The history of the West is like a large mural covering a long wall. At first glance, the size and the composition of the painting makes it difficult to discern the fine details. There are shades, shadows, and distant images not easily perceived. The first impression leaves the viewer with visions of the grandeur of mountains, plains, and basins but rarely causes the observer to focus on Basque sheepherders or miners or laborers building roads into remote corners of the West. The vast landscape and distant horizons capture the viewers' attention, and their eyes seldom look at the images created by hardworking people who actually built the West we see today.
The grandeur of wide open spaces and the beauty of snow capped mountains led to the popular presentation of western history in the movie industry where the West is portrayed as a place dominated by stretches of unspoiled land seldom touched by man. Most casual viewers of the complex mural of western history come away with the same impressions created by movies, such as How the West Was Won. These films focus on the visual image of blue skies and purple mountains and of cowboys, ranchers, gold miners, and powerful corporate builders pushing railroads across the continent. But rarely do these scenes show the flesh and blood of history. Perhaps filmmakers find it less appealing to portray a hardworking Chinese railroad worker or a Chinese barber. The same can be said of people working in oil fields and uranium mines today. The laborers are too covered with grease and mud to be considered the heroes or heroines that settled the West. In reality, they are not commonplace. These workers provided essential natural resources and food that propelled the nation's industrial growth. In Wyoming, Japanese miners and Chinese railroad workers in the last century provided essential skills needed for the nation's successful growth. Too soon forgotten, too often overlooked, it is the hard working immigrants that provide the shades and textures that make the western mural believable and lifelike. Chinese immigrants were involved in farming, mining, and hundreds of other menial tasks which are a major part of any historical painting that truly depicts the West.
Unfortunately stereotypes of Chinese emigrants continue, simply looking at the movies released in 1992 clearly illustrates this. Recently, two movies have come out that once again show Chinese as bit players in westward expansion. Far and Away (1992) and Unforgiven (1992) both depict traditional roles for Chinese sojourners. Granted, both movies focus on themes that are intended to either describe the Irish experience in America or depict the violence in the West. Unfortunately, stereotypes persist. The Chinese in Far and Away do not speak, they ride on a railroad work train as a backdrop; presumably to show they were working on the railroad. In the movie Bad Girls (1994), women on the frontier are shown not as passive participants in the "old west" but as people capable of altering events and shaping their destiny. Initially the Chinese are voiceless back drops, but at one critical juncture in the film, a female Chinese herbalist speaks, and provides the healing medicine for the wounded heroine. Chinese doctors, or herbalists, did live in western towns. Rock Springs' resident doctor was Li Me Him. The depiction of a Chinese female herbalist adds a more realistic view of the west. In Unforgiven, the Chinese also never utter a word, but their presence is duly noted in terms of violence against a docile group.
The plot for Unforgiven is set in "Big Whisky Wyoming." The movie is filmed in Alberta, Canada: which apparently in the mind of the producer or director or some other decision maker, looks more like Wyoming in the 1800s than does Wyoming. Into the town of Big Whisky comes a hired gun named English Bob. Bob made his reputation as a person who, among other despicable occupations, shoots Chinese for the railroad. Why he shoots Chinese is not explained. Yet we know they are victims simply by the tone and attitude assumed by the sheriff of Big Whisky. In spite of this knowledge, no one pretends he should be arrested for killing these emigrants from the "Middle Kingdom."
Within the town of Big Whisky, we see Chinese carrying laundry, standing idle, or as on-lookers to some event of great importance to the movie's plot. They are not players in the events, they are on-lookers. Even the movie set contains the stereotypical Chinese Laundry on main street. Fortunately, here is where the movie shows some depth in understanding the role of the Chinese. Possibly unintended, it shows the entrepreneur, willing to travel to an isolated, violent frontier town, where, if all goes well, they can earn a living providing a much needed service.
