Chines laborers in Sonoma - 1800's

Chinese in Sonoma

Inclusion/ Exclusion

A brief history of Chinese in Sonoma Valley


The history of Chinese in Sonoma is one of inclusion and exclusion and although the Chinese residents of Sonoma Valley left no written record of their history, it is captured by the census records (that are notoriously incomplete), governmental proceedings that discuss labor and agricultural issues, newspaper articles, and personal stories of community members. Important and unique are 1867 photos by Eadweard Muybridge in which the Chinese were not necessarily the photo subject but they capture the story of Chinese vineyard and winery labor in Sonoma Valley.

Eadweard Muybridge photographed Buena Vista vineyards and winery extensively in 1867.  Included in his photos are Chinese laborers. The Sonoma Valley Historical Society’s archives also contain photos of laundries and the Sanborn Insurance maps list numerous Chinese businesses in the town of Sonoma.

Chinese immigrants came to California in response to economic and political turmoil in China including:

  • Two Opium wars 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 between the Chinese emperor and the British who were driven by the desire for economic expansion into China
  • The Taiping rebellion civil war in China that lasted from 1850-1864

Timeline of Chinese in Sonoma


The first Chinese to enter the Valley were most likely Chinese who immigrated seeking gold, but had become disillusioned as a result of failure or harassment in the gold fields. There is insufficient evidence but evidence supports that  they worked on building levees and clearing reclaimed swamp-land in the Delta and migrated west looking for agricultural opportunities.

In 1851, William McPherson Hill used Chines workers to plant 4000 grape vines.

In 1856, Agoston Haraszthy purchased Buena Vista in Sonoma.

In 1859, several big California Swamp Reclamation companies made plans to import Chinese laborers and put them to work on 36,000 acres of Delta Land.


Agoston Haraszthy used Chinese laborers to clear land and plant 70,000 vines in 1860 and 135,000 vines in 1861.

On August 31, 1860, speaking to the Second Annual Fair of the Sonoma County Agricultural and Mechanical Society, Haraszthy promoted using Chinese labor for both vineyard and leveeing marsh-land.  He and his partners were leveeing 8000 acres of marsh-land just south of the town of Sonoma with Chinese labor. (California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences - Volume 14, Number 2 September 7, 1860)

At the writing of the article in the California Farmer and Journal of Use Sciences:

8 miles of levees had been created. The crops to be grown were rice, tobacco, root crops, rape (produced rapeseed for Canola oil)), hemp, flax, cranberries, asparagus and cabbages’.

During this period the Chinese population in Sonoma Valley and the County rose significantly because of the introduction of Chinese labor contractors. One was Ho Po, who obtained Chinese workers from outside of Sonoma County, most likely from San Francisco. Have photo

In 1886 Sonoma instituted a countywide effort to drive the Chinese from Sonoma Valley and the County by boycotting the use of Chinese labor and the purchase of Chinese goods.

‘Sonoma Valley was always hospitable to Chinese during the Nineteenth Century with only rare references in the local press to dislike of the Chinese either by the editor or resident’ (William Heintz)

‘A great many of the Chinese who have left Santa Rosa have found work around Glen Ellen, on the ranches’ (March 13, 1886 Sonoma Index Tribune)

Despite the boycott, the Chinese returned and the Chinese population of the County reached its highpoint of 1,145.

Historian, William Heintz does state that Agoston Haraszthy did have to arm his home in order to introduce Chinese labor at Buena Vista Winery.

When the Chinese began to lease land in Sonoma County in the 1870’s they cultivated hops, not grapes or deciduous fruit, on the leased acreages because hops brought a higher return per acre.


The Chinese population of the Sonoma Valley and the County began a precipitous decline. This was the result of several factors: the effect of the Exclusion Act, competition from Italian and Japanese agriculturalists and the desire by the Chinese to migrate to urban areas.

Sonoma Valley’s Wine Industry

The Contribution of Chinese Workers

In 1852, William McPherson Hill’s Glen Ellen Winery planted 4000 grapevines (possibly the white grape variety Palomino) with Chinese labor.

The 1860 census of agriculture listed only 5 farms in Sonoma County that produced wine, but in 1870 that number grew to 134 farms.  (The number growing grapes were doubtlessly larger.)

Sonoma County wine grape growing was concentrated in Sonoma Valley where, as was recorded in the manuscript schedules of the census of agriculture, 91 vineyardists  wine makers produced 272,875 gallons of wine in 1869-1870.

Colonel Agoston Haraszthy was largely responsible for the introduction of the consistent use of Chinese workers into the Valley’s viniculture industry. He used Chinese workers to clear the land, plant the vines, build his winery caves and as Muybridge’s photos show, the Chinese provided the labor for many of the winery jobs.

An account published in the Daily Alta California on July 23, 1863, states:

“Arriving at a place called Lovell Valley, we found the overseer, Attila Haraszthy, working thirty Chinamen, grubbing oak saplings on a pretty steep hill, facing south.’ Chinese also built the wine cellars and did the “inside work” at Haraszthy’s winery, as the same reporter observed:

On the same floor we found four Chinamen filling, coring, wiring, etc. Champagne bottles, while the youngest son of the colonel selected for then the cork and bottles. There are now in progress three cellars, close to the press house. These are all being blasted and excavated by Chinese. They are to be twenty-six feet wide, thirteen feet in height, and three hundred feet long.”

