What started as a labor dispute between white and Chinese coal miners on September 2, 1885 turned into a bloodbath known as the Rock Springs Massacre that left 28 miners dead and 15 injured. Chinese. In the aftermath of the violence, white miners set fire to 79 homes, effectively wiping out Rock Springs Chinatown in what was then Wyoming Territory.
The perpetrators of violence against the Chinese immigrant community had little or no consequences for the massacre. And anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese sentiment followed the Chinese immigrant community as they moved from the American West to other parts of the country.
Chinese immigrants mine for gold and coal
The first great wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s in hopes of mining gold and building the transcontinental railroad. As the second half of the 19th century progressed, the once plentiful jobs in gold mining and railroad building that had made the American West so attractive to emigrants from all over the world began to decline. dry up. This left a significant number of workers, white and colored, out of work and facing widespread economic depression.
As the competition for jobs grew fierce, prejudice and violence against Chinese workers grew, especially since they were generally willing to work for lower wages. Chinese immigrant workers were seen as “taking jobs away” from white men.
Chinese workers began moving to Rock Springs in 1870 to work in coal mines owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1885, there were about 600 Chinese and 300 white workers working in the Rock Springs coal mines. While the white population – made up mostly of Irish, Welsh, English and Scandinavian immigrants – lived in downtown Rock Springs, Chinese residents lived in the northeast of the city, in a section known as ” Chinatown ”.
Although the two groups spent the whole day together in the mines, white and Chinese workers had little outside interaction and led completely separate lives.
Growing resentment against Chinese workers
With plenty of cheap Chinese labor, the Union Pacific Railroad was able to offer lower wages to all of its employees, regardless of race or ethnicity. Over the years, the white miners, who had joined a union called the Knights of Labor, have asked their Chinese colleagues to join them in demanding higher wages from the company for all employees and putting themselves into action. strike if their demands were not met. . The Chinese workers refused, eventually upsetting their white colleagues enough to prompt them to form an organization called “Whiteman’s Town” in 1883. This group existed for the purpose of trying to bring about the expulsion of Chinese residents from the territory of Wyoming. It is believed that the group met on the evening of September 1, 1885.
The Rock Springs Massacre, Wyoming
On the morning of September 2, 1885, a labor disagreement developed between white and Chinese workers at Rock Springs No.6 Mine, which ended in one Chinese miner severely beaten and another killed as a result of several blows to the skull with a pickaxe. Although a foreman arrived on the scene to put an end to the violent altercation, the rest of the day did not continue according to the employees’ usual schedule.
Instead of returning to work, the white miners quickly returned home to collect weapons, including guns, axes, knives and clubs. The group of disgruntled workers quickly turned into a crowd that numbered women and children among its members. That afternoon, after traveling to Chinatown and nearly encircling the entire area, the mob began to rob and then attack its Chinese residents, killing a total of 28 and injuring at least 15.
During the riot, Chinese miners who were able to do so fled to the hills beyond Rock Springs. Once Chinatown was evacuated, crowds walked through every small wooden house the company built as well as the neighborhood’s homemade shacks, looting them first and then setting them all on fire.
Writing in a memorial tribute to deceased members of their community, which doubled as a plea for justice at the Chinese Council in New York City, Chinese miners provided eyewitness testimony to what happened on September 2, 1885 – at times, in horrible detail.
“The corpses of some were transported to burning buildings and thrown into the flames,” they wrote. “Some of the Chinese who had been hiding in the houses were killed and their bodies burned; some, who because of illness could not run, were burned alive in the houses.
On September 3, the more than 500 Chinese residents of Rock Springs were forced to leave the city.
Federal troops bring Chinese back to Rock Springs
After spending about a week in the nearby town of Evanston, the Chinese people of Rock Springs were parked in boxcars and said they were taken to San Francisco, where they would be safe. But after getting off the train, they realized they were back in Rock Springs, where Federal troops were present not only to protect them, but also to escort them to the mines.
Upon their return to Rock Springs, Chinese residents saw that all of their homes and the entire neighborhood were nothing more than piles of ash and rubble, some of which contained the remains of members of their community.
“Some of the corpses had been buried by the company, while others, mutilated and decomposed, were strewn on the ground and were eaten by dogs and pigs,” wrote the surviving Chinese miners at the Chinese embassy in New York later in the year. . Left homeless and penniless, they had no choice but to stay in Rock Springs and continue working for the Union Pacific Railroad, living in boxcars until their new homes were built.
It wasn’t just the Chinese miners who were upset to be back in Rock Springs; ill will towards the group on the part of many white townspeople had worsened. An 1885 editorial written by a local named Alec Guinness and published in the Independent from Rock Springs reveals the level of animosity directed towards the Chinese community at the time.
“The company’s action to bring the Chinese back means they must be put to work in the mines and American soldiers must prevent them from being driven out again,” Guinness wrote. “This means that all white miners in Rock Springs, except those who are absolutely necessary, must be replaced with Chinese labor. This means that the company intends to make a ‘Chinatown’ out of Rock Springs … It means that Rock Springs is killed, as far as white males go, if such a program is implemented.
How it ended
Although 16 of the white minors who participated in the massacre were arrested, they were released on bail. Despite the fact that the violence took place in broad daylight, no white person was willing to testify that they had witnessed crimes. Accordingly, no charges have been laid against the perpetrators. The closest the Chinese residents of Rock Springs got to justice was when President Grover Cleveland ordered Congress to provide the community with $ 150,000 to reimburse them for the loss of their property.
Memorial of Chinese workers, residing in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, to the Chinese Consul in New York (1885). Reprinted in Cheng-Tsu Wu, ed., Chink! (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1972). SHEC: Resources for Teachers, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
The Rock Springs Massacre. Rock Springs Independent, September 1885. Reprinted in Cheng-Tsu Wu, ed., Chink! (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1972), 167. Digital History.
The Rock Springs Massacre. Library of Congress.
The Rock Springs Massacre. Wyoming State Historical Society.
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