21 October 2009

The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri: The Chinese of Historic Chouteau County -- Part I

The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri: The Chinese of Chouteau County—Part I
By Ken Robison

[Fort Benton River Press 28 October 2009 in honor of Kimonos to Cowboys, the 10th Anniversary Re-Opening Celebration at the Grand Union 1 November 2009]

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

Among the most remarkable stories of early Fort Benton is the growth of a multi-cultural society in the town. By the 1850s many unions had been formed by early American Fur Company and opposition traders with Native American women. By the late 1860s many of these mixed race families remained in Fort Benton while others had moved on to join Blackfoot or other Indian nations. Adding to this melting pot were Black Americans and Chinese who found conditions right in Fort Benton during the booming years of steamboating and overland freighting to open small businesses and find jobs in service industries.

Fort Benton of the 1860s was a rough frontier town with “the bloodiest block in the West.” The Vigilante hanging of Bill Hynson from a temporary tripod gallows at Fort Benton on August 24, 1868 had a Chinese connection. Hynson, a tall, handsome Missourian, age about 28 years old, allegedly had strangled a Chinese woman to death in Helena for her poke of $1,000 worth of gold dust. Frontier justice caught up to him in Fort Benton.

The first Chinese resident of Fort Benton is not known, but the early Chinese in the town included 32 year-old Sam Loy who operated a laundry in 1870 with Chang Haw, age 40, and Lee Wang, age 28, working as washermen. During the 1870s some of the younger Chinese worked as houseboys and cooks in local homes. The earliest Chinese clustered on Main Street, the site of a laundry for many years. In April 1877 the Benton Record reported that Arthur Sling Bang, a Chinese laundryman planted “a fine bed of asparagus seeds, and proposes to furnish the Benton market with this delicious esculent during the coming season.” Chinese gardening activities centered on a block or so above the Grand Union, long known as the Chinaman’s gardens for the vegetable gardens they kept there [later the site of the Missouri River Lumber Company].

Chinese Gardener in Early Fort Benton

By 1880 eighteen Chinese were present in Choteau County and their number continued to grow throughout the 1880s. The census of June 1880 showed Ah Wan cooking at Fort Belknap, and George W. “Taylor” cooking for farmer Isaac Taylor on the Upper Teton River. Seven of Fort Benton’s sixteen Chinese worked as cooks while eight operated or worked in laundries. Of the cooks Kung Chung and Ma Kay worked for Robert S. Culbertson at his Pacific Hotel. No occupation was listed for Charles Chow although he was head of household with three other Chinese living with him so he apparently maintained a small boarding house. Three of the eighteen Chinese in the county were married, although no wives were listed. At this time all were born in China.

In the words of historian Joel F. Overholser, “Bentonites in general regarded [the Chinese] with more curiosity than wrath, an 1881 funeral for Quong Chong drew a lengthy account in the Benton Record.” This fascinating article in the Benton Record provides insight into Chinese culture:
“Although there was an evident disposition on the part of the Chinese, friends of the deceased Quong Chong, to conceal from our people the hour for the funeral services, a large and curious crowd was drawn to the grave yard last Saturday afternoon. However common Chinese burials are to other communities this one was the first that ever occurred to Benton, and hardly any of the spectators had ever had an opportunity to see the curious ceremonies of such an occasion.
It would be interesting to know the significance of the various rites and we have made several efforts to obtain the information; but the Chinese are very reticent and are not all willing to communicate what we were anxious to find out. It must suffice, then, to say that the body— completely dressed in a white costume, such as Chinamen wear indoors, wearing shoes and hat—was placed in the coffin. Four packs of cards, with four silver half-dollars, were also placed inside. The coffin was then put in the hearse together with the bedding, clothes, and other personal property of the dead man. One Chinaman who acted as chief mourner rode beside the driver; at intervals of a few yards along the route of the procession this man threw out small scraps of paper.
On arriving at the cemetery the body was summarily placed in the ground and covered up. As soon as this had been done, a bonfire was made of all the dead man’s effects which formed as odd a collection as can be imagined. After the fire was well under way the chief mourner, after having first poured out a libation of whisky, burned, with great care to have every fragment of it consumed, a brown paper book supposed to contain the accounts of the deceased. This done, there was arranged about the foot of the grave a bowl of cooked rice with two chop-sticks stuck therein, a bar of soap, two whisky bottles, three cups and some burning tapers and papers and decorated candles. In turn each Chinaman approached, and after having bowed three times, knelt and poured whisky into the middle one of the three cups from which some of the liquor was distributed to the other two and some poured on the ground. Then he bowed low again three times and made way for the next man. A board was placed at the foot of the grave instead of at the head; it was covered with hieroglyphics and one half of it was buried. The rice, whisky, candles, &e., were allowed to remain at the grave. One Chinaman carefully gathered up a handful of earth from the mound and wrapped it in paper and the obsequies were concluded. The body will be in the ground for two years and will then be disinterred and sent back to China.”

