nav left side
nav right side
page left

Wyoming History


Evanston's Chinatown



What's New






In Wyoming, the environment dictated how one lived on the land. Sagebrush, short summers, long winters and wind greeted Chinese immigrants budhas.bmp (318056 bytes)who grew up where rice paddies, subtropical forests and ocean breezes were rarely more than a few miles away. Chinese settlers carried with them strong concepts of tradition and social structure that altered only slightly in the new world. The alterations that did occur came about not so much in how a Chinese immigrant lived, but in how they chose to alter the landscape. In Chinatowns, across the west, "western" style buildings underwent alterations to match Chinese concepts of how space should be used. In altering these structures they left a unique imprint on the built environments of western towns and cities. Once the buildings no longer existed, the structural remains from once populous Chinatowns left a unique archaeological imprint. The archaeological record can best be understood from the builders perspective. Especially since Chinese immigrants modified their environments in terms of what Chinese culture required -- rather than simply making adjustments to a land where summer was not necessarily a season but rather a short interval between winters.

In 1880 there were three Chinatowns in southwest Wyoming. Places like Rock Springs, Evanston and the smaller community of Almy, located seven miles north of Evanston, all had Chinese communities. Of these Rock Springs was the largest, but Evanston boasted the most diversity. By 1927 all three of these had vanished. Here we will focus on the Evanston Chinatown and provide a brief comparison to Chinese settlements in similar natural environments.

a.bottle.bmp (502056 bytes)The Evanston Chinatown came into existence sometime between 1869 and 1870. While the historical records provide no clear-cut beginning date, the archaeological record points to the occupation beginning in the late 1860s early 1870s. Clearly by the early 1870s, a vibrant Chinese community had emerged on the banks of the Bear River, and in 1880, 105 Chinese immigrants lived in Evanston. By the mid 1880s, the size of the town peaked with over two-hundred Chinese residents living in the community. This peak population slowly dwindled to a point that by 1900 only 42 residents remained in town. In 1920 only two Chinese men remained in the once-thriving community. The remains of the once prosperous vanished in 1922 when all the buildings in Chinatown burned to the ground. After the destruction of Chinatown in 1922, Chinese immigrants who still resided in Evanston found residence either on small vegetable farms along the Bear River or inside residential businesses that had long thrived in Evanston’s downtown.

Initially, Chinese immigrants that settled in the Evanston Chinatown found employment in the mining and railroad industry. Laborers lived in relatively small houses that ranged from five to eight individuals in size. By the turn of the century a new pattern began to emerge. Instead of laborers living together in tightly-confined spaces, Chinese entrepreneurs began to live with their employees and "partners" in "residential businesses." These households contained fewer immigrants than the miners homes and generally varied from two to six individuals per household. Most consisted of only males. While the household size fluctuated based on prevailing housing and business conditions, the "residential business" emerged u.dragon.bmp (426056 bytes)as one of the dominate housing patterns from Alberta to Wyoming. In fact, by the turn of the century, in small prairie towns on the Alberta plains, the "residential business" became the prevalent housing arrangement for Chinese residents. Elsewhere, on the prairies and plains of Montana and Wyoming, Chinese restaurants and laundries doubled as households for immigrants from China. The pattern was not new, it simply came to dominate small western Chinese communities.

At Evanston, Wyoming, all the property and most of the structures in Chinatown belonged to the Union Pacific Railroad Company. The buildings had been constructed by the company but the "railroad" owners allowed the residents to make modifications as they saw fit. The modifications, in some cases, actually led to new construction. For example, even though Union Pacific held ownership of the land, Chinese residents built a two-story tong and Joss house to serve their community’s needs for an assembly hall and religious facility. Tong literally means meeting hall, but unfortunately in the United States, it came to be wrongly associated with gang activity and thus gained a negative label. Tongs as they were called in the United States and Canada actually served as "home county associations" for the mutual benefit of immigrants from the same county or town in southern China. To deflect the negative labels x.chinese.1.bmp (74260 bytes)associated with the Tong, and in attempt to legitimize their social and communal activities the "home county associations" came under the banner of Free Masonry. Thus, the Tong house in Evanston came to be known as the Masonic Hall. By 1898 businesses, residences, religious halls, and a Tong house marked the Evanston Chinatown’s landscape. The residential businesses formed an important part of this vibrant city scape.

