Language, culture and appearance all separated Chinese immigrants from their neighbors in 19th-century America. For many Whites, these differences were cause enough for suspicion. But when the Chinese demonstrated their willingness to work for lower wages than their white counterparts, fear and distrust erupted into violence. The Chinese became victims not only of armed attacks, but also of some of the most severe anti-immigration laws ever passed in this country.
To thousands of Chinese men in the 1850s, the prospect of striking it rich on “Gold Mountain” was worth the considerable risk of getting there. Many who journeyed to California during the Gold Rush left wives and children behind at a time of great uncertainty: A rebellion and a massive flood in Canton Province had recently killed thousands and devastated the economy.
Another hardship of emigrating was forsaking the graves of the ancestors. Other family members could continue to visit the cemeteries, but the spirits might still get angry at anyone who crossed the sea. And then there was the law to worry about: The penalty for leaving China was decapitation.
For a few Chinese prospectors, the California gold fields were a dream come true. Most, however, became laborers for large mining companies. Many remained after the boom to seek their fortunes in the towns and cities, where cooking, laundering and other service jobs paid 10 times the typical wage in China.
In 1862, a call went out for workers to build the western portion of a transcontinental railroad. Suppression of the Shoshone tribe in Wyoming Territory had removed the last serious obstacle to the government’s right of way. As it turned out, not enough Whites or free Blacks applied to get the job done. Few Native Americans were interested, and a plan to use Confederate prisoners fell through when the Civil War ended.
Charles Crocker, chief contractor for the Central Pacific Railroad, had a Chinese manservant whose loyalty and capability he greatly admired. At Crocker’s suggestion, the company hired 50 Chinese workers in California in 1865. The result was so favorable that Central Pacific began recruiting not only in the Western states but also in China.
By the peak period of construction three years later, the Chinese work force on the railroad numbered 12,000. The task of laying track across the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains was achieved by Chinese labor. Their jobs were difficult and dangerous. Winter storms, rock slides and accidents involving explosives cost 1,200 Chinese lives.
Completion of the project in 1869 sent the Chinese back into the cities. At a time of high unemployment, white workers resented foreign competition for scarce jobs. An anti-Chinese campaign, fueled by the newly emerging labor movement, spread rapidly throughout the West.
State and local governments introduced special taxes and regulations designed to harass the Chinese community. A California law prohibited Chinese from testifying against Whites in court. Citizens for San Francisco held a rally in 1870 to protest Chinese immigration, and a mob in Los Angeles the following year murdered 23 Chinese people. The Panic of 1873, which closed many businesses and factories nationwide, heightened racial tensions even further. Nevertheless, visions of wealth lured record numbers of Chinese to America during this period.
It was this teeming labor market that Union Pacific Railroad tapped when some of its white workers threatened to close the company’s coal mines. Union Pacific had built the eastern portion of the new railroad—from Omaha, Neb., to Promontory, Utah—and in the process had acquired extensive government land grants in mineral-rich Wyoming. By mining the coal deposits on its property, the railroad could meet its own fuel requirements and turn a handsome profit on the surplus coal.
In the snowy autumn of 1875, coal miners for the company at Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, began planning a strike to protest a 20 percent pay cut. Railroad officials knew that one timely strike could stop a hundred locomotives on their tracks, so they contrived a threat of their own: If the plan went ahead, the mostly English and Irish strikers would be fired and replaced with Chinese laborers. When the strike occurred as scheduled, a train brought in 150 fresh recruits from Sacramento’s Chinatown.
The arrival of the strikebreakers went peacefully, perhaps because two companies of U.S. Army troops had been assigned to Rock Springs a few days earlier after somebody shot at a mine boss. In a single day, railroad carpenters threw together a cluster of cabins that quickly became known as “Hong Kong.” The new residents later used scrap lumber, packing crates and smashed tin cans to expand their company quarters.
