The 1885 Chinese Massacre—Not Rock Springs’ Finest Hour: Part 2

The 1885 Chinese Massacre—Not Rock Springs’ Finest Hour: Part 2

This paper dragon was used by the Chinese to celebrate many New Year's Day parades.

The following feature is Part 2 of a two-part series on the Chinese Massacre that occurred in Rock Springs in 1885. Special thanks to Paul Murray for his research and writing, as well as Jennifer Messer and the Rock Springs Historical Museum for sharing the photos and illustrations for the piece. This article was originally published on Sept. 17, 2018. 

The riot and massacre

ROCK SPRINGS — There are many good sources of information about the white miners’ attack on their Chinese co-workers on September 2, 1885. They generally agree on the details.

One of the best sources is an unpublished Master of Arts thesis dating from 1967 by University of Wyoming student Arlen Ray Wilson.

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Wilson quotes the Rock Springs Independent’s account of the start of the riot, bearing in mind—as Wilson readily admits—that the Independent was no friend of the Chinese.

“Mr. James A. Evans, the foreman, marked off a number of rooms [inside the mines] in the entries. In No. 5 entry eight Chinamen [sic] were working, and four rooms were marked off for them. In No. 13 entry (a) Mr.Whitehouse and (a) Mr. Jenkins were working, and Evans told them they could have rooms in that entry or in No. 11 or in No. 5 entries.”

“They chose No. 5 entry and when they went to work Tuesday Dave Brookman, who was acting as pit boss in Mr. Francis’s absence, told them to take the first rooms
marked off. He supposed the Chinamen [sic] had begun work on their rooms, and that Whitehouse and Jenkins would take rooms beyond them,” Wilson wrote.

“But as the first two rooms of the entry had not been commenced, Whitehouse took one, not knowing they had been given to Chinamen,” Wilson continues. “(Whitehouse) went up town in the afternoon, and during his absence the two Chinamen came in and went to work in the room that Whitehouse had started.”

“Wednesday morning when Whitehousecame to work two Chinamen were in possession of what he considered his room,” he continued. “High words followed, then blows. The Chinese from other rooms came rushing in, as did the whites, and a fight ensued with picks, shovels, drills and temping needles for weapons.”

Through courtesy of Brigida (Brie) Blasi, former Executive Director of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, a 1985 Chinese Massacre centennial report by former museum director Henry F. Chadey describes some of the logistics of the early stages of the riot.

“In Rock Springs, Chinatown was built on the north side of town on property owned by the railroad,” the report states. “It was located in the area of the present Washington Elementary School on the Bitter Creek.”

“Several years ago the creek channel was changed to the area south of Ridge Avenue and north of Bridger Avenue. The North Side Catholic Church [Saints Cyril and Methodius], the Slovenski Dom and the Rock Springs Civic Center are some of the buildings now located in this section.”

“This was the location of the first Chinatown which was burned. Later, when the Chinese were returned, Chinatown was built in the same location,” the report continues.

“The mines in Rock Springs were named for their location in the ground and the mine which was involved in the Rock Springs incident was No. 6,” Chadey continues. “The location of this mine today is north of I-80 and west of the highway going north from Rock Springs.”

“It is west of the Outlaw Inn and north of where the Rock Springs Stage Station and spring were located…The Incident began here at Mine No. 6, which was a Union Pacific mine…”

An article which appeared in the January 1940 journal “Annals of Wyoming” described the riot and the deaths of the Chinese in graphic detail. The article was written by Paul Crane and Alfred Larson and was available courtesy of Jennifer Messer of the Rock Springs Museum.

Following the initial confrontation between whites and Chinese in Mine No. 6, “About two in the afternoon a mob of 150 whites, half of them with Winchester rifles, set out for Chinatown,” according to the article.

“As shots were fired, the Chinese fled to the hills. An eyewitness in a prepared statement described the scene:

‘The Chinamen were fleeing like a herd of hunted antelopes, making no resistance. Volley upon volley was fired after the fugitives. In a few minutes the hill east of town was literally blue with hunted Chinamen.”

“Some of the Chinese homes were fired. The rioters then went to Foremen Evans and O’Donnell and told them to leave town on the first train east, which they did,” said the eyewitness.

“In the evening the destruction of Chinatown was completed,” the Annals of Wyoming article continues. “Not all the Chinese had fled, judging by the coroner’s jury reports, which in a number of cases read that the victims ‘came to their death from exposure to fire.’”

The article goes on to state that the rioters, like the Chinese, were almost all aliens, from Wales, Cornwall, Sweden, Ireland and Scotland.

