On September 2, 1885, a riot broke out in Rock Springs, Wyoming between white immigrant miners and their Chinese counterparts. The cause of the riot was a labor dispute resulting from a policy of the Union Pacific Railroad’s Coal Department. At the time, the Chinese were hiring on to work the mines for a lower hourly wage than the white miners earned; resulting in a large number of white workers losing their jobs.
Tensions between whites and Chinese immigrants had been building for some time prior to the violence. During the California Gold Rush of 1849, Chinese miners came without their families to earn ten times more money than they could back home. By being careful with their earnings, a Chinese immigrant could save a lifetime’s fortune in just a few years, then return to China to live a comfortable life.
Time progressed and Chinese worked alongside Anglo in a variety of occupations – from farming to cigar making - and later helping to construct the Transcontinental Railroad as it grew from Sacramento and climbed the Sierra Madre Mountains. Though physically smaller than their white counterparts, Chinese workers were strong, tough and reliable. With the dangerous work involved in building the railroad, only a miracle kept their death rate at 10%. Between blasting tunnels through solid rock and cutting ledges along mountainsides so track could be laid, it was estimated 1,200 of the 12,000 Chinese died. In 1869, the jobs ended as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific merged tracks in Utah and drove in the gold spike of the complete the Transcontinental Railroad.
As of 1870, no Chinese individuals were known to live in either Rock Springs or Green River. That year’s census, numbered those of Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicity in Wyoming at 143. Throughout the course of that decade, however, their population began to steadily increase, creating the largest percentage of increase in Asians Wyoming would ever experience – 539%.
Though the railroad construction jobs were now gone, the Chinese remained in the area. In July 1870, white workers began to protest their presence in San Francisco. They made it abundantly clear to anyone listening the Chinese were not wanted, and should not feel they possessed an intact safety net. When two rival gangs of Chinese criminals began a fight in Los Angeles during October 1871, the whites saw the opportunity to create some mayhem of their own, during which 23 Chinese were murdered. No one was ever charged.
Having left families back home in China, the men lived in groups of eight or so individuals under one roof in an effort to save money. By living ‘commune-style’, they were able to work for the lower wages. When labor unrests erupted during the years of 1874-75, coal production was disrupted. As a result, the Coal Department of the Union Pacific Railroad began to hire Chinese laborers to work their mines throughout southern Wyoming.
The Chinese population at this time was relatively small and grew at a slow rate, with the majority of those individuals concentrated in a remote camp known as Red Desert in Sweetwater County. 20 residents populated this camp, 12 of which were Chinese. Another 13 Chinese were at the Washakie Camp. Sweetwater County’s entire Chinese population at the time totaled 79, approximately 4% of the county’s population.
By 1880, 914 Asians now called Wyoming home. The majority of Chinese who settled in Sweetwater County lived in Rock Springs. Though most of Wyoming’s Asian population worked in the coal mines, including the majority of Chinese who lived in Sweetwater County; those who lived within Rock Springs were involved in other occupations. Counted among the various careers were a barber, professional gambler, priest, cook and doctor.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act brought a halt to Chinese immigration for 10 years; however, not before thousands of immigrants had arrived and migrated west.
J. R. Tucker, writer for The North American Review, penned an article in 1884 stating there were approximately 100,000 Chinese immigrants residing throughout the American West. This included the land area which now comprises the states of Wyoming, Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington. Referring to “The Asiatic race, alien in blood, habits and civilization,” he noted, “Chinese are the chief element in this Asiatic population.”
The Chinese who settled in the Wyoming Territory began working on the railroad, mostly as maintenance-of-way staff. In time, however, they also proved to be a valuable asset in the coal mines stretching from Laramie to Evanston, owned by Union Pacific.
As the influx of Chinese immigrants began to swell, so did the quantity of anti-Chinese sentiment. One of the foremost voices to speak out against the increase in the area’s Asian population was the group Knights of Labor. Though a majority of the future rioters were connected to the Knights, no direct connection to the national organization could be established.
Two years prior to the Rock Springs Massacre, the settlement was referred to as “Whitemen’s Town”. The majority of white miners who lived in Rock Springs were of Welsh, Cornish, Swedish and Irish descent. By 1883, the Knights of Labor had organized a chapter in Rock Springs and numbered among groups leading the fight against Chinese labor during the 1880s.
