During the last half of the 19th Century, millions of Chinese left their homeland in search of opportunity and prosperity around the globe. From Australia to Chile to even Montana, these pioneers joined the world labor market in various professions including miners, laundry operators, restaurateurs, gardeners, servants, and countless others.
These immigrants were searching for a better life for themselves and the families they left behind. Mostly men, these individuals sent their meager earnings to their wives, children, parents and siblings back in China. Many Chinese overseas attempted to quickly earn a fortune and return home, but most worked tirelessly for decades in the rural mine fields or urban factories. Over time those that did not return home settled in ever-growing Chinatowns along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts.
Chinese came to Montana in the early 1860s behind the major gold discoveries at Bannack and Virginia City. By 1870, Chinese pioneers accounted for 1 out of every 10 residents of Montana Territory with a population of nearly 2,000. However, with racist Federal Laws and declining job opportunities the Montana Chinese population declined, and by 1900 the Chinese accounted for only one percent of the state’s residents.
While living and working in Montana, Chinese oftentimes found opportunity on the lands now managed by the United States Forest Service. Many areas on the National Forests were once prime mining territory, and the Chinese, along with other groups, patiently worked to glean small pieces of gold from Montana’s creeks and streams. Chinese also found employment in mining boomtowns springing up on these lands to provide services to all of the area’s inhabitants.
Today, the only physical reminders of the Chinese presence on these lands are archaeological sites and artifacts. Archaeologists within Region 1 of the Forest Service, encompassing lands in Idaho and Montana, have partnered with researchers from the University of Montana to study the experience of these Chinese pioneers.
This partnership has resulted in a broader understanding of the Chinese experience on National Forest lands in Montana by locating previously unknown and undiscovered archaeological sites and by intensive excavations and research on important known Chinese sites.
This link will take readers to a broad overview of Chinese history in each National Forest in Montana. Specific sites will be loaded onto this website in the future.