Early in the history of the Evanston Chinatown, entrepreneurs began to live in structures that served the dual role of residence and business. Archaeological excavations at this Chinatown have focused on one such residence. Specifically in the Evanston Chinatown, sometime in the decade of the 1870s, a laundry developed along a small street.

Chinese residents lived primarily on the southwest side of Chinatown, and here a few groups of individuals developed their small businesses. On such business was the laundry excavated. The laundry, it appears, began as a relatively small wooden structure, built chinatown_map_thb.jpg (6320 bytes)sometime in the 1870s or 1880s, that served as the house for two or three men. Over time around the wooden building a relatively substantial residential complex evolved. The laundry was just one part of this complex. Apparently, city codes required Chinese laundries be built from brick or stone. The 1898 Sanborn Map clearly shows a stone laundry adjoining the wooden building. Since the laundry was made from stone, and most other buildings were made from wood finding its original location proved relatively easy, as the foundation and walls left a distinctive archaeological signature of cut stone and cobble. Determining the nature of the wooden buildings around the laundry proved much more complex. (549656 bytes)To determine what the structures looked like that were attached to the laundry several different factors had to be considered. The 1898 Sanborn map showing the Evanston Chinatown provided the baseline data for approaching the nature of the structure we uncovered in the five summers spanning 1994 to 1998. While the entire structure has not yet been exposed, approximately 90 percent of the "Laundry" shown on the 1898 Sanborn map has now been excavated. Roughly 110 m² have been excavated in and around the structure showing that the building or series of buildings that made up the Laundry Complex was rather sizeable. Having spent five summers in an attempt to define the structure we now have some tentative ideas about what the building may have looked like. Since existing photographs do not show the laundry and surrounding rooms the best information regarding the structure comes from the archaeological record and 1898 Sanborn map. Our understanding of the structure’s nature and form has changed over the last four years and for the first time a clearer picture of Chinese residential business is beginning to emerge. But this picture came about only after several misdirected attempts at trying to understand the nature and extent of the structure.

Our view and understanding of what the laundry looked like evolved slowly. The initial excavations in 1994 led us to believe we julie.1.bmp (320456 bytes)may have uncovered a jewelry shop. On and beneath the wooden flooring exposed in 1994 gold, silver jewelry pieces, and moss agate "in lays" in several stages of manufacturing were found. Naively we believed what we had was one structure. In 1995 what we found was that the so called "Jewelry Shop" was actually part of a much larger complex that consisted of an enclosed courtyard and at least one more structure. Then in 1996, after expanding the excavations further, we encountered the foundation and structural remains of the Laundry. Having the Sanborn map to serve as a guide we could more clearly define the nature of the business and residential complex we had uncovered, but we could not correlate the configuration of the structures we had uncovered with the laundry foundation. We did find, based on the artifacts uncovered, that at least one of the rooms adjacent to the laundry at one time housed women and children and we think that probably more than one women lived inside this structure. Specifically, ear rings and hook and eyes and buttons found commonly on nineteenth century Chinese women’s clothing pointed to the presence of women within the room excavated. The 1880 census confirms the fact that women lived in the Evanston Chinatown and those with families were married to entrepreneurs. The 1997 excavations gave a clearer idea of the relationship of the various buildings around the courtyard and helped define the location of a bone bed we initially assumed lay inside the Laundry Complex courtyard.

