03 August 2010

The End of the Fort Benton Chinese: The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri—Part IV

By Ken Robison

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

Published in 28 July and 4 August 2010 Fort Benton River Press

In one of the few positive articles on the Chinese ever to appear in the Great Falls Tribune, the January 4, 1893 edition carried this editorial:
“The Chinese have a beautiful custom which they religiously observe on New Year day--that of paying promptly every cent they owe. Perhaps the custom would be quite as beautiful for Caucasians as Chinese and a few days after New Year better than never.”

Meanwhile, the Great Northern Depot in Great Falls bore a sign that read, “Chinaman don’t let the sun set on you here.” On occasion the racist Great Falls Tribune even tried to stir up trouble for Chinese in Fort Benton. In March 1902 the Tribune was not only urging exclusion of Chinese from Great Falls but also headlining, “Chinks Must Go. Citizens of Fort Benton Will Establish a Steam Laundry and Force Them Out . . . A movement is on foot here to put in a steam laundry at an early date. Investigations which have been made by a number of business men who are heading the movement show that the Chinese laundries here take in about $1,000 per month, if anything a little over that sum. This is sufficient to make a steam laundry pay from the start, if its work is good and the charges reasonable . . . Chas. H. Green has been placed in charge of the canvas of the town, and hopes to be able to report definite results in 10 days.”

The local Fort Benton “exclusion” operation drew a headline in the River Press “To Banish The Chinese” adding that the two Chinese laundries in Benton employed 15 to 18 men at different times of the year and urged “the manifest benefit to the town from having white labor employed in place of Chinese is patent to everyone.” Apparently nothing came of this scheme for the press quietly dropped the matter, and the Chinese laundries of Fort Benton continued for many more years.

Despite the growing anti-Chinese mood in the county, life for Chinese in Choteau County went on. The first Chinese marriage to occur in the county was solemnized at Havre when Mr. Y. P. Yup, a resident of Havre, and Miss Low Dey Gum, of Portland, Oregon were married April 7, 1902, by Reverend Stringfellow in the Presbyterian Church.

Benton law enforcement and courts played a relatively even hand with the Chinese in town during this period. Cornelius Manning assaulted a waiter in a Chinese restaurant and was arrested. Judge Sullivan ordered Manning held to await the outcome of the Chinese man’s injuries since it appeared possible that Manning had fractured the man’s skull by a blow with a pitcher. In early May 1902, Marshal Sneath reacted to an altercation between the Chinese manager of Lee Hing restaurant and a white customer over the price of a meal. The customer drew a six-shooter, “giving him the best of the argument until the marshal appeared. Judge Sullivan imposed a fine of $25. Later that same day Marshal Sneath was attracted to a shack next to the Sam Lee laundry “by weird and awesome howls which indicated murder, at the least. But after forcing the door he was greeted with the bland assurance: ‘Dat all right. China boy got bellerake.’”

Ah Fong, resident of Fort Benton for almost 25 years, died in May 1902 with the River Press covering his funeral. “The funeral of Ah Fong took place this afternoon, interment being in Riverside cemetery for the present. Deceased has been a resident of this city most of the time for nearly a quarter of a century, but at one time had a restaurant at Havre. He was able to read and write English and was quite well off some years ago, owning some real estate here but during his sickness for two years past has been supported by his countrymen.”

After the turn of the century and perhaps in reaction to the increased anti-Chinese sentiment in the community, news coverage about Fort Benton’s small Chinatown and Chinese decreased in the River Press. Except for occasional arrests for registration lapses and rare incidents with the law, the Chinese became almost invisible in Fort Benton society. Even Chinese New Years passed with scant mention in the press.

In early February 1903, the River Press reported simply that Chinese New Year was being celebrated with “considerable enthusiasm by the Mongolian race. Besides witnessing their display of fireworks, all who pass their places of business are invited to partake of Chinese nuts, candy, and a cigar.”

