The Chinese Troubles, Union County, Oregon

The discovers of gold in the Baker and upper Grande Ronde regions and the building of the railroad brought an influx of Chinese into eastern Oregon. With the decline in mining and the completing of the railroad a great number of the Orientals remained in Union County. Establishing themselves mainly in the "Chinatown" which was in the block north of Adams Avenue an Court Street, back of the present Safeway Store. The Chinese operated laundries, restaurants and worked as handy men for the white people in La Grande with whom they lived at peace for many years.

However, during the year 1893 a time of great economic depression, a great deal of agitation against the Chinese arose it being felt particularly by the unemployed that the Chinese were taking work away from the whites. On 24 September of that year a great mob of men visited Chinatown burning and plundering and peremptorily ordered the out numbered Chinese to take themselves out of the community. Some of them left on the next train, but a greater number moved to a temporary camp up the Grande Ronde River. This did not satisfy the mob however, and the next day the camp was visited and broken up. The Chinese were marched back to La Grande where they were placed forcibly on an outbound train. Similar violence was shown to Chinese in the Cove region, but those around Union were not molested.

     To the credit of many of the Citizens of La Grande it must be said that the entire community did not approve of this highhanded method of handling the problem and in many cases the whites having Chinese in their employ protected their charges from the irresponsible actions of the mobs.

      Ultimately some 52 men were arrested and 10 were finally indicted for their part in the affair the specific charges against them being arson. James A. Fee was judge in the case. They were defended by a lawyer named Esteb, a very popular and capable member of the legal fraternity in Prior County in the early days. In a brilliant oration before the jury he argued that the defendants were citizens and workers of Union County entitled to protect their homes and livelihood against intrusion by foreigners. He had no trouble clearing the defendants, as the Chinese were for the most part now gone from Union County. To pay for their defense the citizens of Union held a grand hall and a sum of around $3,000 was raised to pay for the cost of their counsel. Esteb, however being a generous man turned over the whole amount of the money which he which he would have received to a segment of Coxey's Army which was in Union at that particular time on the famous march to Washington D C. The Coxey group remained in La Grande and Union for almost a week and the generosity of Esteb and the friendliness shown them by the citizens of Union County were later mentioned by Jacob Coxey in his memoirs.

     Another incident involving the Chinese occurred many years later. This however was purely a Chinese affair being a Tong dispute culminating in the murder of Billy Eng, a well liked and popular Chinaman. He was shot down about noon one day by two other Orientals when he emerged from the post office on Adams Avenue in La Grande. Several of the shots fired at Eng went wild, one woman bystander suffering a broken leg from a ricocheting bullet. Eng's assailants ran into a Chinese joss house located on Adams Avenue where the West Coast Telephone building is now located. This building was surrounded and searched but the Chinamen were not apprehended until about five hours after the shorting they having effectively hidden themselves under the floor of the building. A chance kick on a rug by one of the searching party disclosed a small trap door which led under the floor where the murderers were finally located.

     After conviction in the circuit court, the murdering Chinese appealed to the Supreme Court of Oregon which affirmed their conviction, and they were given life terms in the penitentiary.

Contributed by: Jim Reavis

Additional Chinese Information in Oregon


Union County

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