12 February 2010

The Benton Chinese Persevered and Worked On: The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri—Part III

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

[This article was published in the 24 February 2010 Fort Benton River Press]

Throughout the 1890s the Chinese in Fort Benton and Choteau County grew in numbers and persevered. In June 1891 an unusual marriage license was issued in Fort Benton for Lee Pack Foet, “formerly of China, and Miss Long Hair, a native American, one of the first families of the Gros Ventre reservation.” The bride, Miss Longhair, 19 year-old daughter of Gros Ventres parents Bad Dog and Nice Woman, married 22 year-old Lee Pack Foet, son of Lee Foet. The wedding took place in Chinook, then part of Choteau County, with Justice of the Peace William T. Richey officiating and his wife, Fannie Richey, and Chinese Sum Land witnessing the ceremony. Lee Pack Foet lived at Fort Belknap at the time.

While sentiment was hardening against the Chinese statewide, their number in Fort Benton and the new towns of Havre and Chinook was increasing. This was due in part to active use of the old Whoop-Up Trail for smuggling operations. On the 5th of August 1891, lightning struck and killed freighter Gus Brede during a violent storm. The first report reaching Fort Benton was that Brede was hit by lightning while sitting on a wagon between two Chinese, who were unhurt. The River Press editorialized “It seems a great deal like discrimination for a streak of lightning to dodge nine Chinamen in order that it may get a whack at a smuggler. It may be, however, that of the ten evils it chose the lesser.” The Press went on to headline “He’ll Smuggle No More. Chinese Contrabands Will Have to Find Another Pilot [than August Brede] Across the British Line.”

Contrary to the Press’ rumor, the county coroner found that Brede was alone on the wagon seat with nine Chinese concealed in the wagon bed, being smuggled from Fort Macleod to Fort Benton. Eight of these men were captured and deported to China via San Francisco. The men were held in jail in Fort Benton for ten days, the mandatory time allowed in which to make an appeal. The ninth man, Sing Lee, proved that he was a legal U. S. resident formerly residing in Fort Benton and Fort Assinaboine, and consequently was discharged. Sing no doubt had been along to select locations to distribute his contraband countrymen. Brede clearly had a racket going for some time, smuggling whisky into Canada and returning with smuggled Chinese. Earlier he had been fined $1,000 by the North West Mounted Police for smuggling whisky into Canada, and his outfit had been confiscated for smuggling Chinese into the United States by customs collector Jere Sullivan in Fort Benton.

The Great Falls Leader provided insight into these smuggling operations when it reported, “It has been common talk on this frontier for some time that the Chinese were coming into the British possessions to the north of us and were securing entry into the United States through Montana teams. The Celestials being well provided with money were able to pay handsomely for their overland trip and it is reported that $75 per head [the price was elsewhere reported as $15] is what it is worth to a teamster and guide who will undertake to pilot the Chinamen past the custom officers and deliver them at some point on the line of the railroad traversing the central portions of the state.”

Testimony at the coroner’s inquest provided further insight from Chinese witnesses. Brede with his human cargo hidden in the covered wagon had left Lethbridge five days before his death and reached a point just south of the Teton Bridge. When Brede was struck by the lightning, the Chinese panicked. Farmer Sam Heron, then stock inspector for Choteau County, arrived on the scene and discovered the tragedy. The Chinese had not yet recovered from their panic, and their superstitions were so great that Heron had trouble getting help to load Brede’s body in the wagon.