Ung Wing, the cook at the Overland hotel was arraigned before Judge Sullivan during the afternoon of February 10, 1903, on a charge of assault with intent to kill. The case was set for 2 o’clock but J. E. Stranahan, attorney for the defendant, asked for a postponement of 24 hours to prepare the case, which was granted on the receipt of a $50 cash bond. The River Press reported, “It appears that orders (at the Overland) got mixed, which is done occasionally at the best regulated hotels, and as raw eggs and coffee cups accompanied by plates seemed to be the principal articles of the order that was mixed this morning, the cook and waiter made targets of each other with the order. The cook served the first of the order, this being a raw egg followed closely by a coffee cup, and the waiter returned a volley of cups and dishes, after which the cook took to the alley and left the order as it was. Judge Sullivan will rehash the served order tomorrow.” The feuding parties came to court the next day. Ung Wing, the defendant charged with assault, was fined $20. Luther Bain, who took the “poke” at the Chinaman, was fined $7.

Fire was a constant threat in frontier towns. Fort Benton had wisely positioned water wells along Front Street (marked now by brick circles) and consequently had few fires there. Main Street and other parts of town were not so fortunate. In March 1903, the Chinese laundry building near the sawmill at Fort Assinniboine burned down and about $1,000 worth of soldier’s laundry was destroyed.

Chinese New Year in Fort Benton in 1904 was celebrated February 17 with the usual festivities. In China the “years” number from the beginning of the reign of each emperor, and the present monarch, Quong Sue, was crowned about thirty years ago. One week later, in Havre an unidentified man was arrested for making a murderous assault upon a Chinaman. The man had been eating at a Chinese restaurant, and when asked to pay up he drew a knife and inflicted a wound on the Chinaman’s head that required surgical attention.

Lee Sing was taken into custody in late February 1904, because he could not produce his residence permit. He was taken to Helena March 2 by a deputy United States marshal to have a hearing before the federal authorities. In April eight Chinese were arrested at Fort Assinniboine because they could not produce the necessary residence papers. They were to have hearings before U. S. Commissioner McIntyre, and probably were deported.

James Soo, a Chinese patient, died of consumption in mid August 1904, at St. Clare hospital. Soo was formerly a resident of Harlem. In September 1905, fire destroyed a Chinese log cabin on the corner of St. John and Main Streets.

In a sobering report in the Great Falls Tribune in November 1905 under the headline, “Back to China to Die. ‘Many people have a mistaken idea about Chinamen,’ said Deputy United States Marshal Young, who passed through Great Falls last night, en route from Helena to Port Townsend, Wash., where he will deport one of the yellow race.

‘’The impression generally prevails that the average Chink has plenty of money, or, at least, is seldom ‘broke.’ That is a mistake. It has fallen to me to arrest scores of Chinamen, principally upon the charge of living in this country without the proper credentials, in violation of the exclusion act. I have found, in a majority of cases, that they were short of money and frequently in destitute circumstances.’

“In company with Emil Schmidt, a Helena saloonkeeper, Deputy Marshal Young was on his way to Havre, where a Chinaman named Wah Lee was arrested several days ago, charged with not having papers in his possession to show that he was entitled to remain in Uncle Sam’s domain.

“Wah Lee was on his way to the coast from Minot, N. D. Upon reaching Havre, a federal inspector ordered the almond-eyed traveler detained until such time as the case could be investigated. Lee appeared to be sick, and has since been able to sit up only at intervals.

“It is believed that Lee was taken ill at Minot and decided to return to his old home in the Flowery kingdom, probably to die. Deputy Marshal Young thinks that the Chinaman will be fortunate if he crosses the Pacific Ocean alive.”

On May 29, 1907, Jim Charlie, proprietor of the O. K. restaurant in Havre, was assaulted in his kitchen early Sunday morning by Charles Woods, a Black American, and badly beaten up. The Chinaman was rendered unconscious and Woods then rifled a trunk, stealing about $35, and made his getaway. There were two assailants, one from whom watched the dining room while the other went back into the kitchen. Woods was captured a short time later by Chief Bickle. No money could be found on him.

