20 September 2008

The Celestial Kingdom in the Sun River Valley

By Ken Robison
[Pending publication in Sun River History]

During the late 19th Century, the Chinese found conditions right in the Sun River valley to serve as servants for senior military officers at Fort Shaw and cooks for the most successful ranchers. Some of the earliest Chinese in the valley owned small laundries and restaurants in the town of Sun River. By 1880 there were at least ten “Chinamen” living in the valley. The Sun River Chinese were an extension of the Chinese long accepted, however reluctantly, and working in both Fort Benton and Helena. Newspapers, such as the Benton Record, often reported on events and personalities among the resident members of the “Celestial Kingdom.”

The 1880 U. S. Census recorded five Chinese in Sun River, three employed as cooks and two unemployed:

Ah Quay 28 born China Single Cook [6 months unemployed]

Ah Hang 30 born China Single Unemployed [5 months]

Ah Quang 48 born China Married Unemployed

Tong Ting 29 born China Single Cook

Ah Toy 25 born China Single Cook

The same census recorded five other Chinese working for officers of the U. S. Army Third Infantry Regiment at Fort Shaw:

Ah Lee 35 born China Single Servant in household of Regimental Commander Colonel John R. Brooke,

Charles Chinaman 35 born China Servant in household of
Army Surgeon Charles R. Greenleaf

Ah Wing 40 born China Single Servant in household of
Lieut. John W. Hennay

Ah Lee 23 born China Single Servant in household of
Lieut. F. B. Jones

China Jim 24 born China Single Servant in household of
Lieut. Joseph Hale

In May 1884 Wing Lee, or Jim Chinaman, opened a Laundry “Washee” in Sun River, advertising in the Sun River Sun “Washing and Ironing done on short notice.” Three months later, The Sun notified that Wing Lee had sold his business and was going back to China, yet Wing Lee and his laundry continued in business. In August 1885, L. D. Browning opened the Sun River Laundry in competition with Wing Lee’s business. In less than a month Browning realized his mistake, closed his laundry, and moved on to Helena, realizing that “he could not hope to compete with the Chinaman’s low prices.” By mid 1886, Wing Lee sold his laundry to Yuen Lee, and two years later Sun River had another yet another new Laundry, conducted by Lem Chong.

In October 1884, Ah Joe opened the King Bee Restaurant in Sun River, advertising in The Sun: “Tables Furnished with the Best in the Market. Travellers and day boarders will find this a good place to stop.”

Despite their small numbers, the Sun River Chinese celebrated their traditional New Year with a round of festivities ending in fireworks. The Sun River Rising Sun reported their celebrations: “Our local Chinese commenced the celebration of their New Year last Monday, and will close the round of festivities by a grand pyrotechnic display to-night. The Emperor of China has changed the calendar so that New Years comes one week later this year than formerly, but it is alee same John, and the festal is observed as though nothing had happened.”

When Fred C. Campbell became Superintendent of the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School in 1898, he brought along Joe Ling to cook in his household. Although the Campbells departed in 1908, Joe Ling stayed on with the new Superintendent John B. Brown. In 1910 F. C. Campbell sent a remarkable letter to his long-time Chinese cook, “Dear Joe,” urging him to come cook for Campbell at the Fort Peck Agency, and concluding “A great many of your friends down this way have been inquiring if you are coming. I feel sure you will like the work and the people.”

By the turn of the 19th century, valley ranchers sought the services of Chinese cooks as a status symbol in the community, much as those in the Fort Benton area did. Successful rancher J. C. Adams employed Hong Ching as cook on his ranch. Hong Ching was born September 1867 in China, immigrated to the U. S. in 1882, and had been married for five years at time of the 1900 census.

Through an oral history by his daughter, Ida Johnson, Alvin Sauke observed the phenomenon of Chinese ranch cooks.
Emigrating from Minnesota to Montana in August 1908, Sauke arrived at the Great Northern station in Great Falls where he observed a big “Welcome” sign on the depot and another sign that read “Chinaman don’t let the sun shine on you here.” Great Falls "prided" itself that the town did not allow Chinese residents for many decades. Alvin caught the train to Vaughn the next day, and walked to Sunnyside. There, T. C. Power owned the Sunnyside Store, handling lumber, coal, and groceries. Sunnyside had a huge garden and was managed by J. Clarence and his wife Fay Adams Morgan. The Morgans employed both a Chinese cook and a gardener. Sauke remembers Morgan yelling to one of the Chinese to bring watermelon from the garden. Sauke remembered also that at the Floweree Ranch, manager Hamilton employed a Chinese cook and possibly a gardener, J. C. Adams had a Chinese cook, and possibly other ranchers in the valley employed Chinese cooks.

Sources: U. S. Census; Sun River Sun; Sun River Rising Sun;
F. C. Campbell Letter, from F. C. Campbell Papers in possession of Fred De Rosier; Oral History Alvin Sauke by Ida Johnson.

(1) A Chinese gardener in Fort Benton [Overholser Historical Research Center Photo]
(2) Chinese cook at the Joseph A. Baker Ranch [Overholser Historical Research Center Photo]