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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Digging to China: Unearthing a Frontier Chinatown

by Patti Sherry-Crews

Go to any Chinatown found in cities around the world, and you get the feeling of you've been transported to the Orient without even leaving the country. I'm sure many of us have enjoyed dining and shopping in these neighborhoods with their distinctive looking, colorful buildings. But less familiar to us would be the vanished Gold Rush Chinatowns that cropped up alongside mining camps.

These places aren't as well documented as the boom-towns they grew up within, but in recent times there's been interest in these communities within a community. An archaeological dig in Deadwood, South Dakota revealed some clues of the life of the Chinese immigrants in the 19th century in this section of town, known then as Hoptown.

The Boom Town of Deadwood, S.D., 1876 (wiki-commons)

What induces a person to travel so far to a land half a world away where everything from the language to the culture would be an unknown? In this case gold was the enticement. When word of the discovery of gold reached China, it set off a steady stream of migration. Chinese, mainly from the Guangdong Province, an area hit by the Opium Wars with Britain, revolution, famine, and crop failure, headed to America--note these immigrants would primarily be men venturing out alone, leaving their families behind.

Unfortunately, making a fortune in the gold mines didn't always go as planned. Coming into competition with white miners, the Chinese soon found themselves given limited mining rights or restricted to mines that were thought to be depleted. In the face of that, the immigrants found employment building the railroad. But once the rail-line was complete, they had to find new occupations.

They sought out ways that didn't compete with or threaten their white neighbors. Seeing opportunity in the mining camps, where there were few women in proportion to men, the Chinese set up businesses that catered to the miners: laundries, restaurants, housework, and restaurants for examples (water from washing miners clothes were screened for gold dust).

In the 1870's, gold was found in the Black Hills and the town of Deadwood was born. If you've ever been to Deadwood, you know it's built in a narrow gulch nestled in the mountains with little room to expand beyond its central streets. It's a crowded, bustling town, which I imagine was much the same back in its early days. It was at the south end of Main Street that the Chinese settled. We don't know how large the Chinese population was but it seemed to have ranged from over 200 to up to 500 residents.

If you're a fan of the series Deadwood (and I am), you may be familiar with Chinatown pigpens being a convenient place to dispose of bodies. Fiction. That never happened, so let's start with putting that notion to rest. Likewise, don't imagine the Chinatowns you may be familiar with the characteristic oriental features. Deadwood Chinatown seemed to have looked like the rest of the town. Nothing of it remains today. Buildings and people are all gone.

In 2001 a team of archaeologists from the South Dakota State Archaeological Research Center began a four year project. Using old fire insurance maps, they were able to locate the area that was once Chinatown.

Imported Porcelain and Pottery found during excavation (City of Deadwood)

A spot where a boarding house had burned down hid a treasure trove of artifacts, because the building collapsed on the contents of the house. Among the things found were gaming pieces, pottery, tableware, everyday personal hygiene aids, hair ornaments, Chinese coins, opium paraphernalia, and more.

As unpleasant as it might seem, another place archaeologists get excited digging around in are the privies. Much of the trash of the day would be thrown into them. In addition to man-made objects, animal bones and botanical refuse, such as seeds, give clues to the diet of the people who lived there. Keeping in mind they didn't have a garbage collection like we do, the privy was a popular place to dispose of garbage like bottles or objects that had lost their usefulness.

In all, after excavation over 600 boxes of artifacts were recovered and stored.

The picture painted by the findings is one of a community that exported their lifestyle almost whole from China. From the pottery to the medicine bottles to opium, all were brought to America. There was a remarkable oriental-flavored homogeneity to the items unearthed. Even the animal bones tell us the Chinese preferred pork over the beef favored by their neighbors.

Though the Chinese did coexist with the white community while holding onto their ways, cultural exchanges could not be avoided. In the artifacts found, mahjong tiles lay alongside gaming dice. American beer bottles mingled with bottles that once held traditional Chinese medicine.

