Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chinese immigration to America during the construction of the transcontinental railroad

From: "Hannah Lundberg"

I am a student at Upland High School and I am currently working on a History Day project about Chinese immigration to America during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. I have a few questions about it and I would appreciate any of them you can answer.

1. Other than handbills and recruitment from Americans, were there factors in China in the 1800s that caused so many Chinese laborers to want to come to America?

2. Were Chinese immigrants ever promoted to higher ranks or were they strictly reserved for white Americans?

3. Where most of the Chinese laborers already in America before construction of the railroad began or did more of them immigrate later?

4. Did the Chinese ever revolt over the poor conditions they worked in?

5. How prominent were women in the Chinese-American population? Did they ever work alongside the men?

Thank you for all your help.

—Hannah Lundberg


Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Other than handbills and recruitment from Americans, were there factors in
China in the 1800s that caused so many Chinese laborers to want to come to

Conditions in Canton were sufficiently bad that many of Chinese wanted to escape the poverty.

2. Were Chinese immigrants ever promoted to higher ranks or were they strictly
reserved for white Americans?

The Chinese were generally hired as laborers, not skilled workers such as carpenters or engineers. But also understand that the Chinese did not directly work for the railroad – instead they were hired by the Chinese six companies who provided the construction gangs of laborers to the Crocker construction company which was the railroad's construction contractor. Also, there was a language problem which this arrangement solved, as the Chinese workers did not speak English. So the Chinese companies for which the Chinese worked did not have higher ranks, except for the head of each Chinese crew.

3. Where most of the Chinese laborers already in America before construction of
the railroad began or did more of them immigrate later?

Many were already in California, some as miners, and many more were recruited from Southern China.

4. Did the Chinese ever revolt over the poor conditions they worked in?

The conditions in the wilderness, especially in winter in the mountains were very harsh, but there were not poor conditions in the sense of a difference compared to what everyone else working on the railroad experienced. There was no revolt. There was a brief strike by the Chinese asking for slightly higher wages ($30 vs. $35/month), but no evidence that working conditions were an issue in the strike.

5. How prominent were women in the Chinese-American population? Did they ever
work alongside the men?

The Chinese railroad workers were men, and they were not accompanied by their families. There were some Indian women hired as CPRR laborers.

These additional links may be helpful:

Chinese Immigration

Chinese women

Chinese Laborers

Chinese Workers Strike

History Day questions

More History Day questions


More FAQ's

The history of the Chinese railroad workers is a difficult topic as there is considerable misinformation in recent books.

Chinese railroad workers

How many died?

More about the Chinese railroad workers

12/22/2010 3:56 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


You should look at the book by William F. Chew, Nameless Builders of the Transcontinental Railroad (Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2004). He answers many of your questions ...

—Bob Spude – Historian – Cultural Resources Management – National Park Service – Intermountain Region – 505.988.6770 Voice – 505.988.6876 Fax

The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.

12/22/2010 10:34 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

Here are some comments in reference to your questions:

1) Let us know what you find about conditions in China that may have influenced the "emigration" of workers to America.

2) My understanding is that the Chinese worked as squads or teams, and that the teams selected their own leaders, though the "leaders" may only have been responsible to distributing pay to the team members.

3) Clearly a portion of the Chinese workers were recruited from the local population, but we don't know what that proportion was. A newspaper from 31 May 1865 reported 1,600 workers, of whom 2/3 (or approximately 1,066) were Chinese. This was just prior to the arrival of the first workers direct from China. That gives us something of a benchmark, but I don't really know what to do with it. As Chinese from China came on, was there less call for locals? Or did more locals join the railroad because there were even more Chinese to work with? We just don't know. The largest total number of Chinese given (by Strobridge in 1887, which is probably the most reliable source) was 11,000 (for 1866-1867). Maybe 10% were local.

4) One newspaper and a letter from Crocker to Huntington refer to Chinese workers leaving their job in late 1866. Both sources indicate this was over workers' frustration with the hard rock, not working conditions. In the summer of 1867 there was a strike among the Chinese. I believe this was over wages, not conditions. And I don't think this was general. There is indication that work on the summit tunnel did not stop during that period. There was doubtless more to the story than we will ever know. This was right at the end of the peak employment numbers, and it may have had something to do with the pending layoffs. (In 1867 there were 13,500 workers; in 1868 there were only 5,000 – that is specifically on the CPRR.) I think the different circumstances of the local Chinese vs. the Chinese Chinese is reflected in the strike and walking off the job. A year or so ago I met a Chinese fellow who had been to China where he was shown the archives relating to the Chinese workers who went to America. He made the point that to leave China a person needed permission of the emperor – a "pass port." And, each was required to return to China. This – he said – was the reason the Chinese were assured of their return – dead or alive – to China. If they did not return, the families left behind faced execution. I suspect that the Chinese who were under obligation to return to China felt a lot less freedom about walking off the job or striking. Were the strikers only locals? Here again, it would be nice to know what portion of the workers were local vs. Chinese Chinese.

