October 24, 1871, Massacre of Chinese in Los Angeles

Brook Thomas's picture

150 years ago last Sunday 18 Chinese immigrants were massacred and lynched in Los Angeles. I am interested in putting the massacre in the national context of Reconstruction. Most likely because of my incompetence, I cannot find mention of it in accounts of Reconstruction. For instance, I sought in vain to find it in Stacey L. Smith's FREEDOM'S FRONTIER: CALIFORNIA AND THE STUGGLE OVER UNFREE LABOR, EMANCIPATION, AND RECONSTRUCTION (2013).  Can anyone point me to treatments that I have missed?

So far, I am working with these connections.  On October 12, 1871, Grant initiated his now celebrated crackdown on the KKK in South Carolina by issuing a proclamation commanding all unlawful combinations in South Carolina to surrender their arms and return home. When they failed to do so, on November 17, 1871, he ordered a military intervention. But, as far as I can tell, there was no federal response to the events of October 24, 1871, in Los Angeles. On the contrary, in the middle of the Klan trials, Grant fired Attorney General Amos Akerman, who had spearheaded the campaign against the Klan, and replaced him with George Williams of Oregon, whom Grant would later--unsuccessfully--nominate for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. On the Chinese Williams declared: "They are and continue to be the besotted devotees of absolutism in politics and the blind disciples of paganism in religion." He worried that ratification of the 15th Amendment might open the door to Chinese immigrants having the right to vote. Oregon and California refused to ratify the amendment.

 Another neglected event of note occurred in 1871, which is not as directly related to the events of October 24, 1871, but is worth mentioning. Frederick F. Low, the former California governor sometimes called "the father of the University of California," had been appointed by President Grant to be minster to China. As minister, he led a naval squadron charged with "opening" Korea to trade in Spring 1871. The Koreans did not welcome the effort, and, after a warning and the refusal of the ships to leave, resisted. The result was a violent exchange in which many Koreans were killed. Eventually, the US ships withdrew. In his December 1871 address to Congress,  before reporting on the Klan trials, Grant praised the American force for having "punished the [Korean] criminals" and for "having vindicated the honor of the flag." Grant valued his copy of a book of photographs documenting the US attack. [In 1883 the US and Korea agreed to a trade treaty.]

It is also worth mentioning that in 1885 there was an even worse massacre of Chinese immigrants in Rock Springs, Wyoming.  This time, the federal government, under President Cleveland, did act. Martial law was temporarily declared. William E. Birkhimer, the military officer in charge of finding legal justification for that act, would later write MILITARY GOVERNMENT AND MARTIAL LAW (1892). Unlike Grant, he did compare anti-Chinese violence to Klan violence in the South. Likewise, in a speech called "Southern Barbarism," Frederick Douglass alluded to Cleveland's condemnation of the violence against the Chinese and insisted that the "persecuted and murdered black citizens of Mississippi" deserved the same protection. (See my THE LITERATURE OF RECONSTRUCTION: p. 226).

Any help in my efforts to place the Massacre of October, 24, 1871, in the context of Reconstruction is welcome.   

This is a great post, Brook, with all sorts of connections I often try (and sometimes fail) to make for my students. It's also a reminder that I need to read THE LITERATURE OF RECONSTRUCTION.

I hate to be *that* guy but I'm going to recommend my own book here, WEST OF SLAVERY: THE SOUTHERN DREAM OF A TRANSCONTINENTAL EMPIRE. The final chapter places the L.A. Chinese Massacre in a national context. I did so because, like you, I hadn't seen that connection made elsewhere, even though a lot of scholars intuitively understand that racial violence in the Reconstruction South and West were somehow related.

I also briefly trace some of those connections in this talk that a few of us (including Scott Zesch, author of CHINATOWN WAR) gave via the Chinese American Museum of L.A. for the 150th anniversary of the Massacre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rr6M6TahBAU

Hope that helps! And please feel free to message me directly if you want to chat more. It would be a real pleasure.


Thank you very much. I clearly need to turn to WEST OF SLAVERY.

I should acknowledge that in THE ORDEAL OF REUNION (2016) Mark Summers does mention the 1871 massacre in LA (199). He also generally places "reconstruction in the West" in a national context. But your book seems to place the massacre itself in a national context. I look forward to reading it as well as viewing your talk.

It is certainly encouraging to see so much work like yours on Reconstruction coming out of the UK.

Thanks again,

Dear Brook, 

There is a brief discussion in Joshua Paddison's American Heathen that might be helpful. I'm less sure of the top of my head about D. Michael Bottoms's An Aristocracy of Color, but it might also be a handy title if you haven't consulted it yet. The later Rock Springs massacre gets some attention in Richard White's The Republic for which It Stands, which as a broader interpretation might be of note for how it attempts to develop Elliott West's notion fo a Greater Reconstruction. (Although I'll note I think the concept doesn't quite come through in White's narrative--it's in there, it's just not clear how central it is to his interpretation, at least to me.) You may already be familiar with Gordon Chang's article on the U.S.-Korean conflict in 1871: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3092545. 

Kind Regards, 


David and Gregory,
Thank you for these helpful references.

In response to David: I do know Gordon Chang's excellent essay on the 1871 incident in Korea. Gordon was also the first person to alert me to the Rock Springs massacre. Over 30 years ago, he, Michael Johnson, and I team-taught a class for 800 students. Gordon assigned Maxine Hong Kingston's CHINA MEN that mentions the massacre and federal intervention (148).

Kingston understandably does not link the massacre to Reconstruction politics, which is my current obsession. In my reading of THE REPUBLIC FOR WHICH IT STANDS, Richard White does not fully do so either. I do think that attention to Birkhimer helps move in that direction.

More connections: Gordon, unlike his Stanford colleague White, like David, writes on foreign policy, as indicated by the essay David cites. A useful supplement to Gordon's essay is the earlier one by Charles Oscar Paullin on the later opening of Korea and its link to the US's desire to develop a worldwide market, which led to a global voyage by Robert Shufeldt. "The Opening of Korea by Commodore Shufeldt," POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY 25 (1910): 470-499.

PSQ was founded and was still edited at the time by John W. Burgess, William A. Dunning's mentor and colleague. Burgess helped spread an understanding of Reconstruction across the Atlantic in 1907 as the first Roosevelt Professor in an academic exchange program with the University of Berlin. A year later the political theorist Carl Schmitt began studying in Berlin and was most likely introduced to Birkhimer and the important case of EX PARTE MILLIGAN because of Burgess's lectures and readings the year before. In DIE DIKTATOR, about the history of constitutional dictatorship--also treated by Burgess--he refers to Birkhimer, EX PARTE MILLIGAN, and other sources mentioned by Burgess while treating Lincoln as the prime example of a "kommissarische Diktator." Earlier Dunning devoted an entire section to "the Presidential Dictatorship" of Lincoln. Later Clinton Rossiter's CONSTITUTIONAL DICTATORSHIP (1948) deals with Lincoln while citing Schmitt. As Burgess, Dunning, and Schmitt all acknowledge the legal issues get even more complicated when the legislature, rather than an executive, is accused (justly or not) of suspending constitutional rule to reunite the Union.

Which is why I am still trying to find out if there was any federal intervention after the 1871 LA Massacre. I hope to find out in WEST of SLAVERY.

Thanks again,
PS At the risk of self-promotion, I should mention that I deal with Burgess and Schmitt's use of examples from US Reconstruction in "Reconstructing the Limits of Schmitt's Theory of Sovereignty: A Case for Law as Rhetoric, Not as Political Theology.," UC IRVINE LAW REVIEW 4 (2014): 239-72.