Reconstruction Of Chinese History In Wyoming: A Work-In-Progress

Nov 6, 2020

The wind roars at an archaeological dig outside the 200 person town of Fort Bridger in the southwestern corner of the state. The historic site is remembered as a supply shop and a military outpost. It was also the first place where Chinese immigrants were recorded in Wyoming back in 1857.

"The evidence of the Chinese at this locality were a few ceramics, Chinese coins, the census records," said Dudley Gardner, a historian and archeologist. He's been leading a dig here for nearly 40 years. The excavation is a big rectangle about the size of a small gas station.

Gardner explained this site provides understanding to a history that is otherwise difficult to track. He's learned the first Chinese immigrants in the state used this spot as a trading post and did laundry here, along with what kind of food was raised here.

"It's the seed for the Chinese communities that evolve in southwestern Wyoming that are fairly robust and long-lived," he said. One that expanded across most of southern Wyoming, and then quickly dropped off.

The Fort Bridger dig site where over 100,000 artifacts have been collected. It's the first site where Chinese immigrants were noted in Wyoming.
Credit Cooper McKim

If you're unfamiliar with this history, you're not alone. Gardner explained it's because the history has been largely erased. There's no comprehensive account of Chinese heritage, history, or contributions in Wyoming despite being a significant portion of the local population in the late 19th century. Primary sources seemed to have disappeared. Scholarship is spotty. Today, multiple Chinatowns in Wyoming remain underground.

But many do know of the Rock Springs massacre where white miners killed about 28 Chinese individuals, but the full history there is in doubt too. No accounts were taken from Chinese witnesses, according to the Rock Springs museum. No white miners were ever prosecuted. It's possible hundreds of Chinese miners were injured as well.

Nationwide Persecution

This erasure is not unique to Wyoming. "They are erased from American history," said William Wei, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of modern Chinese History, "because of the way we construct our master narrative, that is to say, how we understand ourselves, and how we understand ourselves is, essentially, as a white nation."

The work being erased occurred primarily in the mid-1800s when Chinese immigrants arrived in the states seeking economic opportunity.

The railroad company, Union Pacific, brought in men from China to work on the transcontinental railroad, including to southwest Wyoming. At one point, Rock Springs had a majority Chinese population.

"It's difficult to believe today that there were Chinatowns all over the American West. As many as over 200 of them. And yet they were driven out of those. Often, they were burned out, violently driven out," said Wei.

He said law at every level effectively condemned Chinese immigrants making it difficult for them to establish a life in the U.S. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, they weren't allowed to become citizens. Several factors also made it nearly impossible to bring wives or families to the U.S.

While Rock Springs was known as home to 56 nationalities in the mid-1800s, Chinese residents were forced to segregate. By the 1920s, those who lasted in Wyoming had an incentive to leave, they were promised a retirement stipend if they returned to China.

With all that in mind, Chinese populations went down in Wyoming and little history was preserved. Most recent numbers find Wyoming's population is just 0.2 percent Chinese. But if things had gone differently, Wei said certainly, Wyoming and the region could look different today.

"If they hadn't begun excluding Chinese, from the west, the numbers would have grown. They would have been able to establish families," he said.

When a place has a racist past, Wei said that understandably makes it less welcoming to those persecuted, even generations later. But Wei said there are many strategies to repair that broken relationship: a community can apologize. It can also lift up its past.

Lifting Up The Past

Grace and Ricky Leo are supporters of that idea. They grew up in Rock Springs - and now live in California. Ricky's dad came to Wyoming in 1938 and served in World War II which is how he got his citizenship. Grace arrived in the 1970s from Hong Kong.

Growing up in Rock Springs, Ricky and Grace said they never learned about the massacre in school or anything else on Chinese history there.

The memorial in Rock Springs remembering the 28 Chinese miners murdered by their white counterparts in the massacre of 1885
Credit Cooper McKim

"I knew nothing about anything about Chinatown. Chinese history of Wyoming really wasn't taught that much," said Ricky.

Now, he wishes there was more acknowledgment of that history and isn't sure if the memorial for the massacre is enough. That memorial is a tan stone that sits about six feet high in town with a plaque listing the names those killed. Grace agreed.

"It's almost forgotten. It's kind of like a little tiny stone," she said.

From the Leo's perspective, there is work to be done.

"Because they did make major contributions to Wyoming as railroad walkers, as coal mine workers," Ricky said. "Restaurant workers," Grace added. "I mean, it's good to learn our history so that we don't forget about the lessons of the past," Ricky said.

Pushback

The daily bells ring inside the Rock Springs Historical Museum. Upstairs, there's a section remembering Chinese history and the massacre. Jennifer Messer, museum coordinator, said there have been artifacts and photography related to this history shown for decades, "but I don't know that it was all presented as anything more than the Chinese also lived here in this community."

In fact, telling a more complete story hasn't been an easy task. The massacre wasn't included in the local school curriculum until the year 2000, Messer said. It wasn't until 2016 that the memorial was placed in town. She said, initially, the idea for that memorial wasn't welcome.

"I think there was a vocal group of people that didn't want to celebrate this, didn't want to make it a big deal. 'Can't you keep something very small inside the museum and it not be a big monument someplace that we make a big to-do over," she said.

On the other hand, Messer said Chinese tourists have been happy to see the history on display and the museum has seen increased visitor-ship to the town's historic sites in the past few years. And Messer said the museum board is at the point where they want to put more of this history at the forefront.

"I've always felt really strongly that this is our actual history, and you show it in all of its naked glory," she said.

Progress

Many agree. Individuals have taken up the cause in order to more accurately tell Wyoming's history. From students, to Chinese historians, to historian Dudley Gardner himself. In addition to this dig site, he's working to uncover two buried Chinatowns in other parts of the region. And now, he's working to finish a more comprehensive account of Chinese history in Wyoming.

A Rock Springs Coal sign at the railroad.
Credit Cooper McKim

"What happened to it? Was this a purposeful disappearing of this thing? Was this a killing of this into the ground so we have no memory of it?" asked Gardner. "And that I want to know and it's not to besmirch, or to make people feel bad about their heritage or history themselves. It's to know why. And so that we can correct that in the future and not necessarily make those same mistakes over and over again."

With all of these efforts, the hope is to begin and tell a more accurate history of how Wyoming came to be what it is today.

CORRECTION: A previous iteration of the story stated it's possible hundreds of Chinese miners were possibly killed. While some historians have posited that, more recently discovered primary sources show hundreds of miners were likely injured, not killed.