Riots – Hindus Expelled from the City
Los Angeles, August 25, 2007
A brief history of early immigration to the United States reveals
prejudice, hostility and blatant discrimination against the people
of Asia. At the turn of the twentieth century, when Indians started
coming to the United States, Americans had already developed hatred
and hostility against the Chinese and Japanese. In 1907, the number
of Indians in the Pacific Coast states was very small, but they
became victims of the prevalent anti-Asian sentiment of the American
people. There were barely 250 Indians in the city of Bellingham
in the state of Washington, yet American lumber mill workers committed
unforgivable atrocities and expelled all the Hindus from the city
in what is known as Bellingham Hindu Race Riots.
On the 100th anniversary of the Hindu Race Riots, the Indian
American community remembers the pioneers who patiently suffered
physically, psychologically and economically but stayed calm under
provocation, remained law abiding under lawlessness and observed
non-violence under threat of violence, practicing what Gandhi
Ji was preaching in South Africa at that time.
Chinese were the first among Asians to come to the United States
in search of economic opportunities. The lure of gold in the 1850s
induced them to migrate and by 1880, the number of Chinese in
the United States had reached 322,000, almost all in the Pacific
Coast states. The rapid growth of Chinese population provoked
resentment against the immigration of “cheap” labor.
The employers welcomed the Asian laborers and employed them in
their lumber mills, railroad construction and farms while the
white laborers vehemently opposed them. The labor unions agitated
bitterly against the employment of Chinese workers and wanted
to bar their immigration to the United States. Some politicians,
perpetually starved for campaign money and union endorsement,
willingly and openly backed the union demand. In 1862, Congress
passed a law forbidding American vessels to transport Chinese
immigrants to the United States. The Naturalization Act of 1870
denied Asians the right to become naturalized citizens. The unions
kept pressuring members of the Congress for more stringent laws.
In 1882, America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which virtually
ended the source of cheap labor for American business.
Following the passage of the Chinese exclusionary law, labor
organizations launched a virulent campaign of intimidation against
those who employed Chinese servants or workers. The American press
continued to give the ‘Yellow Peril’ a high profile
by depicting the Chinese as depraved opium smoking, alien looking,
diseased coolies.” Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Northwest
region sometimes exploded into violence at various places, forcing
some Chinese workers in the fields, mines, fisheries, lumberyards
and laundries to flee the area.
However, the labor need of the American employers for their
businesses did not end with the enactment of the new law. They
encouraged Japanese workers to migrate to bridge a labor supply
gap. Japanese laborers had been coming to Hawaii but in 1900,
their labor contracts became invalid on Hawaii becoming part of
the United States. So, many Japanese workers also started migrating
to the Pacific Coast states in the mainland. Thus, the number
of Japanese workers rapidly increased to meet labor shortage.
But the labor unions found them a new threat to white workers,
blaming the Japanese for lowering wages of American laborers and
branding them as the new ‘Yellow Peril’. In 1905,
with the formation of Asiatic Exclusion League, the anti-Japanese
movement was launched. But the movement had little immediate impact
on the number of immigrants from Japan, as close to 31,000 Japanese
laborers, largest ever in a single year, came to America in 1907
. However, under constant and relentless pressure by the Asiatic
Exclusion League, President Roosevelt, in 1907, signed the Gentlemen's
Agreement with Japan ending immigration of Japanese laborers to
the United States and issued an executive order stopping the secondary
migration of Japanese from Hawaii to the mainland.
The first trickle of Indians in search of economic opportunities
came to California at the end of the nineteenth century. On April
5, 1899, four Punjabis who had worked in the British Royal Artillery
in Hong Kong, landed in San Francisco and were allowed to stay
in the United States by the US Immigration Service . The grant
of permission gave an encouraging signal for other to Indians
to follow those four pioneers.
There was abundance of jobs in the lumber industry in Washington
and Oregon states and plenty of land to farm throughout the Sacramento,
San Joaquin and Imperial valleys of California. On hearing about
the economic opportunities in America, many more Punjabis headed
towards the far away land. The new immigrants found jobs which
the white workers would not do, usually menial jobs, in factories,
lumber mills, farms, etc. They were needy workers who accepted
low wages, poor working conditions and very often traveled from
place to place in search of work. The employers preferred Indians
to the whites for their willingness to do any and all kinds of
work. The labor unions despised the Hindu laborers for fear of
competition for jobs and wages. As the number of Indian workers
increased within a span of few years, they too started facing
discrimination and hostility, in the same manner as the other
Asians who had come before.
