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1.6.1 – South Asian Pioneers
Grade: 4-6Subject: U.S. History, EnglishNumber of Activities: 4 + Extension Activities
As students study the impact of immigrants and the development of the United States, regionally and as a whole, early South Asian immigration should be discussed. Early South Asian immigrants played a significant role in the nation’s economic and agricultural development, especially in California. Early South Asian immigrants formed their own communities and created unique communities with other marginalized communities around them, such as Black, Mexican, and Puerto Rican communities. This lesson focuses on the experiences and impact of these early South Asian Americans.
Students will be able to:
Lesson Implementation
This lesson can be completed in one instructional session or over a period of 1-2 weeks. Here are options for lesson implementation:
South Asian Pioneers Essay
From 1899 to 1913, almost 7,000 immigrants from South Asia came to the United States. Many of these early South Asian immigrants came from Punjab. Punjab is the northern region of South Asia. Most of these Punjabi immigrants were Sikh. They belonged to peasant families. They had little education. They spoke little English. So, they had limited work opportunities. Many worked in the lumber mills in British Columbia and Washington. Others helped build railroads and worked on farms in California’s Central Valley.
South Asian immigrants excelled as laborers and farmers. Soon after they arrived, they were seen as an economic threat. They were accused of taking away jobs from white men. As such, they faced hate and violence. For example, in Washington, the Bellingham riots of 1907 took place. A mob of 400-500 white men attacked the South Asians living in Bellingham. They drove South Asian immigrants out of town.
South Asian immigrants faced much discrimination. But they found ways to overcome it. They built community for safety and for power. Pushed out of Washington state, many South Asian immigrants worked on farms in California’s Central Valley. In 1915, South Asian leaders built a Sikh Gurdwara, or temple, in Stockton, California.
The Stockton Gurdwara was the first Sikh temple in the United States. It was hugely important to the South Asian immigrant community in California. It was more than a church. It was a meeting place. It was a dining hall. It was a political center. It provided support and services. It also nurtured South Asian political leaders that made an impact on American politics. For example, Dalip Singh Saund was the Secretary of the Stockton Gurdwara. He then was elected as the first Sikh and Asian American U.S. Congressman in 1957.
In 1947, South Asian American immigrant leaders in California’s Imperial Valley built the second gurdwara in the United States. (Today, there are over 50 gurdwaras in California.) South Asian immigrants were recruited to develop the Imperial Valley. They were expert farmers in India. They applied their knowledge to California. For example, they used water from the Colorado River to irrigate California’s desert lands. They improved other farming techniques. They helped make California fertile.
South Asian immigrant farmers were doing well. But, racist laws banned them from owning land. So, South Asian immigrants had to find ways to transfer their property to others. Some made deals with white farmers, bankers, and lawyers who held land in their names. Some fought for their rights in courts.
Racist laws also banned South Asian immigrants from marrying white women. At the same time, racist laws banned South Asians from immigrating. Unable to bring wives from India, some South Asian immigrants in California married Mexican women and had children. There were many benefits to such marriages. First, their children could legally own land. Second, they created a distinct Punjabi-Mexican culture. For example, these families tended to speak Spanish. But, they ate South Asian foods. Descendants of these Punjabi-Mexican marriages are still thriving today.
To get around the immigration ban, South Asian leaders from Stockton helped South Asians enter the United States through Mexico. They created special maps that showed safe travel routes. The maps also showed networks and resources.
Other South Asians came to the U.S. through British ships they worked on. They would leave the ship when it got to the U.S. and live in that city or move to a different city. These men were Muslim peddlers from the Bengali area of South Asia. They sold “exotic” items that were popular at the time. They lived with other non-white communities in cities like Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City. These men also could not bring wives from South Asia or marry white women. So, they married and created families with Puerto Rican women or Black women. These South Asians also helped other South Asians who entered the United States. There are still many South Asians in these cities today.
South Asian immigrants overcame discrimination and contributed greatly to U.S. culture, politics, and economy, especially through their success in farming. Today, Punjabi American-owned farms produce over half of the country’s raisins and almonds. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States is the world’s largest producer of almonds, 80 percent share of world almond production and nearly 90 percent share of trade. The U.S. exported $4.7 billion of almonds in 2020.

Deol, Amrit. (2022). “Gilded Cages: South Asian American Histories of Anticolonialism in the American West.” Accessed 31 August 2022.
Gottlieb, Benjamin. (2012). “Punjabi Sikh-Mexican American Community Fading Into History.” The Washington Post. Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
Harvard University. (nd). “Sikhism in America.” The Pluralism Project. Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
Kanner, Rachel. (2014). “History: Stockton Gurdwara Sahib.” San Joaquin Magazine. Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
Leonard, Karen. (1989). “Punjabi Pioneers in California: Political Skills on a New Frontier.” South Asia, 12(2), pp. 69-81. Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
Public Broadcasting Service. (2000). “Roots in the Sand.” PBS. Webpage
Singh, Simrin. (2020). “This little-known American community is fading into history.” Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
Sohi, Seema. (2018). “The Ghadar Party.” South Asian American Digital Archive. Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
South Asian American Digital Archive. (2017). “Punjabi-Mexican Families.” Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
The Sikh Coaltion. (nd). “Stockton, California: The Story of Sikh Immigration.” Webpage: Accessed 31 August 2022.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Tree Nuts 2020 Export Highlights.” Webpage: Accessed 2 September 2022.