Lee Sing had escaped deportation in 1904, and was now a gardener, when he was arrested and required to pay a small fine for selling the ever present opium in 1907.

Across the Medicine Line in Canada, riots occurred in Lethbridge against the Chinese in December 1907. A dispatch from Lethbridge reported: “Because they believed that a prominent citizen had been murdered in a Chinese restaurant, 1,500 men raided the Oriental quarter late Christmas night and left a wreck behind.
“Restaurants and laundries were smashed; doors and windows and entire fronts of buildings were reduced to splinters.
“The regular police of the town were powerless and a brigade of mounted police had to be called out to quell the riot.
“It was just after 9 o’clock that the mob began to form.
“The story had got abroad that Harry Smith, one of the best known ranchers of the cattle district of which the city is the center, had been fatally wounded in a restaurant.
“Curiously enough, neither Smith nor anyone else had been hurt, but even the police were misled by the tale, and two Orientals were placed under arrest and charged with his murder.
“An indignant mob gathered opposite the eating house and there was talk of lynching.
“Suddenly some one threw a rock that smashed a front window. In a moment the crowd was beyond control.
“Bricks and stones were hurled and when the doors had been broken the tables and chairs and dishes inside were smashed.
“The Columbia and Alberta restaurants were literally wrecked. What could not be conveniently smashed by the few who could get inside was passed out to the street to the howling mob in waiting and there demolished.
“At 10 o’clock a detachment of the mounted police appeared and the crowd scattered. Hundreds of the rioters merely shifted the scene of the pillage. Three blocks away, opposite the Arlington hotel, they cleaned out another Chinese restaurant and mishandled two Orientals who were captured within.
“Mayor Galbraith and Magistrate Townsend both addressed the mob and urged it to disperse, and as all possible damage had been done, it obeyed.”
In late 1908 the Enterprise Restaurant was still operating under a succession of proprietors, Lee Gee in October, Lee Shone & Brother in November, and Lee Hong & Company in December.

In late January 1909, the River Press barely mention Chinese New Year saying only, “The Chinese residents of this locality are celebrating their New Year today, the festivities being of the usual kind.”

Later that year the Press reported, “ A Chinese cook, who was known by the name Charlie Kong and who has been employed by various residents of this vicinity, was found dead in his room this morning by one of his fellow countrymen. The deceased had been on the sick list the past three weeks, and death is supposed to have resulted from pneumonia.”

The old time Chinese were dying off. In December 1909, Ah Que, the Chinese who has made his home in Armington for so many years, died Tuesday night, December 7th. He was an old timer in this part of the country having lived in Fort Benton, Neihart and Armington for the last 30 years. The remains were taken to Helena by John Gray where burial will be made.

By 1910 the Chinese presence in Chouteau County had decreased to 40 with just 12 in Fort Benton, 18 in Havre, 2 in Chinook, 6 at Harlem, 1 on the lower Teton, and 1 on Eagle Creek. Dick Lee, a 49 year-old single man born in China and in the U.S. since 1876 served as cook on a ranch near Eagle Creek, probably the McMillan Ranch. Lewis Luna, a 63 year-old man born in China and in the U.S. since 1865 worked as cook on the sheep ranch where Charles Schwandt was manager.

In September 1910, the River Press headlined, “Attempted to Commit Murder. A man who gives his name as John Smith, and who has been employed in the Grand Union hotel kitchen as dishwasher, was arrested by the city marshal Sunday morning on a charge of attempting to commit murder. The prisoner is alleged to have assaulted a Chinese cook, generally known by the name of Toy, apparently without provocation. “The victim of the assault was struck several times with a cleaver, one of the blows fracturing the skull and causing a wound that may have serious results. He is under the care of a physician, and in the event of death the prisoner will face a charge of murder.”

