Between Prejudice and Profit

The post-expulsion saga of the Chinese workers at the Eel River Cannery



Editor's note: In memory of this month's anniversary of the expulsion of Chinese residents from Eureka, the Journal is looking back at a controversy from that unfortunate chapter of Humboldt County history. Be advised that this story contains offensive and racist language in historical quotations.

Early in the year 1886, Ferndale and many other Humboldt County towns followed in the footsteps of Eureka by expelling their Chinese residents. Eureka's now infamous expulsion of its 300-plus Chinese residents took place one year earlier, in early February of 1885.

The Eureka expulsion took place at the height of the economic "Panic of 1884," when more than 1 million workers became unemployed nationwide. During the depression that lasted from 1882 through 1885, and the earlier "Long Depression" of 1873 to 1879, primarily white labor organizations, like the Workingmen's Party and the Knights of Labor, scapegoated immigrant Chinese workers, blaming them for the loss of white jobs. This racial scapegoating was heightened by employers' frequent practice of using Chinese workers as strike-breakers.

The expulsions of Chinese people from Eureka and Humboldt County took place in the context of widespread economically-motivated racist violence throughout the western United States. What took place here was not unique. What was unique, however, was the duration of Humboldt's government-supported, anti-Asian racism. "The unwritten law of Humboldt forbidding Chinese immigration," as the editor of The Ferndale Enterprise described it in 1889, would survive until after World War II.

At an anti-Chinese town meeting held in Ferndale's Good Templars Hall on Feb. 10, 1886, participants resolved that, "The time has come when an active and persistent effort should be made to rid our state of its Chinese population."

Four years later, when the 1890-1891 History and Business Directory of Humboldt County was published, it declared: "There is not a Chinaman in Humboldt County, except in the mines on the Klamath River, and through the extreme northern portion, and they are only there because of the isolation of those localities." According to the writer of the History and Business Directory, no Chinese people remained in "all that portion of Humboldt County which is, so to speak, within the domain of civilization."

A drawing detailing a cannery workforce in Astoria, Oregon, circa 1887 - UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON LIBRARIES, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CUR1244
  • University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, CUR1244
  • A drawing detailing a cannery workforce in Astoria, Oregon, circa 1887

The 1890 publication may have been correct in its claim that the only remaining Chinese residents in the county at that time lived in "the extreme northern portion." But the story of Humboldt's 1880s Chinese exclusion is more complex than generally realized today. Particularly in Ferndale, in the vicinity of the salmon cannery at the mouth of the Eel River, the "Chinese question" continued to be vigorously debated throughout the 1880s.

The cannery, which first opened in 1877, was a seasonal operation, tied to the Eel's annual salmon-fishing season. The work of manufacturing cans and packing salmon typically took place from October to December. From the beginning, the cannery (located about 4 miles from Ferndale) was owned and operated by the Cutting Packing Co. of San Francisco. This company was a major player in the West Coast canning industry, operating multiple fish-packing and fruit-packing canneries in various locations, including San Francisco and Astoria, Oregon. Members of the management team usually arrived in Humboldt during the summer months to take care of any needed repairs and upgrades at the cannery, while the cannery's workers were primarily Chinese men from work crews based in San Francisco. These men arrived in Humboldt by steamship in September or October, and usually had left the county again by the middle of December.

On Oct. 15, 1886, The Ferndale Enterprise published an editorial titled "The Chinese Again." In it, Enterprise editor Edward B. Carr wrote, "The arrival of twenty Chinese from San Francisco for the Eel River Cannery last Thursday, was the means of bringing the Chinese question into prominent discussion again in this county." The "Committee of Fifteen," businessmen and civic leaders who had directed the expulsion of 300-plus Chinese residents of Eureka, met again and sent a telegram to Ferndale inquiring "the opinion of the people here on the matter, and what was proposed to be done." Carr wrote that public sentiment in Ferndale was divided, but that "all agreed, however, that no effectual steps could be taken without overstepping the law, as the Chinese had already landed, and there the matter rested, the Chinese now being at work."

