Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files Blog
by Trish Hackett Nicola
The purpose of this blog is to showcase the variety of information found in the Chinese Exclusion Act case files and to give guidance on how to locate information in the files. The focus is the files at the National Archives-Seattle from Record Group 85 pertaining to Seattle, Port Townsend, and Sumas, Washington; and Portland, Oregon. Although these files are located in Seattle, the subject of the file may have lived anywhere in the United States.
Learn more about the case files
Seattle Times video: ‘It’s like reading someone’s life’: Seattle Chinese Exclusion Act files
(Click on the arrow in the blue box on the bottom left to see the video.)
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed in order to limit the number of Chinese laborers entering the United States and prevent the Chinese already in the U. S. from become naturalized citizens. When the Act was renewed ten years later it required the Chinese to register and obtain a certificate of residency or identity as proof of their right to be in the United States.1 By the time the law was repealed in 1943, thousands and thousands of case files with valuable genealogical information had been created. Many of these records are available to researchers and some are indexed.
History of the Act
In 1869, a United States treaty with China opened the door to Chinese immigration. The United States needed cheap labor for the mining and the railroad industry and the Chinese were willing to provide it. Immigration peaked in 1873, when 23,000 Chinese entered the country. The state of California had the largest population of Chinese with about 150,000 in residence. Many of the Chinese were in the United States to make money and planned to return to the families they had left in China.
There was an economic depression after the completion of the building of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869. Anti-Chinese riots occurred. Soon anti-immigration laws were passed to limit the number of Chinese coming into the country. These laws were also fueled on racial and cultural fears. It was difficult for Chinese to assimilate into the American culture. They would never look Anglo-Saxon. Many United States laborers, although recent immigrants themselves, resented the Chinese being in the United States and taking jobs away from “white” workers. There were conflicting opinions but the general consensus was that the workers wanted to severely restrict the number of Chinese coming into the United States.2
In 1880 the United States modified its immigration treaty with China to limit the immigration of laborers. Teachers, students, merchants and Chinese travelers were not affected. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. It excluded laborers and Chinese employed in mining. The Chinese already living in the United States could no longer obtain their United States citizenship and if they left for China (or anywhere) they were required to obtain certificates to re-enter.3
When the Chinese Exclusion Act was extended in 1892, all Chinese residents were required to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Those who did not have the proper paper work or witnesses could be deported or imprisoned.
In 1943 Congress repealed the exclusion act and gave foreign-born Chinese the right to become naturalized.4 At that point there was a quota given, and ironically, it more severely restricted newcomers; however, nativeborn Chinese no longer had to register if they left the country.
As with many records, it is unfortunate how these files came about but the information provided is priceless. I would like to encourage more Chinese to use these records to find the rich details of their ancestors’ lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
1. Waverly B. Lowell, compiler, Chinese Immigration and Chinese in the United States: Records in the Regional Archives of the National Archives and Records Administration, NARA, Reference Information paper 99, 1996, p. 1. ↩
2. National Archives and Records Administration, Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources From the National Archives (Washington, DC, National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 82.↩
4. Ibid, 85.↩
[To see the complete article go to “Chinese Exclusion Act Records: A Neglected Genealogical Source.”