In mid November, the jury term of the district court opened, with the first criminal case of the term being that of John Smith, the defendant charged with assault with intent to kill. The alleged assault took place in this city in September, the victim being a Chinese cook named Lee Chung.”

The trial progressed as reported in the Press, “The trial of John Smith, accused of a murderous assault upon a Chinese cook employed at the Grand Union hotel was in progress in the district court today, William Toy, of Helena, acting as interpreter during part of the testimony. The latter was to the effect that there had been no trouble between the men, and that the assault was without provocation. The defendant, in testifying on his own behalf, declared he had no knowledge of striking the Chinaman with a cleaver, his mind being a complete blank as to the incident. The case was given to the jury at a late hour this afternoon.” The jury in the case of John Smith returned a verdict of guilty, and sentence was pronounced: “John Smith, convicted of assault in the first degree, was given a sentence of eight years.” Despite the trend toward increased violent against the Chinese, they continued to receive even-handed justice in Chouteau County courts.

Chinese New Year January 1911 was ushered in at midnight by the usual firing of firecrackers, and for two days the Celestials kept open house, entertaining their friends with various kinds of Chinese delicacies.

For the first time since the passage of the bankruptcy law in 1910, a Montana Chinese took advantage of its provisions. In December 1911, Charlie Wang Luk, proprietor of the Chicago cafe at Havre, filed a petition for bankruptcy in the federal court at Helena. The Chinaman gives his liabilities at $589.50 and his assets at $1,280, the greater part of which, however, are of doubtful value.

The local Chinese residents celebrated their New Year February 1912 in the usual quaint style Saturday, this celebration probably being the last of a series that dates back hundreds of years. It has been the custom in China to regulate their calendar by the changes of the moon, making 360 days in the year, but under the new form of government recently adopted it is believed this will be changed to the Julian calendar.”

Lee Kim, a Chinaman against whom the county attorney had filed a charge of assault in the first degree, and who has been held in jail about six months, was allowed to plead guilty to assault in the third degree. In view of his long confinement in jail the court fined the defendant $150, which was paid.

In 1917 the River Press carried advertisements for The Enterprise Restaurant, which was still in business on Front Street with Quan Shol, Proprietor. Jack Lepley remembers hearing that as a boy George Veilleux and other boys “explored” the basement of this building to find a series of upper and lower bunks arranged for opium smokers in this very old opium den. Today, this is today’s the Liquor Store portion of R J’s Toggery.

In January 1919, the Great Falls Tribune reported, “Noted Bar Goes to Chinese Firm. Old Havre Saloon’s taxidermy specimens to Be Retained; Cafe Changes Hands.

“The Mint saloon building, owned by C. W. Young, has been leased until February 15, 1924, by Wong Kim, Wong Sam and William W. Lee, a firm of Chinese residents of Havre who now operate the California cafe, and they will take possession on or about February 15. It is their intention to remodel entirely the interior, but retain the present fancy decorations and famous specimens of taxidermy of which Mr. Young was always very proud. In Havre’s palmy days the Mint was considered the finest bar in the city and the new proprietors are to pay a monthly rental of $225 for the building.”

Even the new town of Geraldine had a Chinese resident. Lou Wong came to Geraldine from Lewistown to open a laundry. In November 1919, Lou Wong died in his laundry in Geraldine. His body was taken back to Lewistown where a funeral was held. His short obituary reported that Wong was an old man who was well known in both Montana and Utah.

Montana attitudes toward the Chinese ranged from total exclusion in Great Falls to toleration in Helena, Butte, and Fort Benton. The prevailing feeling in Fort Benton seemed most influenced by economic conditions and by 1920 Chouteau County homesteads was suffering hard times. By then the Chinese population in Fort Benton had declined to six, although they were still in demand as cooks. In that year young 27-year-old China-born Owen G. Fat owned and operated a restaurant on Front Street with Lew Shu as cook. This restaurant was located in the Culbertson House block, between Black American Peter Burnett’s shoe repair shop and Japanese-American Tommy Matsumoto’s restaurant. Matsumoto, born in Japan in 1874, had come to the U. S. in 1900, and operated the Club Café on Front Street for about twenty years before moving to Great Falls to open the popular Club Cafeteria on Central Avenue.

