The Chinese Exclusion

Perhaps taking a cue from Abraham Lincoln, Tiburcio Parrott, the founder of what today is known as Spring Mountain Vineyard, became a champion of freedom and of every man’s right to earn a living, regardless of race, creed or color. His standoff and ultimate victory against the State of California, amid the most divisive era in American history, reversed a discriminatory addition to the California State Constitution of 1879 that prohibited the employment of Chinese or Mongolian workers by corporations in the state.

Dating back to 1852, the Parrott family had a long history of working with Chinese immigrants in various business projects in California, notably engaging a Chinese architect to design a San Francisco building and Chinese tradesmen to build it. In 1873, Tiburcio and his father, John, became the controlling owners of the Sulfur Bank Mine, a quicksilver mine, located north of Calistoga in Lake County. They employed several hundred Chinese workers at a time when segregation and discrimination toward the Chinese population were rampant, but went mostly unreported by the media. It was widely believed that Chinese laborers competed unfairly with white American labor by stealing their jobs and driving down wages. These hostile feelings directed at the Chinese on the part of the public were at such extreme levels that lynch mobs were advocated by some labor leaders in San Francisco.1 The “Chinese Problem,” as it was referred to at the time, came to a head on February 13, 1880 when the California legislature passed an addition to its new constitution that prohibited the employment of Chinese by corporations, an act punishable by fine, imprisonment, and loss of corporate charter.2

With his business and personal reputation at stake, Tiburcio Parrott openly denounced the persecution of the Chinese people and steadfastly refused to fire his employees at the Sulfur Bank Mine. On February 22, 1880, he was hastily arrested, imprisoned, and brought to trial, with some calling for him to be publicly hanged for his stand on the rights of the Chinese.3 Parrott, along with his lawyers, filed a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that the newly enacted law was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits state and local governments from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without certain steps first being taken, and was as well as a violation of the federal Burlingame Treaty. This treaty, signed in 1868, stated that “Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States, shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities, and exemptions in respect to travel or residence, as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation."4 Before filing the writ, however, he was directed to comply precisely with the law he was contesting and, while in jail, was forced to discharge all the Chinese and Mongolians working at the mine.

The 9th Circuit Court of the United States, District of California rendered its opinion on March 22, 1880 in favor of Parrott’s position, namely, that the state did not have the power to forbid the employment of any person, be they Chinese, Mongolian, or other. Finding it in violation of both the Fourteenth Amendment and the Burlingame Treaty, Judges Ogden Hoffman and Lorenzo Sawyer declared the addition to the State Constitution of California unconstitutional and “utterly invalid” and ordered Parrott’s prompt release from prison.5 Parrott immediately re-hired the Chinese workers he was earlier pressed to discharge.

Fifteen years after the Civil War abolished slavery in the United States, this little-known man bravely overturned an act of state that had the similar implication of stifling personal freedom. The Sulfur Bank Mine resumed operations, but fell into bankruptcy a few years later.  Subsequently, accompanied by a team of Chinese workers, Tiburcio Parrott turned his sights to planting grapes and building Miravalle, the Victorian mansion which stands today as the distinguished centerpiece of Spring Mountain Vineyard, the home of Elivette.


1.  Hart, Jerome, “In Our Second Century: From an Editor’s Notebook, San Francisco: The Pioneer Press, 1931, pages 52-63

2.  California State Constitution, 1879, Article XIX

3.  Daily Alta California, Volume 32, Number 10908, February 25, 1880

4.  Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868

5.  United States. Circuit Court (9th Circuit), “In re Tiburcio Parrott, on habeas corpus. Rights of Chinese,” San Francisco, 1880