If one looks closely and analyzes carefully the historical record, it becomes apparent that Chinese emigrants were not idle on-lookers, but were major actors in western history. In spite of violence and prejudice against Chinese emigrants, they opened mines (e.g. gold mines in Idaho), ran businesses, and of course, were major players in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. And they just did not vanish with the buffalo. Subsequent generations of Chinese emigrants have helped shape the West and continue to play major roles. To illustrate this, let us look at the Wyoming experience specifically.
For more information on the Chinese in the West go to: http://www.uidaho.edu/LS/AACC/
In essence, we wanted to keep the Chinese in China. As Dr. Noel Pugach so wisely stated, "We wanted to missionize and save the souls of Chinese, but once they come to America, our views changed. We no longer wanted to deal with them, we wanted them to return to China." For Wyoming, this very intuitive statement aptly applies. The Chinese were not welcomed and once they arrived, most "citizens" repeatedly demanded their removal. Few citizens, however, denied that these sojourners were hard working, and Americans generally value hard work. By 1850, at least a few of these hard working individuals had reached the Intermountain West.
In 1850, future Wyoming was part of three territories, parts of which would soon become Nebraska Territory. These territories included Utah, Oregon, and "the Unorganized Territories." The 1850 Census for Utah notes that within Utah County there lived 4 "yellow" residents. This Seventh Census of the United States had a category for color and did not list the residents nation of origin, it simply labeled them as "yellow." Their ages were from 14 to 19 and there were two males and two females. This represents the first Asians recorded living in the Intermountain West. Unfortunately, other than the fact their names were Suki, Marunda, Anna, and Sam, little else is known about these 1850 residents.
It is difficult to determine when the first Chinese sojourners passed through future Wyoming. In 1857, there is a reference to a Chinese boy living with trappers on the Blacks Fork. The New York Daily Tribune, while reporting on Johnston's Army westward march against the Mormons, provided a detailed diary of the "camp on the Black Fork." The reporter for the Tribune wrote:
Having gone out from the camp a few days ago, to pass a day and night with lieutenant K., who was stationed on outpost duty, I trifled away a morning in visiting the lodges of some mountaineers, which their squaws had just pitched. In one, a Chinese boy was darning his pantaloons, encircled by puppies . . . .
The writer was a keen observer and his report goes on to describe various individuals from different Native American groups living in the camp, some of whom were married to the, so-called, "mountainers."
The first long-term employment for the Chinese seeking jobs in Wyoming was found along the Union Pacific Railroad as maintenance-of-the-way workers. A 1870 letter from J. W. Gannett, "auditor" to Oliver Ames, the Union Pacific President in Boston, points out that the railroad was pleased with the Chinese workers they had hired. Soon Chinese railroad workers and later coal miners were working along the Union Pacific railroad from Laramie to Evanston.
Most Chinese workers would be employed in Sweetwater County. But both Carbon and Uinta counties also had a large number of Chinese workers with Evanston boasting a Chinatown complete with a "Joss House." This "Joss House" was a house of worship where ancestors were venerated and incense burned for those desiring to follow traditions based in Chinese philosophy and religions.
In the years between 1868 and 1885, the Chinese contributed much to the development of southern Wyoming. But they were also the victims of intense racial prejudice. While contributing to the territories growth, the Chinese were viewed as a problem. Prejudice was a fact rarely hidden or apologized for in the territory's newspapers. The first newspaper to print "anti-Chinese" articles was the Frontier Index. In 1868, Legh Freeman, the editor of the Frontier Index, called his newspaper an anti-black, anti-Indian and anti-Chinese newspaper. Freeman headed his editorial column with the words, "The Motto of the Column: Only White Men to be naturalized in the United States. The RACES and SEXES in their respective spheres as God Almighty created them." The Cheyenne newspapers were no kinder to emigrants. By the late 1870s, when anti-Chinese sentiment was at a fevered pitch throughout the West, the Cheyenne Daily Leader led off one of their stories by saying ". . . We are being ruined by Chinese thieving." Throughout the West, there was widespread prejudice aimed at Chinese emigrants. For example, in 1866, the Montana Radiator reported that the "Mongolian hordes" were preventing "Helena women from making a living washing clothes." People in Wyoming Territory viewed the Chinese much like other "Westerners" and perceived them as a threat to their jobs and economic well being. (Please click on Census Figures to see the number of Chinese in various parts of Nineteenth Century Wyoming).
