Butte County California Chinese Immigrants
Michele Shover estimates that the Chinese comprised ten percent of the population of the small agricultural town of Chico (fewer than 4,000 inhabitants) during the late nineteenth century (Shover 1996b:1B). The political center of power consisted of mostly white males. Elected officials and merchants were divided among the prominent male majority of the town. Decisions by white law enforcement, jurors, justices of the peace, and the town constables were made according to local statutes and sprinkled with long histories of prejudicial feelings. Before and somewhat after the Civil War, Chinese people had been shunted to eastern outlying areas of the town to live, unless they worked as a servant in a white person’s home or owned or worked for a Chinese merchant. Another Chinese community had grown large near the Central Pacific depot, mostly after the first was destroyed by fire.
From 1875 through the 1890’s, anti-Chinese violence and crime gripped the lives of Chinese people living in Chico and the surrounding countryside (Mansfield 1918:274-276; Shover 1996a:1B). Vigilante murders of four Chinese workers on the Lemm Ranch three miles east of town and the murder of two Chinese men in a mining camp nine miles from Chico are the most well known. A Chico Anti-Chinese Association was formed in January of 1886 (Peery 1968:57). This organization resolved and ultimately made good on threats to boycott all white establishments employing Chinese laborers. The Order of Caucasians, another less violent group, was formed in the very late 1880’s. They opposed the Chinese living in all of Butte County but wanted to force their withdrawal through legal means. This group was led by many prominent people in the town, some merchants, the publisher of a local newspaper, and even law enforcement officers.
To protect themselves from the lawlessness and violence, the Chinese people began to conduct around-the-clock watches, bought guns to protect themselves, and established an underground “safe house” at the new Chinatown quarters (Shover 1996a:1B) on Cherry and Orange streets. During one period the Chinese also hired their own “watchman,” former policeman Benjamin True, who could speak Chinese. He often represented the Chinese grievances to largely uninterested white authorities. The 1880 census for California, census place Chico, Butte County, shows True (30), a constable, one of eighteen people living in the Able Wood & Ira Wetherbee Hotel (on Second Street) in Chico.
Many references in this study will be to the Chinese “Old Town” situated near Flume and Orient between 5th and 6th Streets. Chico’s “New Town” consisted of commercial establishments and individual or group dwellings located on Cherry Street (running alongside the Central Pacific railroad tracks) between west 7th and 8th Streets. Old Town was constructed right after the Civil War (about 1865) on what then was the eastern edge of Chico close to farming and lumbering/manufacturing jobs. New Town was built in the early 1890’s, not coincidentally during the time leading to the passing of the more discriminatory Geary Act. Old Town burned in 1883 but was partially rebuilt (none of it remains today). Old Town was rebuilt to an extent--shops, buildings, houses--but it never returned to its former population and influence. The remnants of this older community burned in 1944. New Town burned in 1938 under suspicious circumstances that were never investigated (none of it remains today).