Under federal guard, the Chinese laborers descended into the mines. Union Pacific dismissed 99 white miners who took part in the strike. Fifty Whites remained on the payroll, outnumbered 3-to-1 by the Chinese. By mid-winter, the Rock Springs mines were again operating at their former capacity. Strikers who offered to resume work at the lower wage were handed one-way rail passes east to Omaha. The company’s intentions were clear: It would tolerate no risk of future work stoppages.
Union Pacific, like many employers across the West, openly favored Chinese workers over Whites because the Chinese refused to join unions. By the standards of their home country, the Chinese found American wages more than generous. In fact, most of the Chinese who came to America in the mid-19th century never intended to stay: After working and saving for [a] few years, they would return home wealthy by the standards of their country. Because of these intentions, they were considered “sojourners” rather than immigrants.
While the anti-Chinese movement gained momentum in the cities, white workers in remote Rock Springs kept their hostility to themselves. The two racial segments of the community, in fact, kept almost everything to themselves. To the Whites, the Chinese were merely alien pawns in the company’s game. The sojourners, on the other hand, had little interest in the permanent residents of their “temporary” home.
Like its urban counterparts, the makeshift Chinatown, or “Hong Kong,” of Rock Springs was an island of Chinese culture where resident could trade and worship and practice medicine in their native style. Most of the food they ate came from Asia by way of San Francisco. For some members of the community, the imported culture even included opium smoking. Membership in social groups called clans actively linked individuals with family and friends in other American cities and back home in China.
Whites both encouraged Chinese separatism and resented it. On the [one] hand, the Chinese were visibly and culturally more “different” from the European majority than the Scots and the Germans and the Italians were from each other. On the other hand, the bustling prosperity of the typical Chinatown struck onlookers as unfair and even dangerous. By 1882, national sentiment against the Chinese ran so high that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting further immigration.
Strict, voluntary segregation of the races at Rock Springs served Union Pacific’s goal of keeping out organized labor. The company, by law, couldn’t exclude white workers altogether, but it could give preferential treatment to the Chinese. All workers received the same pay for every bushel of coal they dug, but Whites were typically assigned to the spots that were most difficult to dig.
In the summer of 1884, a new union from the East called the Knights of Labor began organizing railroad workers in the Rockies. Union fever soon spread to the mines—except for those at Rock Springs. Union Pacific miners elsewhere staged a strike in October 1884, their first in nine years. Among their demands was the dismissal of the Rock Springs Chinese. White miners at Rock Springs showed support for the union by setting fire to a machine shop and demolishing a ventilation fan. It was rumored that some of them had secretly joined the railroad workers’ union.
The vandalism marked the first time violence had erupted in Rock Springs over the Chinese issue. In three months, the strike ended with the company refusing to meet any of the white workers’ demands. Although it allowed the strikers to return to work, Union Pacific prohibited any further hiring of Whites. Attacks on Chinese flared around the region during that summer, and the company decided to eliminate all of its white railroad crews. The stage was set for confrontation.
It started underground, in Rock Springs Mine Number Six. On September 1,1885, two white miners and four Chinese quarreled over their assigned locations for digging. The next morning, two of the sojourners reported to work early, although it was a Chinese holiday. As they had been instructed to do, they set explosives to loosen the coal. Shortly after the blast, the two Whites appeared on the scene and complained that the Chinese had stolen their spot.
One of the Chinese began insulting one of the Whites and struck at him with a coal pick. A fight broke out, quickly attracting miners of both races. When a sojourner swung his pick into a white man’s stomach, other Whites tackled the assailant and used the pick to open his skull. The mayhem continued for half an hour before the foremen arrived.
News of the fight scuttled through the coal camp. Many Whites exited the shafts and refused to go back in. A large group collected guns, knives, axes and bats from their cabins and gathered on the train tracks near Mine Number Six. A committee of concerned citizens persuaded them to put down their weapons, but the mob moved through town shouting, “ White men, fall in!”
