The ballot to choose the delegates to the 1879 California Constitutional Convention. The cartoon and caricature at the top of the ballot should leave no doubt as to the Workingmen's Party's position on Chinese immigration. You can see all 34 delegate candidates from Santa Cruz County in Chinese Gold:The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region, page 121. Original in collection of Santa Cruz City Museum.
The Drought of 1876-77: The Chinese Must Go!
Just like the crevices that open in the bottoms of ponds and lakes during a drought, dry periods in California also widened pre-existing ethnic, racial and economic fissures. And, when drought coincided with national or international economic depression, violence was often the result. As we saw in the mid-1850s when a national depression aligned with a nasty drought, murder and lynchings swept across the Monterey Bay Region.
As the 1860s ended, the torment of the 1860s (I characterize it as the 1860s Smackdown – see Drought III) with its flood, drought, Civil War and smallpox epidemic was past, and the new decade opened with promise and hope. Agriculture was beginning to diversify as sugar beets entered the region, and the Southern Pacific Railroad extended their standard gauge railroad to Salinas in 1872 and there was a small building boom around Monterey Bay.
The Panic of 1873. Then, wouldn't you know, an 1873 banking collapse in Vienna swept across the Atlantic, through New York, and to California. Between 1873 and 1875, 18,000 businesses in the US failed. Mills and factories cut back their production and finally closed, and railroad workers launched what was later known as The Great Railroad Strike. Money dried up. Then, in California, so did the skies.
The Drought of 1876-77 For 19 months (April, 1876 through October, 1877) regional rainfall was fitful, dropping into single digits. Inland valleys were particularly hard hit. Lumber companies had no markets and they shut down their mills. But even if they had been able to find customers, the stream flows in the Santa Cruz Mountains were too low for them to operate. Lumber yards were empty.
As Duncan MacPherson, the editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel described it, Santa Cruz was "in the dumps." And, as if the drought of 1864-5 didn't convince most cattle ranchers to get out of the business this one did. The hay crop over in Hollister was so short that one wag suggested that they had to "lather it before they mow it." By the spring of 1877, the Flint-Bixby ranchers in the San Juan valley began killing older horses to preserve the feed for their cattle and sheep. Some Monterey County ranchers drove their cattle up on the Santa Cruz County North Coast where there was still a little feed remaining.
The Horns of the Scapegoat passed to the Chinese.
Californians were never very good at sorting out the complexities of economic cycles, and as they looked around for some to BLAME – all this HAD to be somebody's fault, after all – they settled on corporations (as personified by the "The Octopus" – the Southern Pacific Railroad) and those who labored for them – Chinese immigrants.
Chinese contract strawberry growers, Pajaro Valley, c. 1880. From the late 1860s into the 1890s, Chinese farm laborers were the dominant agricultural labor force in the region. Japanese immigrants began to replace them in the fields in the 1890s.
Lest you think that the recent discussions about putting a wall along the southern border of the US is a new idea, this editorial cartoon from the 1880s also makes clever use of the well-known Chinese Wall.
San Francisco, September 7, 2015. Over a half-dozen graffiti were found that morning around San Francisco.
The Chinese were an easy target – distinctive in their dress, persons, language and customs, and represented by a native land that was helpless while being flayed open by colonial powers, the Chinese offered a way to get at the monopolies. If the Chinese could be encouraged to leave and Federal laws could be passed to stop their immigration, it might hurt the large corporations.
The Workingmen's Party – In 1877, out of this toxic mélange emerged a third political party composed of workingmen vowing to re-make California politics. Led by Irish immigrant (and naturalized US Citizen) Denis Kearny, whose brogue made his speeches almost unintelligible to his audiences, the Workingmen's Party used the cessation of Chinese immigration as one of their major appeals to California voters.
The mid-1870s recession and the sharp but brief drought brought the Chinese into the cause-of-it-all immigrant-bashing crosshairs where they remained well into the 20th century.
The Referendum of 1879 – We don't want the Chinese coming here. We usually can't tell just how people feel about things and public opinion polls aren't really dependable, but in the statewide vote to ratify the new very anti-Chinese California Constitution in 1879, the legislature tacked on a question about the public's opinion about continued Chinese immigration. Lest there be any doubt how people felt in their private hearts about the Chinese, the California voters (male) voted overwhelmingly against further Chinese immigration in that election with the vote statewide a staggering 94% opposed. In the Monterey Bay Region, of the 5,828 votes cast on the immigration question, only seven (7) voted in favor of continuing Chinese immigration.
Chinese Exclusion Act – 1882
Using the results of the referendum and their own strident voices in Washington, California's legislators eventually convinced Congress to pass and the President to sign (May, 1882) a landmark immigration law that, for the first and only time in US History, singled out an ethnic group to be excluded from immigrating to the US. The focus of the law was on Chinese laborers, as merchants and scholars were not covered by the law. (Many immigrant groups were later excluded, but those restrictions were based on country of origin, not ethnicity or race.)
The Japanese will replace the Chinese in the fields - Following the 1882 Exclusion Act, with a predominantly male population with no new laboring immigrants allowed, the Chinese population in the region dropped dramatically. Their replacements in the fields would eventually come from Japan, and by the early 20th century they too would find themselves wearing the Horns of the Scapegoat.
The Drought-Wildfire Cycle – The other and very obvious result of regional droughts short and long sees the countryside catch on fire. The wildfires in the 1876-77 drought came early, with descriptions of brush and forest fires common as early as June of 1877. Most of the reported fires occurred in Monterey County, on the east side of the Santa Lucias.
Rainfall Returns – Winter 1877-1878
And then, as often happens with the Boom and Bust weather that matches the Boom and Bust California temperament, the drought that saw around 4 inches of rainfall over the winter of 1876-1877 in places like Salinas and Hollister saw their rain gauges fill to overflowing the following winter with over 20 inches of rain, almost double their seasonal average. Happy Days had returned, but for the Chinese their painful journey to the margins of local and regional society had just begun.
Post Script 2015: The anti-Chinese virus that emerged in California's body politic in the 1870s lies dormant. Sometimes national or international events will revive it. Or the shifting neighborhood demographics in cities and towns. On September 7, 2015, San Franciscans awoke to find a number of fences and buildings tagged with the phrase "No More Chinese." The beat goes on.