09 November 2009

"Aliens Alive and Aliens Dead": The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri Part II

“Aliens Alive and Aliens Dead”: The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri: Part II

By Ken Robison

This continues the series of frontier historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

This continues the story of the Chinese in historic Choteau County and Fort Benton. Despite the derision of “Chinamen,” “Mongolians,” and “Heathen Chinese,” the Benton Chinese were tolerated, owned businesses, gave testimony in courts, and maintained their distinct cultural identify within the community—often to the delight, and sometimes to the disgust, of other Bentonites. In March 1881 Ah Sing operated the Benton Wash House at Main and St. John, where the Hagen block is today. Two years later, the Record reported on another laundry, “The house used by Mr. Culbertson as a dining hall during the time he was building his new hotel--and which is on St. John street on the opposite side of the street from the Pacific Hotel, has been rented by a Chinaman said to be Quong Lee, for a laundry, and he is making a sewer on the edge of the sidewalk from his laundry to the Missouri river, running along the sidewalk past Miller’s saloon, which he expects to have completed to-day or to-morrow.”

Chinese Laundryman on the Streets of Fort Benton

In August and September 1882 advertisements appeared in the Benton Record for the “Oriental Saloon Bakery and Restaurant with Choice Wines and Liquors Constantly on Hand Open Day and Night, Hop Lee, Proprietor.” In February 1883 Chung Kee opened another Saloon Bakery and Restaurant. The Benton Record noted in April 1883 “Chinamen seem to be the best, or at least the most successful vegetable gardeners in this vicinity. One of those industrious pig-tails is already hawking young onions and spinach, and had a good stock of celery as late as the first of February. They are not very modest in charging for their produce, however.”

In June 1883 five Chinese arrived in Benton by the Helena stagecoach intending to start a Chinese store in William Foster’s old Phoenix Exchange saloon building on Main Street—Foster, himself, was well remembered for skipping town and leaving lots of unpaid bills. The Benton Record reported their arrival and playfully added, “They are reported to be plentifully supplied with the condign, and will probably carry a good stock. This has long been a great want in Benton. No place can hope to flourish unless it contains a store where you can purchase fans painted with hump-backed Chinamen and impossible swans, or blue vases with green lizards crawling over them, and other things to suggest the horrible possibility that you’ve got ‘em again.”

The Chinese in Montana in the 1880s were a mobile population ranging out from the larger Chinese centers in Helena and Butte to outlying areas such as Fort Benton, Sun River, and Fort Assinaboine. In addition, the Montana Chinese traveled to and from San Francisco and even to and from China with surprising frequency. Perhaps the best insight into this mobility comes from a report in October 1882 in the Benton Record, headlined “A Celestial Returning to the Flowery Kingdom:
“Ah Too leaves to-morrow morning for China. He and Char Lee in partnership carry on the laundry opposite Murphy, Neel & Co. on Front Street [today’s site of the Grand Union]. Ah Too has been a resident of this country for a little over eighteen years, more than two years of which he has lived in Benton, and the remainder of the time in San Francisco.
“During the time he has sojourned in this country he has returned to China four times and he is now going back for the fifth, and is uncertain whether he will ever return again to this country or not, but will be governed by circumstances in that respect after he returns from China. He expects to go direct from Benton to San Francisco, and there take one of the ocean steamers to Hong Kong and from thence to Canton, and there he will embark on one of the boats peculiar to that country and go up the Canton river about 500 miles to his native place, Wam Boo, a town of about 3,000 inhabitants, immediately upon the river, and in the Province of Canton, and where he expects to arrive about the tenth of next November.”

Chinese Temple in Virginia City, Montana

The next week, October 12, 1882, Sim Sing, who had just arrived in Benton a few weeks previously to form a partnership with Hop Lee at the Oriental Saloon, presented the editor of the Benton Record with “a newspaper printed in the
celestial kingdom, at Canton, as a token of acknowledgment of the obligations which he is under to us for noticing the departure this morning for China of his friend Ah Too. He assured us that the paper contained news of the highest importance and interest, and everyone connected with the establishment examined it until they almost become cross-eyed, and attempts at deciphering it will have to be suspended until a more fitting opportunity.”

