Feb. 9, 2022

The Seattle Riots of 1886

The Seattle Riots of 1886

February 9, 1886. After anti-Chinese violence descends into riots, President Grover Cleveland declares a state of emergency in Seattle.

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Cold Open

It’s the early hours of the morning on February 7th, 1886.

In Seattle, Washington, in the city’s Chinatown district, a businessman named Mr. Chan Yee He sits at his kitchen table, reading the paper. His wife is still asleep. It’s barely light out. But Mr. Chan likes getting up early. He enjoys the sounds of Seattle waking up; a place he has called home for fourteen years.

But suddenly, the peaceful moment is shattered by a loud banging

Mr. Chan looks up from his newspaper. It’s a bit early for visitors. So cautiously, Mr. Chan puts down his paper and heads for the door.

When he opens it, he finds a group of six men standing there. But before he can ask what they want, the men push him aside and march into the house. They start looking around, opening doors and closets and rummaging through his belongings. Mr. Chan is terrified, but he keeps his composure and demands an explanation.

But the men ignore him. Several of them start taking items of furniture and ornaments from around the house and carrying them out onto the street, where they load them onto wagons. And suddenly, Mr. Chan hears the sound of a scream.

He turns to find two of the men coming out of his bedroom, dragging his wife by her hair. Mr. Chan bolts forward, but one of the men grabs him and holds him back. He begs them not to hurt her. He cries out, she’s pregnant.

But the men don’t listen. They drag Mrs. Chan out into the street as well, where she lands in a crumpled heap.

And all around Chinatown, similar scenes are unfolding. Groups of white men forcibly evict Chinese people from their homes, throwing them and their possessions into wagons, before taking them to the waterfront. Over three-hundred Chinese people – including Mr. Chan and his wife – are driven to the Seattle docks and forced onto ships, which will take them to San Francisco, or Los Angeles – anywhere as long as it's not Seattle.

During these Seattle Riots of 1886, as this shameful incident will come to be known, anti-Chinese sentiment that's been growing for years on the west coast will boil over into widespread violence. Police will clash with racist mobs, and blood will be spilled, forcing President Grover Cleveland to declare a state of emergency in Seattle on February 9th, 1886.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 9th: The Seattle Riots of 1886.

Act One: “The Chinese Must Go!”

It’s May 12th, 1848, thirty-eight years before the Seattle Riots.

On a bright sunny day in the bustling port town of San Francisco, a man named Samuel Brannan strides down Main Street. Samuel owns a general store in Sutter’s Fort, far outside of town. But today, he strolls through the main thoroughfare holding a small glass bottle that contains what looks like sand flecked with glittering metallic shards. Bannon holds the bottle aloft and cries out, “Gold! Gold in the American River!”

Several months ago, a carpenter was working on the banks of the American River, when he spotted something remarkable in the water: shimmering fragments of gold. The carpenter tried to keep his discovery a secret, but it didn’t take long for word to spread. Eventually, the news made its way to Samuel Brannan.

Samuel’s general store is the only one between San Francisco and the American River, where the gold was found. Recognizing a retail opportunity, he stocked his shelves with pans and shovels, and other gold-prospecting tools. Then he traveled here to San Francisco, with a bottle filled with gold dust, to spread the word, and hopefully attract customers.

Heads turn as Samuel parades down the street, waving the bottle; proof of the riches awaiting anyone bold enough to seek them out. Samuel’s plan works. In less than a month, three-quarters of San Francisco’s male population will leave town for the goldmines; and many of them will stop at Samuel’s general store on the way. 

Among the hopeful gold prospectors is a Chinese merchant named Chum Ming. When he hears Samuel’s proclamation in the streets of San Francisco, Chum Ming writes a letter to his cousin in Guangdong Province, China, informing him of his plans to go off in search of his fortune.

And soon, word of the California Gold Rush rapidly spreads through China’s villages. Soon, Chinese men start booking passage on ships across the Pacific. In 1849, three hundred and twenty-five Chinese persons pass through San Francisco’s custom house. But by 1852, just three years later, that figure leaps to twenty-thousand. And by the late 1850s, Chinese immigrants make up 10% of California’s population.  