In the aftermath of the Brede smuggling episode, Jere Sullivan, Collector of Customs for Montana and Idaho, asked for the right to appoint a force to patrol the Canadian line to prevent the influx of Chinese from Canada. Sullivan planned to establish a system similar to the mounted police of Canada with twelve to fifteen armed men. Sullivan argued “With all its force of mounted police Canada is unable to totally suppress all whisky smugglers who attempt to enter that territory, and much less can one man, with a couple of deputies, stay the host of Chinese who are constantly streaming across the border into Montana and Idaho. Once these Mongolians succeed in getting into this state it is next to impossible to prove that they are illegally here, or, in fact, to even find them.” Sullivan’s plan for Montana’s Mounted Police did not happen.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the attitude in Fort Benton toward the Chinese was mixed with some advocates and many detractors. An insightful report by a special correspondent of the Great Falls Tribune is fascinating, “The ministers of Great Falls are losing a whole lot of good material by the dictum of the labor unions excluding Chinese. The Benton Chinese have begun to take kindly to the gospel and both the Episcopal and Methodist churches have flourishing China Sunday school classes. It is our custom to name Chinese servants after the man they work for and one can imagine a stranger’s feelings hearing ‘Charley Duer’ or ‘Doc Frields’ or ‘Tom Cummings’ or some other prominent citizen instructed in the elementary principles of the sermon on the mount, etc.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in the 1880s, restricted immigration and froze the Chinese community in place, preventing it from growing and assimilating into U.S. society. Another federal law, passed in 1891 required all Chinese to register and be photographed, and by early 1894 Fort Benton’s photographer Dan Dutro recorded photographing 21 Chinese in Fort Benton, 18 at Fort Assinniboine, 14 at Havre, and 9 in Chinook. In February 1894 29 Chinese registered in Fort Benton and about 50 overall in the county.

Despite the setbacks, the Chinese in Benton worked on. Those running the laundry on St. John Street in Fort Benton opened a branch washhouse in Havre with two of their number moving to the railroad town to run the operation. The Press noted, “The gentle Mongolian has not only adopted the American customs, but is getting onto the ‘branch’ business.” Lee Gee bought the popular Enterprise Restaurant from Sing Lee and continued the business “at the old stand.” Lee Gee went back to China in October 1891 to visit relatives. By the following June, he was back in San Francisco, returning to Fort Benton in late July. In an 1892 ad in the River Press, Lee Gee & Company, proprietors of the Enterprise Restaurant, charged 50 cents for meals and 50 cents for lodging with board six dollars per week. His ad emphasized that the “popular restaurant” had fresh oysters in season. Later that year the Chinese laundry on St. John was gutted by fire although a week later Joseph Milligan was repairing the building owned by G. F. Deletraz.

Poor construction and deterioration of the wooden buildings occupied by several Chinese businesses seemed to plague them. In March 1894 the Press reported, “The ‘devil’ of which the superstitious Chinese complained so bitterly seems to have followed them to their new quarters. The Chinese left the Deletraz building two weeks ago, giving as their reason that the ‘devil had set it on fire twice, and they moved into the Huston brick [building], corner St. John and Main [probably the first part of the Hagen block], where they again started a laundry. At about one o’clock Tuesday morning the large frame wash room adjoining the brick was noticed to be in flames, as was also the log house used as sleeping apartments by the Chinese. The flames quickly communicated to the main building, but were gotten under control by the hose company before much damage was done to the brick structure. The wooden buildings were a total loss.”

In April 1895 the Chinese community went out to the cemetery one morning and left a supply of cigars, candles and other luxuries on the graves of their departed countrymen. The Press reported “Some irreverent American small boys will probably appropriate the mementoes before the resurrection of the dead, this being the result of such proceedings for some years past.” That same year the Press reported, “One of the meanest jokes we have heard of was recently played in this city upon a Chinese cook who is also running a chicken ranch. A party made nightly raids on the Chinaman’s hen roost, and then turned the plunder over to the heathen to be dressed and cooked, and up to date has eluded detection.”

Only a few letters have been found from or to the Chinese in north central Montana. 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 Fort Shaw in 1908, Joe Ling stayed on with 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.” Overall, the letter read like correspondence between two friends, perhaps not surprising since F. C. Campbell proved over several decades to be a strong advocate for Native Americans in Montana.
Another fun and fascinating letter was sent by the smuggler Sing Lee at Fort Leavenworth October 28, 1898, to Charles E. Conrad. The letter reads, “Dear Sir I have send Hung letter to him nearly a months ago but still have no answer come to me yet. I want to know that you have hear from him yet? If you can not find him and if you want a good cook I will get you one. I left Montana about five years I did not make enough of any thing. I am hardly could make my living here if there is any things that I could do to make living there please let me know? Yours truly [signed Sing Lee]” Perhaps this letter explains why Sing Lee was augmenting his income by helping smuggle his fellow countrymen into Montana—he needed the money.