Editor Carr went on to state that

... the anti-Chinese sentiment is strong within us, yet we do not believe in cutting our nose off to spite our face. After an investigation we find that to deprive the Cutting Packing Company of Chinese help at this time would result in closing down the cannery for the season. Such an event would be a catastrophe indeed ... A large number of white men are engaged in fishing on the river, and they rely upon the cannery to buy their fish. To close the cannery down would be to work these men a great hardship.

Carr further reported that a representative of the company's management had promised "this would be the last year that Chinese would be brought to Eel River; that if arrangements could not be made to have the work done by white men, the cannery would remain closed." In addition, the Chinese workers had been notified "not to leave the cannery grounds, and at the end of the fishing season, he would see to it that every Chinaman brought here by him would leave the county."

Later appeared in a whitewashed form. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Later appeared in a whitewashed form.

Despite this commitment to hire only white workers, news reached Humboldt the next summer that the Cutting Packing Co. planned to operate the cannery with a Chinese workforce, as usual. On the night of Aug. 20, 1887, as The Enterprise reported in its Aug. 26 issue, Ferndalers held a public meeting "for the purpose of considering the question of the re-introduction of Chinese into the county, or more specifically, the return of the Chinese to operate the Eel River cannery."

Lawyer J. D. H. Chamberlin from Eureka addressed the meeting, emphatically advising the people of Ferndale to "keep the Chinese out, lawfully if they could, but if they could not do it lawfully to do it unlawfully" (a somewhat startling statement to be made by a lawyer). The Enterprise reported, "a motion carried that all who were against the re-introduction of Chinese labor to the county rise to their feet, the result of which was nearly the whole audience arose." One meeting participant, Ferndale lawyer and Civil War veteran Plumer F. Hart, moved that "all those who were opposed to using unlawful means to exclude the Chinese rise to their feet. A small minority arose, but when the nays were called the majority of those present stood up." The Enterprise writer stated that this willingness to use unlawful means was "a result we greatly regret."

The votes taken at this meeting ignited widespread controversy throughout the Ferndale region, as can be seen from letters to the editor in The Ferndale Enterprise. Hart, in a letter printed Aug. 26, vigorously denounced those who voted in favor of "unlawful means," saying such men were "ready to take oaths to support the constitution and our laws so long as it suits them" but considered themselves "at liberty to incite murder and arson on account of supposed grievances." Hart continued,

It is high time to consider whether we are collectively a mob ... or whether we are free men, and governed by law. We cannot shut our eyes to such things and say they are imaginary. The meeting of Saturday night and its fruits are before us. It is not a question of Chinese or no Chinese. It is a question of an arrogant, insolent mob, who openly insult people who happen to think that upon law and order rest our happiness and prosperity.

The debate over the 40 or so San Francisco-based cannery workers raged on vehemently in The Enterprise's pages the following week.

In its Sept. 2, 1887 edition, The Enterprise printed several letters about the controversial Aug. 20 anti-Chinese meeting, Hart's letter and whether the Cutting Packing Co. of San Francisco had the right to employ Chinese workers 4 miles from Ferndale.

German-born Ferndale cabinet-maker Franz Weyrich, who had attended the Aug. 20 meeting, wrote to The Enterprise objecting to Hart's claim that the supporters of unlawful means were "socialists and anarchists," and gave detailed dictionary definitions of both terms. Hart's fellow Civil War veteran George Washington Byard, a farmer at Table Bluff, wrote in praise of Hart's letter, which he described as "gospel truth." Byard asked whether the nation had been saved in the Civil War only to "now be turned over to a worthless rabble." He declared,

Let every foreign-born citizen on American soil today, that countenances mob power remember that if mob power is used against one race of people and winked at by the government, a precedent is established, and ... this same fearful engine of wrath may be turned against them. I am truly glad so many refuse to countenance the proceedings of that mass meeting. Fellow citizens, resolve to do right though the heavens fall.

