Montana Encounter

The following are excerpts from 19th century newspaper accounts in Montana which document the public interest in the Chinese communities of Montana and the eventual publicly expressed prejudice against the Chinese. They were originally compiled by Montana historian Robert R. Swarthout in his essay, “From Kwantung to the Big Sky: The Chinese Experience in Frontier Montana,” from his book with Harry W. Fritz, The Montana Heritage: An Anthology of Historical Essays. Swarthout notes that the first census in the Montana territory, in 1870, counted 1,949 Chinese—one-tenth of the official population. Swarthout sees the rising economic prosperity of the Chinese as well as the rising racism of the American West to be behind the shift in attitudes toward the Chinese.

Today is the [Chinese] annual Josh Day, on which occasion their custom is to visit the burial places—as our China men and women have done, closing their ceremonies about 2 p.m.—burn incense and innumerable small wax candles about the head stones or boards of the graves, deposit a liberal lunch of choice eatables and drinkables, designed for the spirits of the departed; recite propitiatory prayers to their savior (Josh), and otherwise show themselves sacredly mindful of the welfare of their dead.

[Note: Josh or, more commonly Joss, is a term that came into Western usage from the Portuguese: the god or deity in a Chinese temple, which is sometimes called a Joss House. Helena, Montana, Weekly Herald, 8 April 1869.]

The great Chinese Joss arrived last night by express from California, and is being feasted today with all the delicacies of the season…The room in which he has taken up his quarters is daily decorated with flags, roast hogs, chickens, drums, and a thousand and one articles which defy description. [The Chinese] will wind up with a grand free lunch to-night, at which at least three hundred will be present.

[Butte, Montana Weekly Inter Mountain, 23 November 1882.]

The Chinaman’s life is not our life, his religion is not our religion. His habits, superstitions, and modes of life are disgusting. He is a parasite, floating across the Pacific and thence penetrating into the interior towns and cities, there to settle down for a brief space and absorb the substance of those with whom he comes into competition. His one object in life is to make all the money he can and return again to his native land, dead or alive. His very existence in our midst is an insult to our intelligence. Pestilence and disease follow in his wake, no matter what sentimentalists say to the contrary. Let him go hence. He belongs not in Butte.

[Butte, Montana, Bystander, 11 February 1893.]

[All quoted in Robert R. Swartout, Jr., “From Kwangtung to the Big Sky: The Chinese Experience in Frontier Montana,” in R.R. Swartout, Jr. and Harry W. Fritz, The Montana Heritage: An Anthology of Historical Essays (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1992).]