[continued below]

12/22/2010 7:18 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

That said, I suspect the conditions the Chinese found working on the railroad were the best they ever had experienced in their lives. Malcom Gladwell makes the point in the "Outliers" that the Cantonese generally worked in their rice paddies every day of the year; having Sundays off while working on the railroad must have been a luxury. We know that while building railroad in Nevada during the summers, work was done in two shifts. In other words, they weren't being worked every possible hour. When we consider the conditions under which the railroad workers worked, we have to compare it to conditions that prevailed at the time, not as they are today. Based only on the reports of few deaths over six years, the workers on the CPRR fared far better than workers on other projects – the Panama Railroad, the St. Gothard tunnel, even the coal mines in England. I can see the strike being over money – after all the Chinese were being paid less than non-Chinese – but I don't think conditions were much of a factor.

It would be fascinating to know about the relations between the local Chinese and the Chinese Chinese. Did they work together? Were they even allowed to mingle?

5) Great question about the women. I find only one newspaper reference to the Chinese women, and that was to say that the bodies of Chinese women were being left where they were found, while the bodies of the men were being shipped back to China. Was this because the women were not as important? Was it because they were from the local Chinese population and were not covered by any obligation to be returned? Don't know. There is a lot about the Chinese on the railroad that we don't know.

I would love to know more about the Chinese railroad workers after they returned to China. While Europeans and Americans built many of the railroads in other countries in the late 19th century, the Chinese made a big deal about building their own railroads. I wonder what – if any – role was played in this by the fact that China had a population of experienced railroad builders. I'd love to know this – to know their stories as a whole, not just the few year they were here.


12/22/2010 7:18 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Disagree that Chinese were paid less. For example, Beyond the Mississippi by Albert D. Richardson says, "Irish laborers received thirty dollars per month (gold) and board; Chinese, thirty-one dollars, boarding themselves."

12/22/2010 7:24 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

Perhaps I rely too much on Strobridge, who says $30 vs $35.

12/22/2010 8:47 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

Another indication that the Chinese were paid less than whites comes from a EB Crocker letter of January 1867 in which he reports that whites cost the company $2.50 per 8-hour shift in board and wages, while the Chinese cost $1.19 per 8-hour shift.

One factor that perhaps mitigates the differential is that the company presumably paid the cost of transporting the Chinese to America and back. However, the differential then should have been applied to whites and local Chinese vs. Chinese from China. (I wonder how many times we read reference to Chinese in the Huntington letters when only Chinese nationals were meant rather than ethnic Chinese as a whole. We tend to read it racially, perhaps they sometimes did not mean it that way at all.)

I am embarassed to realize I do not know the source of information on the arrival of the first Chinese workers direct from China in July 1865. I suspect I accepted that date uncritically from a secondary source. I notice the departure of the first steamer FOR China in January 1866, and that is also the date of Crocker's mention to Huntington of the Chinese handbills. It makes me wonder if the first Chinese workers from China did not arrive later than I assumed. January 1866 vs. July 1865 makes a big difference as it increases the bench mark figure for local Chinese in the CPRR workforce--to perhaps as many as 7,000 (the number of Chinese workers in 1865 as reported by Strobridge in 1887).

Clearly there is a lot of research to be done on this issue.


12/23/2010 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The February, 1865 CPRR Crocker payroll seems to show white laborer Thomas Conner being paid $0.95/day which seems comparable to the reported $30-35/month which both the Chinese and caucasian laborers were paid, and not the higher figure of $45/month that Governor Low remembered. The Foreman and Carpenters were paid more.

What is not clear is whether $1.19 vs. $2.50 per eight hour shift reflects a difference in comparable pay for laborers or if it simply reflects a difference in occupations by race. It seems clear that foremen, carpenters, and engineers who were white were paid more than laborers regardless of race, but this should not be used to support claims of unequal pay based on race when comparing Chinese laborers with white laborers doing the same job.

