ROCK SPRINGS – The workers crossed thousands of miles to find opportunities in a new country. They were rewarded with hard jobs that required them to pull coal from the surrounding rock. Their neighbors were nearly as unforgiving, as the foreign workers faced persecution and discrimination, isolating them in their own part of town.
While tensions simmered for years, the status quo blew up in a single day. A fight in the mine led to fights in the streets, and armed mobs drove out those deemed unwelcome and inhuman. Bodies and burning buildings were left in their wake. Men, women, and children fled in all directions, though not all of them found safety.
Only the intervention of a governor and the U.S. military allowed the immigrants to return. Federal troops remained garrisoned there for years, but the immigrants were there to stay. They built homes and families on the edge of the frontier and weren’t going to abandon them.
The riots and deadly attacks that became known as the Chinese massacre took place 134 years ago on Sept. 2, 1885. Wyoming was a little less than two years away from going from a territory to a state. Law and order was also slow in arriving, and no one was prosecuted for the murder of at least 28 Chinese people and $150,000 in property damage.
Rock Springs has changed in the intervening years. Today it prides itself as being the “home of 56 nationalities.” The city hosts International Day in the summer, and Western Wyoming Community College offer an International Night, both to celebrate the cultures and people that have come together in southwest Wyoming.
A stone was erected at the corner of Bridger and Pilot Butte avenues, at the edge of the former Chinatown. It serves as a reminder of an ugly chapter that should not be forgotten.
ORIGINS AND ONSLAUGHT
Multiple triggers combined to set off the riots. Following strikes in 1871 and 1875, immigrants were brought in to replace striking workers who were fired for their protests. This changed the demographics of the town. When the Rock Springs mines reopened in 1875, there were about 150 Chinese workers and only 50 whites. Some were probably Scandinavian miners who were brought in after the 1871 strike. By the year of the massacre, there were nearly 600 Chinese and 300 white workers laboring in the mines.
Statewide, there were protests, threats and violence against Chinese workers, such as beatings in Cheyenne, Laramie and Rawlins. Anti-immigrant groups, like the Knights of Labor, formed and attracted an increasing number of members.
It did not help when Chinese laborers refused to join unions in a strike for higher pay and better benefits. This kept wages down and exacerbated existing resentment. Mine workers only had the Union Pacific company store to rely upon for food, clothes and tools; and the company used its monopoly to generate even higher profits.
There was a dispute over who could work in certain rooms in the mine on Sept. 2, 1885. The conflict was probably complicated by the fact that though they worked side by side, the groups didn’t share a common tongue or neighborhood.
A foreman intervened and sent workers home, but not before a Chinese worker was fatally struck with a pick and a co-worker badly beaten. This did not stop the unrest, as white miners and other residents began to gather by the dozens in armed groups.
According to an account presented to the Chinese consul in New York, two gangs formed and descended on Chinatown from multiple directions. They began shooting buildings, though the Chinese did not immediately flee. However, as word of the deaths began to spread, so did panic. Chinese immigrants fled in multiple directions, often pursued by gangs. Some who were caught were only robbed of their valuables. Some lost their lives.
As the Chinese residents scattered, their homes were looted. Since many bought a month’s worth of provisions on Sept. 1, their losses were greater than if they had been burglarized later. Later Chinatown was put to the torch, sometimes with the residents trapped within by flame and gunfire.
Most of the survivors fled along the railroad tracks, seeking refuge to the east or west.
Most accounts list 28 killed, 15 wounded and all 79 structures in Chinatown, a mixture of houses and shacks, burned. Nevertheless, some historians argue the death count will never be fully known because record keeping was poor, and those who fled north or south may have died and not been counted among the final tally.
The condition of the bodies also complicated the accounting. Partial remains were retrieved from the burned ruins. In other cases, mangled and decomposed corpses were left to the “dogs and the hogs.”
Territorial Gov. Francis E. Warren arranged for soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment to mobilize and establish Camp Pilot Butte between Chinatown and downtown Rock Springs. They remained for the next 13 years.
The Chinese immigrants returned – some with confidence and some with fear. By Nov. 30, 1885, 532 Chinese and 85 white miners were producing about 1,600 tons of coal per day.
The Rock Springs Independent newspaper wrote a front page editorial upon “the return” of the immigrants. It noted that 22 train cars carrying “650 of the hated Chinese” disembarked at Rock Springs. The immigrants searched the ruins of their houses and retrieved what items they could before taking shelter in the train cars that were left near the soldiers’ camp.
The article concluded: “The action of the company in bringing back the Chinese means that they are to be set to work in the mines, and that American soldiers are to prevent them from again being driven out.
“It means that all the white miners in Rock Springs, except those absolutely required, are to be replaced by Chinese labor.
“It means that the company intend to make a ‘Chinatown’ out of Rock Springs, as they proposed ‘to the Almy miners last Monday.
“It means that Rock Springs is killed, as far as white men are concerned, if such program is carried out.”
The author of the piece turned out to be wrong. As with most places, residents ultimately found more shared experiences than differences to keep them apart. Chinese traditions found their place in the community, such as the annual Chinese New Year celebrations.
Rock Springs is not known as “Whitemen’s Town” or “Chinatown,” as the opposing sides called each other. Today, both call it “home.”