Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Megan Asaka’s book “Seattle from the Margins: Exclusion, Erasure, and the Making of a Pacific Coast City,” published in September by the University of Washington Press.
THE HISTORY OF HOPS in the Pacific Northwest begins with water. Though agriculture is often understood as a solely land-based endeavor, Puget Sound waterways played a crucial role in the emergence of this particular regional industry. Though Puget Sound provided the cities and towns dotting its shoreline with access to the Pacific Ocean, its rivers and tributaries served an equally useful purpose: linking small inland towns with coastal communities across Western Washington.
Seattle stood at the heart of this vast marine space. Situated at the convergence of multiple rivers, the lands that would become known as Seattle served as a crucial hub of Indigenous migrations. Though the city was located within Duwamish territory, other Indigenous peoples up and down the Northwest Coast also had a presence in Seattle, whether for travel, resource gathering or connecting with extended family. These migrations did not stop with the arrival of white settlers and the disruptions of urban displacement. Seattle’s role as “the place where one crosses over” persisted into the late 19th and early 20th centuries and beyond.
Chinese histories in the Pacific Northwest also revolved around water. Many of the early Chinese migrants came to Seattle through Vancouver, B.C., traversing the waters of the Salish Sea as they crossed into the United States from Canada. Chinese laborers also worked aboard steamships that sailed through Puget Sound, including those that carried lumber to markets around the region and down to California. Though their connection to the Salish Sea was very different, they shared with their fellow Indigenous migrants a maritime world that brought them frequently to Seattle.
The concentration of Indigenous and Chinese migrants in Seattle established the city as an early hub of labor migration. Their maritime mobility and accessibility made them a desirable source of labor for employers across the region, which lacked a railroad system until the late 19th century. Hop growers, many of them settlers who established farms on the rivers and tributaries of Puget Sound, utilized these urban-based maritime networks, often traveling to Seattle to hire their seasonal workforce.
Hops, the main ingredient used for flavoring beer, arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the 1860s and soon emerged as the region’s first major agricultural industry, in large part because of the availability of Indigenous and Chinese labor. Though the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 looms large in local historical memory as the key event that shaped Seattle’s regional connections, the miners and adventurers who passed through the city on their way up north were traversing routes that long had been established by Indigenous and Chinese migrants.
The concentration of these two groups in the same city, within the shared space of the south end and waterfront district, appealed strongly to employers. Chinese and Indigenous migrants had a presence in many urban coastal areas across the Pacific Northwest during this time, but it was only in Seattle that the two were pushed so closely together.
In Seattle, employers had access to both groups and could hire one or the other, or both, at the same time. This gave hop growers, in particular, the flexibility they needed to accommodate the unpredictable nature of the hop harvest. It also allowed them to exploit divisions between the two in order to depress wages and maintain a profit margin. Though scholars tend to treat Indigenous and Chinese laborers as inhabiting almost separate worlds, their proximity and interconnection made the regional economy possible.
This city-based employment system, though, did not always work as growers anticipated. The maritime world of the Puget Sound region allowed for a kind of autonomy among the workforce that continually undermined growers’ expectations of a smoothly functioning industry. It brought people together in unpredictable ways, leading to new forms of sociability and leisure as well as conflicts and violence. As Seattle’s role as a hub of labor migration expanded, this unpredictability intensified; it would plague employers, industry leaders and politicians well into the 20th century. In this way, the hops industry set the stage for future industrial expansion, while also exposing the system’s inherent fragility and the stark limitations of settler power.
SEATTLE IN 1870 was still a relatively small city, its population hovering around 1,000 residents. With an official incorporation date of 1869, Seattle also was a very new city.
At that time, the urban economy still revolved mostly around settler Henry Yesler’s sawmill, which sold cut timber to other settler communities around Puget Sound, as well as in California. The commercial and entertainment district surrounding the mill, known as the Sawdust, provided another source of economic activity, attracting people from beyond the city and generating revenue from customers far and wide.
Indigenous and Chinese laborers constituted the bulk of the urban workforce then, toiling in the sawmill and construction projects as well as performing domestic labor such as laundry and housekeeping.
Seattle remained stratified by race, reflecting settlers’ efforts to claim and occupy Indigenous lands by creating a northern residential district for white families and policing racial and gender boundaries through municipal regulation. These practices also consolidated workers in one geographic area, which benefited employers, including hop growers, who could more easily access this pool of labor. Seattle’s urban context of racial segregation and displacement thus played a key role in Puget Sound hop growers’ employment practices, as well as the city’s growth as a regional hub.
Seattle’s position within the marine space of the Puget Sound area made it an ideal place for Indigenous workers to converge before the harvest season. Seattle long had served as a “crossing-over place” for Puget Sound Coast Salish peoples. As more Indigenous people from along the Northwest coast, including Alaska, joined the hop-picking workforce, they included a stopover in Seattle.
Sightings of their canoe fleets signaled the start of hop-picking season and were widely covered in the Seattle press. In 1879, a local journalist noted, “The bay and its shores were dotted and lined with their canoes, while the store fronts and sidewalks downtown were thick with the Indians themselves.” Another report described the waterfront during hops season as “crowded with rudely constructed tents and other hastily built habitations.” Many camped along the shore for days, often with their children and families, cooking and socializing with one another before heading out to the harvest.
Though some commentators described these multitribal waterfront gatherings as “strange” and “striking,” Indigenous movement through this area long had predated the city itself and would continue even after the decline of the hop industry.
