- Butte's Far
- by George Everett
- Hum Wah Long,
from Canton, China to Butte,
Montana in the late 1800's.
- In most minds,
Montana's settlement is set to the anthem of Manifest Destiny,
the rhythm of women and children walking in the dust behind wagons
on the Bozeman and Corrine Trails. These hardy pilgrims risked
all to move westward from places like Iowa, Pennsylvania and
Ohio in the Far East (as it was then known) with everything they
owned in a wagon the size of a compact car.
A less familiar image is of the settlers who came from what is
still known as the Far East -- from China. Between 1850 and 1900,
about 250,000 Chinese came to America and thousands ended up
in Montana Territory. In the 1870 census, in Montana Territory,
out of nearly 20,000 persons tallied in 1870, 1,949 were Chinese,
nearly 10 percent of the population. By 1880, Missoula County
listed 149 Chinese residents, Deer Lodge County, which then included
Butte, counted 710, Madison County had 265, and Helena counted
They came to dig for gold and to help build the railroads. Yet,
when the gold booms went bust and the railroads were done, many
Chinese chose to stay. They chose small businesses that didn't
require a lot of capital and often didn't require them to rely
on an employer for their income. Some became tailors, ranch cooks,
gardeners, woodcutters, vegetable growers, and herbal doctors.
Others opened laundries and restaurants.
Most of the Chinese who came to Montana (and America) came from
the southern province called Kwangtung. They paid about $50 for
a month-long ride on a ship across the Pacific Ocean. Their destination
was a place they knew as Gum San (Gold Mountain) where, they
were told, gold nuggets as big as oranges could be plucked from
river sands. These stories were given weight by gold carried
home by those who had gone before or the money sent back by relatives
still working in America.
While gold was the pull, the push was supplied by the chaos of
late 19th century that caused China's population to plummet by
almost 60 million souls by the turn of the century.
While almost one million Americans died during our Civil War,
more than 20 million Chinese died during the Taiping Rebellion
led by a messianic fellow named Hong Xiuquan who fancied himself
the elder brother of Jesus Christ.
Other settlers considered Chinese to be exotic and inscrutable
heathens. They dressed and talked strangely, and wore their hair
in long braids like women or Indians.
Few could imagine that they were required to wear their hair
this way in China as a sign of loyalty and, if they refused,
the penalty was death. Few "Christian" settlers realized
that among the "heathen Chinese," was a large number
of devout Christians who had been converted by missionaries before
was strange to men who ate a "heart-healthy" fare of
meat mixed with flour, beans or bread. One petition argued that
the Chinese should be deported because "they eat rice, fish,
and vegetables and that otherwise their diet differs from that
of the white man." Chinese railroad workers who demanded
hot tea to drink were laughed at until those who scoffed became
ill from dysentery after drinking unboiled groundwater.
Chinese were denounced for their use of opium by the same folks
who used patent medicines laced with laudanum and morphine and
drank whiskey straight to relieve physical and emotional pain.
Even Indians were not sure what to make of these strange people.
Montana pioneer Granville Stuart described an incident in California
in 1853 where Indians killed two Chinese miners because, according
to Stuart, "they thought them other kinds of Indians."
During the Nez Perce War in 1877, Nez Perce warriors retreating
south from the Battle of the Big Hole intercepted a freight wagon
train enroute to Salmon, Idaho. They killed the white teamsters,
but spared two Chinese, because their war was not with that "tribe."
Economic depression and the end of large scale labor projects
such as the railroads fed the dark whispers of anti-Chinese sentiments
that soon found louder voices to exclude the Chinese and deprive
them the rights and privileges enjoyed by every other immigrant
The railroads that the Chinese helped build brought more women
to cook and wash clothes, services previously provided by Chinese.
Many settlers fleeing the ashes of the Confederacy brought along
their ideas about the subservient role of non-whites and transferred
their prejudice against blacks to Chinese.
Unlike simple prejudice, however, this ignorance was validated
throughout the West by discriminatory laws that punished only
Chinese. Chinese in Montana were not allowed to become citizens,
vote, own property, or marry non-Chinese after 1909. Special
taxes were levied that only applied to Chinese who owned laundries
or worked as miners. These laws encouraged many to act on their
prejudices with impunity. The newspapers of the day abound with
reports of beatings and harassment against Chinese.
The first reported hanging in Butte was a Chinese miner hung
by Dan Haffie because the Chinaman seemed to be getting all of
the luck in the diggings on Silver Bow Creek. There is no record
of whether Haffie's luck improved after he hung his Chinese neighbor.
Federal laws from 1882 until 1943 placed the burden on the individual
to prove why they should not be deported to China and random
arrests and interrogations were frequent.
Like everyone else, the Chinese followed gold strikes to what
is now Montana and Chinatowns, offering sanctuary from discrimination
as well as a common culture, sprang up in the larger towns of
In Alder Gulch, about 500 Chinese miners built a Chinatown in
Virginia City with a two-story wooden religious temple. As the
gold boom faded there, many of the Chinese moved on to mining
camps where the diggings were still paying off. Or, they started
businesses in growing towns like Anaconda, Billings, Butte, Deer
Lodge, Dillon, and Helena.