Indian immigrants in Canada had been facing similar problems
as those in the United States. Since India and Canada were British
dominions, it was easier for the Indians to migrate to Canada
where they had started coming at the beginning of the twentieth
century. The majority of the new immigrants were Punjabi veterans
or peasants who were physically well built, strong and muscular.
They were eager to obtain work and found jobs in lumber mills
in British Columbia. They were hard working and proved more productive
than the white workers. Some Canadian companies sought more of
similar laborers and publicized availability of job opportunities
in Canada to entice more cheap labor from India. For the first
few years, about 2000 immigrants were permitted to come to Canada
As per the 1904 Census, there were only 258 Indian nationals
in British Columbia but that number increased rapidly during the
two-year period of 1906-1907 when about 5000 Indians migrated
to Canada, thereby causing unease for the local whites. There
was already a backlash against the Chinese and Japanese from the
white laborers and their unions. Fear of labor competition from
the newcomers, led to racial antagonism and demands for exclusionary
laws against Indian workers. The Asian Expulsion League in British
Columbia actively lobbied against the importation of cheap labor
The local press carried many scare stories against the "Hindu
Invasion." In 1908, the Canadian government required Indian
immigrants to have $200 in their possession on landing. Also,
the Indian immigrants were denied entry if they had not come by
"continuous journey" from India. Since there was no
direct shipping between Indian and Canadian ports, legal immigration
of Indians to Canada virtually ended. As the Indian immigrants
saw the doors closing on them in Canada, many started filtering
to the United States where they found jobs in the lumber mills
in Bellingham and other towns in the state of Washington which
borders the state of British Columbia in Canada.
The Indians in the United States and Canada were commonly called
"Hindoos", ("Hindus") irrespective of their
faith. The overwhelming majority of the arrivals from India were
Sikhs who preserved their religious beliefs and practices by keeping
beard, long hair on their head and wore turban. They were easily
distinguishable from the rest of the immigrants, but unfortunately,
they were called "Rag heads", a derogatory term used
for the "Hindus" at that time.
In the United States, Indians legally admitted from 1899-1907,
numbered only 1967 . The total number of Indians in the country,
however, was slightly larger as some Indians had come directly
from Canada, Hong Kong and other countries. However, Hindu concentration
in a few small communities in the Pacific Coast states, particularly
several with turbans, drew high level of visibility on their presence
and provoked hostility from the Asiatic Exclusion League which
carried propaganda against the "The Tide of Turbans"
and "Hindu Invasion of America".
In the early 1890s, three railroad lines connected the small
cities which became Bellingham on November 4, 1903, thus enabling
area businessmen to market their products, salmon, timber and
coal to the outside world. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake,
lumber was needed for rebuilding of San Francisco. In time, lumber
and shingle mills sprang up in the area to meet the surge in demand.
These industries were labor intensive and needed cheap manual
labor which was filled by the new arrivals – the Hindu workers.
Bellingham had a history of strained race relations. In the 1880s
the Chinese had been driven from the town by a mob. A few years
later, the Japanese faced similar hostility. Labor unions and
their members had resorted to lawlessness and violation as a means
of achieving their objectives. A similar situation could prompt
mob action in violent persecution of the Asian workers.
Hindu workers had come as sojourners and without spouses, were
paid low wages and could afford to live only in the poor squalid
part of the town or in shanty structures provided by the mill
owners. They lived frugally, subsisted on income that was prohibitive
for whites to survive on, maintained low standard of living and
many shared crowded lodging to save money to pay off their debt
or meet family obligations back home. They were willing to do
any kind of manual job but the unskilled white laboring men feared
that competition from Hindu workers would displace them from their
jobs and bring wages down. Their festering hostility and pent-up
frustrations manifested in violence against Hindus, vandalism
of Hindu belongings and hatred of their religion, lifestyle and
At the time of the riot, Bellingham’s lumber mills employed
about 250 unskilled Indian contract workers. Punjabi laborers
accepted jobs which white laborers had refused to do. They would
perform work which could be in violation of labor laws but would
not complain for fear of employer retaliation. The union leaders
wanted to maintain higher wage levels for their members but had
failed to convince the mill owners to fire the Indian workers
and discontinue their hiring. One mill owner in particular, Whatcom
Falls Mill Company provoked resentment at the rumored replacement
of white laid-off workers with Indians. The racial prejudice and
bitterness, born out of job loss of white laborers, erupted into
violence against Indians who had the least social or political
power in the city of Bellingham or even in the country.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had more than 800 members
in Bellingham and was an affiliate of the Asiatic Exclusion League.