Though the Chinese were fully aware the animosity and racial tensions from the white miners was beginning to increase towards them, they took no precautions regarding the situation; simply because no previous events gave them reason to believe race riots would occur. The larger degree of resentment was directed towards the Union Pacific Coal Department.
Prior to 1875, the railroad employed only white miners. That year a strike occurred and the strikers’ jobs were given to Chinese strikebreakers over the next two weeks. When the work resumed, 50 of the miners were white, 150 were now Chinese. Additional Chinese individuals began to arrive in Rock Springs and were also hired by Union Pacific. At the time of the massacre, 150 of the miners in Rock Springs were white, 331 were Chinese.
In August of 1885, notices were sent from Evanston to Rock Springs, calling for the Chinese immigrants to be expelled. On September 1st, a meeting was held by the white miners concerning the Chinese immigrants and rumors soon spread stating threats had been made against them.
On the morning of September 2, 1885 at 7 a.m., 10 members of the Knights of Labor, clad in miners’ uniforms, walked into Coal Pit #6 at the Rock Springs mine. When they arrived, they stated the Chinese laborers had no right to be in a particular “room” in the mine. Miners were paid by the ton and this location was very important to them. A fight quickly erupted, severely injuring two of the Chinese workers. One later died due to the injuries he received. Following this, the Knights left the mine.
Work came to a halt in Pit #6 as additional white miners gathered in town. Carrying firearms, they marched along the railroad to Rock Springs. At 10:00 a.m., the bell at the Knights of Labor meeting hall rang. Those inside the building came out to join the rather sizeable group already assembled. By 2:00 p.m., Union Pacific officials had persuaded the local saloons and stores to close. Approximately 150 men armed with Winchester rifles now headed towards Chinatown. Dividing into two groups, they crossed separate bridges just prior to entering the settlement. The larger group came in from the railroad bridge and divided into squads, with a few remaining on the opposite side of the bridge. The smaller group arrived by way of the town’s plank bridge.
The squads began to move up the hill in the direction of Coal Pit #3, with one establishing its position by the coal shed and a second at the pump house. Prior to the squads arriving, a warning party had been sent ahead to inform the residents of Chinatown they would be given one hour to pack up and leave the area. Thirty minutes later, however, shots rang out from the squad posted at the pump house, quickly followed those at the coal shed. One Chinese laborer, Lor Sun Kit, fell to the ground after being shot. The squad at Coal Pit #3 now joined the others and the crowd marched on, with some of the participants firing their weapons in the process. Now the squad stationed at the plank bridge divided into smaller groups, with one group remaining at the bridge as the others spread out to surround Chinatown.
Seeing the white miners moving into their settlement, the Chinese quickly understood the escalating riot with the deaths of Leo Dye Bah and Yip Ah Marn. In an effort to flee, the residents ran in every direction – some climbing the hill behind Coal Pit #3, others going towards Coal Pit #4 and still others fled across Bitter Creek.
The events of the gruesome mêlée were later shared by some of the escapees with the Chinese consul in New York. Among the comments shared, it was reported members of the mob would point a weapon at any Chinese individual they stopped and questioned whether the person was armed. He was then searched and robbed of any gold or silver he had on him, along with his watch. Though some of the rioters would allow the individual to go after robbing him of his belongings, others took the vigilante approach and beat him with the butts of their weapons. If the Chinese individual did not stop when told to do so, he would be shot dead and then robbed. Unarmed rioters who did not take part in the robbing or beatings would laugh, clap their hands and shout loudly.
The massacre was in full swing by 3:30 p.m. Women from Rock Springs had collected at the plank bridge and began to cheer on the violence. Two of them were even reported to have fired guns at the fleeing Chinese. The rampage continued into the night as the Chinese moved into the hills and attempted to hide in the grass. By 9:00 p.m., only one Chinese camp house had not been completely destroyed by fire. The bodies of those Chinese who died within Chinatown were later tossed into the flames of the burning buildings; while many others who hid in their homes rather than fleeing Chinatown, along with the sick and those who could not run, were burned alive in their homes. It was later estimated the damage done to Chinese-owned property totaled around $147,000.00 ($204,000,000.00 – 2012).
On September 3, 1885, Governor Francis E. Warren visited Rock Springs to establish a personal assessment. He then left and traveled to Evanston. From there he telegraphed President Cleveland with his findings and indicated the need for federal troops to help quell the riot.
