments, from remittances to China and retention of their own language and customs to unjustified blame for fires, filth and disease, also plagued Chinese residents of Idaho for many years.

Anti-Chinese advertisements, 1895-1910


Anti-Chinese advertisements, 1895-1910. Some businesses, such as these in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, advertised that they employed only white workers, meaning, no Chinese. This implies that Bonners Ferry had Chinese residents then, some of whom worked in competing establishments. Towns that totally excluded Chinese, like Wallace, did not need, or use, such wording in newspaper advertisements.

By the 1910 census, Idaho had only 859 Chinese residents from a high of more than 4,000 in 1870. Idaho’s anti-miscegenation law, combined with U.S. legislation forbidding entry of Chinese women, meant that most Chinese men were unable to marry and have children; their numbers constantly diminished as they returned to China, migrated to larger cities or died. A few who did remain were lucky, in that they belonged to the exempt merchant class and were allowed to bring their wives and families from China. At first confined to Chinatowns in cities including Boise, Salmon and Lewiston, they branched out into other areas of the cities as their numbers became smaller, and as they became more acculturated through learning English, wearing Western clothing and adopting Western customs. With fewer Chinese in downtown Chinatowns, the buildings there began to decay and became ripe for redevelopment. Over time, with Chinese no longer present to correct misinformation, certain legends, myths and stereotypes arose about the Chinese in Idaho, beliefs, not unique to Idaho, that persist to this day. These are actually architectural features called “sidewalk vaults” that were created to facilitate delivery of goods to store basements. “Chinese ovens,” domed rock structures on railroad construction sites, are actually Italian bread ovens, and “Chinese walls,” hand-stacked rock tailings on placer mining sites, could have been built by miners of any ethnic group, not just Chinese. The most pervasive of these is that there are so-called “Chinese tunnels” underneath buildings and sidewalks in towns where the Chinese once lived.

Encouragingly, Idaho has recently begun to recognize some of its early Chinese settlers. C.K. Ah Fong was a Boise pioneer and herbal medicine doctor who had many non-Chinese patients. Dr. Ah Fong’s prominence was honored when a room was named for him in the Boise State University Student Union Building. Pon Yam, a well-known Idaho City merchant, is remembered through the restoration of the Pon Yam House, his former home and store. It is now a museum that interprets the history of the Chinese in the Boise Basin, thus reclaiming that part of the region’s past. Another structure belonged to Polly Bemis, Idaho’s most famous Chinese female resident. She and her husband, Charlie Bemis, a Caucasian man, lived adjacent to the remote Salmon River from 1894 until her death in 1933, 10 years before repeal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The couple’s original home burned in 1922 and was replaced by a similar dwelling. In 1987, its non-Chinese owners restored and furnished the house and enthusiastically supported its 1988 listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

THE JAPANESE IN IDAHO

As the Chinese population aged and was not replenished, other laborers were needed for railroad employment. Historian Robert Sims’ research found that large numbers of Japanese men began working on railroads in Idaho beginning in early 1892, particularly in the Nampa and Pocatello areas. That year, some 1,000 Japanese men worked on the line from Pocatello to Portland. Unfortunately, by mid-year, rampant anti-Japanese prejudice resulted in 150 Japanese being “run out” of Nampa, Caldwell and Mountain Home. Several confirmed cases of smallpox provided the overt reason for the banishment; in addition, according to Sims and news reports at the time, the Japanese had replaced “the honest white section hands… and have run white workers from farms and orchards. They are filthier than Chinese, and they work for lower wages.”

Sources and Further Reading

  • James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism
  • Priscilla Wegars, “Entrepreneurs and ‘Wage Slaves’: Their Relationship to Anti-Chinese Racism in Northern Idaho’s Mining Labor Market, 1880-1910”
  • R. Gregory Nokes, Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon
  • Priscilla Wegars, “Polly Bemis: Lurid Life or Literary Legend?” and Priscilla Wegars, Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer
  • Robert C. Sims, Japanese American Contributions to Idaho’s Economic Development
  • Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History
  • Mark Fiege, Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West

Japanese immigrants also found railroad employment in Northern Idaho before the turn of the 20th century. In mid-December 1898, a Bonners Ferry newspaper reported, “A large number of [Japanese] have appeared on our streets this week. … They will … clear right-of-way on the new road [Great Northern].” The editor also commented elsewhere, “If the Japs [sic] continue to pour in, Bonner’s Ferry will appear like an Oriental town, in a short time.”  Since only six years had passed since Bonners Ferry had run out the town’s Chinese residents, the editor likely intended his inflammatory statement as a very real threat. Northern Idaho’s Japanese railroad workers continued to appear in unflattering or inflammatory news reports. “Jap Blown to Atoms,” Kootenai Herald, February 12, 1904, one killed. Unlike news stories about Caucasians, the names of the injured or killed Japanese were seldom given. The last account is an exception; the deceased man was Ringoo Uchida. In early May 1899, “a large force of Japanese laborers” reinforced the railroad bed “to withstand the annual high water.” Not surprisingly, men were occasionally injured or even killed on the job.