On Labor Day, September 2nd, 1907, more than a thousand union
members and others paraded through the town to demonstrate their
unity and show their strength. There was a beating of several
Hindus which nearly resulted in a general disturbance. The union
warned the mill owners that no Indians should be employed in the
lumber mills or anywhere in Bellingham after Labor Day.
The Indian workers nonetheless appeared at their jobs on the
following day, Tuesday, September 3. At night, at least five instances
of violence to Hindus were reported to police, and a gang of boys
and young men smashed windows of two of the Hindu homes. In the
afternoon, on September 4, 1907, two Hindus walking on C Street
were chased and beaten. In the evening, a mob of 400-500 white
men, predominantly members of the Asian Exclusion League, attacked
Hindu dwellings, smashed windows and pulled the Indians from their
beds. Panicked, some Hindus escaped from their quarters in night
clothes while others jumped out of the buildings, some hurting
themselves in the process. The rioting mob rushed to C Street
to the biggest domicile where thirty Hindus were lodged. The crashing
of window panes and the loud humiliating yells of the rioters
for the Hindus to come out, apprised neighbors that a riot was
in progress. Then, the rioters went on a rampage from mill to
mill, finding as many Indian workers as they could while others
ransacked the homes of the Hindus, and pocketed money, jewelry,
bank passbooks and other valuables. They eventually rounded up
about two hundred Indian workers, brandishing clubs triumphantly,
herded them to the City Hall basement where the Hindus stayed
during the night for their alleged safety. Some rioters addressed
the impromptu audiences on the street corners, fanned their indignation
and incited them to "help drive out the cheap labor."
The purpose of the racial attack was to “scare them so badly
that they will not crowd white labor out of the mills.”
Indians became victims of prejudice, hostility and violence.
Some were injured, several lost their belongings, all experienced
bigotry and suffered humiliation. The nightmares of fright, brutality
and vindictiveness forced traumatized Indian workers to leave
Bellingham in search of safe haven. An area newspaper reported,
"Frightened Hindus numbering 135, or approximately half the
Indian colony, left Bellingham on September 5, one day after the
riots. Twenty-five of the dusky Singhs had left at noon and seventy
in the evening by Great Northern for Vancouver and approximately
forty left by the 4 O'clock train for Northern California".
Although Hindu crews were assured of protection by special police
officers at the mills of the B. B. L. Company, the E. K. Wood
Lumber Company and the Morrison Mill Company, but those who got
paid at the mills, cashed their checks at the banks and headed
to the train station. However, some mill owners took advantage
of the situation and refused to pay the Hindu workers. Several
stayed nervously for one extra day in deadly fear of their lives
to draw their pay and get their checks cashed. Within a few days,
all Hindus left the unfriendly city, denunciating the lack of
police protection. Many of the departing Hindus expressed their
disappointment for they had heard of America as a good place for
laboring men, yet they were paid no better wages and became victims
of violence and lawlessness in the presence of law enforcement
The town police failed to provide any protection to the Indian
immigrants from the angry mob. As reported by the Bellingham Herald
of September 5, mobs controlled the city without interference
from authorities. When the terror stricken Hindus were in the
basement of City Hall, police made no effort to stop mob outrages.
The public at the time believed that a "little nerve on the
part of officers would have checked the riot."
Mayor Alfred L. Black called a special meeting of the city council
on September 5, and stated that Hindus were British subjects and
had every right to be in the city and engage in such occupations
as they desired. The mayor assured the Hindu interpreters, Nand
Singh, Attar Singh and Sergent Singh, who were present at the
council meeting, that they were entitled to protection of the
laws of the country, state and city. The mayor directed the police
chief "to swear in fifty deputies to prevent any further
rioting or the breach of the laws." The mayor also instructed
the chief to arrest and prosecute any and all persons to a final
determination any man engaged in the riot. The Bellingham Herald
reported about the meeting on the front page under 'Mayor Declares
that Rights of Hindus Must be Protected" on September 5,
Despite assurances from the mayor, Indians had no hope of any
protection from the city police. They faced death threats and
continued violence if they stayed in Bellingham. The racist rioters
also intimidated the mill owners and asked them to fire the Indian
workers. Panicked by the intensity of the hatred and fearful for
their safety, Hindus left to find work elsewhere.
