“White-Capping” In the San Juans

Of all the folks who voluntarily immigrated to North America in the frontier days, no groups were more vilified and abused that the Chinese and Japanese. Those who made their way to Colorado were not spared. In 1880, a Denver mob rampaged through the Chinese section 0f town, burning it to the ground and killing at least one man. In 1902, a Chinese man in Idaho Spring was briefly strong up and then run out of town as punishment for his relationship with a white woman. The towns of Aspen and Delta also had incidents of mob forcibly evicting Chinese businessmen and laborers. In Victor, Colorado, near Cripple Creek, the Victor Fuel Company shut down a coal mine because white miners refused to work with Chinese and Japanese. The fuel company protested that there weren’t enough miners and that they needed 20 percent more for their labor force, saying they employed eighteen thousand men but had jobs for fifty thousand.


While all this was going on, the United States Senate passed a series of extensions to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The original 1882 bill made it extremely difficult for Chinese laborers and miners to enter the country for ten years. The bill was extended in 1892 and again in 1902. Provisions added with the extensions disallowed Chinese residents from reentering the country if they left. The 1902 extensions were open-ended and further required all Chinese to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Those who didn’t faced deportation. These laws were promptly signed by President Teddy Roosevelt.

Anti-Chinese sentiment came to a head in the San Juan region in 1902, when union men in Silverton raised a boycott of Chinese laundries and restaurants. The Cooks & Waiters Union 16 explained their position in the Silverton Standard with a lengthy racist rant, which eventually hit on the familiar crux of of the matter: “No white man can compete with their labor on account of their cheapness in living.”

chinese invasion

The boycott escalated to a point where the Chinese residents-many of whom ran restaurants and laundries-were run out of town. Word of the event reached officials in Washington, D.C., and a week later, Colorado governor James B. Orman received a communiqué from U.S. secretary of state John Hay:

It is represented that Chinese residents, about seventy in number, have been ordered to leave Silverton, under the threat of violence. An appeal has be made through the Chinese minister for their protection. The department will be pleased if you would take such action as you may find necessary for the protection of the rights of these persons, their business and property.

Despite these efforts from outside the region, locals were determined:

A peaceable arrangement was made today with the Celestials whereby they all agree to sell out their laundries and restaurants before the first of the month and depart from Silverton forever. 

This is understood to be the beginning of the general retirement of Asiatics from all over Colorado in response to the demands of organized white labor and the wishes of people generally.

Foremost among the anti-Asian forces were labor unions. William D. Haywood, secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, sent an op-ed to the Denver Post, reprinted in the Durango Democrat: 

If congress  does not pass an exclusion act the includes Japanese as well as Chinese the labor organizations, particularly in the great west, will rise up in their might and solve the questions for themselves…It is a deplorable state of affairs when homes of thousands of free-born white men are to be jeopardized by a handful of yellow foreigners. 

Regional newspaper editors all seemed to agree with organized labor in editorial condemnations of the “Celestials,” such as this comment from the Ouray Plaindealer: “Drive out the Japs and Chinese. If the trusts and money lords who make the laws of this country are bound to oppress American Labor with cheap Asiatic importations, let the white workman retaliate by taking a club to every saffron-hued peon that sticks his head over the breastworks.”

A number of the Chinese and Japanese who’d been evicted from Silverton more to Ouray and Durango. The result was a boycott of Chinese and Japanese business in those towns. In March, the courthouse in Ouray was packed with the town’s men and women, all present to “discuss the question of peacefully bringing about such a condition of affairs that would remove the Chinese and Japanese from the vicinity.” The discussion at the meeting followed by the usual line of objection made against ethnic groups: the Chinese sent their earnings back to China, and did not assimilate, their “method of living” was un-American. The Ouray Plaindealer again hit on the crux of the matter: despite the fact that “this class of people seldom caused disturbances…[they] interfered with the possibilities of …white labor”

Secretary of State John Hay soon sent another message to Governor Orman, saying exactly the same thing, except naming Ouray instead of Silverton.

In early May 1902, the previously peaceful boycotts and evictions turned violent in Silverton. Apparently hoping that the furor had died down, about a dozen Chinese returned to Silverton the first week of May. There they quickly reopened a laundry and connected restaurant called the O.K. Chinese Restaurant.