At times, Caucasian ruffians preyed on the Japanese by attacking their living quarters or by robbing individuals, such as at Post Falls (1901) and Sandpoint (1902, 1903). In February 1904, thugs attacked a Japanese-occupied section gang house in Athol. Although the article referred to the Japanese disparagingly as “little brown men” and “Japs,” the paper’s overall tone was supportive of the Japanese, who “have always been quiet and peac[e]able.” Japanese railroad workers were also mistreated in Southern Idaho. In one Boise incident, in 1896, a Japanese man fought back; he stabbed a Caucasian man to death in a case of “bad blood… between the Japanese employed on the railroad and the white men.”

A remarkable, undated Japanese document, the “Meiji Foreign Office Report on Idaho,” One account gives a date of 1899-1900 for the document, but internal clues indicate an 1896 date. probably written about 1896, provides rich detail about the railroad workers’ lives from a Japanese perspective, otherwise absent in the historical record:

“In this state most of the Japanese laborers are railroad workers and number about 400. Working hours are 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., 10 hours a day, $1.15/day with Sunday off. … Their duties are mostly repair work and the foreman in charge of the Japanese is always white. Our laborers are overworked and the unequal working conditions cause resentment.”Caucasian workers received $1.50 per day. 

Since not all Japanese who hoped for railroad work could be hired for that occupation, they found alternative employment. In particular, Japanese people who immigrated to Idaho after the turn of the 20th century often worked in agriculture, namely, from 1903 on, in the sugar beet industry. According to Sims, sugar beets attracted many Japanese to move to or remain in Southern Idaho. Japanese families also established various businesses, including laundries.

Laundry business advertisement


Advertisement for F. K. Inoue’s Crystal Laundry in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, November, 1913. Because his ad is in English, he obviously hoped to attract Caucasian customers. By mid-February 1914, Inoue had a Japanese business partner. A subsequent advertisement for the Crystal Laundry listed “F. K. Inoue and H. H. Sato, Proprietors.”

The large numbers of Japanese coming to the U.S. to work prompted the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan, wherein Japan agreed to cease issuing passports to U.S.-bound laborers. Just as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act effectively ended Chinese immigration to the U.S., the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” did the same for Japanese immigration.

In the early 1920s, prejudice against the Japanese in Idaho resulted in the state adding “Mongolians” to its existing anti-miscegenation laws, thus forbidding marriages between Japanese and Caucasians. Prodded by articles such as one against the “Japanese Invasion” in the Idaho Farmer and by alien land laws passed earlier by other states, such as California, that restricted land ownership to citizens, the Idaho Legislature finally passed an alien land law in 1923, after debating it in every session since 1917.

There was some good news for Idaho’s Japanese immigrants. The Issei, or first generation, had given birth to the Nisei, or second generation Japanese Americans, and by the mid- to late-1930s, Nisei students had become high-school valedictorians and were participating in athletics and other extracurricular activities at Idaho colleges. Still, these achievements did not guarantee acceptance in careers. Continuing prejudice against Japanese people in the professions meant that farming was about the only occupation open to them.

Anti-Japanese cartoon


Anti-Japanese cartoon by “Dr. S.” from Grangeville’s Idaho County Free Press, August 6, 1942. Racist caricatures, in this case drawn by Dr. Seuss himself, encouraged readers to unfairly equate Japanese Americans with the enemy.

During World War II, in Idaho as elsewhere, virulent anti-Japanese prejudice prevailed. See Todd Shallat’s “Return to Minidoka,” on this site. In mid-1942, more than 7,000 Japanese Americans and permanent resident aliens from Oregon, Washington and Alaska were euphemistically “evacuated” to the War Relocation Authority’s Minidoka “Relocation” Center near Jerome and Twin Falls. With Caucasian workers otherwise employed in the war effort, many of the Minidoka inmates achieved work release to help desperate Southern Idaho farmers. When Minidoka closed in late October 1945, some 700 former prisoners decided to remain in Idaho. In the nearly 70 years following, Japanese-born U.S. residents could become naturalized (1952) and the repeal of Idaho’s alien land laws (1955) and miscegenation laws (1959) allowed the state’s Asian residents and their descendants to begin embracing the “American dream” in Idaho. However, people of Japanese ancestry were not universally accepted in Idaho. In the mid-1960s, future Idaho governor Phil Batt quit his Elks Club membership when it wouldn’t serve his Japanese friend, Mr. Kay Inouye, because of a “whites-only” policy. Furthermore, the civil rights movement of the 1960s encouraged Idahoans to pass a civil rights law (1961) as well as a constitutional amendment (1962) making Chinese and other “Mongolians” [i.e., Japanese] eligible for the rights of citizenship.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

Despite economic and cultural prejudice directed at Asian residents of Idaho for well over 100 years, Chinese and Japanese Americans, and other Asian immigrants, made, and continue to make, significant contributions to both the economic development and the cultural heritage of Idaho. Asian Americans today have begun to reclaim and celebrate their own heritage, including documenting it, writing about it and interpreting it, in both academic and popular writing and art. By discarding outdated concepts that label the Chinese and Japanese pioneers as passive victims of racist aggression, and by taking control of their own history, they are increasingly demanding that the Asian immigrant experience be portrayed in a positive, sensitive, appropriate and accurate manner.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.