It is interesting also to note that African American J. P. Ball photographed Tu Hang, C. E. Conrad’s Chinese cook in the late 1890s. Perhaps the same man, Charlie Hung, also cooked on ranches in the area at this time.

The Chinese presence in Fort Benton continued and in June 1899 Wing Lung & Company opened a new laundry on Front Street next to the Owl Barber Shop. The next February a couple of Chinese opened a restaurant in the Magnolia Saloon building, next to Thielbar Brothers. By June 1900, 39 Chinese resided in the Fort Benton, and were operating washhouses, restaurants, the ever-present opium dens, and were in demand as gardeners and as cooks on area ranches. Ling Wock cooked at the Culbertson House, and Gee Ak and Lee Sam were partners in a laundry employing six other Chinese. Aum Lum cooked for Thomas Clary, while Frank Lee Hung operated as a silk and tea merchant. Gee Lee with brothers Lung Lee and Him Lee and partner Poy Lee operated a restaurant in the Culbertson Block employing young Sing Lee who had apparently returned to Montana by then. Laundryman You Louie employed five other Chinese in his business.

Overall, Choteau County had 86 Chinese in 1900 with Havre having 25, Chinook 13, Big Sandy 4, Harlem 1, and Fort Benton 39. The new Teton County, by then split away from Choteau, had 16 Chinese residents. Great Falls still had no Chinese, strictly enforcing its self imposed exclusion policy although within Cascade County there were Chinese residing in Sun River and Belt.

Ranchers in the Sun River valley and Fort Benton areas sought the services of Chinese cooks as status symbols in the community. Four successful ranchers in the Shonkin range had Chinese cooks. John Woodcock employed young California-born 23 year-old John Charles as cook on his ranch. Charlie Hung, born in China in 1863, immigrated to the U.S. in 1879, and cooked for James Patterson. Ah Jim, born in China in 1863, immigrated to the U.S. in 1875, and cooked for W. P. Sullivan. Ah Ling cooked for Charles Lepley. Ah Ling was born in China in 1857 and immigrated to the U. S. as a boy of ten. In addition from photographs held in the Overholser Historical Research Center we know that Joseph A. Baker had Chinese cooks “Jim” and “Toy” at various times, and that “China Boy” cooked at the Milner-Sullivan Ranch at Square Butte. Years later, Frances Ameilia Babcock recalled, “So many people in Fort Benton had Chinese cooks in those days. Mrs. Joe Baker, who was one of the Conrad girls, had a marvelous one, who used to send to China for their Christmas candy, nuts, fruit, and sauces.”
Fort Benton historian Jack Lepley recalls stories his mother Margaret told him about her childhood on the George and Louise Patterson ranch in the household with a Chinese cook. Their cook Charlie Hung would often laugh and tell young Margaret, born 1894, “when I go back to China, I take you with me.” They would all join in the laughter and treat his comment with the sense of humor believed intended. This went on for several years until Margaret was about seven years old and Charlie Hung decided to return to his home in China. One day Hung announced that he was ready to take Margaret with him. It began to dawn on Mrs. Patterson and Margaret that Charlie seriously wanted to “buy” Margaret and take her back to China with him. He was not at all happy when his offer was turned down, but Margaret Patterson remained on the ranch and later married Charles Lepley.

One studio photograph of a Chinese man in the collection of our Overholser Research Center has fascinating insight written on the back. The image taken by photographer John G. Showell shows “Lum,” no doubt Lum Crum, cook for Sheriff Thomas and Mary Clary. Also written is “Lum was one of about 5 Chinese taught English by Mrs. Buzzell, wife of Methodist minister. According to her daughter Esther Buzzell Turner, Lum and the others came to the Buzzell home in Fort Benton 1 or 2 evenings a week to learn to read and write English about 1900.” One can only imagine that this related to earlier reports that by this time some Chinese were attending church services in Fort Benton. Imagine Chinese Sunday School in the Methodist Church on Sunday mornings and English lessons at night at the home of the Methodist minister.

