Business and Residence of Jacob Weisbach, Mayor of Tacoma 1884-1885
During his time in Tacoma, Jacob Weisbach was an enormously successful businessman and politician who leveraged his position and authority to direct and protect Tacoma's anti-Chinese efforts throughout 1885. This was the year he served as Mayor, presided over rallies and organizational meetings in Tacoma and Seattle to coordinate anti-Chinese activities, and ultimately watched over the November 3rd expulsion of Tacoma's Chinese community from his home and office at 9th and Pacific. Weisbach was on of 27 Tacoma men charged with insurrection for their role in the ant- Chinese Tacoma riots, but like his colleagues he was never brought to trial.
Backstory and Context
Jacob Weisbach arrived in Tacoma in 1881, having achieved some political and economic success in the U.S. already. Born in Germany nearly fifty years prior, Weisbach had been briefly imprisoned as a young man for his involvement in European revolutionary movements and was later deported. He spent several years in China before arriving in the U.S. in 1859. After serving in a variety of political and military positions in Kansas, including Mayor of the town he helped found, Weisbach moved on to the Pacific Northwest, where he lived for under a decade. In Tacoma, Weisbach joined the large German community already residing and doing business there by 1881. He opened a shop on Pacific Avenue that sold food and dry goods, installing his family in the upper rooms. After Old and New Tacoma merged in 1884, Weisbach ran and won for downtown alderman with Tacoma’s People's party (which stood against the interests of railroad owners and stockholders). The next year, he was elected Mayor.
When William Christie, Weisbach's friend and fellow Tacoma elected official, returned from a trip to Eureka, Californa, Weisbach and several others gathered in the mayor's rooms to hear his news. At this meeting, Christie reportedly described the Feb. 1885 forced removal of Eureka’s Chinese population by its white residents. Everyone then joined in for a discussion about how similar results might be achieved for Tacoma. A community-wide meeting on the same topic was held at the Alpha Opera House on February 21st, 1885. Speaking to the crowd, Weisbach linked the Chinese to predatory corporations and he committed to driving both groups out of Tacoma for the city’s self-preservation. On June 9th, the Mayor helped form the Tacoma Anti-Chinese League (which promptly elected him its president) to coordinate expulsion activities; he also submitted an ordinance to the city council, which they approved, requiring 500 cubic feet between sleeping individuals - an ordinance designed specifically to put many existing Chinese homes outside the law.
An anti-Chinese Congress was held in Seattle in late September 1885. Weisbach led Tacoma's delegation; once again, those in attendance made him their President. Accepting the position, he repeated his charge that the businessmen who imported Chinese labor were ultimately to blame for the economic dangers confronting local workers. He promised that driving the Chinese communities from places like Tacoma and Seattle would be a strike against corporate interests. Working with the resolutions committee, Weisbach helped settle on language absolving the group of responsibility for any violence that arose from their efforts. Any violence would be the fault of those who refused to comply with the congress' demand that all Chinese persons leave the region by November 1st of that year. Upon his return from Seattle, Weisbach dispatched League members to deliver those demands to Tacoma’s Chinese community. Very soon after, local Chinese merchant Sun Chong visited Mayor Weisbach in the latter's office to ask if the expulsion was avoidable (Weisbach said it was not) and if, in case it was not, merchants like himself could be compensated for improvements they had made and property they would be forced to leave behind (Weisbach said he would look into it, then that there was no precedent for such a thing and he could not offer compensation after all).
When news of the Seattle Congress reached them, federal authorities grew concerned at the threats against a Chinese population they were obligated by treaty to defend. Weisbach reassured the U.S. government by organizing a group of Tacoma's business leaders to provide assurances that no violence or illegal actions were being contemplated. Similarly, on the morning of November 3rd, 1885 Weisbach met the County Sheriff on Pacific Avenue and assured him that the day would be peaceful. Soon after the Lister Foundry signaled a crowd of Tacoma's white working men to begin moving through the city checking for any Chinese persons who remained in town after the congress' deadline. When he realized what was happening, Sheriff Byrd hurried to Mayor Weisbach's store and the two men went together to see the events for themselves; Weisbach reportedly pointed out the mob’s orderly procession. One of the Chinese residents appealed to the Mayor for protection; Weisbach said none would come. Weisbach was there as the mob stormed How Lung’s complex in the city's main Chinese settlement and he watched them move through buildings that were shortly cleared of people and later burned to the ground, but not before various objects found their way into white households across Tacoma. Weisbach was also present as the men reached Little Canton, sweeping up every Chinese person they found and rushing them to the edge of the city. As the Chinese were herded down Pacific and then marched out of town, they passed the mayor's home and office. Observing their final moments in Tacoma, Weisbach reportedly declared with satisfaction that there had been no disturbance of the peace and his duty as Mayor, therefore, had been fulfilled.
Following the events of November 3rd, Weisbach was celebrated by Tacoma and its local press. But regional and national forces condemned Tacoma’s methods and Weisbach's part in them. He was indicted by a Grand Jury meeting in Vancouver, WA along with 26 other accused conspirators and insurrectionists. As one of the Tacoma 27, Weisbach spent the night of November 9th under arrest in Tacoma’s small courthouse. He marched at the head of the group as they were put onto trains to Vancouver for arraignment. After being released by the judge pending trial, Weisbach and his companions were greeted back in Tacoma with a parade, a banquet, and a reception at the Alpha Opera House celebrating their release. The Mayor spoke to the crowd, expressing gratitude for their support and praising their peaceful, humanitarian actions of the last few months. Papers in Portland, Seattle, and the cities of the East disagreed forcefully with the Mayor’s sentiment, citing the city and its mayor for barbarous, criminal, and reckless behavior. But Weisbach was never brought to trial; charges against him and other Tacoma citizens were eventually dropped completely. While Weisbach declined to run for re-election that spring, other anti-Chinese candidates dominated the vote in Tacoma, extending the legacy of politicians like Weisbach who had made the Chinese expulsion an essential part of Tacoma's history.
- The Tacoma Method. Accessed September 10th 2020. https://www.tacomamethod.com/.
- Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979).
- Herbert Hunt, Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders; A Half Century of Activity (S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916).
- Williams, Charles. Labor radicalism and the local politics of Chinese exclusion: Mayor Jacob Weisbach and the Tacoma Chinese expulsion of 1885. Labor History, vol. 60, no. 6, pgs. 685 - 703. Published July 2nd 2019.
Tacoma Public Library (Richards Studio Collection)
Tacoma Public Library Historic Building Files (BU-13184)