1Definition is adopted from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Discussion Questions
  1. What were the early South Asian immigrants like?
  2. What jobs did early South Asian immigrants have?
  3. What role did racism play in the experiences of early South Asian immigrants?
  4. What role did activism play in the growth and development of the South Asian immigrant community?
  5. How did early South Asian immigrants build community?
  6. What role did community play in the advancement of the South Asian immigrants?
  7. How did South Asian immigrants transform California?
  8. What is special about Punjabi-Mexican culture?
  9. What is significant about the Stockton Gurdwara?
Map of South Asia
Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
Activity 1: Introducing South Asian Americans (Suggested Time: 15 minutes)
Students will be introduced to South Asia and South Asian Americans. The second part of the activity will begin to introduce the history of South Asian farmers in California.
  1. Ask students to share what they know about South Asia.
    1. Show students a map of South Asia. Tell students that South Asia consists of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and other countries.
    2. Show students a map of the Punjab area. Tell students that most of the early South Asian immigrants came from this area.
    3. Show students a map of Punjab to California to convey how far South Asian immigrants had to travel.
    4. Tell students that some South Asian Americans, especially younger generations, refer to themselves as “Desi American.”
  2. Have students quickly sketch what they think a farmer around 1900 looks like.
    1. Have students hold their sketches up and tell students to look at their peers’ drawings.
    2. Have students make observations about the sketches. Ask them: How did most of you characterize a California farmer in 1900? What informs this perception?
    3. Tell students that South Asian immigrants are an important part of farming history, especially in California.
    4. Show the George Shima documentary clip from 1:06 to 1:44. Explain that George Shima was one of the richest Japanese American farmers at that time. This film, made in 1914 at the Shima farm in Stockton-Sacramento, contains unique footage of South Asian immigrant farmworkers.
    5. Show the picture of a South Asian farmer. Tell students it is of a modern Punjabi American farmer in Tracy, California.
    6. Ask students:
      1. What did you notice in these images?
      2. What is the purpose of studying these images?
      3. How do these images of California farmers in the 1900 compare to your sketches / preconceptions?
    7. Tell students they’ll be learning about the immigration of South Asians and their contributions.
Valentina Alarez and Rullia Singh posing for their wedding photo in 1917.
They were among the thousands of Punjabi-Mexican unions that sprouted up in the Southwest of the United States.
Credit: Department of Special Collections at Stanford University Libraries (Public Domain Image)
Activity 2: The Power of Community (Suggested Time: 40 minutes)
Students will learn about the challenges early South Asian immigrants faced and how they overcame those challenges through community power and support using the example of South Asians in Stockton.
  1. Have students do a close reading of the essay. (Option: Create a slide deck with the essay content.) Facilitate a discussion (see Discussion Questions).
  2. Have students complete the following T-chart:
    What challenges did the early South Asian immigrants face?
    How did early South Asian immigrants overcome these challenges?
  3. Discuss the significance of the Stocktown Gurdwara:
    1. Show students a picture of the Stockton Gurdwara.
    2. Read aloud paragraphs 7-11 of Roshan Sharma’s first-person narrative of his experience at the Stockton Gurdwara.
    3. Facilitate a discussion given the following prompt: What did you learn about the South Asian immigrant community from Sharma’s account?
  4. Show and discuss this video about Punjabi-Mexican families:
    1. Have students identify the causes and effects of Punjabi men marrying Mexican women.
    2. Facilitate a discussion given the following prompts:
      1. What were the impacts of restrictive immigration laws regarding Punjabi and Mexican immigrants?
      2. How did immigrants from Punjab and Mexico find each other?
      3. How did they come to be in California?
      4. What are the impacts and/or implications of these Punjabi-Mexican communities in California?
    3. Have students complete a quickwrite answering this prompt: In what ways was community important to early South Asian immigrants in California? Discuss student responses.
Devon Avenue, a South Asian hub in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood
Credit: Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons
Activity 3: South Asian American Impact (Suggested Time per Option: 30 minutes)
This activity offers two options for teachers to use to have students further build their knowledge and grow their understanding of the lasting and ongoing impact of South Asian Americans.
Teachers can choose one or more of the following options:
  1. Have students research the impact South Asian Americans have made and are making. Assign each group to research one of these topics:
    1. Group 1: The Ghadar Party
    2. Group 2: Sikh Foundation & Dr. Narinda Singh Kapany
    3. Group 3: Dalip Singh Saund
    4. Group 4: Bhagat Singh Thind
    5. Group 5: Didar Singh Bains
    6. Group 6: Charanjit Batth
  2. Have students compare and contrast South Asian American communities.
    1. Have students conduct further research on the South Asian communities in Stockton and Imperial Valley. Have students compare and contrast these two communities.