Initially in Wyoming, most Chinese became railroad workers. The 1870 United States census records show that in southwest Wyoming, specifically Uinta and Sweetwater Counties, all the Chinese listed were employed as railroad laborers at either stations or at section camps. At the time, both Uinta and Sweetwater Counties ran from the Utah and Colorado border to the Montana border. Within these two counties, there were 96 Chinese "laborers." No other occupation is listed nor were there any Chinese females living in these two counties. As laborers in railroad camps, the Chinese all worked for the Union Pacific Railroad (See Tables 1, 2, 3, and 4).
The Union Pacific Railroad actively recruited Chinese laborers to work on their mainline. After 1874, when labor unrest developed in their coal mines, Union Pacific Railroad began hiring Chinese workers to extract coal at their various mines throughout southern Wyoming. Employing Chinese miners or railroad workers was a matter of both convenience and economics. In 1870, Union Pacific's auditor, J. W. Gannett, wrote to Oliver Ames, the President of Union Pacific, that: "The difference between Irish and Chinese as to expense appears small. Utah having as many Chinese on a 5 mile section as Platte [division] has of Irish on a 6 mile section. This, however, may be unnecessary as I am told that an Irishman performs no more labor than a Chinese . . . ." Grenville M. Dodge, after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, planned to discharge the "Irishmen" and replace them with Chinese workers, "a move he thought would cut labor costs in half."
Employing Chinese railroad workers was a profitable venture for Union Pacific. At remote section camps, such as Red Desert in Sweetwater County, the majority of the residents were Chinese. In 1870, there were 20 inhabitants at Red Desert. Of this number, 12 were Chinese. Of course, the Chinese at Red Desert were all laborers. The section foreman at the camp was American. Red Desert's counterpart, located to the east, was called Washakie. Here at Washakie there were 23 residents. The section foreman was an American and the crew foreman was Irish, but the 13 laborers were all Chinese.
In the various section camps along the Union Pacific mainline in southwest Wyoming, Chinese workers outnumbered all other nationalities. In 1870, Sweetwater County had 79 Chinese residents. This figure represents roughly 4 percent of the counties entire population. However, this population was concentrated in isolated areas with no Chinese residents reported at Green River or Rock Springs, the largest towns along the Union Pacific mainline in Sweetwater County.
Throughout the decade of the 1870s, the number of Chinese living in southwestern Wyoming steadily increased. What is more important is that while the population increased, so did the diversity. At Rock Springs, where most of the Chinese residents of Sweetwater County lived in 1880, there were Chinese miners, laborers, and cooks, along with a barber, gambler, and a priest. The fact that Rock Springs had a resident priest is of some interest, as he is seemingly the only one in the territory and possibly served a wider community. The person employed as a professional gambler probably helped provide recreation for more than just the Chinese residents of Rock Springs.
Throughout Sweetwater County in 1880, the majority of the Chinese residents either worked on the railroad or in the coal mines, but they were also involved in a variety of occupations. At Green River, there was a Chinese doctor. At Miners Delight, Atlantic City, and Red Canyon, Chinese gold miners were employed. At Fort Washakie and Green River there were Chinese servants and waiters. A number of places had Chinese washhouses. A few communities also had Chinese cooks. However, throughout Sweetwater County there were only 13 cooks and 2 wash house attendants employed. The majority of the 193 Chinese residents living in Sweetwater County in 1880 were either working in the mines or for the railroad.
Both Rock Springs and Green River had Chinese women living in their towns in 1880. Although small in number, all of the female residents were employed outside the home. In Green River, two women worked as servants, whereas the only female in Rock Springs served as a cook. While the female population was relatively small in proportion of the total Chinese population, it is significant because folklore surrounding the Chinese Massacre often puts forth the idea that there were no Chinese women living in Rock Springs in the years prior to 1885. Overall there were only three Chinese females in Sweetwater County and the Chinese emigrants only represented 7.5 per cent of the county's entire population. Yet what is worth noting is the fact that this small percentage of the population was concentrated in areas where their numbers were extremely visible. In Rock Springs, for example, the Chinese represented 16% of the town's population. At railroad camps, such as Washakie Station, they represented 58 per cent of the 1880 population.
