On November 3, 1885 at 9:30AM, 500 white citizens of Tacoma gathered and marched through Tacoma’s Chinatown.[1] They stopped at every Chinese residence and business and instructed the occupants to get on wagons or march down to a train headed to Portland, Oregon that day. The mob also visited homes and businesses of white citizens to intimidate the supporters of the Chinese community.[2] Several days later, what remained of the once prominent Chinese community was burned to the ground.[3] The mob was methodical in its approach to removing the Chinese populace from Tacoma.[4] This incident became known as the 1885 Chinese Expulsion of Tacoma and it resulted from the culmination of national and regional anti-Chinese sentiment, a culture within the city of Tacoma that propagated anti-Chinese movements, as well as several tragic anti-Chinese events near Tacoma.[5] As a subsequent national and international outcry was raised, several members of the mob were put on trial, but were never convicted.[6] The Chinese community of the American West faced considerable persecution in the late-nineteenth century, and this event in Tacoma was heralded as a way to take action against Chinese communities and became known as the "Tacoma Method."[7] 


The background on the expulsion relates to the Chinese population in the western United States which was well established as early as the 1850s as a result of the Gold Rush that began in 1848.[8] Many young Chinese men took on the treacherous journey to the U.S. for the opportunity to make money in the mining industry with the intent of eventually returning to China.[9] The Chinese community was largely centered in urban centers where mutual-aid societies like the Six Companies emerged to support the new immigrants.[10] Many newspapers across the west reported on the establishment of the Six Companies and described their role in Chinese-American communities.[11] Chinese people within urban areas usually represented working-class laborers in laundries, groceries, and domestic fields. Within their communities were also many successful business owners and community representatives. Chinese immigrants outside of the cities usually worked in physically demanding work in mines and other related industries. Chinese workers became an essential part of the labor force that built the transcontinental railroad and other large rail projects. The completion of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1873 brought many Chinese laborers to Tacoma.[12]

By the 1880s there were around 1,000 Chinese people living in Pierce County area and around 700 within the city of Tacoma. These people lived on the waterfront on land leased by the railroad companies. The community was involved in the fishing and mining industry, as well as working in laundries, groceries, restaurants and in domestic work. There were several prominent Chinese businessmen within the city. On the day of the event, a prominent Chinese businessman named Lum May, reported that the mob “broke forcibly into the houses, smashing in doors and breaking in windows.”[13] A few Chinese businesses owners were given an extra 48 hours to pack up their businesses, but most were caught up with the mob and forced to the train station.[14] Those who remained after the November 1 deadline thought that their businesses would be protected. Instead, they were marched down to the train station, forced to purchase their train tickets, or walk 140 miles along the rail grade towards Portland.[15] 

The response on behalf of the white populace of Tacoma was motivated by the culture within Tacoma and the greater Pacific Northwest. During this time (1850s-1880s), there was a nativist sentiment directed to Chinese laborers by white workers and other immigrant groups. Labor organizations and nativist leaders like Denis Kearney popularized slogans like “The Chinese Must Go!” in California. The slogan later appeared in advertisements in The Tacoma Daily Ledger.[16] By the 1880s, anti-Chinese sentiment became ingrained into national policy. With the passing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1892 Geary Act, Chinese immigration to the United States was outlawed. In the Pacific Northwest, several incidents of violence were part of the catalyst that resulted in the Chinese expulsion in Tacoma. The Rock Springs Massacre in the Wyoming Territory, which resulted in the expulsion of hundreds of coal miners and the death of 28 Chinese workers, and other incidents in Squak Valley, Coal Creek, and Black Diamond in the Washington Territory resulted in the death and displacement of many Chinese workers.[17][18] These incidents, in tandem with national legislation, were reflected and magnified in the Tacoma community which created a culture that propagated anti-Chinese sentiment.

Prominent city leaders, including Mayor Jacob Weisbach, met to discuss ways in which the Chinese population could be expelled from the city.[19] On February 21, 1885, a meeting of 900 of Tacoma’s 6,936 total citizens met to propose ways to expel the Chinese population.[20] Many other groups formed in the city to express their desire to expel the Chinese community including a chapter of the Knights of Labor.[21] On September 28, 1885, an “Anti-Chinese Congress” led by Mayor Weisbach met in Seattle. The congress intended to “"strike while the iron is hot" [22] and issued a decree that set an expulsion date for November 1, 1885.[23] An “ouster committee” was formed to apprise the Chinese community of the expulsion.[24] This committee would later be renamed the Committee of Fifteen, and were considered the main force behind the expulsion.

Twenty seven people would be indicted over the incident, including many prominent Tacoma citizens. None of the men brought for criminal charges were ever convicted or punished. Many would go on to be very influential in Tacoma politics for many years after the event.[25]

The 1885 Chinese Expulsion of Tacoma raised national and international ire as the United States struggled to come to terms with its relationship to China and the acts of violence that were occurring in the western territories. This event would serve as an integral part of Tacoma’s history and its relationship with the Chinese community.


[1] Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, (New York: Random House, 2007), 219.

[2] Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979) 239.

[3] Pfaelzer, Driven Out, 222-223.

[4] Ibid, 219.

[5] Ibid, 221-222.

[6] Ibid, 224-228.

[7] Ibid, 219.

[8] Lorraine Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals, and Steel: The Chinese in Washington State, (Tacoma: Washington State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1977), 7-8.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]”F.A. Bee Interviewed,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 1, 1885.

[12] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, 21.

[13] Affidavit of Lum May, May 2, 1886, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, NARA, M-179, Roll 707.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Morgan, Puget's Sound, 242.

[16] “Chinese Must Go,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, October 7, 1885.

[17] Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and H. Mark Lai, Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 48-54.

[18] Pfaelzer, Driven Out, 215.

[19] ”Puyallup to the Front,” The Tacoma Daily Ledger, October 22, 1885.

[20] Morgan, Puget's Sound, 222.

[21] Chin, Golden Tassels, 66.

[22] The Tacoma Daily Ledger, September 24, 1885.

[23] Wilcox, "Anti-Chinese Riots in Washington," 206.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Hunt, 383.