Two other Chinese residents in Fort Benton in 1920 were Chow Heery, who operated a restaurant on Front Street and elderly 75-year-old Tom Mun, who served as cook at Jere Sullivan’s popular Choteau House hotel. The final two Chinese resident in Fort Benton were young American-born Chinese, Wong G. Ham and Young Yen, who were the cooks at Charles Lepley’s Grand Union Hotel.

In January 1922, a fire that was caused by hot ashes dumped near a wooden fence would have developed into serious proportions had it not been for prompt action by Henry Hagen about 3:00 o’clock Tuesday morning. The blaze was discovered by one of the tenants of the Hagen block who gave the alarm, and when Mr. Hagen reached the scene of trouble in the rear of the Chinese restaurant, the flames were creeping toward a block of frame buildings that it would have been difficult to save.

The last Chinese in Fort Benton operated the Quan Café until February 1923, when cook Wong Ming hung himself. As reported in the River Press:
“Wong Ming Hangs Self. Wong Ming, cook at the Quan Café hung himself sometime during Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. Upon opening up Wednesday morning, the proprietor, Tom Mum, noted Wong’s absence from his accustomed job and went upstairs to call him and upon opening the door found him, hanging from the door casing. Wong had driven a nail into the casing and used a small rope to carry out his purpose. No cause is known to exist for his act, more than that he was of a morose disposition and was given to times of despondency. He came here from Butte about two years ago and was 23 years of age. The body will be taken to Butte Thursday for burial, relatives of the Chinaboy living there.

“Tom Mum, who has conducted the Quan Café during the past few years, came here about eight years ago. He has decided to close the restaurant for the present at least and will go to Butte where he will secure employment. Mr. Mum is well liked and will be greatly missed by his patrons.”

Another perspective on this incident came from the Great Falls Tribune under the headline, “Cook Scolds Helper For Absence From Tasks But He Only Shivers In Answer; He Talks to Dead Man.

“Wong Ming, cook’s helper at the Quam restaurant here, was not on hand to help prepare breakfast Wednesday morning. The cook stormed around a while, did some of the odd jobs Wong was supposed to do, then went to Wong’s room fully determined to give the late sleeper a large fragment of his mind.

“Wong was standing just inside his room when the cook opened the door. He appeared to be shivering violently, a fact which the cook credited to the cold weather. All the cook said may not be translated here, but in substance his remarks were to the effect that Wong could warm himself by getting down into the kitchen and rustling about a fit.

“Wong made no reply, but kept on shivering. Thoroughly exasperated, the cook attempted to grab him by the arm. With the touch, Wong floated away from him a little ways and seemed to sort of stay suspended in the air. The cook was conscious of a prickling feeling along his spine, but he needed help in the kitchen. With a silent appeal to his ancestors, he tip-toed closer to Wong and this time took a grip on Wong’s arm that no shiver could break.

“Wong tumbled in a heap at the cook’s feet. Sometime during the night he had mounted a chair, driven a nail into the casing above the door, attached one end of a small rope to the nail and the other to his neck, kicked the chair away. He had been suspended, his feet just off the floor, when the cook opened the door and set the body to “shivering.” The cook did not notice the rope until the body fell.

“Employes of the restaurant say that Wong was in a cheerful mood when he finished up his work the night before and retired. His father and brother live in Butte, and it is expected that the body will be taken there for burial.”

Speculation at the time indicated that Wong Ming was hanged to scare-off the remaining Chinese in the town. Although never proven, the incident led Manager Tom Mun and staff to close the café the same day and leave for Butte. This sadly ended the era of the Celestial Kingdom in Fort Benton.