12/23/2010 12:26 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

And yet another piece:

EB Crocker wrote Huntington in February 1867 that Chinese drillers were paid $31 per month of 26 eight-hour days, and they paid for their own board, while white drillers received $30 for month (presumably the same 26 eight-hour shifts) and were provided board by the company. So, if the company was able to provide board for $1 per month, the Chinese and whites were paid the same. This nice thing about this evidence is that it is comparing wages for workers of the same class of work. The $2.50/day certainly included foremen and skilled workers.

So, if the Chinese were making nearly the same wage as the whites, what was the strike all about?

12/23/2010 3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought that the strike was asking for a small raise in wages from $30 to $35 per month.

12/23/2010 3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although the strike was said to be "unsuccessful" and quickly ended, the table showing wages suggests instead that over time the Chinese got exactly the wages being requested, i.e., $35/month. Since the CPRR had difficulty recruiting the needed labor, that result is not surprising.

12/23/2010 3:28 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


12/23/2010 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Q. ... a strike for higher wages ?—A. [Charles Crocker] Yes, Sir ... "

While not primary sources, like the Crocker response above, the following sorts of comments are also suggestive that there was a demand for higher wages, as is commonplace in strikes even today:



12/23/2010 3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The information that Chinese rate of pay was $30/month in 1865 and eventually $35/month in 1867 comes from Kyle Wyatt's summary table of "Testimony of J. H. Strobridge, US Pacific Railway Commission, pp 3139-41, as printed in Stuart Daggett: 'Chapters in the History of the Southern Pacific,' p 70n.

12/23/2010 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is the table in the Daggett book.

12/23/2010 4:15 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"
Subject: Chinese strike

As you say, the strike was for $45/month and a reduction in hours from 11 to 10/day. The strike was first reported on 26 June 1867 and ended on 1 July. Wages had just been raised from $31 to $35/mo the first of June in an effort to attract more workers – which were desperately needed as the snow was finally coming off the line between Cisco and Truckee, and the company was anxious to build that section before fall. The strike was apparently well organized – it involved all of the Chinese along the railroad. In reporting on the conslusion of the strike, Hopkins expressed the opinion that the strike was instigated by Chinese gamblers and opium traders who where prohibited from working along the railroad.

A couple of points of interest (to me):

The work day was 11 hours, but the crews in Tunnel 6 worked only 8 hours. This shows some differential for the tunnel workers over regular graders.

There is nothing to suggest that the strike was over any grieviance--either working conditions, treatment, or differential in wages between whites and Chinese. It was simply over greed or spite – and it doesn't sound like the workers' heart was really in the strike at all.

All through June E.B.Crocker was lamenting that not enough workers were coming to the railroad. He repeated that they (the CPRR) had shown that the Chinese were good workers, and now everyone hired them – that many now worked in mines as it was easier work. This seems to reflect a "free market" of Chinese labor – not at all what I'd expect of a captive market of Chinese brought over from China and bound through some kind of indenture. This makes me think that the local Chinese were indeed a much larger portion of the CPRR workforce than I had previously thought.


12/29/2010 3:32 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See related discussion.

12/29/2010 3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Web page about the Chinese workers' strike.

4/09/2011 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Most [Chinese immigrant workers] had no intention of staying ... as they hoped to return to China after amassing their fortunes. Other Chinese arrived ... as contract laborers to help build the Central Pacific Railroad. However, the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between China and the United States changed things by giving Chinese immigrants a legal right to remain permanently in the United States and its territories. Consequently, even more Chinese immigrated ... during the 1870’s. The large increase in the number of Chinese prompted an anti- Chinese sentiment throughout the country that resulted in the passage in 1882 of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The new legislation severely restricted the lives of Chinese immigrants ... and the restrictions remained in force until 1943."

From the Encyclopedia of Immigration, Shawncey Webb.

6/11/2011 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The AsianWeek website claims that:

" ... Nine of every ten men who built the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese.

1867 Mistreated and underpaid Chinese railway workers lead one of the biggest sit-down strikes of the 19th Century on June 25th as thousands down tools and refuse to leave their tents. Unsupported by new but entirely unsympathetic American labor unions openly proclaiming their support for 'white men only,' facing armed railway guards, and dealing with imminent starvation in their remote railway construction camps, the Chinese workers are forced to return to work."
Significant Dates in Asian American/Chinese American History

Unable to find primary source evidence to support that claim that the Chinese railway workers were either "mistreated" by the railroad or that they were "underpaid." Actually, they were paid comparable wages in gold coin. AsianWeek doesn't cite any references in support of their apparently erroneous conclusion.

1/04/2012 5:36 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

See related discussion.

10/04/2013 12:08 AM  

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