Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


On the afternoon of October 31, 1880, a mob descended on Denver's Chinatown. Within hours the mob destroyed businesses, residences, and killed one Chinese resident. Denver's riot was one of 153 anti-Chinese riots that swept through the American West during the 1870s and 1880s. Because so few Chinese settled in the Great Plains during the nineteenth century, however, the Denver riot was one of two major anti-Chinese incidents to strike the region (the other was in Calgary in 1892).

The Chinese had experienced discrimination and violence since 1849 when they first arrived in California. They were driven out of California mines by the "foreign miner's tax" and also experienced outright violence (a Los Angeles mob killed twenty-eight Chinese in 1871). By the late 1870s the anti-Chinese movement had entered national politics. Fearful that cheap Chinese labor would threaten the white working class, Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant and founder of the Workingman's Party, led a campaign to ban Chinese immigration. During the presidential election of 1880 Chinese immigration became an important issue when Winfield Hancock, the Democratic candidate, supported a ban on Chinese immigration.

Colorado was not immune to anti-Chinese agitation. In 1874 white miners drove 160 Chinese out of Nederland, and in 1879 the people of Leadville were proud to announce that they had no Chinese living in their community. By 1880 the anti-Chinese movement had reached Denver, a city with 238 Chinese residents. During the presidential election of 1880, Denver's Rocky Mountain News, a staunchly Democratic paper, launched an anti-Chinese campaign, igniting Denver's working class. In its October 23 issue, for example, the newspaper called the Chinese the "Pest of the Pacific" and pointed out that if they invaded Colorado in greater numbers, white men would starve and women would be forced into prostitution. Other editorials attacked the opium dens located along Hop Alley in Chinatown. On October 28 the Rocky Mountain News reported that there was open talk in Denver of running the Chinese out. The night before the riot, supporters of the Democratic Party marched through the streets, many carrying anti- Chinese banners.

Denver was ready to explode. The spark that ignited the riot came on the afternoon of October 31 when several intoxicated white men entered a saloon and began harassing two Chinese. The Chinese patrons retreated out the back door but were pursued and assaulted. Soon after, a crowd composed mostly of Irish laborers gathered near the scene of the crime. By two o'clock the crowd had turned into a mob of 3,000, and Denver's police force, which was understaffed and without a police chief, was unable to control the masses. The mayor called on the fire department to help with crowd management and then tried to persuade the mob to disperse. When the crowd shouted down the mayor, he ordered the fire department to disperse them with water hoses. Enraged by the soaking, the crowd hurled bricks and rocks at the firemen and then turned their rage on Chinatown. They sacked businesses, burned homes, and attacked innocent victims. By early evening rioters had burned every laundry in Chinatown. When the mob found Sing Lee, a laundryman, they pounced on him, kicking him as he lay on the ground. The helpless laundryman was dragged down the street with a rope around his neck and eventually was beaten to death.

A few Denverites stood up to the mob and protected their Chinese friends. Several citizens hid Chinese friends in their homes. Jim Moon, a gambler of ill repute, held off a mob bent on burning out a Chinese laundry. With a revolver leveled at the crowd and using forceful language, Moon single-handedly dispersed the crowd. In another act of bravery, Liz Preston, the madam of a brothel, and ten of her employees protected several terrified Chinese. Armed with shotguns, champagne bottles, and high-heeled shoes, the women forced the crowd to retreat. Preston's brothel served as a safe haven for Denver's Chinese during the riot; at least thirty-four Chinese waited out the riot inside her parlor.

In the heat of the riot the mayor appointed Dave Cook, a Denver fireman, as acting police chief, and he quickly appointed 125 special policemen to help reestablish order. Police officers rounded up the Chinese and lodged them in the county jail for their own protection. With law enforcers finally on the streets, the crowd slowly disappeared into the night. By eleven o'clock Cook reported that Denver's streets were quiet.

Authorities kept the Chinese locked in the county jail for several days. On November 4 they were released, only to find their businesses, homes, and temples destroyed. Estimates of the total damage exceeded $53,000. The Chinese consul in San Francisco requested reparation payments from the federal government and the city of Denver. His requests were denied. To add further insult to the Chinese victims, Denver's rioters escaped punishment. Those who had been jailed during the riot were released for lack of evidence, and Sing Lee's murderers were acquitted in February 1881. Despite the violence and destruction of their property, many Chinese remained in Denver. They rebuilt their businesses and homes along Hop Alley, and by 1890 more than 980 Chinese lived in Denver. Chinatown remained a part of the Denver landscape until 1940 when it was razed in the name of urban renewal.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Denver, Colorado.

Mark R. Ellis University of Nebraska at Kearney

Wortman, Roy T. "Denver's Anti-Chinese Riot, 1880," Colorado Magazine 42 (1965): 275–91.

Wunder, John R. "Anti- Chinese Violence in the American West, 1850–1910." In Law for the Elephant, Law for the Beaver: Essays in the Legal History of the North American West, edited by John Mc- Claren. Pasadena CA: Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, 1992: 212–36.

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