    2. Have students research a South Asian ethnic enclave and compare it to the Stockton and Imperial Valley communities. Examples include:
      1. Little Bangladesh in Los Angeles (Koreatown)
      2. Little India in Artesia, California
      3. India Square in New Jersey
      4. Little India in Jackson Heights (New York City)
    3. Have students answer the following research questions:
      1. When and how did the community start?
      2. Who are the main founders/leaders?
      3. What are the main achievements or landmarks?
    4. Have students complete the Venn Diagram with Three Circles.
    5. Facilitate a gallery walk or give each group time to share their findings with the entire class.
“A Punjabi farmer posing with his cotton crop.”
Credit: Image by Steven Cerier, via Wikimedia Commons
Activity 4: Exploring South Asian American Experiences
This activity offers two options for assessing students’ comprehension of the significance of South Asian immigrants’ experiences and contributions.
Teachers can choose one or more of the following options:
  1. Have students write an explanatory essay describing the experiences of South Asian immigrants and their contributions to U.S. history, culture, and economy.
  2. Have students write a fictional story based on true events of South Asian immigrants in the U.S. Examples include a day in the life of a South Asian farmer, the origin story of a Punjabi-Mexican descendant, or a recount of a South Asian immigrant’s first trip to the Stockton Gurdwara. Have students highlight the factual details.
Extension Activities: (Suggested Time per Option: 20-40 minutes)
  1. Have students learn more about the connection between the Stockton Gurdwara and the Ghadar Party, a group of South Asians who published a Punjabi newspaper and focused on organizing India’s independence from the British. Have students create their own class newspaper to advocate for a cause important to them.
  2. Tell students that most Sikhs wear turbans. Have students learn more about Sikh practices and beliefs, specifically regarding the Sikh turban. Discuss the significance of turbans to the Sikh community by asking the following questions: Why do Sikhs wear turbans? How has wearing a turban made Sikh Americans targets for discrimination, before and after 9/11? How has wearing a turban helped Sikh Americans overcome racism and discrimination?
  3. Have students learn more about the “turban effect” and how this affects Sikh Americans. Have students create a timeline that highlights different events that made Sikh Americans victims of the “turban effect” and targets for racism and discrimination.
  4. Have students research the Bellingham Arch of Healing which is a granite monument dedicated to three Asian immigrant groups who were exiled from the town: the Chinese in 1885, the South Asians in 1907, and the Japanese in 1842. Have students research the history and purpose. Have students discuss the importance of such monuments.
  5. Show the documentary, “Roots in the Sand,” which presents a multi-generational portrait of the Punjabi immigrants in the Imperial Valley. Encourage students to take notes while viewing the documentary. Facilitate a discussion. (If you can’t get access to the documentary, have students study this webpage instead: Punjabi-Mexican families.)
  6. Read aloud or have students read Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami. This book is about a Punjabi Mexican American girl’s struggles on a farm in Yuba City, California. Have students identify the historical facts that form the basis for the book.
  7. Have students use the search feature on the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s Immigrant Voices site in order to read profiles of South Asian immigrants who immigrated through the Angel Island Immigration Station. Have them create a comic strip illustrating the immigrant’s experience. (If students read multiple profiles, have them compare and contrast their immigration experiences.) Some notable profiles include:
    1. Harnam Singh Dhillon
    2. Vasaka Singh, Majah Singh, Fauja Singh, and Ram Chand
    3. Sita Guha-Thakurta
    4. Kartar Singh
    5. Kanta Chandra
    6. Vaishno Das Bagai
    7. Dalip Singh Samra
    8. Hazara Singh
    9. Kehar Singh
  8. Have students interview a South Asian immigrant in order to learn about their immigration experience. Have them write a profile or biography about their person.
  9. Have students research Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind, a U.S. veteran who fought through the court system to gain citizenship in the 1923 case, United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind. Have students analyze the impacts of the case.
  10. Have students learn more about Islamophobia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Have students discuss the causes and effects of these attacks. Ask students the following questions: How has discrimination against South Asian Americans changed since they immigrated in the late 1800s? How has it stayed the same? How has the media misrepresented Muslims as terrorists which led to South Asian Americans being targeted based on their physical appearance?
  11. Have students study how several South Asian American activist groups, such as South Asian Americans Leading Together and Sikh Coalition, worked to fight against Islamophobia. Have students create informative flyers to promote these groups.
  12. Have students learn more about the Punjabi Farmers’ Protest in India which started in 2020 and how California’s Punjabi farmers protested in solidarity. Discuss the connection between the two communities by asking: Why do California Punjabi farmers care about what’s happening in India?
  13. Have students visit and explore the histories of South Asians through the cities or family stories tab. Have students create an illustrated account of the story they explore. As a class, discuss similarities and differences across the stories.
Further Information
The Asian American Education Project lesson entitled, “Early South Asian Immigration”:
The Asian American Education Project lesson entitled, “Redefine American”:
The Asian American Education Project lesson entitled, “Victimized Twice: 9/11/2001, South Asian Americans & Islamophobia”: