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Chinese Americans and the Gold Rush

This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. 

Chinese hose teams in Deadwood, South Dakota

Champion Chinese Hose Team of America 1888 who Hub-and-Hub race

Champion Chinese Hose Team of America, who won the great Hub-and-Hub race at Deadwood, Dak., July 4th, 1888.
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Hub-and-Hub race at Deadwood

The great Hub-and-Hub race at Deadwood, Dak., July 4, 1888, between the only two Chinese hose teams in the United States.
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While browsing the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, I came across two wonderful photos of Chinese “hose teams.” To commemorate July 4, the teams were competing in a fire hose tournament, also known as a “hub-and-hub” race. The teams raced 300 yards and competed for a $500 prize, a small fortune that would be worth around $13,680 today. As wonderful as these photos are, they also raised one important question: Why were Chinese immigrants in Deadwood, South Dakota, of all places, a town populated with colorful figures including, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny, Seth Bullock, and Al Swearengen?

The answer?

Founded in 1876 after settlers discovered gold deposits, Deadwood became an important, albeit small, town during the gold rush era.

harpers weekly cover drawing of chinese immigrants 1877

Chinese immigrants at the San Francisco custom-house / P. Frenzeny. Harper’s Weekly, February 3, 1877, p. 81.
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The gold frenzy had people from all backgrounds, including whites, African Americans—both freed and enslaved—as well as Latin American and Chinese men seeking to make their fortunes. In 1849, Chinese began immigrating to the United States in order to become gold miners in various western states, including California and North and South Dakota.

Chinese immigrants and the Gold Rush

In the beginning, Chinese miners worked for themselves or labored for other miners. Due to an increase in Chinese immigrants, anti-immigrant feeling permeated mining camps and in 1850, the California legislature passed a Foreign Miners License Law, which charged all non-U.S. citizens $20 per month. The law was repealed the following year, but due to these exorbitant fees, Chinese miners left and created America’s first “Chinatown” in San Francisco. At the peak of gold rush immigration in 1852, 20,000 Chinese immigrated to California, out of a total of 67,000 people, thus, Chinese immigrants accounted for nearly 30% of all immigrants. In response to the influx of Chinese immigrants, the California legislature passed a new foreign miners’ tax of $4 per month.

Although many Chinese settled in California, a small number also settled in other western towns, including Deadwood, South Dakota, where they engaged in a variety of businesses.

Chinese in Deadwood, South Dakota

“Wing Tsue came to the Black Hills with the earliest of gold hunters… In 1876, locating where the city of Deadwood now stands, opening up a business… He had many associates among the whites of the Hills, and with them engaged in numerous mining enterprises, and at the time of his death was interested heavily in mining ground here, and real estate.” – The Madison Daily Lender

Mining life in California Chinese miners from harpers weekly

Mining life in California–Chinese miners. Harper’s Weekly Oct. 3, 1857, p. 632.
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On October 26, 1921, a newspaper reported the death of Lee Wong, also known as “Wing Tsue.”

As described by R. Fosha and C Leatherman in their article, “The Chinese Experience in Deadwood, South Dakota,” in Historical Archaeology, (v. 42 no. 3 2008, 97-110),  during the height of the Gold Rush, Lee Wong and Hi Kee were two of the most prominent Chinese business owners in Deadwood with their mercantile businesses. As a matter of fact, Lee Wong and Hi Kee sponsored the annual fire hose race that took place during the Fourth of July celebrations.

For Chinese immigrating to the West, the Gold Rush presented a variety of jobs beyond mining for gold. One of the most popular jobs was being a laundry man, as demonstrated in the Dakota Territory 1885 Census Index, in which all of the 23 men recorded with a nativity of China stated that their occupation was either “laundryman,” “laundry,” or “laundry man.” Furthermore, rumor has it that “the laundrymen recovered snippets of gold dust left in the miners’ dirty garments and wash water.”  Other occupations included opening restaurants, gaming halls, opium houses, pharmacies, shoe repair, retail, and dry goods.

In their various occupations, Chinese men had the opportunity to interact with both African Americans and Caucasians in the town of Deadwood. However, despite these exchanges, anti-Chinese sentiment reached an all-time new high in 1854, setting a precedent of anti-foreigner sentiment that eventually culminated in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Wells Fargo Express Co. Deadwood Treasure Wagon from the Great Homestake Mine in Deadwood

Wells Fargo Express Co. Deadwood Treasure Wagon and Guards with $250,000 gold bullion from the Great Homestake Mine, Deadwood, S.D., 1890. John C. H. Grabill, photographer
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People v. Hall

In the 1854 case People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court made a decision regarding the ability of Chinese “and all other people not white” to testify in court. They stated:

“Section 14 of the Criminal Act provides, ‘No Black, or Mulatto person, or Indian shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a White man.’

Held, that the words, Indian, Negro, Black and White, are generic terms, designating race. That, therefore, Chinese and all other people not white, are included in the prohibition from being witnesses against Whites…”

This case regarded an incident in which three white men had murdered a Chinese man. Since the testimony of Chinese witnesses had originally convicted the three white men, they were allowed to walk free due to the ruling in People v. Hall. In cases moving forward, “The reversal made it impossible to prosecute violence against Chinese immigrants.”

editorial cartoon of the anti-Chinese wall

The anti-Chinese wall / Friedrich Graetz, 1882
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The Chinese Massacre of 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act

As the excitement of “gold fever” faded, Chinese men “worked as agricultural laborers, on railroad construction crews throughout the West, and in low-paying industrial jobs.” Most European Americans and other immigrants shied away from these jobs, but in the 1870s, these groups began experiencing financial difficulties. As a result, they began competing with Chinese laborers for these jobs. Yet again, anti-Chinese sentiment simmered and reached its boiling point with The Chinese Massacre of 1871, in which eighteen Chinese men were lynched and killed by a mob of over five hundred in Los Angeles.

In 1882, twenty-eight years after the People v. Hall case, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. Only in 1943, nearly six decades later, did the federal government repeal the act with the Magnuson Act or Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943.

“The fate of each minority depends upon the extent of justice given to all other groups.”

– Ina Sugihara, a leading Nisei activist in the 1940s

I can think of no better quote with which to conclude this blog, as the next post in this series will regard African Americans during the Gold Rush.

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One Comment

  1. Rudolph Laws
    July 11, 2021 at 4:25 pm

    Can you identify speaking and listening communication issues that may arise due to bias or stereotyping related to the history of Chinese Immigrants to the United States?

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