Riot in Rock Springs Leads to Massacre

It was a dark day for Wyoming Territory, and even darker times for freedom and inclusion in America. September 2, 1885 brought violence and mayhem to Rock Springs, and in the end 28 (some say up to 50), Chinese immigrants lost their lives, and over 75 homes were burned, causing what today would be almost $4 million in property damage. The historic event is now known as the Rock Springs Massacre.

Leading up to the Riot

Tension in the United States over Chinese immigration had been building for years in the late 1800’s. So much so that in May of 1882 President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in U.S. History, and was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the country. Although the Act was originally designed to last for only 10 years, it would be renewed, and then made permanent, until finally being repealed by the Magnuson Act of 1943.

Harper’s Weekly – Chinese Immigrants 1876.

Animosity toward the Chinese had always been there, but became prevalent after the Civil War. The 1870’s saw an economy hurting, and as competition over finding gold and jobs increased, so too did the ill will toward most foreigners. That ill will was especially felt toward the Chinese, whom fled their homeland due to famine and political upheaval. Many of them came to California to work in the gold mines, but after being forced out of the mines, wound up taking low paying jobs such as restaurant and laundry workers. As the post war economy suffered, labor leaders and California Governor John Bigler blamed the Chinese for depressed wages, leading to further organization against the immigrants. Although California passed a law to ban anyone of Chinese or Mongolian race from entering the state in 1858, the State Supreme Court had struck it down in 1862.  As the population continued to increase, several California cities saw violence over the Chinese immigrants.

By the late 1870’s the sentiment toward Chinese immigration had reached Washington D.C., and in 1878 Congress passed legislation excluding the Chinese, however it was vetoed by then President Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1882, under a new President Chester A. Arthur, they would be successful in passing the legislation. Meanwhile, in Wyoming Territory, many of the Chinese were working the railroads, then afterward in the coal mines owned by Union Pacific Railroad. A leading voice against Chinese immigration, the Knights of Labor, established a chapter in Rock Springs in 1883, and like in California, blamed the Chinese for depressed wages.

The Massacre

Newspaper accounts that followed the riot on that September day in 1885, wrote of building tensions, and indicated that labor organizers had been planning a general strike, “to bring matters to a crisis”, but the violence that ensued was not “part of the programme.” Indeed, the tensions had been rising against Union Pacific, who by paying the Chinese lower wages, left the white miners at Rock Springs believing they were being robbed of their own decent wage.  In addition, a strike against Union Pacific ten years earlier, led the company to replace the mostly Cornish, Irish, Swedish and Welsh workers with Chinese strikebreakers. When the strike of ’75 was over, the company resumed mining with only 50 white miners, compared to 150 Chinese immigrants.

Harper’s Weekly – Rock Springs Riot 1885

When things came to a head in 1885, there were 150 white miners and over 300 Chinese miners in Rock Springs.  That summer many white miners where out of work, but Union Pacific was bringing in Chinese laborers by the dozens. In August, notices were posted from Evanston to Rock Springs demanding the expulsion of the Chinese, and on the night of September 1, white miners held a meeting. That next morning a fight broke out between ten white miners and Chinese laborers in the mine, resulting in two of the Chinese being badly beaten, one of whom would later die from his injuries. The white miners then walked out of the mine to strike against the company.  More white miners were gathering in town for a Knights of Labor meeting, and thus the mob began to grow.

While some of the white miners chose to go to the saloons instead of taking part in what was coming, a Union Pacific official, anticipating trouble, convinced the saloons and grocers to close by early afternoon. About that time the mob of white miners, now armed, moved toward Chinatown with the explicit goal of driving out all Chinese immigrants from the town. The mob gave them an hour to leave and the Chinese, now in a panic, agreed.  But the mob grew impatient and thinking that the Chinese were preparing to defend themselves, began to advance on them with “much shooting and shouting”.

An 1886 article on the massacre published by Franklin Press states:

“Without offering any resistance, the Chinamen snatched up whatever they could lay their hands on, and started east on the run. Some were bareheaded and barefooted; others carried a small bundle in a handkerchief, while a number had rolls of bedding. They fled like a flock of frightened sheep, scrambling and tumbling down the steep banks of Bitter Creek, then through the sage-brush, and over the railroad, and up into the hills east of Burning Mountain. Some of the men were engaged in searching the houses, and driving out the stray Chinamen who were in hiding, while others followed up the retreating Chinamen, encouraging their flight with showers of bullets fired over their heads….”

“…Soon a black smoke was seen issuing from the peak of a house in “Hong Kong,” then from another, and very soon eight or ten of the largest of the houses were in flames. Half choked with fire and smoke, numbers of Chinamen came rushing from the, burning buildings, and, with blankets and bedquilts over their heads to protect themselves from stray rifle-shots, they followed their retreating brothers into the hills at the top of their speed.”

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