Alyssa Bentz is a Corporate Historian for Wells Fargo.
In 1849, more than 20,000 people sailed from southeastern China to find their fortune in the California gold rush. This was the first wave of migration from China in U.S. history; over the following years, tens of thousands of Chinese migrants moved to America. Some returned after making money, but many stayed and made America their home.
Chinese laborers built the railroads and canals that revolutionized U.S. transportation in the 1800s. As they followed work, they moved to new corners of the nation. From the Pacific Coast to Nebraska and beyond, Chinese immigrants helped build U.S. cities and towns across the country. In these communities, customers turned to Wells Fargo to help them stay connected to loved ones and to grow their businesses.
An economic downturn in the 1870s caused white Americans to agitate against Chinese laborers, who often did the same work for less money.
In May 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. It became the first federal policy in American history that banned a group of immigrants based on race and class. This law was renewed and strengthened until 1943, when it was repealed and replaced with a quota system.
Designed to stop immigration of Chinese laborers from competing with American workers, the law had a wider impact and affected people who had lived in the U.S. for decades.
Any Chinese migrant who traveled back to China to visit family or meet with business connections faced a terrible ordeal when re-entering the country. After arriving by ship, Chinese travelers were moved to detention centers — where they were stripped, examined, and held until they could prove they were not laborers. If they could not provide evidence that they were skilled laborers or held another exemption, they would be deported. The entire process could take weeks, or even years, to complete.
Wells Fargo agents acted as witnesses in these official hearings to testify on behalf of local merchants and businessmen who were their customers.
Records show that in April 1894, William Pridham, Wells Fargo’s superintendent in Los Angeles, appeared in court to aid customer Lee Yook. He returned the next month to help Wong Yen Ock. In Santa Cruz, California, agent Richard Thompson showed the same support for customer Ham Tung.
Samuel Coombs first met Chinese Americans as a Wells Fargo agent in Seattle. As he later explained to the Seattle Daily Times in 1905, “Forty years ago I used to be with Wells, Fargo & Co., where a number of Chinese merchants were banking. I come to know them pretty well and have followed their business career with interest.”
By the 1900s, Coombs had left Wells Fargo, but continued to frequently defend former customers in hearings. When interviewed by a local newspaper in 1905, he declared “I want to see the Chinese given a square deal.” He actively advocated for a change to the immigration laws that ensnared the people in his community.
During these times of prejudice and animosity, Wells Fargo continued to support its Chinese customers by producing a directory of more than 1,000 merchants in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and other major cities. The bilingual directories with English-Chinese translations were designed to drive business to the merchants listed, some of whom were Wells Fargo customers.
Wells Fargo’s actions signaled to Chinese Americans that they were welcome despite the political climate. Today, Wells Fargo continues to value and promote an inclusive environment at all levels.