150 years ago, 19 Chinese Angelenos were murdered in California

In October 1871, a frenzied mob was responsible for one of the largest lynching in Western U.S. history.

 

Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown at the north end of Los Angeles Street, near where 19 innocent Chinese men and boys were murdered in 1871.
Los Angeles Public Library

On the evening of Oct. 24, 1871, a mob of 500 people, seething with racial resentment, rampaged through Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown, shooting, stabbing and hanging 19 innocent Chinese men and boys. A crowd of Angelenos watched and cheered, “Hang them! Hang them!” according to Chinese American historian Iris Chang in her 2003 book, The Chinese in America. It wiped out 10% of the town’s Chinese population — perhaps one of the largest mass lynching events in the West and one of the worst acts of racial violence the West has ever seen.

This year marks the massacre’s 150th anniversary. Recently, the Chinese American Museum, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles and other institutions in the city hosted in-person exhibitions and online programs highlighting the little-known history and remembering the 19 murdered Angelenos.  

A scene from Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown around the turn of the 20th century. Chinese Angelenos faced immense discrimination, counties issued eviction notices to Chinese miners and slapped punitive taxes on Chinese-owned businesses.

In 1848, news of the discovery of gold near California’s Sacramento River spread across the world. Dazzled by tales of immediate riches, many Chinese people from coastal provinces crossed the Pacific on boats bound for America’s West Coast. By the early 1850s, they were arriving by the thousands. Building a new life was challenging, but as Chang’s book noted, “The greatest threat would come not from the harshness of nature,” but from “the racism endemic to their beloved ‘Gold Mountain.’” 

In 1854, a California Supreme Court ruling in a case involving a white man who killed a Chinese miner in Nevada County, California, established that people of Chinese descent could not testify in court. (Indigenous Americans and Black people were already unable to testify.) As historian Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer put it, “This decision opened the way for almost every sort of discrimination against the Chinese.” Assault, robbery and murder “could be perpetrated against them with impunity.” During the same period, California counties issued eviction notices to Chinese miners and slapped punitive taxes on Chinese-owned businesses. 

Despite their many contributions to the development of the colonized West — including the building of the Transcontinental Railroad — few people of Chinese descent were eligible to vote. The small number of American-born male children of Chinese immigrants who had access to the ballot box were too few to make a difference. When the United States slid into a depression in the 1870s, the Chinese community was scapegoated — blamed for high unemployment. California politicians promoted anti-Chinese sentiments in their election campaigns, culminating in open violence like the massacre of 1871, researchers Eric Fong and William Markham found in a 2002 study on anti-Chinese politics. 

“This decision opened the way for almost every sort of discrimination against the Chinese.” 

Amid rising anti-Chinese sentiment across the West, a white mob ransacked Denver's Chinatown on Halloween in 1880. The mob beat one Chinese man to death, injured dozens more, and destroyed Chinese homes and businesses.
Museum of Chinese in America

By then, the racial hatred had been simmering for decades in Los Angeles, then a frontier town of 6,000 people. Newspapers like the Los Angeles News and Los Angeles Star called Chinese residents “an inferior and idolatrous race” and even “barbarians,” further stoking the racism that led to the massacre.  

According to local press coverage, the 19 victims included a respected doctor, who begged for his life in English and Spanish before he was hanged. In early 1872, the case was brought to trial, and nine men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to between two and six years in prison. But in April 1873, astonishingly, California’s Supreme Court overruled the decision and released the men on a technicality.  

Today, 150 years later, LA’s Union Station stands in the place of the city’s Old Chinatown. In front of the Chinese American Museum, on the ground where the massacre happened, a plaque commemorates the episode in English and Chinese. “The incident is one of the most significant riots in U.S. history,” the Chinese caption reads. “Since the mid-19th century, racial discrimination has had a deep impact on people of Chinese descent.”  

Today, the Chinese community is seeing a new surge of hate. Many historians believe that education and special events, including exhibitions about the massacre, can encourage meaningful dialogue. “It’s distressing to see in the current days the ongoing violence against Asian Americans and Chinese Americans,” said Eugene Moy, a board member and former president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. “It is clear that we need this proactive effort to admit and reconcile these historic errors.”

Wufei Yu is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This story was updated to clarify that this was one of the largest lynching events in the West, not the largest.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.