And then in January 1852, California’s governor, John McDougal, encourages even more Chinese to come – calling them “one of the most worthy classes of our newly adopted citizens.” And indeed, many other white Americans recognize the Chinese as a useful source of labor. Between 1863 and 1869, 15,000 Chinese workers will help build the transcontinental railroad, while earning significantly less than their white counterparts.

But the Chinese presence in the workforce also results in prejudice and resentment. Several mining districts ban Chinese workers, as white miners grow hostile toward the rising tide of cheap Chinese labor.

During his 1856 campaign, California governor John Bigler seizes on anti-Chinese sentiment as an election strategy, warning his constituents that the Chinese have not come to America to become citizens but merely to pillage “our precious metals” before returning home.

But many see such rhetoric as poisonous postering. A respected Chinese businessman named Norman Assing responds to the racist claims of men like Bigler, decrying their efforts to “prejudice the public mind against [Chinese] people” and “to enable those who await the opportunity to hunt them down.” But in the matter of just a few decades, a perilous economic situation will make a bad situation even worse for the Chinese.

During the 1870s, the United States enters a period of depression. As unemployment rises, so does violence toward low-paid Chinese laborers. In 1871, a mob of five hundred white men descends on Chinatown in Los Angeles, shooting and lynching twenty Chinese workers.

Soon, the slogan “the Chinese Must Go!” becomes a rallying cry among labor unions. In 1882, following political pressure from these groups, the US government passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States.

The wave of immigration stops, but the violence does not. Soon, racist mobs will resort to dragging the Chinese from their homes, in a bid to forcibly remove them from towns and cities throughout the American West. And in Seattle, this barbaric treatment will erupt into bloody riots, forcing intervention from the highest office in the land.

Act Two: The Tacoma Method

It’s February 6th, 1886, in Seattle, the night before the Riots begin.

A theater in Seattle’s red-light district is hosting a meeting of the Knights of Labor, a workers’ group known for its anti-Chinese activities. Inside the theater, the leader of the Seattle chapter of the group – a man named Daniel Cronin – rails passionately against the continued presence of the Chinese in their town.

By the mid-1880s there are roughly nine-hundred fifty Chinese people in Seattle – about 10% of the population. As in the rest of the American West, hostility towards the Chinese community here has been escalating since the 1870s, when economic depression led to mass unemployment among white workers.

And following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment only increased. As a result of the law, Chinese laborers are now prohibited from entering the country, but those already living here were not required to leave. For many citizens, that remains an untenable position and they've taken matters into their own hands.

Last year, in the mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, a mob of white coal miners armed with Winchester rifles expelled hundreds of Chinese miners from the town, murdering twenty-eight of them in the process.

Two months later, a similar scene unfolded in Tacoma, in the Washington Territory. Armed mobs began marching through Chinatown, ordering its residents to pack their things and leave. Those who resisted were dragged out by force. By the end of the day, Tacoma’s Chinatown was burned to the ground. This violent technique of Chinese expulsion has since become known as “the Tacoma Method.”

Now, in Seattle, the Knights of Labor put their own plan into motion. The morning after the meeting at the theater, members of the organization break into small groups, head to Chinatown, and begin forcing their way into homes. Soon, the sounds of smashing glass, splintering wood, and terrified screams fill the streets.

Before the end of the day, all three-hundred fifty Chinese residents will be forced out of their homes, herded into wagons, and taken to a harbor where a steamship waits to take them away.


On the morning of February 7th, Seattle sheriff John McGraw gallops down Main Street, flanked by armed deputies. When McGraw reaches the docks, he sees a small cluster of terrified Chinese people cowering in front of a baying mob – several thousand strong. The members of the mob struggle to push the last of their Chinese neighbors onto the already-packed steamship.

McGraw elbows his way to the front of the crowd. He clutches a piece of paper in his hand, given to him moments ago by Chief Justice Roger Greene, one of Seattle’s most respected judges. It’s a writ of habeas corpus, a legal document asserting that the Chinese cannot be forced out of Seattle against their will. McGraw explains to the crowd that these people have the right to be brought before a judge.