The Chinese consulate in San Francisco, in its later report on the massacre, concluded that not one of the attackers was a native-born American and only a few of the attackers had even become naturalized citizens.

That the almost medieval-like horror and barbarity of the Chinese Massacre included burning some of the victims alive is also a conclusion of Wilson’s account, in which he states, quoting the Independent: “A look around the scenes of the previous day’s (September 2nd ’s) work revealed some terrible sights Thursday morning.”

“In the smoking cellar of one Chinese house the blackened bodies of three Chinamen were seen. Three others were in the cellar of another, and four more bodies were found nearby.”

“From the position of some of the bodies it would seem as if they had begun to dig a hole in the cellar to hide themselves. But the fire overtook them when about half way in the hole, was horribly suggestive of burning flesh…”

The article goes on to state that the bodies of four Chinese who had been gunned down had also been found. Another Chinese was found shot through the hips but still alive; he did receive medical treatment.

An illustration of the 1885 Chinese Massacre appearing in Harper’s Magazine. Illustration courtesy of the Rock Springs Historical Museum.

As many as 11 different Chinese may have been burned to death, according to Chadey. Mormons were also forced out of town, but unlike the Chinese, they were not physically attacked.

Several different accounts list varying numbers of dead Chinese, from 25-28, usually the higher number.

However, the actual number of murdered Chinese may never be fully known, as the killing went on into the night and some further of the Chinese on the night of September 2 may have either been killed or simply fled for good, never to return.

Wyoming Territorial Governor Francis E. Warren had no militia at his disposal to quell further rioting and killing.

Thus, Warren telegraphed General O.O. Howard, Commander of the Department of the Platte in Omaha, for federal troops.

Warren also telegraphed Secretary of War William C. Endicott in Washington, D.C. This information came from an article entitled “Governor Francis E. Warren, The United States Army and the Chinese Massacre at Rock Springs”, written by Murray L. Carroll, and provided courtesy of Jennifer Messer of the Rock Springs Museum.

The arrival of federal troops initially was for reasons that would be almost laughable if it were not for the incident being so tragic.

Endicott’s initial response was to send two companies of federal troops to Rock Springs and environs not to prevent further violence, but rather simply to ensure that the U.S. mail and mail routes were not interfered with.

Warren, probably correctly, feared that when the rampaging miners discovered from Salt Lake newspapers or the army troops themselves from Forts Steele and Russell that they were there simply to ensure mail delivery, there would be an eruption of further violence and death.

The governor finally had to cable President Grover Cleveland directly, with a request for troops that could actually do something about stopping the violence.

According to Wilson, Warren’s telegram message read as follows: “Unlawful combinations and conspiracies exist among coal miners and others in Uinta and Sweetwater Counties, this Territory, which prevents individuals and corporations from enjoyment and protection of their property and obstruct execution of the laws.”

“Open insurrection at Rock Springs…Wyoming has no Territorial militia. I therefore earnestly request the aid of U.S. troops, not only to protect the mails and mail-routes, but that they may be instructed to support civil authorities until order is restored, criminals arrested and the sufferers relieved.”

On the morning of September 9, with new orders directly from the President, federal troops were able to assume a more active role in ensuring that no further violence would occur.

Four companies of troops were assigned to accompany and protect the Chinese returning from Evanston, whence they had fled, to Rock Springs, while the remaining two companies were to remain in Evanston to ensure no follow up violence there.

Five of the companies were from Fort Bridger and one from Camp Douglas. Union Pacific trains had picked up fleeing Chinese and transported them to Evanston for temporary safety.

Federal troops would remain in Rock Springs until 1899. Said Wilson, “Rock Springs became known throughout the nation as a symbol of Western barbarism.”

The aftermath

The aftermath Undeterred, the Union Pacific Railroad continued to employ Chinese miners along with whites, given the shortage of trained miners. One of the foremost authorities on the Chinese Massacre, retired Western Wyoming Community College History Prof. Dudley Gardner, did archeological work in 1990 where Chinatown used to be, and where the St. Cyril & Methodius parking lot now sits.

Among the items found in the archeological dig at the former Rock Springs Chinatown were bullets and shell casings.

“They began to bear arms,” Gardner said regarding the Chinese who came back.

Not that all of the Chinese actually knew what they were doing. The Union Pacific tricked some of the Chinese into coming back to Rock Springs by getting them on board a train after telling the Chinese that the train would take them to San Francisco, Gardner said.

When the Chinese arrived back in Rock Springs, “there was a little bit of grudging respect” for them, Gardner said, in that they were courageous enough to return. “There was a little bit of shame” on the part of the white miners who had taken part in the Chinese Massacre, and in the community at large.