Butte was home to Montana's largest Chinese community despite
organized efforts to evict them. By 1910, Butte, Montana thrived
as an industrial metropolis of from 60,000 to 100,000 with a
thriving Chinatown of 400 to 600 Chinese according to Montana
historian Dr. Michael Malone. That number may be low, too, based
on inaccurate census statistics that didn't reflect the true
population for a variety of reasons. According to Rose Hum Lee
in The Chinese in the United States of America,
from 1870 to 1910 the Chinese population varied from 1,265 to
2,532 inhabitants. Lee herself was born and raised in Butte's
As labor unions gained strength
in the 1880s and the 1890s, they organized boycotts to evict
Chinese businesses. In the winter of 1896-1897, union members
blocked doorways and discouraged customers from entering Chinese
restaurants and laundries.
As the boycott went on, some Chinese feared the violence that
had already erupted in riots against Chinese in Tacoma, Washington,
Denver, Colorado, and Rock Springs, Wyoming and they decided
to leave for the safety of larger Chinatowns on the west coast.
In Anaconda, violence did erupt with at least one Chinese laundry
being bombed in 1890.
Butte businessman and Chinese community leader, Hum Fay
however, a group of Butte Chinese businessmen, led by restaurant
owner Hum Fay, Dr. Huie Pock, and Quon Loy decided to fight back.
They protested to the governments of China and the United States
and then filed suit against the leaders of the boycotts. They
eventually won their case in court but they were unable to collect
damages, which they estimated to be about $500,000 dollars in
lost business, although they did receive $1,750.05 to cover their
legal fees and expenses.
Until the 1920s, Butte's Chinatown was packed with dozens of
businesses that sold Chinese and Japanese dry goods and foods,
fireworks, tea and other herbs. The buildings there housed gambling
parlors, noodle parlors, and laundries. The 1914 Butte city directory
lists 62 Chinese businesses, including four physicians who practiced
Dr. Caroline McGill, who practiced Western medicine in Butte
for most of her life during this time, became good friends with
these Chinese colleagues. Her amazing collection that served
as the nucleus for the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman contains
many gifts of clothing and porcelain that came to her from the
Physician and Surgeon,
Dr. Huie Pock
One of these
Chinese doctors, Dr. Huie Pock became wealthy through his practice
of herbal medicine, acupuncture, and surgery. Western medicine,
especially on the remote frontier, was primitive by comparison
to herbal remedies fine-tuned by thousands of years of practice
in China. He developed an effective herbal poultice using banana
stalks to treat various ailments and he shipped these through
the mail as well as using them in his local practice. During
the influenza epidemic that killed hundreds in Butte in 1918,
his herbal treatments saved many lives. When Dr. Pock died in
1927, his son, Quong Huie, squandered the money set aside to
bury his parents' remains in China. Dr. Pock and his wife were
finally buried in Butte in unmarked graves.
In fact, several Chinese rose to prominence in Butte, despite
the fact that one of the city's daily newspapers, The Butte Miner
once editorialized that "a Chinaman could no more become
an American citizen than could a coyote."
Another Chinese man, known only as Jimmy July, became a naturalized
citizen and in 1896 he spoke at the Fourth of July celebration,
reciting the Declaration of Independence before an inspired crowd.
Quon Loy came to Butte to represent the interests of Chinese
there as the representative of the Chinese Six Companies, a guild
of family associations that looked after the rights and benefits
of Chinese workers and served as a surrogate government for the
Chinese in this country. Quon Loy was an educated person who
spoke fluent English and represented Chinese immigrants in legal
and business matters. He served as an interpreter, arbitrated
conflicts between the larger community and the Chinese, arranged
bail, settled debts, and handled burials. He made sure that newcomers
had a place to stay until they settled in and found jobs.
Quon Loy was known in Butte as Louie from his name that sounded
like the Christian name Louis but actually translated as thunder.
His name meant Thunder in the Mountain Pass, well suited to his
role as the main arbiter for the Chinese community in Butte.
The larger community described him as "the unofficial mayor
of Chinatown" and he was often quoted in the newspapers
commneting on events important to the Chinese community. He was
the manager of the Quong Lung Chung Co. that stood at 16 West
Mercury across the street from where the Wah Chong Tai still
In 1943 with the China and the United States allied in World
War II against Japan, the discriminatory laws against Chinese
were repealed and most of the remaining Chinese in Montana who
had not already left from economic hardship left for defense
industry jobs on the coast or to become naturalized citizens
anywhere they chose to live. Descendants of Montana's Chinese
are now scattered across the country much like the children of
other Montana settlers.
While little remains to confirm that thousands of Asian immigrants
once worked and lived in Montana, and it is difficult to follow
these few threads back to their source, it is not impossible.
The game of Keno now played electronically throughout the region,
is a remnant of the White Dove lottery that was brought from
China and converted by two Irish brothers in Butte. You might
discover a sign board with Chinese characters in the corner of
a cabin at the recreated Chinatown in Nevada City, artifacts
on display at the Montana Historical Society museum in Helena,
porcelain plates and silk robes at the Museum of the Rockies
in Bozeman, a small museum display in Dillon, the recreated hand
laundry and herb shops in Butte at the World
Museum of Mining, or the Mai Wah Museum in what's left of
Butte's original Chinatown.
There, the non-profit Mai
Wah Society has been working to preserve the history of Asian
settlers in Butte and Montana by developing a museum to provide
guided tours and display artifacts from Butte and the surrounding
area inside two adjoining brick buildings, the Wah Chong Tai
and the Mai Wah that were built in the 1890s.
If you follow these remaining strands, they will lead you back
to a full tapestry that embellishes and enriches Montana's more
widely known history.
Chinese New Year Parade in Butte in front of the
Mai Wah Museum. The dragon leading the parade
was a gift to Montana from the people of Taiwan