A few days later, a group of forty anti-Chinese agitators gathered at midnight. They forced their way into the O.K. Restaurant, took two men hostage and robbed them. The newspaper accounts were vague about what happened next, but the Chinese were apparently beaten, tortured and run out of town. The mob next tried to get into the laundry, but the men inside barricaded the place and managed to keep them out. 

While this was going on, one clever Chinese man called “Spider” had slipped unnoticed out the back of the O.K. Restaurant. Spider had lived in Silverton for fourteen years. He ran down the city hall and rang the fire bell. This roused the police and other citizens, who saw what was happening and put a stop to it.

For most citizens, even though they had joined in the general anti-Asian chorus, this brutal act was too extreme. The Ouray Herald published an editorial speaking out against the “outrages perpetrated upon the non-resistant [sic] residents. To use plain language, the “white-capping” of the Chinese was a foul outrage and a stain upon the fair name of this community. Every man connected with the circumstance was law-breaker and worse.”

“White-capping” referred to a movement that first emerged during the 1870s that was similar in belief, act and costume to the Ku Klux Klan.

Other newspapers reported that the Chinese had been robbed of hundreds of dollars and were “subjected to stringing up and tortures in way of brutal treatment that should d–n all who lent their aid to such atrocious work.” Although he had previously published numerous anti-Chinese editorials, David Day at the Durango Democrat now excoriated the mob.

The dastardly character of  the undertaking had a tendency to reverse all who were against the Chinaman, and they were rapidly placed under police protection with Sheriff Casad and the city officers in charge. 

During the shameful raid there were seven or eight shots fired, the Chinaman returning the fire and exhibiting no symptoms of fear other than such as the overpowering odds visited upon them. 

Yesterday three of four of  the mob were recognized by their victims, and others had been recognized by parties returning from a social function, at least some of Silverton’s people claim to have recognized the voices.

Our latest advices are to effect that the Chinese minister in Washington has be wired of the outrage and a bill for damages and money stolen will no doubt be presented and paid.

Reports varied about how many men were hurt in the attack. Secretary of State Hay received a report that “one had been lost, others badly beaten and the house occupied by one of them broken into and robbed.”

One man who had been “escorted” out of town by the mob ended up walking barefooted for thirty miles along the train tracks. He was picked up by the train in deplorable condition. His clothing torn, and his feet were cut, bruised and blistered. Passengers on the train helped him on, paid for his fare, and once in Durango, helped him into a wagon that took him to Chinese friends in that town. The mob had stolen $500 from him.

Even the editors at the Silverton Standard, who had used much of the column space demonizing the Chinese, spoke up against the raid: “The maltreatment of a dog in such manner as was meted to the two Chinamen would naturally elicit condemnation from any human being…”

The Ouray Herald attempted to paint the issue as a Silverton problem, decrying the “howling, drunken mob [that] assaulted and brutally treated a few defenseless Chinamen, pounding three almost to death, and perhaps killing one that cannot be found.” The Herald went further:

The reply of the sheriff of San Juan county to Governor Orman, that everything was quiet and that no further trouble was anticipated, is plain indication that the people of Silverton are trying to smother it. All reports go to show that if the authorities were not in full sympathy with the mob that they intended to whitewash the whole thing if possible.

The Chinamen were abused worse than any humane man would abuse a burro, three of them shamefully pounded up, some doubts being expressed as to their recovery.

Not surprisingly, the Silverton Standard shot back against the Ouray Herald, bringing up the lynching of the Cuddigans and the “burning alive of a Negro,” which the newspaper claimed took place in Ouray.

A “law and order league” was formed in Silverton to prevent future attacks, but the Chinese were still not welcome in town.


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Durango is an ideal destination for multi-sport adventurers who want to be in heart of it all. The Animas River winds right through town and is known for some of the best rafting and kayaking in the state. Just uphill, you can be in the Rockies, hiking, skiing or even ice climbing in out-of-this-world alpine terrain. In the lowlands, visitors can enjoy year-round access to mountain biking with more than 1,000 miles of trails around Durango alone, as well as slot canyons and Anasazi ruins. In town, Main Street offers lots of Wild West charm along with modern amenities. You’ll even have the opportunity to hop aboard an historic steam train, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This narrow gauge train was built specifically to handle narrow mountain routes, and the journey between Durango and Silverton is one of the most breathtaking in the country.