Chinese Burial Site at Unidentified Location in Montana

One Chinese custom drew disapproval from residents and the Benton press—opium dens. In 1881 a Benton Record reporter visited an opium den and wrote a detailed report about the “Raid on an Opium Den Winding Up of an Infamous Business”:
“The Sheriff, Thursday night, made a descent on an opium dive, on Front st., nearly opposite Murphy, Neel & Co.’s store, and captured four Chinamen, one in the act of smoking, two lying in a drunken stupor, and the fourth, the owner of the house, raided.
The fact is a notorious one that all the Chinese laundries about town do a little business on the side, in letting out opium pipes to smokers at fifty cents a smoke. Before the enactment of the opium law, last winter, the dealers in the drug were able to carry on their frightful trade without any possibility of molestation by the authorities, all attacks upon the business through the nuisance act, since there was no specific law to govern the case, having met with failure. No one, who has not looked into the matter, can have any idea of the magnitude of the traffic here. The patrons of the various houses have been, it is true, for the most part Chinese, but many of the white trash about town are frequenters of the little rooms at the rear of the laundries, where curled up on the bunks they, can, under the influence of a few whiffs of smoke escape for a time from their beastly selves. Besides, this kind of a drunk has to them the merit of cheapness.
The traffic has been more secretly conducted since the opium law went into effect last winter, and consequently it has been more difficult to take offenders red-handed, so to speak. One den in particular has been under surveillance for the last three nights, and our reporter accompanied the sheriff last evening as he went to station himself where, through an uncurtained window, he could watch the movements of the occupants of the room. After a few moments of waiting, one Chinaman was seen to take up a pipe and lie down on one of the bunks. This was the chance sought; the door was quickly opened and the sheriff and our reporter entered the room. On the bed, a pipe between them, lay two Chinamen, their staring eyes and the set expression on their faces telling the story of their indulgence. They were declared under arrest.
In another bed was found a Chinaman so sound asleep that it was with great difficulty that he was aroused. After the drunken men became aware of the situation a string of extremely lucid and plausible pigeon-English explanations followed—none of them smoked, one had too sore a finger, another had sworn off and had smashed his pipe, the fragments of which he produced; the third said ‘he smoke alle time; he know law, he don’t gib dam; he Slan Flanciso man; hell!’
The owner of the house, Ah Gee, was put under arrest. What seemed to concern him most was the Sheriff’s taking away his pipes, lamps and a stock of opium on hand. A few small bottles were scattered about on the table and these and a single pipe were declared to be everything connected with the business about the place. He is an accomplished liar. A movement to break some locked drawers showed him the jig was up, and he took a key from his pocket and, unlocking the drawers, gave up two large tin boxes of the drug, each weighing about a pound, a glass jar containing about as much more, and several small bottles, all full. Under the bed and concealed in various places were found in all about a dozen pipe bowls, all thoroughly saturated with the stuff, three stems, lamps, weigh scales, and other tools of the trade, besides a cigar box full of cinders which are apparently saved for the purpose of extracting the unconsumed opium therein. The latter is the best evidence of the amount of the drug consumed in this single den.
The Chinamen were all broke up over the closing of the house. They could not do justice to the subject in their broken English, but poured forth their indignation in pure Chinese all the way to the jail, and as the doors closed they were driving the prisoners inside mad with their pitiful story. We predict that these arrests will end the nefarious business for a long time in Benton.
The sequel to the capture resulted, this afternoon, in the Chinamen being brought into Court before Judge Tattan, who fined “Charley” $5.00 and costs; Ah Sing $5.00 and costs; Quong Lee $5.00 and costs; Ah Lee $50.00 and costs, or to stand committed to jail for two months. Most of the fines were promptly paid.”

