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Railroad, showing method of splicing rails. National Archive.

arge-scale Chinese immigration to the United States began in the late 1840s, when news of the discovery of gold in California reached the Far East. In 1851, nearly 3,000 Chinese traveled to California. In 1852, more than 20,000 arrived. For the next twenty years, Chinese immigrants arrived at a rate of more than 9,000 per year. After the Gold Rush, Chinese communities sprang up in urban areas not only in California, but in Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, and Montana. By 1883, the year in which FRONTIER HOUSE is set, there were over 100,000 Chinese men and 6,000 Chinese women living West of the Mississippi.

Initially, the U.S. welcomed the Chinese. An early governor of California proclaimed the Chinese, "one of the most worthy classes of our newly adopted citizens." Many of the early Chinese in the West intended to quickly return to their native country. Like others who headed to the gold fields of California, Chinese immigrants believed they would "strike it rich," and return to their homes and families in China to live out their lives in luxury. Their goal of returning home, and an adherence to their native language and culture, distanced the Chinese from other immigrants who came as permanent residents, and provided a rhetorical weapon used to exclude them from other rights and privileges.

In 1871, 20 Chinese immigrants were killed in a single riot in Los Angeles. In 1885, 28 were killed in a riot in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Soon, Americans of European descent viewed the Chinese as competing for the California gold. Hostility grew. The state began imposing a "foreign miner's tax" of more than $20 a month to Chinese workers. Mining camps posted notices threatening the Chinese with beatings and death unless they abandoned their claims. A popular miner's song of the day summarizes the naked racism of the Gold Rush:

"John Chinaman, John Chinaman, but five short years ago,
I welcomed you from Canton,
and I wish I hadn't so.
I imagined that the truth, John,
you'd speak while under oath.
But I find you lie and steal and cheat.
Yes, John, you're up to boat.


I thought of rats and puppies, John,
you'd eaten your last fill;
But on such slimy pot pies
I'm told you dinner still.
Yes, John, I've been deceived by you,
and all your thieving clan,
for our gold is all your after, John,
to get it as you can."

Chinese immigrants found themselves forced into low-paying service trades. In California, with its incredibly small population of females, Chinese immigrants took jobs considered to be "women's work," such as doing laundry, cooking, and working as servants. In the clearly defined sex roles of the mid-19th century, Chinese men were seen as an weaklings, failures, and aberrations.

In 1865, the slowly progressing Central Pacific Railroad decided to employ Chinese workers to assist in the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Crew chiefs assigned Chinese workers to the most dangerous tasks, including boring tunnels and blasting mountainsides, and paid them lower wages than other workers. To the surprise and delight of railroad executives, the Chinese proved themselves to be remarkably good laborers. One journalist commented, "They do not drink or fight or strike and it is always said of them that they are very cleanly in their habits. It is the custom among them, after they have had their suppers every evening, to bathe with the help of small tubs. I doubt if the white laborers do as much."

At the height of construction, more than 90 percent of the Central Pacific's workforce -- over 12,000 workers -- were Chinese. When the railroad was completed, and stood as one of the greatest engineering feats of its time, almost none of the Chinese workers were invited to participate in the opening ceremonies. Yet, for every new railroad built in the West, including the Northern Pacific, companies recruited and utilized Chinese workers.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Chinese immigration increased as labor contractors brought workers to the United States for specific projects, the most common being railroad building. These immigrants often bought their tickets on credit, and agreed to a sort of indentured servitude, where they had to work to pay off their debts. Railroad work appealed to merchant creditors by providing their indentured immigrants steady, guaranteed employment. By placing Chinese immigrants in railroad jobs, creditors received a constant return on their investments. Historian Gunther Barth noted that this arrangement "furnished the mass of [Chinese] sojourners with compensation high enough to perpetuate their dreams of success, yet small enough to secure continuing dependence."

Anti-Chinese sentiment continued to grow throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The Panic of 1873 stirred discontent among the working classes, and the Chinese, who worked for low wages and refused to unionize with non-Chinese workers, became perfect scapegoats for the slumping economy. Enraged workers killed Chinese immigrants in riots across the West. State legislatures in Oregon and California opposed the 15th Amendment, which gave African-Americans the right to vote, because they feared it would also protect the Chinese. Boycotts and threats forced Chinese business owners to abandon their shops. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which gave Chinese immigrants permanent alien status, and barred them from becoming American citizens. Immigration from China ceased, and immigrants already in the United States had to prove their worth to prevent deportation.

And what of the railroads, which the Chinese worked so laboriously to complete? While they certainly linked the West to the more civilized parts of the country, increased migration, and stimulated business, they did not necessarily prove to be the saviors settlers expected. The bumper crops promised in Jay Cooke's "Banana Belt" never materialized, land sales decreased, and in 1893, the company that built the Northern Pacific declared bankruptcy. Though later reorganized, the Northern Pacific -- and many other railroads -- faced the same cycles of boom and bust confronted by all those who attempted to conquer the West.

Works Consulted

MONTANA IN OUR OWN WORDS. Compiled by the Western Heritage Center and Anneke-Jan Boden. Western Heritage Center, Billings, Montana.

Lamar, Howard, ed. THE READER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN WEST. New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1977.

Malone, Michael P., and Roeder, Richard, eds. THE MONTANA PAST: AN ANTHOLOGY. Missoula: University of Montana Press.

Morgan, Ted. A SHOVEL OF STARS: THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN WEST, 1800-Present. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

McNeil, Keith and Rusty. MOVING WEST SONGS. Riverside, California: WEM Records, 1989.

NOT IN PRECIOUS METALS ALONE: A MANUSCRIPT HISTORY OF MONTANA. Compiled and edited by the Staff of the Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana.

Phillips, John A. III. THE NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD, FIRST OF THE NORTHERN TRANSCONTINENTALS: AN OVERVIEW AND CHRONOLOGY. http://www.employees.org/~davison/nprha/first.html.

Ward, Geoffrey C. The West: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.



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