Despite the ending of the Chinese presence in Fort Benton in 1923, that was not the last word. The real ending appears to be the return of a Chinese man to the town about four years later, in 1927. Wally Morger, who was four years old at that time and the only son of the Fort Benton Town Marshal Earl Morger, remembers that a Chinese man named Chow Hoy approached Marshal Morger and asked if he would be interested in buying his home. The house had been built in 1912 in the Delatraz addition, and Chow Hoy had bought it in 1917. Chow Hoy wanted $500 for the house and four 35 ft. by 120 ft. lots. He indicated that the ethnic situation in town directed against the Chinese had fomented threats against him, a sentiment not unique to Fort Benton.

Marshal Morger approached his two uncles, Ed and Henry Davis, merchants in town, and managed to secure the money to seal the deal. Although the house was a small one bedroom, one bath home, it was well built and remains in the family today. Randy Morger purchased the home, at 1810 Franklin Street, three years ago. Wally concluded his story by saying, “The home holds many special memories for the Morger family.” To which we might add, the early Chinese on the Upper Missouri left many memorable stories we can all enjoy.

[Sources for all four parts: U.S. Census; Great Falls Yesterday, p. 12; Benton Record Weekly 20 Sep 1978; BRW 13 February 1880; BRW 27 February 1880; BRW 19 March 1880; BRW 2 Jun 1881;BRW 16 Jun 1881; BRW 18 August 1881; BRW 23 February 1882; BRW 16 March 1882; BRW 23 March 1882; BRW 17 August – 14 September 1882; BRW 5 October 1882; BRW 12 October 1882; BRW 2 June 1883; BRW 25 August 1883; Fort Benton River Press Weekly 2 April 1884; FBRPW 3 September 1884; FBRPW 4 February 1885; Great Falls Tribune Weekly 26 Dec 1885; FBRPW 20 Jan 1886; FBRPW 24 Feb 1886; FBRPW 15 January 1887; FBRPW 16 Nov 1887; FBRPW 8 April 1890; FBRPW 8 April 1891; FBRPW 24 Jun 1891; Great Falls Leader Daily 6 August 1891; FBRPW 10 Feb 1892; FBRPW 20 Jul 1892; FBRPW 12 August 1891; FBRPW 26 August 1891; FBRPW 29 June 1892; GFTD 4 Jan 1893; FBRPW 21 Feb 1894; FBRPW 6 March 1894; FBRPW 3 April 1895; FBRPW 28 August 1895; FBRPW 4 Feb 1900; FBRPW 27 Feb 1900; FBRPW 20 Mar 1901; FBRPW 2 Oct 1901; FBRPW 16 Oct 1901; Great Falls Leader Daily 24 Oct 1901; FBRPW 29 Jan 1902; FBRPW 5 Feb 1902; FBRPW 26 Feb 1902; GFTD 29 March 1902; FBRPW 2 Apr 1902; GFTD 7 Apr 1902; FBRPW 9 Apr 1902; FBRPW 30 Apr 1902; FBRPW 7 May 1902; FBRPW 14 May 1902; FBRPW 4 Feb 1903; FBRPW 11 Feb 1903; FBRPW 25 Mar 1903; FBRPW 17 Feb 1904; FBRPW 24 Feb 1904; FBRPW 2 Mar 1904; FBRPW 13 Apr 1904; FBRPW 17 Aug 1904; GFTD 3 Nov 1905; GFLD 4 Nov 1905; GFTD 30 May 1906; GFTD 30 Dec 1907; GFLD 11 Dec 1909; FBRPW 14 Sep 1910; FBRPW 16 Nov 1910; FBRPW 23 Nov 1910; FBRPW 24 Feb 1912; FBRPW 31 Jul 1912; GFTD 20 Jan 1919, p. 7; GFTD 13 Nov 1919; FBRPW 4 Jan 1922; GFTD 15 Feb 1923; FBRPW 21 Feb 1923; Ltr Sing Lee to C. E. Conrad 28 Oct 1898, Small Collection 185 Mansfield Library, U of M]