Some of the Indian mill workers went to Everett, another town,
sixty miles south of Bellingham, to work in the sawmills there.
Two months later, on November 5th, 1907, over five hundred armed
men attacked and beat the Indians, robbed them and destroyed their
belongings. The result was similar to the incidents that occurred
in Bellingham .
The Asiatic Exclusion League and other similar groups reveled
in victory, became emboldened and wanted to prevent further immigration
from India and to force those already in the country to go back.
Members of the League wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, "warning
him that massacres were sure to result if he didn’t do something
to curb Asian immigration into the Northwest."
Indians were British subjects but the British Indian ambassador
did not care to ask the American government for compensation for
injuries or loss of property of the Indian workers. Since the
media reported about the riots worldwide, the British Consul in
Seattle visited Bellingham. He did not care to meet or sympathize
with the Indian nationals who suffered at the worst racial attack
against them in America, but he met instead with the mill owners
to obtain a list of names of Hindu workers for his official report
to his government. The number of Hindus employed by various mills
was given as 145 as per Gerald N. Hallberg in his article on Bellingham,
Washington’s Anti-Hindu Riot. However, on Thursday, September
5, 2007 the Bellingham Herald reported the number as 186 under
the heading "Hindus March Back to Mills under Guard".
The actual number of Hindus forced out from the city was substantially
Union leaders, churches and the media denounced the riots. The
Bellingham Herald in its editorial titled 'A Public Disgrace'
condemned the action of the rioters. "No amount of argument
will justify the acts of the mobs. Exhibition of man's inhumanity
to man as that of last night shall not be tolerated. Such lawlessness
is an outrage upon American decency. The Hindus were there in
response to a demand created by the scarcity of labor. In filing
the jobs, the Hindus were contributing to the prosperity of the
community. A mob of hoodlums has disgraced the city."
Rev. J.W. Fiesher of the First Methodist church said, "Mob
violence cannot be justified under any circumstances. Orientals
are hired here not from choice but rather from necessity. And
this not because there are not white laboring men but because
there is a large class of white laborers so irresponsible that
they cannot be depended upon. The outbreak of riots was to say
the least unpatriotic, un-American, cowardly and uncharitable."
Rev. William Orr Wark, pastor of the First Congregational Church
criticized the Police Chief Thomas saying, "The police lacked
moral courage and that a man acting as Chief Thomas did is not
fit to be the head of the police department." Rev. Cheatham
of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church said, “As civilized
people we should be heartily ashamed of it."
The unions were against the employment of Asian labor, yet the
Industrial Workers of the World strongly condemned the mob violence
of Wednesday night and adopted a resolution declaring that "the
action against the Oriental colony was not in accordance with
the principles of organized labor for the peaceful and lawful
settlement of labor difficulties." The Central Labor Council
also issued a statement condemning the action as "wholly
unlawful and contrary to the principles of true unionism."
Despite widespread condemnation of the race riots in Bellingham,
similar assaults in California took place in Marysville, Live
Oak, and other communities where the immigrants had settled .
The Asiatic Exclusion League and the labor unions used violence
and riots, presumably as an effective method of excluding the
Hindu workers from jobs and residential communities. They also
kept incessant pressure on elected officials and politicians who,
in 1917, succeeded in getting an immigration law passed by the
United States Congress over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson.
The new law prohibited immigration from virtually all of Asia
except Japan .
The race riots had a devastating impact on the Indian community
in the Pacific Coast. Indians had come in search of a chance for
a better life for themselves and their families and worked even
at menial laboring jobs. They could never have anticipated that
America – considered the best among civil societies –
had people full of meanness, malice and ill-will against different
looking people. Indians did not attempt to take away jobs from
the unskilled white workers; they simply filled a portion of the
deficit in human resources. The white laborers, excited by the
labor unions, perpetrated unparalleled, heinous crimes against
innocent and law abiding Hindus who had come from a distant land
with a dream of a better life, but unfortunately, Bellingham became
the burial place for their dreams.
Inder Singh regularly writes and speaks on the Global Indian diaspora.
He is president of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin
(GOPIO) and chairman of Indian American Heritage Foundation. He
was president of National Federation of Indian American Associations
(NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding
president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California.
He can be reached at email@example.com.