IN ADDITION TO social gatherings, Indigenous workers used their time in Seattle to shop and engage in other commercial activities. Before the harvest, they often focused on purchasing food, clothing and other supplies for the three-week picking season, while after the harvest, they indulged in less practical goods to take back home, such as cufflinks and handbells. Their presence and purchasing power created a legitimate sensation among local businesses and shopkeepers.
Not confined to the shore and waterfront camps, Indigenous shoppers ventured into the commercial district, purchasing “anything which may attract their attention in store windows,” according to one account. Other vendors and merchants came directly to them, like one “enterprising” salesperson who “spread his goods on boxes outside, and has done on the side-walk a rushing business with Indians returning flushed with money from the hop-yards.”
Front Street (now First Avenue), which ran along the waterfront near Yesler’s sawmill, received the most traffic. Its shops offered goods and services ranging from banking to billiards, jewelry to tailoring, cigars, hardware and candy. Indigenous hop pickers also took the opportunity to vend their own goods to local Seattleites. One newspaper described the popularity of “woven baskets and large rugs” sold by Indigenous women in the commercial district.
IT WAS DURING this time that hop growers traveled up to Seattle to recruit pickers camped along the waterfront. Once growers had decided to scale up and look beyond the local towns for their workforce, hop picking took on a life of its own among Coast Salish and other Northwest Coast Indigenous communities, becoming one of the most popular forms of wage labor. “The reservation has been quite deserted during the last month,” wrote a missionary on the Tulalip Reservation in 1882, “the Indians nearly all gone hop picking.”
Local authorities in Canada reported similar migrations. On Vancouver Island, one government employee estimated some “six thousand British Columbia Indians are now crowding to the hop fields of Washington Territory.” Growers no longer had to recruit directly from the reservations and canneries; they could simply show up in Seattle in advance of the picking season and negotiate directly with workers. For their part, Indigenous workers came prepared.
Each group of pickers selected a labor negotiator, or “Boston man,” to deal directly with growers and settle in advance issues such as payment and the number of pickers required. After agreeing on the terms of employment, the pickers dispersed, traveling by canoe up the rivers and to the various farms where they camped during the harvest, returning to Seattle again at the season’s end.
On one hand, the highly mobile workforce allowed growers to increase their profits and expand their farms’ capacity. Puget Sound growers saved on transportation costs by relying on Indigenous pickers, who provided their own transportation in the form of canoes. In New York, by contrast, growers carried local pickers to and from their homes each day in wagons, and paid train fares for those coming from out of town. In the Puget Sound region, recalled Ezra Meeker, who later would achieve worldwide recognition as “hop king” of the Pacific Northwest, many of the Indigenous hop pickers traveled “long distances, some of them three hundred miles in their canoes … all by the inland channel and among the islands of the Puget Sound.”
But as growers cast a wider geographic net to satisfy their need for a larger workforce, their operations grew more and more unpredictable. Growers often had no idea when their pickers would arrive or how many would show up in any given year, an issue that Indigenous negotiators were well aware of. “They are masters of the situation,” grumbled one employer, “quick to … profit by [our] anxiety.” Another grower complained bitterly about Indians who drove a hard bargain, withholding their labor until the last possible minute in order to secure better terms. While the concentration of Indigenous workers made the hops industry possible, it also created the conditions for collective action and bargaining.
AS INDIGENOUS PICKERS gathered in the city for the hops harvest, a regional hub of Chinese labor and commercial life flourished nearby. Most Chinese businesses during the 1870s were situated on Washington Street, just a short walk from the waterfront. Though the census counted only 33 Chinese residents in King County in 1870, this number increased steadily during the next few years, growing to more than 200 in 1876.
The Wa Chong Company stood at the heart of Washington Street and accounted for much of this population boom. When the company moved from its initial location by Yesler’s mill to its permanent spot a few streets over on Washington, the owners bought up parcels of land surrounding their headquarters to create a Chinese commercial district. They leased out the property to laundries, shops, restaurants and other Chinese businesses.
While much of Wa Chong’s business model focused on labor contracting — they furnished Chinese labor to sawmills, railroads, city construction projects and the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet — the company also operated an import-export business and sold Chinese goods, including tea, opium, fireworks and paintings, to Seattleites. Washington Street thus served as a key node in the trans-Pacific circulation of people and goods; like Indigenous consumption and labor, this south-end city block helped shape Seattle’s commercial life and role in the regional economy.
DURING THE EARLY years of the hop industry, growers directly recruited Chinese workers from the canneries in British Columbia, hiring laborers left unemployed at the end of canning season. As the industry expanded and its connections with Seattle grew stronger, growers traveled to the city and negotiated with Chinese labor contractors along Washington Street. Because hop growers needed pickers only for a short period, three weeks at the most, the labor contractors often diverted workers from other projects for the harvest season.
The Wold brothers in Issaquah, for example, engaged the services of Quong Chong & Co. in 1885 to provide three dozen Chinese workers to pick hops for 90 cents per box. The company agreed to send two teams from the coal mines in Newcastle to the Wold brothers’ hop farm just a few towns over.
Hop growers relied less on Chinese labor than they did on Indigenous labor. Because of the overwhelming popularity of hop picking among Coast Salish and other Indigenous peoples, growers tended to employ Chinese pickers only during harvests with unusually high yields, or if they faced other kinds of labor shortages.
Growers also turned to Indigenous pickers with more frequency because, in the words of a Puyallup Valley hop farmer, “They are more likely to return another season” than the Chinese. Contrary to their caricature as robotic tools of the capitalist class, Chinese laborers made strategic choices about where and when to work. For growers, this complex system of labor recruitment and employment laid the groundwork for the industry’s massive expansion during the 1870s and early 1880s.