What did the Chinese bring to their non-Chinese neighbors? Of the eleven restaurants in Deadwood, seven of them were Chinese establishments, who not only served frontier fare but also introduced Asian food. Immigrant Fee lee Wong opened the Wing Tsue Emporium, a large store selling imported silk, medicines, porcelain, and other goods to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. Not to be bragged about, but we can't ignore one thing the Chinese brought to Deadwood: opium. The Chinese got the westerners hooked on opium just as the British had gotten the Chinese hooked on the drug. In the early days, opium dens were legal and were treated like saloons, in that to open one all you had to do was apply for a license. Later opium would be outlawed.

Wing Tsue Emporium (image: Adams Museum, Deadwood, S.D.)

Though living cheek to jowl with the other residents of Deadwood, the Chinese maintained their own community. For obvious reasons, they weren't going to blend in the way an European immigrant could, and often being targets for discrimination and even violence, banding together was a means for security and support. Chinatown even had their own fire and police brigades. All that said, the relationship between the Chinese and general population of Deadwood seems to have been relatively harmonious when compared to some of the other settlements of the day. The residents of Deadwood enjoyed Chinese parades and holiday celebrations which might include fireworks.

"The Champion Chinese Hose Team, who won the great Hub-and-Hub race at Deadwood," 1880 (Wiki-commons)

As important and vital as the Chinese community was in the late 19th and early 20th century, it no longer exists. What happened and where did they go?

Remember, this was a wave of migration that typically didn't include women and families. Of course there was a small group of females and children in Deadwood's Chinatown as represented by women's hair ornaments and such and children's toys found in the dig, but the population was heavily weighted on the male side. The typical Chinese male immigrant was sending money back to his family in China. He may have even been under contract, and when he'd fulfilled his obligation, he left America.

To give the Chinese even less incentive to settle, the Exclusion Act in 1882, halted the flow of immigration from China, denying citizenship to even those born here. Men could not send for their families or brides. So when the gold dried up, there was little reason to stay in Deadwood. Just as the town was limited in growth by its geography, Chinese growth was limited by the society of the time. The Chinese moved on to larger communities like you'd find in San Francisco, or they went back to the East.

But while they were there, the Chinese immigrants played an important part in society.

Reconstructed Altar and Burner, Mount Moriah Cemetery (Wiki-Commons)

In the Mount Moriah Cemetery situated on a beautiful pine tree dotted hill you can see the final resting places of such iconic figures like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. You can also visit the Chinese altar and ceremonial burner. In 1908, the leaders of the Chinese community were given permission to build the altar and burner to honor their dead in their own way. In later years, decades after the last of the Chinese left, the altar and burner fell into disrepair.

Then in the early part of the 21st century, long after all other traces of the Chinese presence were gone, the city of Deadwood reconstructed the altar and burner, using bricks saved from the demolished Wing Tsue Emporium, to construct it.

To me this unimposing structure tells the tale of the Chinese in Deadwood, South Dakota: their emergence, acceptance, decline, and finally getting a place of honor in the frontier town they helped create.

In the words of Fee Lee Wong's great granddaughter, Edith Wong, who came from California for the dedication of the new altar and burner.

"The addition of this restored burner, just as the integration of the Chinese in a largely white pioneer community, signals acceptance of a different culture and a different way of life," Wong said. "What tangible evidence of the Chinese still exists in Deadwood? Really, not very much. Instead of solely an interpretive sign, this burner will be a physical reminder that the Chinese culture and traditions were definitely an integral part of Deadwood's history."


  1. A wonderful piece of rarely discussed history. Thanks. I loved it.

    1. Thank you! I'm kind of a geek about archaeology as that is what I studied in college. I've really been interested in the Boom-towns of the west. A lot going on in those places in a short time. Hard to fathom!

  2. Patti,
    I am a total archaeology geek, so that's one more thing we have in common. *hugs* It's intriguing, and amazing, what archaeologists can piece together artifacts to recreate the way people lived. There are so many boom-towns/abandoned mining towns in the Colorado Rockies that a person can go rabbit-hole diving down some pretty interesting Internet research.

