Chinese Immigrants Who Helped Shape America

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the late 1780s as workers on trading ships sailing out of New York and Baltimore. In the early 1800s, a few Chinese youths came to the United States to learn Western culture as a direct result of American missionary activity.

Until the California gold rush, Chinese immigration was very small and generally limited to a few students, seamen, merchants and domestics. The first major flow of Chinese immigrants to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century was prompted more by the deterioration of southeast China’s economy than by the promise of a bright new future in California’s gold fields. It was part of a general movement stimulated by the need for labor in Western countries and colonies.

Although the gold fields presented economic opportunities, there were also problems because American miners resented foreigners, especially non-Europeans, digging for the precious metal. As the United States entered the 1860s, the move to develop the natural resources of its western states required a cheap and reliable labor source. Chinese people were available. They were very good workers, very adaptable to changing conditions, quick to learn new tasks and not bothered by physical labor. Additional opportunities came with the building of the transcontinental railroad, but the Chinese were paid less than European workers.

 After the railroad was completed, Chinese workers turned to agriculture and the service trades. Regardless of their new professions, the new immigrants often felt the sting of anti-Chinese sentiments, and many of those problems were magnified by a lack of understanding of Chinese culture, a problem that still exists today.

Legacy Stories from the Americans All Heritage Honor Roll

We are pleased to host and share these legacy stories created by honorees’ family, friends and associates. They, like us, appreciate that heritage and culture are an integral part of our nation's social fabric and want to help students participate effectively in our nation's economy, workforce and democracy.

Last Name of Individual
First Name of Individual
Group name

Angel Island Immigration Station California (January 21, 1910 - November 5, 1940) Chinese, Immigration Station, American History

Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was the location of a large and imposing government compound where immigrants seeking entry into the United States via Pacific routes were processed. Often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, this one-mile-square state park is the largest island in San Francisco Bay. See the video, Island of Secret Memories.

Polly Bemis Idaho (September 11, 1853 - November 6, 1933) Chinese American Pioneer, Historic Building

Polly Bemis became a legend after her death when her story became a biographical novel and was fictionalized in 1991, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn in the movie, Thousand Pieces of Gold. As such, some details of her story may be tied to folklore, but one thing is clear. As Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus said in 1987 . . . "She is the foremost pioneer on the rugged Salmon River.”

Polly Bemis Idaho (September 11, 1853 - November 6, 1933) Chinese American Pioneer

Polly Bemis (born Lalu Nathoy) was sold by her father for two bags of seed to a group of bandits in northern China when he fell on hard economic times because of the famine of 1871. She was then resold into a form of sexual slavery, smuggled into the United States by a slave trader heading for America.

Polly Bemis (or Gong Heng -- 恭亨) Idaho (September 11, 1853 - November 6, 1933) Chinese American Pioneer, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Priscilla Wegars

Because she has been the subject of many articles and several books, including the best-seller by Ruthanne Lum McCunn and a fine children's book by Priscilla Wegars, Polly is one of the best-known of all Chinese women in Northwestern history.  Exceptionally self-reliant and adaptable, she was also unusual in that she married a white man in a period when East-West marriages in that direction were very rare.