Not until 1998, however, were we able to finally roughly correlate the buildings on the 1898 Sanborn Map with what we had previously uncovered at the Evanston Chinatown. In 1998 it was determined that a rather extensive business complex had evolved around what were once wooden structures built by Union Pacific Railroad Company. Based on younger artifacts coming from the stone Laundry foundations, and older items found in the wooden structure, it appears the wooden buildings were built sometime in the early 1870's while the stone Laundry was added sometime in the 1880's.

Evanston Year

Total Number of Women

Total Number of Men females under

18 years of age

males under

18 years of age

1869 1 6 1 0 8
1870 0 19 0 3 22
1880 15 90 7 3 115
1900 5 37 0 1 43
Total 21 152 8 7  
For more information about the Chinese Population strike: census data.

There are still some uncertainties regarding the nature of the Laundry Complex at the Evanston Chinatown but the excavations provide some clarification as to the nature and extent of the structure. Essentially the complex consisted of at least four separate buildings joined either by moving the structures together by a connecting fence that ran between the buildings and formed portions of a courtyard. All the buildings described here shared one common courtyard. The western most structure, that contained the jewelry uncovered in 1994, had three rooms. The southeastern most structure had two rooms and a mud porch. Just outside this south eastern habitation structure an extensive bone bed was found. Jamey Zehr has shown that this bone bed contained butchered and processed pig and cow. Protein analysis indicates the presence of goat, cow, and horse. A fence ran north from this southeastern most structure to the stone laundry. The Laundry, according to the 1898 Sanborn Map had at least three rooms. Two of these rooms appear to be small wooden additions. Just east of the stone Laundry was the fourth structure wooden structure consisting of two small rooms. All of these buildings had been clustered together in such a way to form one structural complex that was tied to an enclosed a courtyard.

The census records provide the next clue as to (274950 bytes)what was happening at the Laundry Complex. Two years after the 1898 Sanborn Map was drawn, the census taker noted five laundry men living in five separate households in the Evanston Chinatown. As indicated on the 1898 Sanborn Map, two of these households were residential laundries serving as both business and home. In structure "430 " the head of the household was listed as a "Merchant" and he resided with a "Laundryman" and a "Day Laborer." The residents of structure "430 " were Lung Quong, Hee Lee, and Gooy Hong. The interesting thing is they appear to be related. Problems emerge, however, in connecting these men with the structures we have excavated to this point. What we do know is that residential businesses were common place.

Chinese residential business begin to appear in California and British Columbia almost as soon as immigrants from Asia arrived in the gold fields. But it is on the plains of Alberta, Montana, and Wyoming that by 1900 a clear-cut settlement pattern emerges. The 1901 census for Alberta shows that pioneer Chinese businesses often represented the only Chinese settlements in town. In fact the process is a bell wether to the late twentieth century trend of Asian immigrants opening restaurants in small towns throughout the Canadian and American west. And as was the case in 1900, late twentieth century restaurant owners, their families, and employees often represent the only Chinese residents in the community. The trend at the turn of the century was for Chinese immigrants to live in the same building that housed their business. By the later half of the twentieth century zoning ordinances and health regulations prevented most business owners from living in the same place they worked. This was not the case at turn of the century in places ranging from Evanston Wyoming to the plains of southern Canada.

Briefly, to show the diversity of u.statue.bmp (230456 bytes)residential business households and to illustrate the ubiquitous and diverse nature of this habitation pattern, it is informative to look at a few turn of the century examples of residential business on the Canadian and northern American plains. In Moosejaw, Saskatchewan in 1901, one building housed two Chinese immigrant. A cook, the apparent owner of the enterprise, and the second cook, his assistant, lived in the building that housed their business. . At High River in Alberta in 1901 three men lived and work in the same laundry. It is not possible to determine if they were related, but they probably belonged to the same clan or tong. A more clear cut family relationship can be seen in Medicine Hat Alberta. Here at this family run laundry lived four men that shared the family name Mar and one man named Ya Tong. Of course the family run business and residential household is not the only habitation configuration. Yet it appears that in most cases a tong or "home county association" linked business partners and household residents together and thus traditional clans serve as the selector for who a person chooses as their business and housing partner. A clear picture of the relationship within business households can be seen in 1900 Helena. At "208 . . . West Main Street" in Helena Montana, the Wong’s and Mr. Wau lived and worked in a grocery store. Here the census taker indicates that Wau was the cousin to Wong, linking all the residents of the store together. The three Wongs and Wau are part of the same clan. All these examples share one common feature. That similarity is that according to both Canadian and United States Census records, Chinese immigrants most commonly lived, worked, and ran their business inside one building during the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. This was the period when the Evanston Chinatown was occupied.

