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Chinese Again in Humboldt, Part Four 

An interview with Lee Eeso of Astoria

click to enlarge A Chinese man walks on what is now known as Tuluwat Island, waiting for a ship to take him and his fellow cannery workers back to Astoria, Oregon, after they were expelled from Humboldt County in 1906.

Courtesy of The Humboldt Project

A Chinese man walks on what is now known as Tuluwat Island, waiting for a ship to take him and his fellow cannery workers back to Astoria, Oregon, after they were expelled from Humboldt County in 1906.

Editor's note: The following article contains racist language in quotations from historical newspaper articles. It originally appeared in the Ferndale Enterprise.

At the beginning of October of 1906, anti-Chinese labor activists across Humboldt were in uproar over an Oregon-based company's attempt to bring a mixed-race workforce to the new salmon cannery at Port Kenyon, near Ferndale. Four Japanese men and six young white women remained at Port Kenyon while their Chinese colleagues were evicted. In an article headlined "CHINAMEN ARE COMING TO EUREKA TODAY," The Humboldt Times of Thursday, Oct. 4, reported on the more-or-less peaceful expulsion of 23 Chinese men, who would be housed on Tuluwat, then called "Gunther's Island," in Humboldt Bay for their own safety, until the steamer Roanoke sailed on Sunday, returning them to their homes in Astoria, Oregon.

The Times stated, "The gentlemen who have been instrumental in ejecting them, who by the way, number some 600 or 700, feel that all is well." One of these "gentlemen" was quoted as rejoicing that now "all the Pacific slope realizes that Chinese will not be permitted in Humboldt County, and ... the people of California, Oregon and Washington realize that the stand taken some twenty-one years ago by the county still holds good." This "stand" was the "unwritten law" that declared, as past and future Eureka mayor W.S. Clark had expressed at an Oct. 1, 1906, public meeting, that Humboldt was "a white man's country and no place for Chinese."

As the Times reported, on Wednesday, Oct. 3, Sheriff N. George Lindsay and District Attorney Otto Gregor met in Ferndale with the stockholders of the Port Kenyon Cannery, who reluctantly voted to send away the Chinese workers. (This vote was not unanimous, the Times noted, with one stockholder voting against the motion.) The Times explained that Gregor and Lindsay then met with "the boss Chinaman, who spoke very good English ... Mr. Gregor informed the Chinaman that as far as the law was concerned, he had a perfect right to remain and work, and that all possible would be done to protect him and his men. Nevertheless, the conditions were also pictured, and the boss Chinaman was quite willing to take his men and depart."

The Times informed its readers that

... the Chinese will be kept on Gunther's Island in the old cookhouse, where tables and bunks are all afforded.

A deputy sheriff will be placed in charge of them to see that they are in no way molested. Although there is little or no likelihood of their being in danger, it was thought well to have an officer on the island to keep the Mongolians company.

The Times also noted that "the financial part of the question has to be considered. It will cost some money to ship them on the Roanoke, and it will cost something to feed them on Gunther's Island until the arrival of the steamer. Therefore, subscription lists will be circulated this morning and today, and it will readily be determined, in a practical way, how badly the citizenry wishes the ejectment of the Chinese."

Parenthetically, that same Oct. 4 issue of the Times contained a report on the recent meeting of Eureka High School's debating club. At that meeting, club members debated on the topic, "resolved, that the Chinese should not be excluded from Humboldt County." As the Times reported, "Stephen Langford and Professor James upheld the affirmative, while Henry Stern and Ernest Ballard spoke for the negative. The decision was awarded the affirmative on the ground that there is no legal way to exclude the Chinese from Humboldt soil."

The next day the Times described the 23 Chinese men's arrival in Eureka on Thursday's afternoon train:

Several hundred men, women and children gathered at the station to get a glimpse of the Chinamen, but few were afforded the opportunity as the car was switched upon a spur leading to the Railroad wharf, and left there until the crowd had become wearied and left. The engine from the Arcata train then coupled on to the box car and took it to the foot of F street, where the McLean launches conveyed the Chinese to their quarters upon the island.