The bell clamored atop the Knights of Labor hall. At a special meeting, men from Number Six and other mines discussed the morning’s incident and voted to convene again at 6 p.m. The crowd adjourning to the saloons of Front Street quickly became so unruly that the proprietors cleared them out at noon. A few Chinese on their way home for lunch were surprised by angry Whites who shouted racist slogans and pelted the sojourners with coal and bricks. Further on, warning shots whistled past a few Chinese heads.
Because of the holiday, many Chinese had stayed at home. They heard reports of the trouble, but most fully expected the company to step in and protect them as it always had. Now each passing hour raised more doubts. Early in the afternoon, Chinatown leaders hoisted an emergency flag, warning everyone to remain inside.
A rumor that federal troops had been summoned agitated the white mob. More than 100 men … headed toward “Hong Kong.” Along the way, they paused at a gun shop long enough to purchase the entire inventory of bullets and shotgun shells. The army of spectators that followed close behind included women and children.
Two bridges over Bitter Creek connected “Hong Kong” with Rock Springs. Three men crossed the first bridge to give the Chinese a warning: Be out of town in an hour. The sojourners could see the mob now in the distance, but they still expected the company to intercede. Among the Whites, the empty streets provoked a new rumor—that the Chinese were armed and prepared to defend their houses.
The crowd lost patience before the hour was up. In two groups, they crossed the creek and sealed off the bridges. One group marched up the hill and opened fire on a pump house and coal shed where some sojourners were hiding. Lo Sun Chi ran out of the pump house and took a bullet in his back. Liu Tieh Pa made a fatal dash toward the railroad bridge. A third man, Liu Chiu Pu, fell dead from a shot through the neck. On the opposite creek bank, the onlookers were cheering.
The mob reassembled at the edge of Chinatown proper and hastily mapped out its attack. Squads of eight or 10 dispersed into the maze-like streets and passageways. The rioters smashed windows, rammed doors and herded the frightened residents into the streets, showing little mercy for women or children. The safest route of escape was southeast across the creek toward Burning Mountain. Many of the Chinese were barefoot. Most fled with no more possessions than the thin cotton work suits on their backs. The rioters stole any visible jewelry or other valuables and beat, shot or released the owners as they saw fit.
Several women participated in the violence. A Mrs. Osborn, who ran a laundry, shot two sojourners and later picked through stacks of shirts and pants in the shop of a dead Chinese laundryman. On the street, another woman carrying a baby punched a Chinese man in the face.
Dr. Edward Murray, a local physician, charged to and fro on horseback, shouting, “Shoot them down!” After the first wave of the assault concluded, it was Murray’s idea to go back and set fire to what was left. This included the bodies of the dead, and [a] few more Chinese scrambled out of hiding, their heads wrapped in blankets to protect them from the smoke. Here and there, kegs of gunpowder used for blasting coal exploded inside the cabins. Each time this happened, the white spectators let loose a roar.
Around a bend in the creek, 600 sojourners huddled on a hillside in the cold and watched their homes burn. The foul black cloud that settled over the valley brought an early dusk. As the first fires died, rioters stirred the rubble, looking for stashes of gold. One group returned to Rock Springs and went to the houses of the three officials responsible for hiring the Chinese. One was out of town already, and the other two left on the next train. By now, the county sheriff had made it in from Green River, but his efforts to gather a posse failed.
The Chinese miners who returned to Rock Springs lived in boxcars until new quarters could be provided.
In the days that followed, trains thundered through Rock Springs without stopping. Newspapers around the country carried accounts of the massacre that killed 25 Chinese miners. Reports estimated that more than that number perished afterward from the cold. One family driven into the surrounding scrubland that night got lost. The baby died of exposure in just a few hours. The mother fell ill and died the next day. The father watched the wolves circling as long as he could stand it and then took his own life with his pistol.
Of the more than 100 people who openly participated in the violence at Rock Springs, 16 were arrested. A grand jury called to investigate the massacre returned no indictments. Some Chinese returned to the mines, but Union Pacific reversed its hiring practices and gradually replaced the Chinese with Whites.