The racial justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd has caused many cities to examine their history of race relations. Lake Oswego is no exception. The city’s reputation as an exclusive white enclave has made it a poster child for white privilege. But was it always this way? These articles explore what census records reveal about people of color who lived in Oswego during its first 80 years.
IN SEARCH OF OSWEGO’S CHINATOWN
According to local tradition, there was once a small Chinatown at the east end of Oswego Lake. The only published information about this settlement comes from Mary Goodall’s history of Oswego (Oregon’s Iron Dream, 1958) and from an oral history collection published by the Lake Oswego Public Library (In Their Own Words, 1976).
According to Goodall, the Chinese “made their home in a cluster of little shacks across from the present Morris Oswego Swim.” The “Swim” was a commercial swim park that operated at the east end of the lake until 1958. According to Herbert Edward Yates, who was interviewed by the library in 1976, “The presence of Chinese laborers did not surprise us as the Oregon Iron & Steel Company in Oswego was booming in 1890 and the area of George Rogers Park, now occupied by the ball fields, was something of a small Chinatown.” In spite of these reports, no documentary or physical evidence of Oswego’s Chinatown has ever been found. Archaeological work in 2015 did not turn up any artifacts in the ball field.
An obvious place to look for documentary evidence is the 1890 census, taken when the iron industry was at its peak. Unfortunately, the entire census for 1890 was destroyed by fire in 1921. The 1880 census is the only other census that occurred while the furnace was in blast. It lists 33 Chinese in the Oswego Precinct. They were rooming in five boarding houses, but none of the houses were near Old Town or the east end of the lake.
All of the workers were single men ranging in age from 18 to 54, but other information, including their names and occupations, is very sketchy. Because they were subject to government harassment by tax collectors and immigration officials, Chinese workers avoided detection by deliberately misinforming census takers about their names and occupations. The names they gave were often just nicknames comparable to “Champ” or “Jimmy.” The language barrier further complicated things. Census takers wrote down what they thought they heard with the result that a person’s name might be spelled differently in every census. The occupation listed for the majority of contract workers is “laborer” or “servant,” which tells nothing about their employer or the exact nature of their work.
An article that appeared in the Oregonian on July 22, 1880 describes the challenge facing census takers who were trying to count the Chinese.
Mr. Suksdorf, general supervisor of the census for the district of Oregon, informs us that the reports from all the enumerating districts have not yet been received, and consequently he is unable to complete his returns. Eleven enumerators have not yet presented their reports, which delays the whole work. Much difficulty has been and is experienced in the enumeration of the Chinese. There are known to be between 4500 and 5000 Chinese whose residence is Portland, but who are scattered over the country, working on railroads and other public improvements. It is very difficult to find these Mongolians and enumerate them. One of the enumerators was sent up a short time since to enumerate the Chinese employed on the railroad work between John Day and Willow Creek. The Chinese refused to give the enumerator any information whatever, to answer questions, or give their names. They were very suspicious and thought the enumerator was some tax collector. The only thing he could do was to count them, which he did, and found there are employed on that part of the road 905 Chinamen. Mr. Suksdorf says that there are at least 1,000 Chinamen working on the Northern Pacific railroad, whose headquarters is Portland. He has sent an enumerator over to add them to the census. Twelve hundred Chinamen have already been enumerated who are working now among the various fisheries down the river. With all possible diligence on the part of the enumerators they will not be able to get all the Chinese population.Oregonian July 22, 1880
By 1890 the Chinese population in Portland was 9,540, the largest Chinese community after San Francisco. Portland served as a key routing center for the movement of Chinese workers throughout the Pacific Northwest. The fact that the majority of Chinese who worked for the iron company were temporary contract workers, explains why the number of Chinese in the 1880 census is so low. The number of Chinese woodcutters grew from 150 in 1873 to 300 in 1890. Woodcutting was seasonal work that took place during the dry months and the men lived in camps. By 1890 the Oregon Iron & Steel Company owned over 23,000 acres of timberland in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties as well as in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties in Washington.
The experiences of nineteenth century Chinese laborers are similar to the experiences of immigrants and migrant workers today. Both were fleeing harsh economic and political conditions in their native lands. The Chinese were initially welcomed as a source of cheap labor, but their increasing numbers and alien customs turned public opinion against them. They were accused of taking jobs from white workers and bringing drugs and crime to America. Growing anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. It was the first time the United States banned a group of people based solely on their race. Although the Act did not entirely stop the flow of Chinese immigrants, the Chinese population in America went into decline as the original bachelor immigrants began to die of old age. The law was not repealed until 1943.
The search for Oswego’s Chinatown will undoubtedly continue. Perhaps somewhere beneath the ball field in George Rogers Park there are fragments of a rice bowl or a Chinese pipe that could confirm its location.
This year is the 170th anniversary of Lake Oswego’s founding. With all that has happened in 2020, it is easy to forget that this is a census year. What will the 2020 census reveal about racial diversity in Lake Oswego? Census records show that people of color were among Oswego’s earliest residents. In this year of racial reckoning, they deserve to be remembered.