A-Z History of Sumner, Washington - Ethnicity
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American Indians were in Sumner first. They were followed by European settlers from the Midwest. Chinese workers came to pick hops. Madge, Mary Elizabeth, and Tress have memories of Japanese, Germans, Latvians, Mexicans, and Southeast Asians, who came to harvest other valley crops.
Cultural Resources writes:
Native Americans of the Green and White River Valleys were known as the Muckleshoots. The name of the Stuck River comes from the Native American word “Stuch um “ meaning big fish, which also gave Sumner its first name “Stuck Junction “.
The federal government moved the Muckleshoots to the Muckleshoot Prairie in 1857. White farmers subsequently bought or leased much of that land. The present reservation, enlarged from the original designation, forms an awkward diagonal string of sections touching only at their corners, a configuration that has caused conflicts between tribal members and their white neighbors.
During the 1890’s many Chinese came to Pierce County to work in the hop fields and for the railroad. They were paid a low wage and lived frugally, sending most of their earnings back to families in China. Most of them lived in Alderton and Puyallup, but a few resided in Sumner. White residents moved by a combination of envy, fear, and hate drove most Chinese from Pierce County during the Chinese expulsion. They came to the Frank Young residence near the cemetery for a Chinese man who worked there, name Joe. Mr. Young’s daughter and her friend cut his queue and hid him in the brush; Mr. Young threatened to shoot Joe’s would be attackers, and they left him alone. Joe remained in Sumner, the only Chinese person left in the valley. He worked his truck garden, married a woman with several children, and died in Sumner in 1916.
Tress recollects the Indians at nearby Alderton lived in tents, and held pow-wows and played bone games. Madge recalls that Canadian Indians came from British Columbia to work harvests throughout the West, starting in California with olives, moving to Oregon to pick pears, then on to Washington to harvest berries and cherries, and ending in Idaho to dig potatoes. They worked Sumner fields every year until the State of Washington began to regulate the quality of migrant workers’ housing facilities- the berry houses they’d been using were not up to standard, were torn down in the 1940’s, and they stopped coming. When she was asked to supervise the Canadian Indian field workers, Madge learned quickly to make job requests through their chief, rather than to the workers directly.
Mary Elizabeth states that William Kincaid, who came to Sumner on the first train of 53 wagons to cross the Naches Pass, was of Scots extraction; Welsh were also among the party. There was a Scots extraction; Welsh were also among the party. There was a contingent of Swiss in the valley, drawn by the dairy farming potential there. Her own family, the Zehnders, came from Switzerland.
Tress recalls spending time at a Japanese friend’s home as a girl. When she visited, the mother would run up the ladder and bring down paper-thin cookies decorated in shades of blue, white, and yellow frosting. The family had tea sets and little dolls with kimonos. They gave beautiful gifts- an ornate piano cover and painted screens-and were always laughing and smiling. When Tress appeared in an operetta set in Japan, they dressed her in a gorgeous kimono and obi. When a neighborhood party took on a Japanese theme, they provided lanterns for decoration and kimonos for party guests to wear. The party-goers discovered the kimonos had sumptuous linings and wore them inside-out, unwittingly insulting their gracious Japanese patrons.
She notes that the Japanese helped in the fields and were skilled truck gardeners. They were deported during World War II. For years the Elks charter prevented Japanese and African Americans from joining the fraternal lodge. It is only recently that deportees who returned to the region have started attending Sumner community reunions. Many Japanese who had been imprisoned during World War II attended the Sumner High School Centennial Reunion in August, 1998 and received the high school diplomas they had been denied during the 1940’s.
Mary Elizabeth remembers that Latvians sponsored by the Lutheran Church came to help in the fields one year. Crews were picked up in south Tacoma and bussed into Sumner to work. The Latvians worked so diligently and saved so well that the next year they were driving their own Ford to the fields.
Tress, Mary Elizabeth, and Madge remember German and Mexican pickers; more recently, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians have worked in the fields. They note the ots of kids used to work alongside their families to earn money in the fields during the summers. Not as many kids pick as used to-they seem to have found better ways to spend their time.
Information on these pages is provided in part by Daffodil Valley Times Staff and The City of Sumner, Wa.
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