A Eureka resident who signed their letter "A Taxpayer" demanded, "Is Humboldt County to be guided by law and order or by the will of the 'Bully Fifteen?'" in reference to the Eureka civic leaders who directed the city's 1885 Chinese expulsion. The anonymous "Taxpayer" continued,

Cutting Packing Company are the owners of a salmon cannery on Eel River. They bought the land and fishing privileges, and built up the business with their own money, and pay their taxes, and are entitled to the same protection under the law as any other law-abiding citizen. Shall they be deprived of their property and the profits of their business by the resolutions of a midnight conclave sitting in the city of Eureka? We all know that there are many people in this place who are unreasonably jealous of any enterprise that promises to contribute to the prosperity of Ferndale or its immediate vicinity. ... If Cutting Packing Company come to Eel River this season with their force of skilled workmen — Chinamen and white men — they will disburse twenty or thirty thousand dollars more money and give employment to 75 or 100 more white men at good wages than will otherwise be expended or employed during this fishing season.

Through all these arguments, depicting the controversy as law versus lawlessness or business interests versus mob rule, little attention was paid to the Chinese workers themselves. However, "A Taxpayer" did remark at the close of their letter, "There is no probability that any Chinese employed by the company would take the chances of locating in Humboldt County."

N. W. Tallant, president of the Cutting Packing Co., also wrote a letter printed in the Sept. 2 Enterprise, stating, in part,

Salmon fishers along the Eel River with their catch, circa 1912. - HUMBOLDT COUNTY PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, CAL POLY HUMBOLDT UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
  • Humboldt County Photograph Collection, Cal Poly Humboldt University Library
  • Salmon fishers along the Eel River with their catch, circa 1912.

Our white employes [sic] have been almost exclusively residents of Humboldt County. We have repeatedly offered to employ any residents of Humboldt County who could do any portion of the work performed by Chinese, but we have never had any application for such work.

The work referred to has never been satisfactorily done by white men; for proof of this we will cite the fact that the work mentioned is done exclusively by Chinese by every salmon cannery on the Pacific coast ...

Tallant argued it was "manifestly unreasonable and unjust" for Humboldt County residents to single out his company and "attempt to force them to employ exclusively white men, thus putting them in hopeless competition with every other salmon cannery on the coast."

Tallant continued by pointing out, "The Chinese employed by us have quarters near the cannery at an isolated point on Eel River. The fishing season rarely lasts over two months, when all the Chinese are returned to San Francisco, as we have been doing for the past eight years." Tallant concluded his letter with a rare defense of the Chinese workers themselves: "During their residence at Eel River they purchase liberally of the produce of the neighborhood, and we refer to our neighbors without fear of an unfavorable report as to their character as quiet and peaceable men."

The controversy continued, as shown by a second letter from the Cutting Packing Co. which was printed in the Sept. 23, 1887 Enterprise. The company wrote,

We have carried on this business in your county since 1877, disbursing a good deal of money among, and giving employment to, many of your people, and have had very pleasant relations with many of your citizens, but ... We can place our capital in the promotion of this and other industries in other localities where we are heartily welcomed, and do not care to go where we are not.

We have before explained that to warrant conducting the business at all salmon, canners must rely somewhat upon Chinese help. These have all gone out of the county as soon as the work is done, and no laborer can truthfully say his position has been made worse therefrom. On the contrary, as we desire all to understand, of $36,000 disbursed in 1886, $4,500 went to Chinamen.

The company's letter closed on a bitterly sarcastic note: "If it is for the best interests of the county, and is deemed wise that $31,500 be kept from reaching white people lest $4,500 reach Chinese, we ought to be willing to abide by such wisdom if the county can."

Roberts Hall, at left in this 1882 drawing, was the location of an anti-Chinese meeting held Aug. 20, 1887. Roberts Hall is now Ferndale's Portuguese Hall. - FILE
  • File
  • Roberts Hall, at left in this 1882 drawing, was the location of an anti-Chinese meeting held Aug. 20, 1887. Roberts Hall is now Ferndale's Portuguese Hall.

