Butte County California Chinese Immigrants




At best, these faulty numbers suggest 2,716 immigrants came in 1851; 20,026 in 1852; 4,270 in 1853; 16,084 in 1854. By 1860, 73,890 immigrant people of Chinese descent had been counted coming through this one port. The year before and some years after exclusion the commissioner-general of immigration published some interesting numbers, 1881—11,890; 1882—39,579;1883—8,031; 1884---279; 1885—22; 1886—40; 1887—10; 1888—26; 1889—118; 1890—1,716. Our study of Butte County tabulated the official population as being 1880—3,793; 1890—1,530; and 1900—712.

California did not count the Chinese in its first official census in 1850 (Jiobu 1988:32,33). Groups of Chinese miners, however, are known to have been present in Butte County by the early 1850s (their names are listing on the first mining registrations throughout the Feather River drainage), even though they were not “officially” here. By 1852 the registrations for mining permits substantiate a large Chinese population was mining in a bluff below Ophir (later town name changed to Oroville) at “Bagdad” part of a larger area called the Lava Beds (Mansfield 1918:119). (Mansfield’s sources for his 1918 history of Butte County, California were confined to his rewriting the published nineteenth century newspaper accounts and biographies paid for by white elites). As such, this secondary authorship is subject to not only extreme bias widely exhibited in nineteenth century newspapers and other written media but to hearsay and folklore embellishments).

Writers disagree as to how many Chinese nationals were in California mining in those first years. They comprised maybe one percent of the California miners in 1850 (Jiobu 1988:34). Bancroft (1888:335) wrote that for the year 1850 the total was 787. Monaco (1986:52) on the other hand says there were 2,700 Chinese miners in the whole state. Bancroft (1888:335) also wrote that the Chinese miners in the state increased to 7,512 in 1852 and was 18,026 eight months later. By 1860 Chinese miners were, reportedly, 29 percent of all who were mining (Jiobu 1988:34), 1,500 being dispersed in Butte County (Monaco 1986:52). During the 1870s the Chinese reportedly comprised more than 5 percent of the California miners (Jiobu 1988:34,36) and were 25 percent of the state’s labor force. The percentage of the Chinese who were working as miners decreased steadily downward to about one-third (Chan 1984:286), of necessity they had branched out into other work.

Data from the federal census returns (1860 through 1910) show that the California’s Chinese population fluctuated considerably, increasing from 34,000 in 1860, to 75,000 in 1880, and thereafter decreasing to 36,000 by 1910 (Jiobu 1988:33). Political pressures and restrictive immigration laws (they also excluded Chinese women) and a low number of births were largely responsible for the decline of the Chinese population in the state. The Chinese population of Butte County had dwindled to 572 by 1910 (reported by Mansfield 1918:391). (Census totals regarding Chinese born in China or in other countries-including the United States- are tenuous at best). The census marshals and later enumerators found people in dwellings but the exact whereabouts of those dwellings cannot be verified. No maps of the census districts of Butte County were made until 1910. Chinese names found in non-Chinese sources consist of “AH’ or “A” before the personal given name. Much of the time first and last names were jumbled or otherwise transposed and given names were adopted as first names. Alpha listings were often turned upside down because names were listed in alphabetical order under “Ah”.

The majority of Chinese migration to California embarked from coastal Chinese territory. Most came because of war and famine had ravaged the economic vitality and populations of Canton and Macau (in Guangdong province). Large groups from these geographic areas responding to the “gold rush” mentality forsaking a landless, poverty filled life in their homeland for economic success.

Later, laborers from the same area were recruited for large reclamation, railroad, and mining projects. As these opportunities were lost through racial and social discrimination and political meddling, many turned to other laboring tasks. By the 1870’s, the Chinese people who had stayed in California had already worked in the gardening, shoe and cigar manufacturing, fish and shellfish harvesting and processing, domestic service and laundries, importing and selling Chinese goods, restaurants, land reclamation, some increase in mining, and railroad building. As a minority, the Chinese was a subordinate segment of a complex society with European-Americans as powerful overlords and employers, enjoying no civil rights or protections provided by local, state, or federal governments.

For several years between 1873 and 1880 Oroville’s white population witnessed a resurgence of Chinese mining efforts in the Lava Beds (two miles south of Oroville). Chinese miners had always been a part of the whole Feather River watershed, but if newspaper accounts are to be believed thousands of Chinese lived and mined for gold in this area.

As our search for this population progressed, we examined state and local records and newspaper articles that suggested that large groups of Chinese immigrants lived in or near Oroville and the surrounding settlements to the south and west. Retail establishments and dwellings were built around the community solely based on extraction of gold from thousands of acres of lava cap.