By Alecia Giombolini ::
On March 21, 1910, a violent riot took place in the heart of St. Johns, during which two hundred local residents, including prominent members of the community, attacked the town’s East-Indian population. By the end of the day, the majority of the town’s East Indian population were forcibly placed on trains and sent south to Portland. The conditions of the riot were described by the St. John’s Review as follows: “The trouble had been brewing for some time on account of the number of Hindus consistently increasing at the St. Johns lumber mill. White men, it has been said, have been replaced by these Turbaned fellows, and a strong feeling of animosity toward them has engendered.” While the riot was often explained as a labor dispute, the St. Johns Review’s quip about “turbaned fellows” reveals racial prejudice that underlined the entire conflict.
At the time of the riot, St. John’s was a small industrial town in the midst of a robust economic boom. Located North of Portland, on a small peninsula in between the Columbia and Willamette, the town seemed to be poised for extensive growth and development. Since the turn of the century, several businesses had moved to the shores of St. Johns, bringing along scores of workers. Starting around 1906, a small stream of immigrants primarily from the Punjabi region of what is today northwest India, began to arrive in the Pacific Northwest. Though small in number, the East Indian immigrants that arrived in Washington and Oregon faced significant violence at the hands of local white workers.
The St. Johns Riot was just one of several anti-East Indian riots that took place in the Pacific Northwest during the first decade of the twentieth century. Just three years earlier some 500 residents of Bellingham, Washington had violently attacked and expelled their city’s local East-Indian population. The Bellingham riot would inspire similar violent events in Tacoma and Everett Washington, as well as in Vancouver B.C., where a mob attacked the city’s Chinese, Japanese, and East-Indian communities. These events were driven by regional anti-Asian attitudes that date back to the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants in the 1880s.
Unlike these other anti-East Indian riots, in the days following the St. Johns episode, most of the East Indian workers returned to St. Johns where they would wage a two year legal battle against their attackers. Very few of the accused were convicted, and those that were received light sentences. While the prosecution of the rioters must be in part attributed to the actions of the local East Indian community, it also reflects the general principles of Oregon racial policy. While many Oregon leaders opposed anti-Asian/anti-Indian violence, they did so because they believed that the State could benefit from the labor of these groups and simultaneously fought to ensure that these groups did not gain equal rights.
The riot and its aftermath would also prove to be an important moment in the origins of a radicalized East Indian immigrant movement. In fact, historian Johanna Ogden, argues that East Indian community’s response to the riot was a foundational moment in the development of the Ghadar Party; a political organization founded by Indians in the United States and Canada that sought to secure Indian Independence from British Rule. For this reason, the St. Johns riot holds an important place in both the history of the Pacific Northwest as well as the history of the Indian Independence movement, and should be remembered as much more than just another example of regional nativist violence.
Want to Learn More? Check Out:
- Johanna Ogden, “Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging: Early 1900s Punjabis of the Columbia River” Oregon Historical Quarterly, (Summer, 2012).
- Museum of Vancouver: 1907 Anti Asian Riots
- Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project: The 1907 Bellingham Riots in Historical Context
- University of Washington Special Collections: Taraknath Das
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”
Alecia Giombolini, Project Manager
Will Schneider, Voice of Taraknath Das
Kim Andrews, Fact Checker
Special thanks to Johanna Ogden for providing access to her research and unpublished materials.