The Benton Chinese followed events closely in other communities in Montana. In March 1882 the Record reported from Fort Assinaboine that “Ah Wan, a Chinaman who has been working for one of the officers of this post was found this morning in a cellar of the house hanging dead from a beam, having committed suicide. The cause of the act was that John could not rest easy knowing that his father had killed another Chinaman. The Chinamen at the post say the Devil came after him . . . The body of Ah Wan, the Chinaman who committed suicide by hanging at Assinaboine the other day, has been sent to Helena for burial.”

The Benton Record, always fascinated by the Chinese, became more harshly racist in its later years, writing in 1883 “The Chinese must go. Ah Hay, or Gee Whiz, or some other euphoniously titled Celestial, left by the Helena stage this morning to make his home hereafter among his Mongolian brethren at the Capital.” In June 1883, the Record reported with horror and alarm on “The public sale to a Chinaman of a squaw in our very midst, for the trifling compensation of two sacks of flour. Does slavery exist amongst us in this year of universal enlightenment? Are human beings to be bought and sold upon our public streets, and at so small a price as that mentioned? Are Chinamen not only to pauperize our working classes, but enslave the original owners of this splendid continent. Why, where will they stop? If they would buy a squaw for two sacks of flour soon they will not hesitate to buy a white woman for four sacks, and so on until they will have us all in a condition of servitude.”

Most Chinese in Fort Benton were unmarried, and few Chinese women lived there. In April 1884 the more tolerant Fort Benton River Press reported on the marriage of Ah Son, of Benton, and his bride Ah Hou, of Bozeman in Helena at the Mount Helena House. The couple was married “melican fashion” by Judge Sterling. The Press continued, “Mr. Ah Son and wife, formerly the handsome and charming Miss Ah Hou, of Bozeman, who were recently married at Helena, arrived in the city on yesterday’s coach, and have now quietly settled down to the enjoyment of domestic affairs.”

A party of hungry travelers on Montana’s Benton Road arrived at the 28-Mile Springs stage stop late one evening in September 1884. Asking proprietor Colonel Andrew Jackson Vance if they could get anything to eat, he replied, “I don’t know; it depends on the Chinaman. If you can get him up, all right.” The travelers went to the Chinese man’s room, awakened him, and were informed they could get nothing at that time of night. The group reported back to Vance, but he kept deferring to the party to find a means to get the cook up. Finally, a traveler told Vance, “Well, you are the boss.” Vance replied, “You bet I am,” and proceeded to the room, roused the sleeping Chinaman, and raised him by the hair. “Throw him out of the window,” shouted the travelers. So “John” was thrown out into the night. The unhappy Chinese cook went into the kitchen, and the guests had a good supper. But, “the Chinaman got even by giving them in the morning the most execrable breakfast they ever sat down to.”

At 28-Mile Springs Proprietor Vance raised his “Chinaman” by his hair. Sketch in 1901 Anaconda Standard.

In February 1885 the River Press reported that an unusual event occurred at McDevitt & William’s saloon when a prize fight was arranged in the morning and the fight occurred in the afternoon between “Nosey, the Kid” and “Chung Lung, a Chinaman, under the rules of the London prize ring.” Later that month the Chinese residents of Fort Benton “commenced celebrating their New Year to-day in good style with the firing of immense fire crackers and other harmless but noisy amusements. The crackers made as much noise as a mountain howitzer, and caused many of our citizens to think the reservation bill had passed.” The next week on a typically wild evening in Benton “a shooting scrape took place in the Chinese saloon on Main street, during which John Lloyd, who is well known here, was shot through the hand and in the leg, shattering that member above the knee, by a Chinaman, known as Arthur.” Meanwhile, in January 1886 Lee Gee opened the Enterprise House in the new Cummings Building.

By the mid 1880s attitudes toward Chinese in some communities in Montana were hardening. From its founding in 1884, workingmen in Great Falls, with support of town leaders, had established a “don’t let the sun set on you in our town” Chinese exclusion policy. That harsh policy prevailed in Great Falls prohibiting settlement of any Chinese in the city until the mid-1930s.

