A Letter Home from Bellingham
“Dear Mama. We had a riot here about a week ago, the people ran out the Hindos”
By Manan Desai |
APRIL 9, 2014
This letter from Adolphus W. Mangum was written to his mother on September 8, 1907, just days after what is now known as the Bellingham Riot. On the night of September 4th, a mob attacked hundreds of Indian laborers, known at the time as “Hindus” although the majority were Sikh. The riot soon made headlines in Washington, and reports about “Hindu Expulsion” reached all the way to the East Coast. Mangum, a soil scientist by training, just happened to be working in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Washington, when the riot occurred. About four pages into his letter -- after a long-winded discussion about his fieldwork and several complaints about his assistant -- he casually mentions a “riot [...] about a week ago” in which “the people ran out the Hindos (sic).”
In the letter, Mangum describes his antipathy towards the migrants, describing them as “dirty and mean and will work for wages that a white man can’t live on.” The same language was often used to frame the question of Chinese and Japanese labor along the West Coast, but for Mangum, the “Hindos” constituted an even more awful threat. The full transcription of the relevant section reads as follows:
"We had a riot here about a week ago, the people ran out the Hindos, who have come here in great numbers and have been working in the lumber mills. These Hindos came here from India and are British subjects so the English gov. may investigate the riots and make the people here pay for what they did. These Hindos are very undesirable citizens. They are dirty and mean and will work for wages that a white man can’t live on. I am not in sympathy with the laboring men who started this riot, because they ought to mob the mill men who hire these laborers rather than mob the Hindos themselves. If the mill owners did not hire them, they would not come here in such crowds. They are worse than the Japs and China men and have caused trouble ever since they began to be numerous. The Japans and China-men have flooded this county and it begins to look like they intend to take possession of everything out here. There is going to be a race war out here pretty soon if this government dont keep them out, and when it comes, they are going to clean out the Japs and China-men, and we will have war with Japan. The people in the east cant realize what these people are up against with these Orientals. They will live in crowds, in one house and as nobody can live near them, people begin to move out of the neighborhood, and soon they will practically own a whole section of a town, and the value of property in that section will take a drop, to about ½ of what it was before they came. They can live on “nothing per day” and it looks like they will eventually crowd out the American workman. I believe if you could see and become personally acquainted with this out-fit, you would get the Keely-Cure, on the missionary question for you would see what kind of an out-fit you were working for, and would be ready to say you 'had enough.'"Mangum’s letter is shot through with the prevalent sentiment of anti-Asian racism. He predicts a full-scale “race war” between the Whites and “Orientals.” And while Mangum blames the mill owners as the root cause of the problem and does not feel “sympathy with the laboring men who started this riot,” he nonetheless describes the threats to property that the “Orientals” pose.
As far as we know, this is one of the only “private” accounts of the Bellingham Riot, and the only reason it has survived is Mangum’s pedigree. He was a member of a powerful family in North Carolina that included William Person Mangum, one of the founding members of the American Whig Party and a U.S. Senator. Filed away in the Mangum family papers at the University of North Carolina, the letter was rediscovered by Paul Englesberg, a scholar from Bellingham, who has been extensively researching the events of the riot for several years now.
One wonders how much Mangum ever interacted with the South Asian millworkers in Bellingham to be able describe their “undesirability” with such authority. He would not have had much chance after the night of the riot, since they had all left Bellingham a few days after.
Manan Desai teaches at Syracuse University and serves on the Board of Directors for the South Asian American Digital Archive.