In March 1901 Joe Yu, a Chinese who had cooked for a number of parties in the Benton area during the previous ten years, died of pulmonary oedema. The funeral was held from Wolff’s undertaking rooms with “the local celestials turning out in force.” Joe Yu was about 50 years of age and had lived in the United States for over 25 years.

In October 1901 Lee Gee, who had owned the Enterprise restaurant most of the time for the past fifteen years, sold out to Lee Hing and left for China along with a party of other Benton Chinese including Gee’s two brothers. The Great Falls Leader covered their departure, “Speaking of the Chinese party that left Fort Benton last week for China, an old-timer who is well informed on such matters said that the three Lee brothers had been thrifty almost beyond belief. ‘They came here only six or seven years ago,’ said he, ‘and two of them ran a little restaurant while the other farmed a small truck patch, and yet I know that they took $31,00 [sic apparently $31,000] to China with them, and they made it here too, every cent of it. That is what I call thrift.’” The Leader concluded, “Lee Gee, the eldest of the trio, said that they intended to return to their native province in China, build houses and live the rest of their years in ease and plenty.”

That same month, October 1901, Mar Joe, a Chinese who had been in Fort Benton just a month was arrested by Customs Inspector E. A. Ringwald for violating the Chinese exclusion act. The U. S. Commissioner granted him ten days to prepare his defense. While Mar Joe remained in jail, it was discovered that he was wanted by Canadian authorities at Fernie, British Columbia, and they offered a $500 reward for his arrest, although the nature of the crime was not known. After a ten-day delay, Mar Joe was escorted west by Inspector Ringwald and Deputy Marshal Wall for deportation to Canada.

More troubles arose from the Chinese exclusion act for a man in Fort Benton in January 1902, when Louis Kim, alias Ung Toy, was arrested. One evening Henry Hagen noticed smoke coming from under the sidewalk in front of the old Magnolia saloon building on Front Street, recently vacated by the St. Paul restaurant. Hagen could not locate any fire and despite a thorough wetting with a hose, the volume of smoke did not diminish. He then got Marshal Sneath, who finally located a trap door in a lean-to kitchen at the rear of the building. On raising it a Chinese man was found in the cellar, and a fire he had made on the floor accounted for the smoke. Kim had been working at Tong Chong’s restaurant for about six months and was evidently prepared for quite a stay, as he had bedding with him in his cellar dwelling. Louis Kim was lodged in jail for ten days while Inspector Ringwald investigated. The finding was that Kim’s paper had been issued in Buffalo, Wyoming in April 1893, but had not been re-registered that November when a new exclusion law as passed. Louis Kim was released and allowed to remain in the country, but he was fined $8.50 for the bonfire. Louis Kim died in Fort Benton just five months later.

Sam Lee’s laundry at the corner of Main and St. John’s was closed for quarantine most of the month of February 1902 when clothing from Mrs. William Morrow’s home had been taken there. The board of health discovered that young Harry Morrow had come down with a mild case of varioloid, smallpox in a previously vaccinated patent. By the end of the month all the clothing at the laundry had been fumigated and the quarantine lifted much to the relief of the hard-pressed laundry.


(1) Identification Cards Similar to This One Issued in San Francisco Were Issued to Chinese in the United States during the 1890s. (Ken Robison Collection)
(2) Chinese in Choteau County Were Photographed during the 1890s. Lum Crum, cook for Sheriff Thomas Clary was photographed by John G. Showell. (Courtesy of OHRC)
(3) Charles E. Conrad’s Chinese cook Tu Hang photographed by Famed Black Photographer J. P. Ball in Helena. (Courtesy of Thomas Minckler Collection)
(4) Chinese Gardens Area on the 1902 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map (Ken Robison Collection)


MrCachet said...

Great addition! I'll return to finish reading this a bit later, but I thought I'd let you know I'm following your articles.

Fort Benton Historian said...

Thanks, glad you enjoy them. I've got two more installments to complete the history of the Chinese at Fort Benton.

MrCachet said...

The photos are not showing up in this article for some reason. Perhaps it's my browser... Fascinating reading, however!

Fort Benton Historian said...

Sorry but I need to take the time to add them. Quite a fun story to put together--hard to believe that the Chinese had such a presence and impact on this little town.