Some years later Worden P. Wren, the agent for Murphy-Maclay & Company in the village of Great Falls, recalled the incident with the first Chinese in Great Falls:
“Chinese were good laundrymen, but did collars and cuffs so poorly that Mr. Wren sent his to Troy, New York to be laundered while he was in Fort Benton and even after he came into the Falls. In 1884 and 1885 other laundry was sent from the Falls to Fort Benton or Sun River, but early in 1885 an intrepid young Chinaman came from Sun River to start a laundry. Soon after he hung his shingle, several boys with a strong antipathy for the yellow race tried to persuade him to leave town. Pat Hughes led the crowd. He refused to comply with their request. They told him they were going to hang him with a long rope they had with them. He was led to the river, placed in a skiff with two men at the oars, and started for the opposite shore. The crowd on the bank yelled ‘Hang him’ ‘Hang him!’ It was getting dark; the Chinaman was so frightened he jumped overboard in the middle of the stream. The men at the oars and on the bank feared he had been drowned and the next morning they were not to be found. The streets were deserted. The Chinaman however, reached shore, went to the Townsite office, knocked on the door, and was admitted by Jim Matkin who gave him dry clothes to wear until his had dried sufficiently to put on again. The next day he left secretly for Sun River. The news was well circulated around the country, and Great Falls was visited by no more Chinese. Whenever one came to town, he carefully avoided the hotel, and spent the night locked in Murphy-Maclay’s store until Mr.Wren let him out the next morning. This was the first labor trouble in Great Falls.”

In January 1886 the River Press brought news to the Benton Chinese that “the Chinamen at Maiden received notice to quit the camp and not having complied with the same were last week escorted out of town by a band of masked men and instructed to keep right on going. They went.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the United States was building with the first Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. In February 1886 the River Press reported that Howell Harris had returned from Oregon with news that “there is great excitement over the Chinese question and the recent troubles in Seattle. There is a general feeling against the Chinese, who are controlled by the companies in San Francisco, although Mr. Harris is of the opinion that the habits of the Celestials in that section has probably more to do with the determination to rid the country of them than anything else. The citizens have tried every peaceable means to rid themselves of Chinese, but without avail, and it has been the general belief that agitation or legislation would bring no relief, and the people took summary measures to compel them to go, feeling sure that this would be the only means of calling public attention to the evil. That something must be done, and that speedily, is evident.”

One year later, in 1887, a Chinese man was held up and robbed in Benton. Zack Larsen and Rube Houser were arrested on the strength of damaging circumstantial evidence. The two were examined before Judge Crane and bound over to await action by the grand jury. More White-Chinese violence, almost unheard of in earlier years in Montana, occurred later that year when the River Press reported, “Chinaman Hong, who assaulted a man the other day with deadly weapons, two beer bottles and a tack hammer, was bound over by Judge Luke in the sum of $500 to appear before the grand jury. Hong is congratulating himself over the fact that in his excitement he did not make the fatal mistake of hitting his man with two bottles of Benton China whiskey. If this had occurred he is satisfied he would have gone to jail without benefit of bail, on a charge of murder in the first degree. As it is Hong furnished bail and is holding just as good hands as ever in the great American game of poker.”