The San Francisco Chronicle in 1883 writing of Napa Valley stated:

“It is tedious work, because the picker is compelled to squat on his haunches, the grapes seldom being more than a foot or a foot and a half from the ground. The Chinese make good pickers on account of the stolid industry and the genius for plodding.”

As stated in literature about the railroads, Chinese workers were hard workers and did not drink (although they did smoke opium-note the tobacco/opium pipe next to Ho Po in his photo). Numerous sources commented they bathed more regularly than other contemporary worker groups. Chinese agricultural workers were also self-reliant: living in camps they built and ate a diet that included rice and other foods that were different from other workers. There remains indication of several camps in Sonoma Valley where Chinese workers lived: at Scribe winery (formerly the Dresel Ranch) and at Buena Vista winery.

In addition to Haraszthy, other local farmers supported the inclusion of Chinese workers.

Charles Stuart owned Glen Oaks Ranch (now a Sonoma Land Trust property) and hired Chinese laborers to build the his house with keystone arches over double-hung windows, many of which still have their original glass.

Stuart's support of the Chinese extented to speaking publicly when on December 9, 1878 at the second California Constitutional Convention Charles Stuart of their contribution and value to California:

“I have been a patient listener in this Convention, he began and have not been on the floor since its first organization—over two months ago. I have heard what was said with a great deal of instruction—sometimes and sometimes with disgust and disappointment.”

As the delegates discussed provisions that would forbid the employment of Chinese, prohibiting them from fishing in California waters, and from buying, holding, or leasing property or real estate.

On February 1, 1879 when the Convention brought all the provisions up for final approval, Stuart spoke again and concluded with the following.

“These men, after being invited to our shores, after building our railroads, clearing our farms, reclaiming over one million acres of our swamp and overflowed land, planting our vineyards and our orchards, reaping the crops of the small and the needy farmers, gathering our fruits and berries, digging and sacking our potatoes, supplying our markets with the smaller kinds of fish from the sea, manufacturing our woolen and other goods, cleaning up the tailings of our hydraulic mines, scraping the bedrock of our exhausted mining claims, and relieving most of the householders in this State of the household drudgery which would be imposed upon our wives and daughters, thus contributing to our happiness and true prosperity”

(The convention failed to approve all the provisions to which Stuart had objected.)


Legislation was used against Chinese immigrants as early as the 1850 Foreign Miners’ License Tax.

1850-The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians (Chapter 133, Cal Stats. April 1850) was enacted by the first session of the California State Legislature setting the stage for subsequently denying rights of citizenship to other races.

1854- the California State Supreme Court categorized Chinese with blacks and Indians, denying them their right to testify against white men in courts of law.

During the 1870’s an economic downturn resulted in serious unemployment and led to heightened outcries against Asian immigrants.

In 1873, for example, the San Francisco Supervisors legislated the cutting of the queue of Chinese males, calling the so-called ‘pigtails’ a health hazard.

In the new California Constitution of 1879, State voters even went so far as to approve Section XIX which made it illegal to hire Chinese on city, county, or state projects and banned their employment by any corporation within the State.

The Chinese often became the scapegoats for business owners who paid them low wages. The willingness to work for lower wages along with the productivity of Chinese workers ignited the ire of white labor in California.  Racist labor union leaders directed their actions and the anger of unemployed workers at the Chinese, blaming them for depressed wages and lack of jobs and accusing them of being morally corrupt.

Formed in 1877, the Workingman’s Party blamed the Chinese for California’s economic woes. Denis Kearney, head of the Workingmen’s Party of California, led the inflammatory battle against the Chinese.

By the late 1870’s conflict over the Chinese had reached a crisis level.

“Native –born whites and European immigrants accused the Chinese of being dirty, spreading disease, refusing to assimilate, and using strange potions like opium. They degraded the progress of Christian civilization, the whites complained, and missionary work was hopeless. Most importantly though the Chinese competed for work with white laborers, driving down wages. These low wages, argued anti-Chinese writers, forced white laborers into poverty and white women into prostitution.”

May 6, 1882, after many setbacks including presidential vetoes, a national Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress. The two major provision of the law provided for a ten-year suspension of all Chinese labor immigration but exempted teachers, (persons crossing the United States en route to China). It also prohibited the naturalization of the Chinese.

Laws were passed in California targeting the Chinese that were extreme violations of the personal and constitutional rights of the Chinese resident or immigrant. Most California laws were eventually declared unconstitutional.

The events above could account for the lack of information about Chinese workers in the vineyards of Sonoma Valley.

Information from our archives include an oral history from Bert Koerner tells of his father moving him and his sister to the town of Sonoma in 18?? To attend school. Bert relates the difficulties that he and his sister had in attending a school teaching in English as the two languages they spoke were Chinese and German.

Other oral histories from local residents talk  of Chinese residents like Charly Hoy who ran a laundry on First St West.

The Magnuson Act repealed the Exclusion Act on December 17th, 1943.