The Chinese miners who successfully fled the massacre were transported by Union Pacific trains and carried to Evanston, approximately 100 miles from Rock Springs. Relocating the miners did little to help them; due to the fact Evanston’s population also harbored very strong anti-Chinese sentiment as well. As Chinese individuals began to return to Rock Springs about a week later, a number of the area’s independent publications were quick to voice their opinions of what happened, with the Rock Springs’ paper supporting the riot and expressing sympathy for the white miners.
Though the riot in Rock Springs had now calmed, the situation remained unstable. On September 5th, two companies from the 7th Infantry of the US Army arrived. One was stationed at Evanston, the second at Rock Springs. On September 9th, another six companies arrived, with four of those six escorting back to Rock Springs the Chinese who had fled.
Following the riot, approximately 600 Chinese miners rode in boxcars to a destination they thought would be San Francisco, California in hopes of finding safety. When the train stopped and the boxcar doors opened, the sun had gone down. As the men stepped from the cars into the darkness of night, the lack of sunlight failed to disguise where they were. The men stood on the railroad tracks and looked off into the distance to see little left of the homes from which they fled in panic the prior week. More horrifying than finding their homes gone was to see the mangled, decomposing bodies of the murdered victims. The men looked upon the bodies of sons, fathers, brothers, cousins and friends; some of which had been partially eaten by animals. Though the railroad had already buried a number of the victims, they did not complete the job.
Adding insult to injury, the Union Pacific Railroad and the coal companies it owned now insisted the Chinese miners be the ones to finish the job of burying the dead. As they did so, they were told to erase their minds of all memories of the event and go back to work. While waiting for new houses to be built, the miners would live in the railroad boxcars.
The mines in the Rock Springs area remained closed for several months. When the Union Pacific Coal Department did reopen it, 45 of the white miners involved in the violence were immediately fired. Sixteen others were arrested, one of which was Isaiah Washington, a member-elect to the territorial legislature. Those arrested were incarcerated in Green River. The Sweetwater County grand jury later refused to bring indictments against those arrested, stating there was no cause. “We have diligently inquired into the occurrence at Rock Springs . . . [T]hough we have examined a large number of witnesses, no one has been able to testify to a single criminal act committed by any known white person that day.”
On October 7, 1885, those arrested were released. Following their release, the miners were met by hundreds of men, women and children who gave them a resounding ovation. These individuals enjoyed the same level of community consent lynch mobs were known to receive. None of the individuals arrested for the violence at Rock Springs were ever convicted.
Thomas F. Bayard, U.S. Secretary of State, later urged Congress to indemnify the Chinese victims. Though hesitant at first to make amends, eventually the US Congress provided $147,748.74 ($205,000,000.00 – 2014) in indemnity payments. Rather than being a legal decree of responsibility for the massacre, the funds were instead regarded as a monetary gift.
In the aftermath, Governor Warren condemned the riot as “the most brutal and damnable outrage that ever occurred in any country.” In his State of the Union Address of 1885, US President Grover Cleveland addressed the riot by saying, "All of the power of this government should be exhorted to maintain the amplest good faith towards China in the treatment of these men, and the inflexible sternness of the law... must be insisted upon ... race prejudice is the chief factor to originating these disturbances." Cleveland's message drew attention regarding the United States’ interest in good relations with China.
An editorial in the New York Times blasted Rock Springs by saying, “The appropriate fate for a community of this kind would be that of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Holding the opposite view, the Laramie Boomerang extended sympathy towards the miners, stating it “regretted” the riot; however, it found extenuating circumstances surrounding the violence.
Anti-American sentiment now began to grow in China, with the governor-general of the Guangdong region suggesting Americans in China could become targets in an effort to seek revenge for the Rock Springs massacre. American diplomats now warned a backlash from the riot could ruin trade with China. It was also reported various British newspapers and merchants based in China began to encourage the Chinese to “Stand up for their oppressed countrymen in America.”
The intense violence leveled on the Chinese by the rioters revealed an untamed hatred the rioters had for their victims; a result of extended incubation. As word began to spread throughout the country about the riot, the sheer brutality left Americans stunned. Those Chinese who were not burned alive were scalped, decapitated, mutilated, dismembered and hung from gutter spouts. Though approximately 40-50 fatalities were accounted for; the true total was never known due to the large number who fled and possible died elsewhere from wounds they sustained in the process. Ripple effects from the Rock Springs riot were felt as far away as Puget Sound in the Washington Territory, touching off a wave of anti-Chinese violence.