Marriage and Family Life Among Maine's Earliest Chinese Residents.

Author:Libby, Gary W.

Most Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the years following the 1849 gold rush came as unattached male sojourners expecting to make their fortunes on Gold Mountain and then to return home to their ancestral villages as wealthy men. Often their families in China encouraged them to marry before setting off to the United States in hopes of reinforcing their attachment to their families and villages. Once married, their wives usually remained in China, becoming part of the husband's family, moving into his parents' home under the direction of the husband's mother, a situation that further discouraged their emigration to the United States to join their husbands.

These ties to home were exacerbated by anti-Chinese racial discrimination that resulted in the enactment of laws by the state of California and, after California's attempts to restrict immigration were ruled unconstitutional, by the United States' federal government, which were intended to discourage or prohibit Chinese immigration. The Page Law prohibited the importation of women from China, Japan, or any other Asian country for the purposes of prostitution. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, including their wives. That law remained in force until December 17, 1943. The effect of these laws was to freeze the percentage of Chinese women in the United States at an abnormally low level and to perpetuate the bachelor society of Chinese men in America. (1)


The study of Chinese American history is a relatively new discipline. Phil Choy and Him Mark Lai cotaught the first college level course in the United States at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) in 1969. Most of the scholarly research in the field of Chinese American history was originally focused on the West Coast, particularly California.

A significant body of work has also been done on New York City's Chinese community, with a lesser amount of work on urban areas of the country, specifically where Chinatowns evolved. (2) For those areas of the country where no Chinatowns existed, the best documented Chinese community is that of the Mississippi Delta, as reported in The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White. (3) There has also been a recent study of Minnesota's Chinese community. (4)

Him Mark Lai pointed to the need for research into other communities in order "to get a more balanced interpretation of the course of development of the Chinese in America. (5) This article is an auempt to respond to Professor Lai's challenge. No one has documented the history of the Chinese in Maine and few have documented the history of the Chinese in New England. Professor Shehong Chen, of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, did the first in-depth study of the Chinese American experience in a New England city or town in Reconstructing the Chinese American Experience in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1870s-1970s. (6)

Because of the absence of prior research, I have had to draw on many sources of data including the decennial cenuses, the Social Security Death Index, the Maine State Archives, Maine's vital records, newspaper articles, city directories, and other secondary sources. As a result, this article is primarily descriptive in nature raLher than analytical.


Most of Maine's Chinese immigrants came from the part of Toishan District in Guangdong Province known as Sze Yup and had entered the United States or Canada on the West Coast before moving east. (7) However, Maine's earliest known Chinese immigrant was an accidental arrival directly from Amoy Island off the southeast coast of China. A sixteen year boy, who became known as Daniel Cough, stowed away on a sailing vessel from mid-coast Maine. (8) By the time the crew became aware of his presence it was too late to turn back, so Captain Sylvester Lord decided to bring him to Maine. When the ship arrived in Calais, Maine, in October, 1857, Daniel Cough began a new life in a strange land. Daniel eventually acquired a piece of land in Bernard, Maine, facing Bass Harbor. (9)

According to the family story, Daniel's first acts upon reaching the United States were to cut off his queue and to choose an American name. (10) By 1865, he was a considerable tax payer in his adopted town. He bought a piece of land in 1868 and, in 1873, built a small building that he used as his house. In 1878 he built a larger homestead on that lot and turned the smaller building into a general store. He bought another piece of land at what is now called China Hill in West Tremont for its timber. After that he continued to acquire real estate, becoming the owner of several parcels. (11)

On January 17, 1870, he married a White woman, Elvira Higgins, a relative of one of Maine's former governors who later held national political positions, and started a family. (12) There does not seem to have been much concern about this interracial marriage since most people in the community knew and liked Daniel. Moreover, Maine did not have an antimiscegenation law that applied to marriages between white people and Asians. Maine carried over the existing Massachusetts miscegenation law into the Maine statutes following Maine's separation from Massachusetts in 1820. That law only provided that all "marriages between any white person and any Negro, Indian or Mulatto shall be absolutely null and void" (Maine Public Law, January 20, 1821, chapter 70). Maine never did, however, amend that law to prohibit marriages between white people and Asians prior to the miscegenation laws repeal by Public Law, 1883, chapter 203, even though that amendment came at the height of the anti-Chinese agitation that resulted in the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Coughs had nine children, but only three boys, Ezra, Arno, and A. Bird, lived to adulthood. Daniel was naturalized an American citizen in the Hancock County Superior Court in Ellsworth April 25, 1874. (13) He ran his general store until his death in 1906.

Even though most people in the community liked Daniel, he may not have been a model citizen. In September 1897, the Maine Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the King's Daughters intervened on behalf of Elvira Cough claiming that Daniel was a domestic Lyrant who confined his wife to the house and treated "her as no American woman should be treated." (14) At that time Daniel had his son, Arno, arrested on a charge of assault. Arno claimed that he was simply taking his mother's part in the dispute. Daniel served a writ upon the WCTU's representative forbidding her to "willfully, wantonly or maliciously vex, irritate, harass or torment Daniel Cough by slandering him to his wife or any other person, or by meddling with his family affairs--or to excite his wife not to live with him or by telling Arno Cough, and insisting that he trespass on the premises of Daniel Cough." (15)

This matter was set for hearing in the October 1897 term of the Hancock County Superior Court. Mr. Cough was represented by Hannibal Hamlin Jr., a son of Abraham Lincoln's first vice president. Mrs. Cough was represented by Hancock County Attorney Bunker. (16) No record of the results of that hearing has been found. However, Mr. Cough subsequently filed a divorce complaint against his wife alleging that she was guilty of cruel and abusive treatment. Mrs. Cough counterclaimed, alleging that her husband had kept her a virtual prisoner in their home for twenty-five of their twenty-seven years of married life. The divorce trial, which had been set for early January 1898, was terminated because Mrs. Cough died of consumption just before it began.

Two of the three Cough boys, A. Bird and Ezra, became partners in a general store in Bar Harbor. Arno Cough, who may have had a mental disability, worked as a letter carrier for the local post office. He appears to have had anger management issues. (17) Only Ezra Cough had children. Although Daniel apparently did not inculcate much of his Chinese culture to his children, his descendants, many of whom continue to live in mid-coast Maine more than 150 years after his arrival, are proud of their Chinese ancestor. Some of them have even returned to Amoy Island to try to connect with their ancestral...

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