The Chinese in Eastern Oregon
The case of Chinese immigrants in Eastern Oregon is especially interesting, in that Chinese faced much lesser problems with discrimination here, as they were perceived as not competing with whites for jobs. Most Chinese in Eastern Oregon were miners, and they tyically mined claims that had been abandoned by whites. Railroad construction also drew some Chinese to Eastern Oregon.
Placer mining, or mining the sediment on riverbeds, was the first major draw to populate Eastern Oregon. Though gold was discovered in 1852, mining of alluvial deposits did not begin until 1861. Placer mining drew whites and Chinese alike. The mines were mostly depleted by the late 1870s, resulting in an exodus from the area. The building of the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s provided some transient employment, but after that Eastern Oregon settled down to a mostly low-density, agrarian population. Chinese all but disappeared from Eastern Oregon once the railroads were completed.
Gold first drew Chinese to the US in 1848, when it was discovered in California. The Gold Rush drew many thousands of people, whites and Chinese alike. Soon, a labor glut in California led to increased anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese miners and other workers in California were subject to high taxes, legal restrictions, discrimination, and violence. Many Chinese fled north to Eastern Oregon in the 1860s when gold mining began there.
Discrimination, taxes, and a constitutional ban on Chinese owning or working mining claims were all present in Oregon, but failed to prevent Chinese immigration. The constitutional ban was largely ignored, and many Chinese were sold mining claims or employed in the mines. Additionally, though anti-Chinese sentiment was present, actual violence was uncommon.
Chinese typically purchased claims that had already been mined by whites. Placer mining was difficult labor, and Whites typically became impatient and moved on to new claims when an area stopped yielding larger, easily found nuggets of gold. Chinese then moved in, purchasing claims or taking over abandoned ones, and combed them for smaller bits of gold. Though the return was lower, it was adequate, and this way of life avoided discrimination because it was not seen as direct competition with whites.
Placer mining was a process that required large amounts of water, a scarce resource in dry Eastern Oregon. Many mining companies were forced to build canals to bring water to their operations, and much of the labor for their construction was Chinese. One of these, near Prairie City, remains and still holds the moniker "China Ditch".
Mining began to decline in Eastern Oregon in the 1870s, but the Chinese mining population increased as more partially-mined claims were abandoned. Many towns were first settled by whites, who were then replaced by Chinese as returns began to drop, and then finally became ghost towns as the last bits of gold were extracted. The Chinese generally left Eastern Oregon in the 1880s and 1890s, though a few remained to take up farming.
Mining constituted more than three-fourths of Chinese employment in Eastern Oregon in the late 19th century. The main other source of employment for Chinese was the building of the railroads, most notably along the Columbia River. Other sources of income for the Chinese included cooking, laundry work, menial labor, retail, and prostitution. Chinese in Eastern Oregon often congregated in small Chinatown communities in Canyon City, John Day, Baker City, and Auburn.
A history of Chinese Immigration to Oregon
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