As the number of Chineseliving in Wyoming began to increase, the state's newspapers devoted more and more time discussing whether Asians should be allowed into the United States. The newspapers also published articles describing the day to day activities of Chinese in Wyoming. While most newspapers published the recurring theme "the Chinese must GO," they provided information about the Chinese living in Wyoming. (In the newspapers of the nineteenth century, emphasis was always given on the verb go, and it was often capitalized in the newspaper print).
In 1882, "a newly appointed attache to the Chinese embassy at Washington" D.C. visited Wyoming. Chang Tsung Liang took the opportunity to criticize the press for not portraying the Chinese in a favorable light. He accused the newspapers of creating the nationwide anti-Chinese sentiment that existed at the time. Chang also reported on conditions he had encountered in Wyoming. The attache, according to the Cheyenne Daily Leader:
[E]xpressed his pleasure at the prosperous appearance of Cheyenne as compared with other towns he had passed along the route, inquired after his countrymen here and if they were "comfortable" and mentioned, evidently with hurt feelings, the very rude manner in which some loafers had behaved at Rock Springs as he passed through there, in calling him "bad names" "not like gentlemen and very rude."
In another article, The Cheyenne Daily Leader interviewed a Chinese merchant who was passing through Cheyenne on business. The merchant, named Ah Lun, was a prosperous businessman. Often even the positive articles about Chinese emigrants were written somewhat "tongue in cheek," but these articles at least provide a different viewpoint. For example, the Chinese merchant Ah Lun, was described as follows:
This celestial gentleman speaks good English and is quite social, freely imparting the course of his journey in a business, offhand way, and taking part in general conversation. He was attired in the conventional Chinese garments, but of very fine material, largely black silk and satin. Someone wondered (audibly) how he could keep his white stockings so clean, and a German friend suggested that he "put on a clean pair efry day aind dat so?" And Ah smiled assent.
As these excerpts reveal, Chinese merchants and attaches, while both holding respected positions, were not shown the respect extended to Americans or Europeans who held the same position.
Throughout the West, Chinese were viewed as second-class citizens. Companies in Wyoming Territory, like those in neighboring territories, often viewed the Chinese as if they were property or chattel, rather than employees. A contract dated December 24, 1875, between "Beckwith, Quinn, & Co. and Union Pacific Railroad Co.," illustrates the fact that Beckwith and Quinn, not the Chinese miner or railroad worker, decided the conditions under which they were to be employed. The contract for "Chinese labor and etc. Sale of Supplies, Rent of Warehouse Rock S." reads:
Agreement made and entered into, this 24th day of December A.D. 1875, between Beckwith, Quinn & Co., of Evanston, Wyoming Territory of the first part, and the Union Pacific Railroad Co., of the Second part,- Witnesseth: -
The parties of the first part, hereby agree to furnish to the party of the Second part, all the Chinese laborers requisite for the complete working of their several Coal mines on the line of the Union Pacific Railroad, at the same prices and on the same terms and conditions as stated in a certain Contract for similar service made by Sisson Wallace & Co., for an in behalf of Chinese laborers, with the Rocky Mountain Coal & Mining Co., a copy of which is hereto attached, and made part of this agreement.
The said parties of the first part further agree to furnish to the said party of the Second part, upon a reasonable notice from their Gen'l. Superintendent, a sufficient number of Chinese laborers for the repairs of the track of the Union Pacific Railroad, or such portion thereof, in addition to that which is now being worked by Chinamen, as the party of the Second part may require . . . .
The attached service contract stated:
Chinamen agree to mine the coal, load it in Pit cars, and deliver it at the mouth of the room free from slack and rock, and assorted, either lump, small or mixed as directed, at Seventy Four (74) cents coin per ton of Twenty Two hundred and Forth (2240) pounds, from all places, either rooms, levels of air courses.