Whether the county as a whole was willing to "abide by such wisdom" or not, people in the Ferndale region were impressed by the packing company's argument. The Enterprise reported Oct. 7, "There has been a radical change in public sentiment since the notorious mass meeting held at Roberts Hall a few weeks ago." The Enterprise stated, "many of our best citizens have arrived at the conclusion that the cannery should be allowed to run," speaking in favor of "the right of any citizen to conduct his own business as he sees fit so long as he confines himself to the laws that govern this county." In addition, "The foolish threats that have frequently been made in connection with this matter have also had a great deal to do with changing public sentiment."

On Oct. 28, Enterprise editor Carr wrote sharply in answer to statements made in another newspaper: "The Humboldt Mail severely criticizes the people of this section who are not opposed to the return of Chinese to the Eel River cannery, and brands them as enemies to the entire commonwealth, actuated only by the desire for personal gain." Carr argued the people of Ferndale and the vicinity were "as strongly anti-Chinese in sentiment" as anyone else in the county, but, "They do not, however, believe in crippling the fishing industry on Eel River for the purpose of keeping a few Chinamen out of the country for six weeks' time." Carr added, "A little reason in all matters is not a bad thing, and we think a trifle of calm deliberation on the part of the Mail editor will suffice to quiet him down."

Once again, for the 1887 fishing season the packing at the Eel River cannery was done by a crew of Chinese workmen. But the conflict on this issue was far from over.

During the Eel River salmon-fishing season of 1888, the San Francisco-based Cutting Packing Co. chose not to operate their Eel River cannery near Ferndale. Although The Ferndale Enterprise said nothing specific about why the cannery wasn't operating, it seems likely the company's management had lost patience with Humboldt County's anti-Chinese activists. As the Cutting Packing Co. wrote in an 1887 letter to The Enterprise's editor, the company "did not care" to operate the cannery at the mouth of the Eel River "unless the substantial citizens ... desire us to come, bringing some of our help with us, as heretofore."

In that fall of 1888, with the cannery not operating, Eel River salmon fishers had to salt their catch so it could be sent for sale in San Francisco. The Enterprise reported on Nov. 23, 1888,

Those who are prepared to salt their catch will make money this season, but those who are not will not do so well. Mr. Adams, who is salting at the cannery ... is now paying $20 per ton, just half of what was paid last season. The fact of the cannery not running limits the market, and those not prepared to salt are left to either ship to San Francisco fresh or sell their fish for what they can get to those who can handle them. Were the cannery running, all the fish caught could be disposed of ... .

The following year, this terse commentary was printed in the Oct. 4, 1889, Enterprise: "The Eel River cannery is to run this fall, workmen already being engaged in making the needed repairs. Our fishermen are very glad of this fact, as they tried it one year without the cannery, and did not do very well." On Oct. 25, the Enterprise reported the cannery "started operations Wednesday, the manager, Mr. Fred Kendall and the Chinese crew having arrived on Sunday's Humboldt. ... The company this year is paying $40 a ton for salmon, and with an average run in the river, all connected with the industry will do well."

An aerial view of the mouth of the Eel River, around where the Eel River Cannery stood in the late 1800s. - HUMBOLDT COUNTY PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, CAL POLY HUMBOLDT UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
  • Humboldt County Photograph Collection, Cal Poly Humboldt University Library
  • An aerial view of the mouth of the Eel River, around where the Eel River Cannery stood in the late 1800s.

As might have been expected, the presence of "the Chinese crew" set off a firestorm of controversy, finding expression in the pages of Humboldt's many newspapers. Enterprise editor Carr — who, ironically, held anti-Chinese sentiments himself and had been a delegate to a statewide anti-Chinese convention a few years earlier — was attacked in print by the editors of papers such as Fortuna's Eel River Valley Advance and the Eureka-based Western Watchman. The Watchman wrote (as quoted in the Nov. 1, 1889 Enterprise), "The editor of the Ferndale ENTERPRISE is delighted at having the yellow men around him again. He ought to live in Chinatown, S.F." To this, Carr snapped back that in that case, the Watchman's own subscribers in the Ferndale area should go live in Chinatown, as well, since they "hold the same opinion regarding the return of the Chinese who operate the Eel River cannery as does the editor of the ENTERPRISE."