In 1905 The Great Falls Leader carried a humorous story about the “Resignation of Chinese Cook” in 1887. The Leader wrote, “As one of the souvenirs of the old army post at Fort Shaw, which was abandoned by the war department for such purposes a number of years ago, Mr. F. Geo. Heldt, who during the days of that post was situated there as a member of the J. H. McKnight company and was in charge of its business at that place, retains a letter which was written by a Chinese cook employed by the company in its restaurant at the post. The latter complains of the methods by which the man in charge of the restaurant, Mr. Ferg, conducted the place. The cook was able to read and write in English, but the letter which he addressed to Mr. McKnight was so peculiarly constructed that it is evident the writer made use of a dictionary and employed words far beyond his grasp to express himself. The letter [which may drive you batty] follows:
‘November 10th, 1887, Fort Shaw, Montana.
Messrs. McKnight.
Dear Sir
I am very gratefully to you and every gentlemen and ladies, so kindness, and so nice place to work for. I am very glad to have it, but Mr. Ferg so grudge and manifest at frequently make me very hard to stay, the only trouble he is, but I tend to the place never had any not well of it and did to try how I possible, to do all boarders satisfy and rejoice. just work at every things take what they want whole day I never say a word and continually the meals in time and the morning he get up at 7 o’clock or half past 7 and take his breakfast then he way out and I wait on the table, some day in afternoon he went out to supper time nor come back and I wait on also, never speak a word to him. I suppose probably was a dutition, and some times may be I feel not well, he will say I get made and since in last Sunday morning make some cocoa for breakfast to boil over sat on the stove keep warm, then he take a cup put some cool milk on it and put little cocoa to it mix up and he say what is so cold, and I say the cool milk make so if put some ice on it more cold too and he just so fierce and he say G___ d____ wish to hold a log wood to lick me, so bottom and speak so many nonsence. I could not stay with and so for I refuse my place in 15th this month. If he was a good man I will stay a long time and when I go will send a good man to take my place before I way, but he was such circumstances I prefer not to stay. I am very sorry to say. I use to explication what do I be, and he was so highton and so lazy. on to do any work then. So and so I let to know
Yours respectfully servant

At the bottom of the letter was the notation of Mr. McKnght, made before sending the letter back to Mr. Heldt at Fort Shaw, which read as follows: “What is the matter with the Chinaman?—if Ferg is not attending to his business better stir him up.”

Worden P. Wren recalled another incident involving Chinese burial bones in early Great Falls, and his story was written in Great Falls Yesterday.
“Murphy-Maclay and Co. were agents for the stage line to Lewistown and had a quantity of bedding and other things in the basement awaiting shipment elsewhere. Some of it got wet, so Mr. Wren had the store porter take a coal oil lamp to the cellar, sort out the packages, and throw in the river any that were badly damaged. The porter asked what should be done with one box he found. Mr. Wren told him to open it up and see if it was of any value. In the box were Chinese papers, incense, Chinese candies, paper covered with Chinese writing, and at the bottom, a skull. The articles were returned to the box, and Joe McKnight of Fort Shaw brought a Chinaman to the store to interpret the writing. A Chinese had been murdered at Lewistown--knocked in the head with an axe--and the remains were to go to China via San Francisco, for burial. Mr. Wren wrote Chinese headquarters in San Francisco telling them a box was held here awaiting money for express from Lewistown to China, but no reply was ever received to the letter so the box was taken to the warehouse and put on the crossbeams where it stayed for five years. Some boys found it, took it down, and no one knows what eventually became of the poor Chinaman’s remains.”

Chinese Section of Fort Benton in 1888 with two Chinese restaurants on Front Street and a Chinese Laundry near today's Hagen Building. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map 1888.

The absence of the 1890 U. S. Census [long ago destroyed by fire] precludes detailed analysis of the Chinese in Choteau County at that time. Some insight into the Chinese community in Fort Benton in the late 1880s comes from licenses paid and issued by the Choteau County treasurer during 1889. Wun Ling held both gaming and saloon licenses, while Hop Ling and Chin Hin held gaming licenses. King Faun held licenses to operate both saloon and gaming. Wah Soo operated a laundry, and Wah Sing held both saloon and gaming licenses. Sing Lee owned both a laundry and a restaurant. Wong Quot bought the Enterprise Restaurant from Sing Lee, while Sam Lun ran the White Elephant on Front Street.

The River Press made clear the sentiment of much of the Benton community in April 1891, editorializing “We understand that a Chinese resurrection will take place here next Saturday. The remains of a Chinaman, who died here several years ago, will be exhumed, his bones carefully secured and polished up--even to the smallest bone in the body--when they will be carefully packed, in the smallest square box that will hold them, and sent back to China. These people--the Chinese-- will not allow even their bones to rest in American soil. They are aliens alive and aliens dead, and have nothing in common with our people. It would be better for them and better for our people if every one of them could be sent back within the next twelve months to their own land.”

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