Some of the descendants of the rioting white miners still live in Rock Springs today, and the Chinese Massacre is not a popular subject among them.

Despite protests from the Cleveland administration that most of the rioting miners were immigrants and not American citizens, the United States Government agreed to pay an indemnity to China to assist the families of the victims of the Chinese Massacre.

China modernized its consulates abroad, Gardner said, and the Chinese Government started paying greater attention to its expatriate citizens, Gardner added.

Few photos exist of the actual massacre. A full display at the Rock Springs Historical Museum shows artifacts from that era.

Gradually, attitudes toward Asian workers changed, Gardner said, and in a 1907 mine strike Japanese miners joined whites in striking for better working conditions. The Japanese mine workers were also able to join the United Mine Workers.

One change which Union Pacific did institute, Gardner explained, was to refrain from hiring too many workers from one ethnic group.

Of those arrested in connection with the murders and property destruction, there were no convictions, Gardner said.

Total property losses, most sources agree, was approximately $150,000, or several million dollars in today’s currency.

Chadey writes, “On September 20th , (1885), General A. McCook, of Fort Douglas, who had been in Rock Springs helping the Chinese consuls take testimony, wired the Adjutant General of the Department of the Platte:

‘Am fully convinced that any attempted trial and punishment by the civil authority, United States or Territorial, of the men who murdered the Chinese on 2nd of September, will prove a burlesque and farce in the name of law and justice…’” Indeed, such it turned out to be.

Further information regarding the Chinese Massacre aftermath comes from Brie Blasi at the county museum in the form of a historical synopsis, which reads in part:

“On the state level, the major political significance of the event is that Governor Francis E. Warren, acting as swiftly and strongly as he did during the Rock Springs crisis, achieved a reputation which was a benefit to his personal political career.”

“The massacre was the only example of industrial warfare in state history, and was not to be repeated since Chinese immigration was suspended by 1882.”

“The Chinese who remained to work in Rock Springs mines eventually returned to their native land or finished out their careers and lives on United States soil.”

One interesting result of the Rock Springs episode is that Fred Ames, a director of the Union Pacific Railroad Company in gratitude to Governor Warren for the strong position taken by Warren during the tumult, and thus helping to preserve Union Pacific property, used his influence to provide the city of Cheyenne with the finest railroad depot along the Union Pacific line at that time.

Eventually passions cooled and a partial reconciliation was effected.

In another selection from the county museum material it states, “The Chinese had built a Joss House (a religious building) in Evanston and in 1870 was one of three in the United States. With the return of the Chinese to Rock Springs a Joss House was built here.”

“The Chinese purchased a dragon and gongs from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1894 for use in the Rock Springs area.”

“The dragon, made of silk and paper, was used in their New Year celebrations and other festivals. When the Chinese celebrated, they invited people from Rock Springs to attend and they gave them presents and goodies, particularly the supervising staff of the mines,” the report states.

“Many homes in Rock Springs have dishes and other items which were given to them by the Chinese.”

Today, the dragon mural on the 1918 bank building in downtown Rock Springs pays tribute to the Chinese heritage of Rock Springs.

A small memorial on the green across from the Saints Cyril and Methodius parking lot honors the names of the 28 known fatalities of the Chinese Massacre.

Gone, but never, ever to be forgotten

For students and others seeking more detailed information about the prelude, the Chinese Massacre itself, and the aftermath, the following are some of the excellent sources available locally (list courtesy of Jennifer Messer of the Rock Springs Museum):

  • Rock Springs Massacre, by Dell Isham, copyright 1985 by the author
  • Incident at Bitter Creek—The Story of the Rock Springs Chinese Massacre, by Craig Storti, copyright 1991 by the Iowa State University Press
  • The Rock Springs, Wyoming Chinese Massacre, 1885, by Arlen Ray Wilson, University
    of Wyoming M.A. thesis, August 1969
  • The Traitor, by Laurence Yep, copyright 2003 by the author, Golden Mountain Chronicles
  • Chinese Massacre, by Geoff O’Gara, Video recording, 1994
  • Booms and Busts on Bitter Creek: A History of Rock Springs, Wyoming, Robert B. Rhode, 1987
  • Chinese Riot, Thomas, D.G., as to daughter Mrs. J.H. Goodnough, 1931 (Note: Mrs. Goodnough was the daughter of one of the 1885 Union Pacific officials.)
  • History of the Union Pacific Coal Mines 1868 to 1940, 1977
  • Western Wyoming Community College Vertical File Collection: Wyoming Cities: Rock Springs Chinese Massacre Folders one and two

This is the end of Part 2 in a two-part series on the Chinese Massacre of 1885. Read part 1 here.