    1. You and me and arche-ology! I was fortunate enough to have been on a dig in southern IL excavating a native American village site. I've become fascinated with Boom-towns (my next post will be about Boot Hills in Boom-towns). I've always had a thing for abandoned places and I'm so jealous of you all in Colorado and other places where there are ghost towns. Thanks for stopping by Kaye.

  3. When I was ten, I wanted to be either an archaeologist or a New York reporter....well, I became neither, but still love reading about digs. I had an unforgettable experience touring the Chinese underground tunnels in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. What an education that was--I never knew how cruelly the Chinese were treated during the building of the railway, especially blasting through the Rockies. Now, reading your very interesting blog, I learn that the gold rush originally lured them to leave China and seek their fortune. And it explains why "service" industries like laundry and restaurants sprang up in mining towns. Ironically, probably the Chinese businessmen ended up making more money off the miners than the miners made from their claims. Thanks for giving me an "aha" moment, Patti. I look forward to reading more of your research.

    1. Hi, Elizabeth. Always good to hear from you and want you add. You bring up a really interesting point with the tunnels and the discrimination. I was curious where the term Hoptown derived from. Well, it turns out the Chinese had to sometimes move around town underground in tunnels to avoid hostile situations. They "hopped" in and out of the tunnels, hence Hoptown.

  4. The Chinese played an inportant part in the expansion. You did a beautiful job of conveying just that.

    In larger towns, such as Denver, the Chinese dealt with prejudice and sometimes violence in those early days, yet a town like Silver Cliff, also in Colorado, could have an honored Chinese laundry man. It all makes for a history that needs to be remembered and written about. Thank you for doing so. Doris

    1. You are welcome and thank you! Yes, the archaeological remains help flesh out that population in the old west there is little documentation about by comparison. I did read there was some horrible acts of violence against the Chinese in other places and this was not so much the case in Deadwood. I always did wonder what with the story behind the Chinese laundries so it was interesting to me to see their role in boom-towns as support to the industries that drew people to these places.

  5. This was quite a well researched article, Patti. I see you really put some effort into writing it. There were quite a few things I didn't know about the Chinese and the obstacles they faced manufactured by the white population. But I love how they found ways to overcome this barrier by providing services that no one else had done. Pretty dang smart if you ask me.

    I saw the picture of some of the artifacts that have been recovered and the beautiful porcelain imports from China. I also love that, although the Chinese population separated itself from the Europeans, that they shared their fireworks and parades with them. They made themselves agreeable and necessary.
    A wonderful article, Patti!

  6. Thank you, Sarah. I can't imagine what it must have taken for the Chinese to travel so far from what they were familiar with and carve out a niche in such an alien culture. The circumstances they were fleeing from had to be dire to force such a risky move.
    I was a fan of the series Deadwood which touched on the Chinatown, but I really got interested in the subject after visiting the town itself while on vacation. I stood on the very spot where Chinatown had been (no sign of it today, except maybe a sign) and when we visited the beautiful Mount Moriah Cemetery and I saw the Chinese graves and monument alongside the graves of such characters as Wild Bill and Calamity Jane I got a sense of the odd mix that made up Deadwood back in its Boom-town days. (I have an upcoming post on Boot Hills in Boom-towns). Glad you stopped by!

  7. Hi Patti, I enjoyed this article ago:ut the little-known Chinese community that has been brought to light by recent excavation. Perhaps it should also be mentioned that there were also Chinese houses of prostitution in some of the boom towns. In larger boom towns there were separate Chinese red light districts. Of course, all prostitutes did quite a good business since wives were far away.

  8. Yes, that's true! There was mention of prostitution. That's interesting to hear there were separate Chinese red light districts in larger boom towns. The phenomenon of boom towns fascinates me the more I read about them. Thanks for stopping by!