The Forgotten History of the Western Klan

Whereas southern Klansmen assaulted Black Americans and their white allies, California vigilantes targeted Chinese immigrants.

A Chinese butcher and grocery store in San Francisco, 1885.
Underwood Archives / Getty

About the author: Kevin Waite is an assistant history professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Research for this essay is drawn from his forthcoming book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire.

The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in the spring of 1869. Vigilantes could measure their success that season by the carnage they left behind: marauded homesteads, assaulted politicians, a church burned to the ground. According to a local report, insurance companies considered canceling their policies, “owing to the Ku Klux threats.” A school serving students of color was supposedly next on the Klan’s hit list.

Such havoc could describe almost any southern state in the late 1860s. But in this particular instance, it describes California. With help from the journalist Knute Berger, I’ve uncovered more than a dozen attacks attributed to the Klan in California from 1868 to 1870, as well as a smaller number in Utah and Oregon. That figure is minuscule compared with what the former Confederate states endured in these years. Nonetheless, each of these western attacks left victims and sowed terror. And collectively, they challenge common assumptions about America’s long history of white-supremacist violence.

The story of the western Klan resembles that of its southern counterpart in the broad outline—vigilantes asserting white supremacy at gunpoint. But whereas southern Klansmen assaulted Black Americans and their white allies, western vigilantes targeted those they deemed a greater threat: Chinese immigrants. By 1870, migrants from China accounted for roughly 10 percent of the state’s population and a quarter of the total workforce. By comparison, Black people represented no more than 1 percent of the population. In striking against the Chinese and their employers, vigilantes framed their assaults as a campaign for white workers.

Sometimes the mere threat of violence sufficed. Like southern Klansmen, western vigilantes operated in a cryptic and clandestine fashion. In April 1869, “another open Ku Klux proclamation, without address or envelop[e] … was thrown into the Post Office receiving box last night,” reported the Patriot of San Jose. “It threatens a destruction of all the crops of persons employing even a single Chinaman.” Another message, signed “Ku Klux Klan,” threatened to disembowel a citizen near Marysville, California, for his comparatively progressive views on race.

California Klansmen played the victim and reveled in theatricality. “Action! Action! Action!” demanded a manifesto addressed to “fellow members of the KKK” that was distributed near San Francisco in 1868. The letter vowed “retribution and vengeance” and promised to “sheath daggers” in the breasts of those who sought the “enslavement of a free people”—that is, white workers. The irony of white supremacists complaining about slavery was apparently lost on certain Klansmen.

Chinese American men in San Francisco
San Francisco’s Chinatown between 1896 and 1911 (Arnold Genthe / Library of Congress)

Vigilantes suited their actions to their words. Numerous Chinese immigrants were targets of extralegal violence. In the spring of 1868, white vandals raided a series of ranches in Northern California. They captured and savagely beat the Chinese workers there, according to an article in Sacramento’s Daily Union titled “Kuklux Klan – California Branch.” Blood oozed from the ears and nostrils of one of their nearly lifeless victims. The next year, a mob stormed a ranch near Santa Cruz, where they “drove some Chinamen off after horribly maltreating them, abused and terrified the children … and raised Cain generally,” according to the Santa Cruz Times.

Nothing was sacred to anti-Chinese mobs. In 1869, arsonists burned down a Methodist church in San Jose that housed a Sunday school for Chinese children. Vigilantes torched another church, in Sacramento, as well as a brandy distillery near San Jose that employed Chinese workers. A newly opened school for Chinese children in Nevada City, California, was scheduled to operate strictly in the daytime and on Sundays, “so as to avoid the Ku Klux Klan, who are burning churches, and will next attempt to destroy all school books,” according to a local newspaper.

Western vigilantes in the Reconstruction era could claim an advantage that some southern Klansmen lacked: the support of their local government. Klan activity peaked in the late 1860s, when most former Confederate states were under military occupation and governed by Republican politicians. California, however, had remained loyal to the United States in the Civil War and thus avoided federal oversight during Reconstruction. That left Democrats free to participate in politics. They carried the state election of 1867 in a landslide, catapulting unabashed white supremacists into California’s highest offices. In his inaugural address, Governor Henry Haight told his white audience precisely what they wanted to hear: Chinese immigration must cease. The “influx” of Chinese workers would, he warned, “inflict a curse upon posterity for all time.” A Klansman couldn’t have put it more pointedly.

Spurred by popular Sinophobia, California lawmakers campaigned against the two signal measures of the Reconstruction era, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Republican congressmen designed those acts to primarily benefit Black Americans, granting them equal protection under the law and suffrage for Black men. But California Democrats centered the debate on Chinese immigrants, knowing the strategy would pay dividends. They falsely claimed that the Fifteenth Amendment would extend the vote to all Chinese, when in fact Asian immigrants were barred from citizenship and suffrage. The Reconstruction of the South would be replicated in the West, argued the state senator and former Confederate cavalryman Willie Gwin. “The only difference will be the substitution of the Chinaman for the negro.”

California became the lone free state to reject both amendments outright. (Oregon initially approved the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, before rescinding its ratification two years later.) California lawmakers didn’t get around to ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment until 1959, and the Fifteenth until 1962.

Despite the scope and scale of anti-Chinese fervor in 19th-century California, scholars have largely missed the role of the Ku Klux Klan in this history. (The most important works on the KKK in the American West begin in the 20th century.)

Perhaps that’s because the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction era was not a systematized organization. The hallmarks that we now associate with the Klan—such as the pointy-headed white robes—didn’t become de rigueur until the 20th century. The early KKK was instead a “rubric,” in the words of the historian Steven Hahn, “embracing a variety of secret vigilante and paramilitary outfits showing the marks of their local settings.” Self-identified western Klansmen likely had no direct contact with their southern counterparts. Without waiting for permission, they adapted the banner of the KKK to their own campaigns because they knew the name alone inspired terror. And California’s anti-Chinese vigilantes were in the business of terror.

Not all attacks on Chinese workers and their allies in California can be attributed to the Klan. Many of these assaults were carried out by unaffiliated vigilante groups or by members of the so-called anti-coolie clubs that cropped up during the same period. Furthermore, no self-identified Klansman can be linked to the worst anti-Chinese atrocity of the period: the 1871 massacre in Los Angeles that claimed the lives of 10 percent of the city’s Chinese population.

Even if they didn’t coordinate, however, southern Klansmen and their western counterparts were complementary forces. Both functioned to violently assert white hegemony against the perceived threat of racial outsiders. And both were brutally effective, at least for a time.

Many of America’s defining narratives leave little room for people of Asian descent. The Civil War and Reconstruction are generally understood in binary terms: North versus South, Black versus white. Americans often assume that California and its multiethnic population was untouched by a war that raged thousands of miles to the east. The Chinese experience in the West is confined to other strands of the American narrative—to stories about railroads and labor disputes, not to the cataclysmic struggle over the fate of the Union and the battle for reunification that followed.

But as the forgotten history of the western Klan reveals, the Chinese and those who terrorized them were key players in the struggles of the post–Civil War era. Their stories should reframe our understanding, not only of this pivotal period in American history, but of how racial violence has functioned across time and space. White supremacy obeys no regional boundaries. The early KKK was a national, not local, phenomenon. Then, as now, hate wasn’t a southern problem; it was and is an American problem.