Carr editorialized in the Nov. 1 issue: "Some of our county exchanges, the Standard, Herald, et al, are indulging in a good deal of useless talk regarding the return of the Chinese to operate the Eel River cannery ... a person would think, after perusing some of their articles that 10,000 almond-eyed heathens stood in waiting on the San Francisco docks with their baggage checked for Humboldt." After further sneering at the other newspapers' reports of a "terrible Chinese invasion," Carr emphasized,

In six or seven weeks the Chinese will be gone from Humboldt, the county will have been done no harm by their temporary presence here, and Ferndale and the lower Eel River will be much better off ... . If no greater violation of the unwritten law of Humboldt forbidding Chinese immigration occurs than the one in question, we will never have the Chinese permanently among us again, nor have them engaged in any industry in which their presence will prove a detriment to white labor.

This war of words continued in the Humboldt newspapers throughout November. In a Nov. 29 editorial responding to articles in Eureka's Humboldt Standard newspaper, Carr again made his point:

The Chinese are here for but about two months, and do not seek to gain a permanent residence in the county. They are working in an institution where white men were never employed, and instead of depriving white men of work, their presence here in this particular instance creates work for at least a hundred white men. The cannery company will not operate the cannery unless they are allowed to bring their Chinese skilled help to run it with, and unless the cannery runs there is no profit in fishing for those engaged in that industry.

Also in the Nov. 29 Enterprise, Carr fired back at articles by Eel River Advance editor Leon Stinson:

And now comes the ADVANCE worrying about the ENTERPRISE and the cannery Chinamen, stating that we ought to be proud of the position we have taken in this matter. And so we are, Bro. Stinson, and were you possessed of all the facts in the matter, which evidently you are not, you would pursue the same course as we have taken, providing you had back-bone enough to stand up for what you thought was right, notwithstanding the existing prejudice in opposition to you.

It is, of course, rather ironic Carr complained of prejudice against him in connection with his act of supporting the packing company's right to bring in skilled Chinese workers in a move that would improve Ferndale's economic situation. The Humboldt newspapers gave no voice at all to the people involved in this controversy who had the most right to complain about prejudice: the Chinese workers themselves.

The salmon season of 1889 was successful, but 1889 turned out to be the last year the Eel River cannery operated with Chinese workers. The Enterprise reported Sept. 26, 1890, "It is not positively known whether the Eel River cannery will operate this season or not." The answer to that question turned out to be "no," and the Oct. 17 Enterprise carried this news: "The company intends salting what salmon they secure. Jack Adams is in charge of the company's fishing grounds, and Mr. Weatherbee will superintend the salting operations." On Dec. 26, The Enterprise reported, "We have been reliably informed that the Eel River cannery, fishing grounds, etc, are offered for sale, the Cutting Packing Company having definitely decided to dispose of the same and cease operations on Eel River."

Various attempts to purchase the cannery fell through. The Eel River salmon-fishing industry declined during the 1890s for a number of reasons, including the Cutting Packing Co.'s decision to leave the region. The salmon population dwindled, and fishermen were involved in controversies over local taxes on fishing and state laws regulating the size of fishing nets that could be used for catching salmon, as well as how far up the Eel River salmon fishing should be legal.

Floods in early 1894 threatened the cannery buildings' survival. The Enterprise reported Jan. 19, 1894, "The cannery at the mouth of Eel River is now on an island and is liable to go at any time." As of the Jan. 26 edition, "At the cannery the havoc wrought made things almost unrecognizable, the river being now less than fifty feet from the institution, which makes it quite certain that with another large rise it will be taken to the sea." The buildings seem to have escaped this fate but on Oct. 19, 1894, The Enterprise reported J. A. Swett had "purchased the cannery buildings near the mouth of the Eel River and is having them torn down. Some of the lumber was hauled to Ferndale to be sold." The Eel River salmon industry was struggling and the Cutting Packing Co.'s Eel River cannery was now a thing of the past.

The county's anti-Chinese prejudice, however, would remain.

Alex Service (she/her) is the curator at the Fortuna Depot Museum.

Add a comment