Despite occasional raids, opium dens continued operations for many years.

The Chinese in Benton were at all times objects of curiosity and amusement, and the press took full advantage of every opportunity to capture the humor of their cultural activities. In February 1880 the Benton Record correspondent reported that the Chinese celebrated their New Year and warned “Extreme vigilance is in order at present. Marshal Frank is exhausting himself in the discharge of his duties and can be found on hand at any time, ready to use up a cane on the chinaman who should possess the temerity of exploding a firecrackers. To-day being the [Chinese] New Years the ladies were visible who visited the China quarter to satisfy curiosity. How many opium dens those ladies graced with their presence, I am unable to say, but presume that their curiosity was satisfied to the fullest extent.”

Early 1900s Humor in the Anaconda Standard Depicting "A Chinaman"

Chinese New Year brought special fascination by the Benton community. In February 1882 the Record reported “Persons sweetly slumbering this morning in the vicinity of Chinese wash-houses must have thought ‘Gehenna broke loose’ when at six o’clock the Chinamen ushered in their New Year with fire-crackers, and the noise all Celestials so dearly love. The holiday season will last for three days, and during that time we may expect our clothing to be badly mixed, or else not come home from the wash at all. The Chinamen were running around to-day exchanging calls, ‘all same Melican man.’ Their cards were of red paper folded several times. In all the laundries an entertainment, consisting of cake, wine or whiskey, cigars and Chinese dried fruit, or confectionery, was provided and the white callers were treated with marked consideration. It is with them the year 8, but what that means is ‘something no fellah can find out.’”

The Benton Record often made fun of the Chinese use of the English language. In February 1880, the Record reported, “One of the Chinese laundresses of Benton says, ‘Bilness no muchee good. Melican man ‘wellie shultee too long, wellie shultee so long make chinaman sickee to washee.’

Life in Benton’s “Bloodiest block in the West” often featured humorous reporting on the latest incident in the Chinese quarters located there. In March 1880, the Record reported, “A shooting scrape took place among the disciples of Confucius in the Chinese quarters last Monday. No Asiatic soul was sent to the Flowery Kingdom; but the heathen who attempted to convert a live Celestial into a corpse was curtailed by Judge [John J.] Donnelly to the extent of $100 fine and costs of court. It was a heavy toll on all.”

Chinese Section of Fort Benton in the early 1880s centered on the alley between Main and Front Streets and on the north side of St. Johns across the alley from the Pacific Hotel

In Fort Benton’s multicultural society, Chinese interaction with the many Black Americans sometimes led to moments of tension. In August 1881 the Record reported “There was a bit of excitement up town night before last. It appears from the tale told us by [a] Mongolian, that a number of colored men were playing cards in the Eagle Bird Saloon and, if the Chinaman is correct, a job was put up among several of the dusky gamblers to rob him of his oriental ducats. Tumbling to the racket, however, before the advantage was taken of him, John Chinaman grabbed his money and prepared to make a lively exit when, with his usual free and easy manner of handling deadly weapons, the proprietor [Black American William Foster] leveled a pistol at him and ordered him to stay. But John knew they cared more for his money than his company, so he forthwith dropped his checks like hot cakes and took French leave of the assemblage. If this story be true, and we have no reason to doubt it, the parties to the affair should be arrested and punished.”

Benton’s Chinese interacted also with resident and visiting Native Americans. More than one Chinese bartender was arrested for serving “fire-water” to Indians. In June 1883 the Benton Record reported with disgust, “The public sale to a Chinaman of a squaw in our very midst, for the trifling compensation of two sacks of four, will horrify and alarms our readers. 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 will buy a squaw for four sacks, and so on until they will have us all in a condition of servitude. Some of our citizens should inform that squaw how her aboriginal honor has been degraded, and advise her to take her glittering scalping-knife in the solemn watches of the night and remove the
capillaries of the daring oriental.”

(1) Chinese gardener in Fort Benton
(2) Chinese burial site at unidentified location in Montana
(3) Early 1900s humor in the Anaconda Standard depicting “a Chinaman”
(4) Chinese section of Fort Benton in the early 1880s centered on the alley between Main and Front Streets and on the north side of St. Johns across the alley from the Pacific Hotel