All cars of coal sent out of the mine in which there is slack or rock, will be docked half of their weight, and if men disobey their Foreman, or persist in sending out slack or rock, after being docked, they will be discharged.
All men are to commence and stop work by the whistle.
Company are to furnish tools, do the black smithing and repairing, furnish mules, harness and pit cars, and supply of water for the men.
Company are to deliver coal at the houses of all the laborers, for which the Chinamen are to pay 50 Cents per man per month.
Company are to furnish houses for the Chinamen to live in at $5, per month for each house.
The Chinese, like their American counterparts, labored in the coal mines under extremely harsh conditions. When the Almy mine first exploded in 1881, 38 miners died. Of this number, 35 were Chinese and 3 were what the newspapers of the time called "white men." This was the first coal mine explosion in Wyoming history. It would not be the last time emigrants would lose their lives mining coal in Wyoming.
The problems of prejudice added to the problems of working in a hazardous job, made the Chinese emigrants lives that much more difficult. The fact that they were contracted laborers was not much different than what other workers in the nineteenth century experiences, but the contract that Wyoming Chinese miners had with Beckwith and Quinn differed from the contract the "white miners" received. While a white miner might be forced to sign a rent contract for company housing, there was no middle man that the American miners had to deal with. Beckwith and Quinn first received the Chinese workers' wage. Under the 1875 contract, Union Pacific paid Beckwith and Quinn; Beckwith and Quinn, in turn, paid the Chinese miners. With this arrangement there was always the possibility that Beckwith and Quinn would profit from Chinese workers wages.
Chinese too often were greeted by open hostility. The Carbon County Journal for October 13, 1888 reported:
A large crowd gathered at Claus hall Monday evening in order to take some action against permitting Chinamen to live in this city.
Three years ago the last Chinaman was fired out of the town and none have ventured to take up a residence here until within the last two weeks, within which time a Chinese cook has been employed at the Pacific hotel. It was stated that this heathen at the hotel was merely the first one sent here in order to test the popular feeling in regard to their being permitted to remain. If no protest was made against this one, others would be run in and soon the city would be filled with them. After a few preliminary remarks by various gentlemen present, Mr. Will Reid was elected chairman and Mr. John Hogan secretary. Mr Reid stated the object of the meeting and deprecated the use of any violence or a resort to any legal measure but insisted that the Chinese must not only go but stay after they had gone . . . .
The meeting reconvened Tuesday evening and the report of the committee was heard. It was to the effect that if it was the will of the representative people of Rawlins that the Chinaman should go, he would discharge him. When the report was stated the hall was packed with people. Two or three speeches were made and the following resolution was offered by D. T. Edwards"
"WHEREAS, the people of the city of Rawlins In mass meeting assembled believe that the hiring of a Chinese cook by the Pacific Hotel company, is detrimental to the best interests of the city, and,
"WHEREAS we desire to keep our city free from the curse of Chinese labor.
Resolved, That it is the sense of this meeting that we request Mr. Don P. Cashman, manager of said hotel, to dispense with the services of the Chinese pastry cook now in this employ, and to refrain from hiring Chinamen in any capacity in the future.
The resolution was adopted. . . .
Faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges and even in the face of prejudice, the Chinese who lived in Wyoming Territory developed a full fledged ethnic community that maintained close ties to their homeland. For instance, they maintained traditional dress and, as is pointed out in the article about the merchant visiting Cheyenne. The Chinese also practiced their own religions. The 1880 census states that a Chinese priest lived in Rock Springs. Bill Nye, "the humorist," in one of his columns made light of the "celestial Josh." While his article makes light of this "bass wood diety," he points out that Chinese religions and traditions were being practiced in Wyoming. Nye's criticism of the diety states:
I do not wish to be understood as interfering with any man's religious views: but when polygamy is made a divine decree, or a bass wood diety is whittled out and painted red to look up to and to worship, I cannot treat that so called religious belief with courtesy and reverence. I am quite liberal in all religious matters. People have noticed that and remarked it, but the Oriental god of commerce seems to me to be greatly overrated.
