By Scott Zesch
The word “massacre” usually brings to mind lonely American landscapes such as Wounded Knee, Mountain Meadows and Sand Creek—not a busy metropolis like Los Angeles. Yet that city’s first race riot, dating back all the way to 1871 and largely forgotten today, came to be known as the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre.
At the time it occurred, Los Angeles was a Wild West town of only 6,000 residents. Most people outside of California had never heard of it. Californians knew about the place mainly because it had the state’s highest per capita murder rate and largest number of lynchings.
Shortly before sundown on October 24, 1871, a gunfight broke out between members of rival Chinese factions. Angelenos ran to Chinatown to see what was happening. A reckless white rancher discharged his revolver into a Chinese store and was killed by return fire. Within a short time, an angry crowd of about 500 Anglos and Latinos gathered in the streets of Chinatown, surrounding the low adobe buildings. As darkness fell, the Chinese were trapped inside their homes and shops. After a three-hour standoff, the mob broke into the Chinese headquarters, seized random victims, and dragged them off to be hanged. Eighteen Chinese men were murdered that night.
This half-hour killing spree was the bloodiest attack on Chinese immigrants the country had experienced at that time. The Chinese Massacre was also the first event to draw nationwide attention to Los Angeles. It was a public relations disaster for the small but growing town, whose civic leaders were careful not to mention the atrocity in a local history they published five years later. Today, a small plaque near the Hollywood Freeway is all that commemorates the city’s first deadly racial uprising and one of America’s worst hate crimes.
Scott Zesch is the author of The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (Oxford University Press). His previous book, The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, won the TCU Texas Book Award.