Prescott’s First Chinese-American Citizen

By Bob Baker

The Chinese were among the many immigrant groups that migrated west during the 1860s -70s seeking work on the railroads or in the gold fields. Some of these Chinese, along with others journeying from the west coast, sought jobs in the Prescott area.  

Portrait of Joe Ah Jew, 1890

Joe Ah Jew arrived in Prescott in 1870 when he was just 17 years old. He became a highly successful caterer, culinary manager, and restaurant proprietor over the next 40 years. During those years, he learned English, became a Christian and largely adopted American ways. While he generally wore western clothing, he did keep his queue, a unique hair knot, recognizing his Chinese heritage.

In the April 21, 1886 issue of The Weekly Journal Miner, it announced that “Joe Ah Jew, a naturalized Chinese-American, who is well known through northern Arizona as a caterer, has charge of the culinary department of the Reception Restaurant. Joe has been in Arizona for 14 years.” Later advertisements in the Weekly Journal Miner from 1889-1891 named him as the proprietor of Ben Butler’s Chop House on Montezuma Street in Prescott.

In 1884 the Arizona Journal claimed in its November 4th paper that Joe Ah Jew was the only naturalized Chinese-American citizen in the Arizona Territory. On November 9th, The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson belittled this claim writing “The Arizona Journal says: Joe Ah Jew, the only naturalized Chinese-American citizen in this territory, voted in Prescott on Tuesday last. The Journal is slightly off its cabeza concerning the ‘only’ citizenship of Joe Ah Jew, inasmuch as Chan Tin Wo, one of the most prosperous grocerymen in this city is likewise a naturalized Chinese-American citizen.” Arizona Voter Registration records reflect that Joe Ah Jew became a naturalized U.S. citizen on June 5, 1885 in Prescott, Arizona Territory, while Chan Tin Wo became a naturalized U.S. citizen on December 30, 1881 in Tucson, Arizona Territory. Thus, Joe Ah Jew was not the only or the first naturalized Chinese American citizen in the Arizona Territory. However, he was most certainly the first in Prescott and one of the first in the territory.

An 1891 newspaper advertisement for Ben Butler’s Chop House in Prescott

On Sept 9, 1919, The Prescott Journal-Miner published the following article on Joe Ah Jew’s imminent return to China. “…Joe Ah Jew, one of the few China-men who have been naturalized in the United States and perhaps the only one in Prescott, is preparing to go back to his fatherland to remain for the rest of his life. He has resided in Prescott for 40 years being naturalized 25 years ago. He always voted at all elections and took a deep interest in the welfare of the country. He was liberal and always supported all worthy and charitable causes. He has not been back but-once to the old country. He has a wife and several children in China and has sold the old Winsor restaurant to a fellow countryman, and thus cuts the last bridge behind him.” His inability to have his family join him due to anti-Chinese sentiment and laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, likely played a major role in his decision to return to his homeland.

By mid-1900, most of the Chinese had left the Prescott area seeking jobs elsewhere, moving to larger cities with larger Chinese communities or returning to their homeland like Mr. Joe Ah Jew.

Today few people remember the role the Chinese played in Prescott’s early economic development. Only a few historical documents, newspapers and photographs evidence their daily activities in the Prescott community. Yet, they played a significant role in the early development and history of Prescott and the Arizona Territory.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to dayspast@sharlothallmuseum.org. Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 2, or via email at archivesrequest@sharlothallmuseum.org for information or assistance with photo requests.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Laurie Dellinger
    Laurie Dellinger

    You are welcome, Juliana! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to our Research Center with further questions.

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