While his deputies hold back the crowd, McGraw helps the Chinese men, women, and children off the ship. It’s not safe for them to return to Chinatown, so they take shelter in a nearby warehouse.

The following morning, the Chinese residents are escorted to the courthouse by McGraw and his deputies. With a constant background noise of shouts and jeers from the street, Justice Greene sits at his bench and Sheriff McGraw surveys the frightened residents.

Justice Greene called this legal intervention not because he feels any compassion for the Chinese. He once said that “the presence of Chinese [in Seattle] is an evil… but the project of driving them out by lawless violence is suicidal.” Greene fears that depriving the Chinese persons of their liberty could damage Washington Territory’s hopes of acquiring statehood – which it won’t receive for another three years. Justice Greene believes if the Chinese residents are to leave, they must depart of their own free will.

The Chinese residents are not provided with a lawyer. Justice Greene merely asks each of them to confirm that they want to leave. Many do not, but they also recognize that they are no longer safe here. Only a handful of the Chinese residents express their desire to remain in Seattle. The rest confirm that ‘yes, they want to leave.’

And soon, many of the Chinese residents return to the harbor and board the steamship. But their ordeal isn’t yet over. The majority of the departing Chinese fit onto the ship, but there simply isn’t room for all three hundred and fifty of them. The remaining one hundred Chinese residents left on land will have to wait until another ship can be arranged.

So McGraw and his deputies escort the remaining Chinese residents back to Chinatown for the night. On the journey there, a mob of nearly 2,000 angry Seattleites – mainly white men – approaches. McGraw and his deputies form a defensive ring around the innocent Chinese.

The mob tries to force the Chinese back to the dock, but McGraw’s deputies stand firm. The standoff quickly descends into violence. A surge of bodies threatens to overwhelm the police officers’ protective barrier, so McGraw fires a warning shot into the air. But if anything, it only incites the mob further.

But just as McGraw and his deputies are about to lose control and succumb to the crowd, backup arrives. Soldiers in the Seattle Rifles company stationed nearby rush to the support of the officers, and the mob eventually disperses.

But the situation is still volatile, and the Chinese residents are far from safe. Sheriff McGraw alerts Washington’s Governor, Watson C. Squire, to the danger. Governor Squire will not take any chances. He will send an urgent telegram to President Grover Cleveland, asking him to declare a state of emergency in Seattle, and finally, restore order. 

Act Three: State of Emergency

It’s February 9th, 1886.

President Grover Cleveland has just received word that angry mobs in Seattle are attempting to drive out the city’s Chinese population. And apparently, during the night, the situation grew even more violent. The police tried to fend off the rioters with the butts of their rifles, but shots were fired, and at least one of the mob was killed.

President Cleveland, a lawyer by profession, is all too familiar with the acts of lawless violence being perpetrated against Chinese people in the Western parts of the country. The President has sympathy for all unemployed workers, but in his mind, nothing can condone the hate-filled actions of this small minority of agitators.

Soon, President Cleveland sends a message to Watson C. Squire, the Governor of Washington Territory, letting him know that his request for military assistance is granted.

The President immediately declares a state of emergency in Seattle and deploys eight companies of federal troops to quell the simmering unrest. In a few days' time, a second steamship will arrive and take away the last of the departing Chinese. But the presence of federal troops does little to ease the people of Seattle’s hatred toward the remaining Chinese population.

Those who stayed behind will face decades of persecution and hostility. But in the end, the Chinese community of Seattle will persevere. In 1962, nearly seventy years after the Seattle Riots, a Chinese-American named Wing Luke will be elected to the Seattle City Council, becoming the first Asian American to hold office in the Pacific Northwest.

Today, efforts to publicly acknowledge what happened in Seattle in 1886 are being championed by Bettie Luke, Wing Luke’s sister and a board member of the Seattle Chapter of the Chinese Americans Citizens Alliance. In 2019, Bettie launched a campaign to install a mural near the Seattle waterfront, depicting the events of 1886, in an effort to educate people about the horrific riots, which were brought to an end on February 9th, 1886.


Next on History Daily.February 10th, 1962. At the height of the Cold War, on a frigid east German bridge, America and Soviet Union swap spies.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.