Photographer Jesse Meiser, as the Times would report on Oct. 7, was in the crowd that day. The Times observed that "Meiser, the scenic artist, did not let the Chinese episode escape him, for he took pictures of the box car ... and the curious crowd of Humboldters surrounding it. Mr. Meiser has reproduced the scene on postal cards, which will be most appropriate for mailing to friends in the East." (Many of these postcards now belong to collectors, museums, and institutions such as the Cal Poly Humboldt library.)

While the Chinese workers were awaiting their return journey to Astoria, a Times reporter interviewed Lee Eeso, the "boss Chinaman" of the cannery's workforce. In part of an extensive interview, Lee said he had "long heard no Chinamen were allowed here. He knew full well that twenty years ago 'Chinese kicked out and no more come.'" The interview continued,

He said that all his men were expert cannery workers, having worked on the Columbia River for five, ten, fifteen and twenty years. Their duties are to butcher the fish and to prepare the meat to be put in the cans; they also make the cans and put the covers upon them after they are filled. The white girls lay the fish in the cans and the Japanese wash the cans in solutions, preparatory to packing the fish in them.

Lee is a contractor; he bosses all the men and pays them himself. He came to Port Kenyon under contract to receive 45 cents per case for canning salmon and was guaranteed 12,000 cases. When asked if his men were frightened at the immense crowd that gathered he replied in the affirmative. He himself understood perfectly why the crowd gathered and especially the children, all desirous of seeing for the first time a Chinaman.

The Chinese boss stated that it takes a man several years to master the trade of canning fish; that one season a Chinaman would do one thing, such as butchering, the next season would work at another task, and so on until all branches were learned. Then a man would be a competent canner.

... A Chinaman is not exactly a fool, and Lee Eeso has learned many things during his twenty years residence at Astoria. He knows full well that when a contract is made by a company it must be carried out to the letter. ... Therefore when the directors of the cannery came to him and told him that they could not give him and his men the three months work and pay him some $5,000 or $6,000, because the public of Humboldt wanted no Chinamen in the county, the Chinaman replied that he had a contract for so much work and so much money; that they had come down from the Columbia River to do the work; and that they must have the money according to the contract.

The Oct. 5 Times article also took pains to defend the reputation of the six young white women who were part of the cannery's workforce, noting, "An impression has ... gone out through the county detrimental to the character of the white girls employed in the cannery at Port Kenyon, which is a great injustice to the girls themselves, to the management of the cannery and to the Ferndale people." District Attorney Gregor, the Times reported, had met with the "girls" and stated, "they are all respectable women. They have neat tidy rooms at the cannery, stay together, and the worst that can be said of them is that they came into the county to work in the cannery with Chinese." The Times continued, "In Astoria they have been accustomed to work in canneries, together with a large number of other girls. Girls whose parents are good and respectable people, holding the esteem of the community, work in the canneries at Astoria, just like girls all over the fruit belt work in packing houses with Chinese." The young women were "mostly of a foreign birth," some speaking English and others not. Gregor "was introduced to them, talked with them, and found them, so far as he could judge, to be perfect ladies."

Lee Eeso and his 22 workers sailed in steerage quarters on the Roanoke on Sunday, Oct. 7, one week and a day after they had arrived in Humboldt. Even this portion of their journey was not trouble-free. The Oct.10 Morning Astorian reported that the Roanoke developed mechanical troubles en route and arrived in Astoria many hours late on the foggy evening of Tuesday, Oct. 9. The Astorian noted that the Roanoke's passengers included the "Chinese cannerymen, taken to Humboldt County, Cal., for service in the Tallant canneries, and who, owing to the popular prejudice there, were not allowed to fulfill their contracts and had to be brought home." On Oct. 13 the Astorian reported that the Tallant Co. had "sent a lot of people to their Port Kenyon cannery in California," to replace "the Chinamen they were compelled to bring back from there."

It seems that neither the Astorian nor the Humboldt County newspapers mentioned the four Japanese workers leaving the Port Kenyon cannery before the end of the three-month-long salmon season. The most probable conclusion from this is that the four Japanese men remained working at the cannery throughout the season, along with the six young white women. Former and future Eureka Mayor Clark may have stated the dominant opinion when he declared that Humboldt County was "no place for Chinese." Apparently, however, the county's anti-Asian racism had not yet expanded to decree that Humboldt was also no place for Japanese.

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

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