EXCERPT: The Coming Man from Canton

The following has been excerpted from The Coming Man from Canton: Chinese Experience in Montana, 1862-1943 (Nebraska, 2017) by Christopher W. Merritt. 

From Chapter 1: Entrance and Expansion, 1962-1880

Weaving together archaeological and historical sources regarding the Chinese experience in Montana completes a more holistic image of the Chinese in the state. Archaeological data, the material remains of Chinese residents, is critical due to the historical prejudices against this population during the 19th and 20th centuries that limited their inclusion in primary-source historical documents. Historical documents from the 1862–1880 period of Montana Chinese history provide some information on where they lived, and for how long, and some anecdotal stories of individual lives. For the most part, what exists in the historical record are generalizations or colorful accounts used to perpetuate racist depictions of the Chinese.

Archaeological studies of sites within this period supply detailed data on the daily lives of these individuals and bring them into better, less biased focus. Together, these two sources are used here to describe the first period of Chinese occupation in Montana, designated as the period of entrance and expansion (1862–1880).

There are currently twenty confirmed archaeological sites recorded in the state with at least some connection to this period of the emergence and establishment of Montana’s Chinese population, with an additional thirteen sites containing potential for data relevant to this period. Unfortunately, many of the sites recorded on this list are heavily disturbed by later episodes of mining or development. Specifically, the archaeological remains of Confederate Gulch and Diamond City are destroyed, though a few miscellaneous Chinese artifacts have been recovered from modern mining claims. Chinese archaeological materials from this period are present at Virginia City, Butte, and Bannack, although due to their relatively urban environments, significant mixing has occurred, placing artifacts out of context. It is not feasible to discuss each recorded site individually; instead, in interpreting early Montana Territory Chinese experience, archaeology and the historical discussions contribute on an equal footing.

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This chapter is largely organized as a chronological discussion of the Chinese in Montana, starting with a summary history of Montana before the gold strikes. After discovery of gold at Bannack in 1862, Chinese immigrants began moving into Montana Territory in substantial numbers. By the 1870 federal census, Chinese immigrants accounted for ten percent of Montana Territory’s population. Between 1870 and 1880 Chinese population centers spread throughout Montana Territory, in many instances overtaking and controlling certain mining districts after European American miners had abandoned the areas. Increasing Chinese population in the territory led, in part, to significant legal challenges being leveled against this large but politically and legally weak population.

With growing racism in Montana Territory’s legal system toward the Chinese, a significant facet of Chinese history during this period was how the population handled crime within their own ranks and how crimes against their population were handled in Montana’s courts. Finally, the legal precedents and inherent biases in Montana Territory’s treatment of the Chinese forced the population to adapt to a significant lack of women in the community. Even with a series of legal challenges during the first eighteen years of Chinese history in Montana Territory, courts and judges handled the population on a remarkably level playing field, but this would change by the end of the 1870s. The rapid growth and expansion of their population and the creation of a self-supporting society within Montana Territory exemplify this first period of entrance and expansion (1862–1880).