Nye, in his much noted satiric wit, is providing a glimpse of fact. The Chinese did indeed set up Josh Houses and bring in notions of gods that could help them prosper. The hope of prospering is why they came to Wyoming.
The newspapers of the nineteenth century often comment on the fact "white men" were losing their jobs to Chinese workers. The problem was simple and straight forward. While many blamed Union Pacific for bringing the Chinese into Wyoming, most workers vented their frustrations against these Asian emigrants. The newspapers of the late nineteenth-century record this frustration. The newspapers also grasped the basic reason behind why the Chinese chose to work in railroad camps, gold mines, and coal mines, but they failed to perceive the basic economic, social, and cultural reasons behind why the Chinese chose to emigrate to Wyoming. Only recently have historians such as Henry Tsia began to discuss the complexities of why the Chinese came to America. Comprehending why the Chinese came to Wyoming in the late 1800s was of little interest to most newspaper editors. The prejudice of the last century is obvious, with newspapers and State and Territorial laws reflecting this fact. The Chinese Massacre tragically revealed the depth of this prejudice. What is sometimes lost in discussing and describing the Chinese experience in Wyoming is that they contributed much to the development of the territory and later the state.
Chinese emigrants contributed to the development of the territory in many ways. The contributions came during Wyoming's early years and continue to the present. During the territorial years, the Chinese worked as coal miners, railroad repairmen, cooks, waiters, servants, barbers, doctors, priests, merchants, wash house attendants, and proprietors. They often served in roles that were traditionally relegated to females in the nineteenth century. This caused a few problems, most notable in Helena, Montana, where there was a protest against Chinese laundries. But in Wyoming, where most of the Chinese lived in remote towns and sections camps, Chinese cooks, waiters, laundry men, and servants found ready employment. In towns like Rock Springs where the ratio was almost four men to every one woman, the Chinese filled an important economic niche in the economy of the city. Performing services that were often seen as demeaning or of lesser status, the Chinese contributed much to the welfare and well-being of miners, railroad workers, and even for people in the surrounding agricultural communities.
Of course, as with the case with all human societies, there are those who deviate from the norms. The Chinese were no different. On the third of March, 1887 in Uinta County, Sing Lee was charged with "Knowingly exercis[ing] and carry[ing] on" the business of selling liquor without a license. Three other Chinese were charged with the same offense in 1876. In another criminal case, Sin Biu served 16 years in the Wyoming State Penitentiary after being found guilty of second degree murder in Sweetwater County. Sentenced on October 13, 1891, he was to serve 20 years but was released early by reason of "good time" or due to good behavior.
Within the mining and railroad industries, the contributions of the Chinese to Wyoming's economy are even more obvious. By 1885, the number of Chinese living in Rock Springs had increased to 500 residents. Most of these residents were coal miners. On the average, in 1885, the coal miners at Rock Springs produced "450 cars per week." The coal mines at Rock Springs were "the largest in the west" and the Union Pacific Railroad depended on the Rock Springs coal miners for the bulk of their coal supply. To illustrate how important the Chinese miners were to Union Pacific's ventures at Rock Springs: in October, 1885, one month after the Chinese Massacre, the Rock Springs No. 3 mine produced between 245 and 280 cars per week. The Cheyenne Daily Leader stated: "About 200 Chinamen are working in No. 3 . . . . There are no white miners . . ." underground. Only two other mines were being operated by the Union Pacific in late October, 1885. Number 1 mine had 130 Chinese and only 25 whites miners underground. Union Pacific No. 4 had 30 Chinese and 4 white coal miners employed. In light of the fact these Chinese miners were working with the charred remains of the once sizeable Chinatown right at their doorstep, their contribution to the continued operation of the Union Pacific Railroad is worth remembering. In spite of great adversity, the Chinese workers of the last century contributed much to the future state of Wyoming.
For more information on the Chinese go to:
If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.