General anti-Chinese sentiment in the nineteenth century was rapidly growing. This was particularly true in western cities like Denver. A saloon fight between several Chinese and white men led to the destruction of Denver’s Chinatown and to one of Colorado’s worst race riots in its history.

Chinese immigration was a heavily discussed issue during the 1880 election cycle, especially in western states and territories where Chinese labor and communities were prevalent. Although Democrats and Republicans took an anti-Chinese labor stance in the election, many Democrats accused Republican presidential candidate, James A. Garfield, of favoring cheap Chinese labor over American or European immigrant labor. Denver, Colorado, which hosted a large Chinese population, provides a striking example of how these national anti-Chinese politics inflamed local tensions to the point of violence in the west. On October 30, 1880, a crowd of three thousand attended a Democratic Party anti-Chinese demonstration. As demonstrators held anti-Chinese signs, prominent Denver Democrats gave speeches outlining the supposed danger of continual Chinese immigration to the United States. 

Conflict broke out the following day. Two Chinese men were playing pool in a local saloon when a group of white men entered and started harassing them. John Asmussen, the saloon’s owner, advised the Chinese men to leave through the back door to avoid a fight, and the men complied. The white men, however, followed them out, and one of them struck one of the Chinese men with a board. A crowd gathered and soon the white men began attacking the Chinese people working in the laundromat next door. More and more people joined the growing white mob, and by the day’s end, three to five thousand people had stormed Chinatown. The mayor, Richard Sopris, and the fire department attempted to disperse the mob with a firehose, but this and the eight policemen on duty were largely powerless. The mob engaged in arson, robbery, destruction of property, rape, and violence. At some point, the mob forced a Chinese man named Look Young from his house, dragged through the town by a rope wrapped around his neck, beat him, and finally lynched him.

It is likely the mob would have killed more, but citizens sympathetic to the Chinese plight prevented more deaths. A group of prostitutes from a nearby brothel protected about 30 Chinese people, while others opened their homes and businesses to the fleeing Chinese. The mayor helped establish safehouses in hotels, saloons, residences, and the jail. The riot died down by the next morning. That day, the Republican party held a rally condemning the actions of the mob. Due to the sheer size of the mob and chaos of the scene, few rioters were convicted of any crimes. The Chinese residents of Denver were not paid any sort of reparations. Around 100 Chinese residents chose to leave for other cities within the U.S. or return to China. The remaining Chinese residents chose to stay in Denver and rebuild Chinatown.

Images

Riot in Denver
Riot in Denver Another illustration drawn of the riot in 1880, portraying the fire department’s efforts to disperse the mob. Source:

“Denver, Anti-Chinese Riots.” October 31, 1880. 89.451.1767. History Colorado Online Collection. Courtesy of History Colorado. https://5008.sydneyplus.com/HistoryColorado_ArgusNet_Final/Portal/Portal.aspx?component=AAFW&record=ea200eaa-48c9-42b7-b4c2-bf7d9db67bef

An Illustration of the Denver Race Riots
An Illustration of the Denver Race Riots An illustration drawn of the Denver Race Riots in 1880. Source:

“Colorado - the anti-Chinese riot in Denver, on October 31st [Chinese being beaten and property destroyed by large mob].” Frank Leslie. 1880. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/pnp/cph/3b40000/3b48000/3b48600/3b48660r.jpg.

The Street of the Riot
The Street of the Riot A photo of 16th Street from 1875, which was the street where the riot started. Source:

“16th Street, Denver.” B.A. Hawkins. 1875. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005691172/.

Denver, Colorado
Denver, Colorado A panoramic photo of Denver taken in 1879. Source:

“Panorama of Denver.” William Henry Jackson. 1879. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/det.4a32044/.

Location

Metadata

Sydney Wilson, Brigham Young University , “Denver Race Riot of 1880,” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 23, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/728.