While the census records for the late nineteenth z.aaron.bmp (297656 bytes)and early twentieth century are clear that business doubled as residents -- determining how space was configured and utilized in a turn of the century Chinese structure can only be confirmed through archaeological excavations. This is especially true in the case of the laundry residence in Evanston where the census taker lists the entire compound as one or even possibly two households. Analyzing how Chinese immigrants developed and used the Laundry Complex and associated structures is difficult at best.

Determining the nature of the structural remains of any building used over a period of time requires the consideration of several factors. First, during the course of occupation, modifications and additions tend to create an archaeological signature that is complex. Second making additions or modifications to a building follows rises in household numbers or increases in personal wealth. The third issue reflects one of the paradox’s of building use and reuse. As household size decreases or financial reverses take place, rooms and outlying structures are abandoned. This abandonment can take place slowly or overnight. Thus, last years addition may be this years refuse storage bin. Fourth, a much more complicated problem emerges when any cultural group makes modifications to a structure built by another cultural group. The modifications are made to match personal and cultural preferences. But the process goes beyond that in the Laundry Complex in Evanston to include modifications to a residence built only to house families or male mine workers and that ultimately turned into a business. Fifth, once buildings are abandoned and become part of the archaeological records, retracing the process of building and deterioration is difficult at best but passes into the realm of confounding and puzzling when a group such as Chinese immigrants takes a house built to house four Euro-Americans and then converts the building into a business and residential complex modified to accommodate chart.bmp (691256 bytes)several businesses and house between five to ten individuals.


Nonetheless, analysis of structures modified within the confines of Chinatown, or any other ethnic enclave, provides much-needed data about how minorities encountered both a foreign "built" and natural environment and then adjusted to meet the challenges of living in a world far from traditional home and hearth. The archaeological record helps explain how immigrants actively retained their cultural identity while making adjustments to the "New-World" realities. And one of the better illustrated mixes of the old and new world is seen in the residential businesses created throughout the American and Canadian "West's" by immigrants from southern China. The results of the excavation of the laundry at the Evanston Chinatown shows, among other things, that by 1900 there was a vibrant Chinese business residence in place that grew and prospered from seeds planted in Evanston in the 1870s.


I would specifically like to thank Jamey Dee Zehr, Emma Gardner, Will Gardner, Martin Lammers and Drew Hutchinson for labors that seemingly never ended. But also I would like to thank: Kerry Barbero, Jim Davis, Laura Pasacreta, Austin Moon,   Erika Berry,  Jacqueline Fabian, Autumn Angle Debbie Braithwaite, Nancy Fowers, Dr. Richard Etulain, Julie Lane, Kevin Thompson, Colleen Altaffer Smith, Ken Fitschen, Tex Boggs, Dave Johnson, Benny Andres, Martin Lammers, Jana Pastor,  Jennifer Ralston, Val Brinkerhoff,  Matt Kautzman, Dr. Patrick Lubinski, Dr. Danny Walker, and Linda Byers for their assistance in running and operating our summer field schools.  Funding for this project was provided in part by Wyoming State Historical Preservation Office, Evanston Certified Local Government (CLG), Chevron, Archaeological Services of Western Wyoming Community College, and the Social Sciences and Fine Arts Fund of Western Wyoming Community College.


If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

page right
View Text Only Version View Text Only Version