Mystery of Chinese mining revealed

Bobby Saunters, a member of the Blue Mountain Ranger District Heritage Team, searches for artifacts at a Chinese mining camp in the Middle Fork area. Dave Root, left, current president of the Oregon Archaeological Society, holds flags used to mark detects.

As word got out in June 1862 about gold in Whiskey Gulch near Canyon City, 10,000 miners flocked to the high desert area of Eastern Oregon to strike it rich. Chinese miners working the placer diggings in California and southwest Oregon around Jacksonville soon heard the news and joined the trek.

Word also reached Guangdong province in China, the home of Chinese mining companies that had operated across Southeast Asia since 1700. By 1870, according to census records, 42 percent of Grant County’s population and 69 percent of its miners were Chinese.

These immigrants shared one thing with Euro-Americans who flocked to Oregon — a desire to prosper from opportunities offered by the untapped resources of America’s West.

But their unfamiliar language, dress, food and other customs posed a hurdle for Chinese miners, and as anti-Chinese sentiment hardened into legislation in the 1880s, the immigrants found themselves forced out of the land of opportunity. The result was a legacy of misunderstandings about the Chinese who helped develop the West in the late 19th century.

In a talk at the Canyon City Community Hall on July 20, Chelsea Rose outlined three assumptions about the immigrant Chinese that have been proven wrong through research in historical documents and diggings at mining camps.

An archaeologist at the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology, Rose has conducted research in Jacksonville, home of Oregon’s first Chinatown, and made two field trips to Guangdong, where most of the miners originated.

The first assumption, she said, is that Chinese miners were desperate landless peasants who fled China to escape famine and war. In fact, Chinese mining companies had effective managers and skilled laborers, and most Chinese immigrants were educated and came from families above the poverty line.

A second assumption is that the Chinese only reworked claims abandoned by Euro-American miners, she said. The Chinese purchased or leased claims from Euro-Americans, but they greatly enlarged the mines and adapted a wide range of mining techniques to fit specific placer deposits.

The third assumption is that the Chinese mostly worked for Euro-American companies, but most Chinese immigrants worked for Chinese companies that not only mined but also owned stores, gambling halls, laundries, restaurants and hotels, she said.

Much of the evidence supporting Rose comes from archaeological digs at mining sites around the Southern Blues. Their locations were discovered in historical records at the Grant County Courthouse or the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site or during onsite inspections ahead of timber sales.

Malheur National Forest archaeologist Don Hann walked the timber sale sites and flagged critical locations to protect them from heavy equipment. Nine cabin sites associated with Chinese mining have been located in the Middle Fork John Day River area.

In 2016, the Malheur Forest partnered with SOULA, Kam Wah Chung and the Grant County Historical Museum to support the study, protection and interpretation of these cultural resources. Rose and Hann co-directed the project.

Recently 19 volunteers donated 660 hours to work with the archaeologists in the first phase of the project, which involved site clearing, surface artifact identification, metal detector surveying, feature mapping and test excavations.

Despite signs of looting at some sites, numerous artifacts were found with links to China, including ceramic potsherds, brown-glazed stoneware, fragments of Chinese Winter Green porcelain and pieces of glass bottles. The artifacts came from cups and dishes used for dining but also liquor bottles and opium containers.

The stamped seal on one container was identified as the brand of the Sheung Wan Fook Lung company, a Hong Kong opium producer. The design is among the first internationally recognized brands in the history of Asia. Opium was outlawed in the U.S. in 1909.

The archaeologists also found rubber boots with hobnailed soles used by the miners in the cold mountain streams. Metal items discovered at the cabin sites included cast-iron cooking pan fragments, vegetable oil cans, Chinese-style cut-off shovel heads, remains of five-piece gold pans, handmade perforated metal pieces used to repair grizzly sluices and a trigger mechanism from a percussion cap rifle.

The miners often repurposed metal for other uses. A piece of steel chiseled off a railroad track was likely used by a metal-worker as an anvil, Hann said. Handmade nozzles for hydraulic mining were made from metal pieces riveted together, he said.

While the cabins’ logs disappeared over time, dry-stacked rock cooking features remained. Buried in the soil and debris nearby were bones from sheep, pig and chickens — but no beef, Hann noted.

Researchers are unsure when the Chinese first came to Grant County, but commerce between the West Coast and China existed before the early gold strikes, Rose said.

The earliest record of a Chinese-owned placer-mining claim belongs to the Ah Yee site in the Middle Fork, recorded in an 1867 mining sales agreement found in the Grant County Courthouse.

Chinese mining activity ballooned after that. By 1870, according to federal mining reports, about 82 percent of placer claims in Grant County were owned by Chinese companies.

The government found it difficult to assess the gold yield from Chinese miners as they were reluctant to talk. While the Chinese reported about $126,000 in gold production in 1870, federal agents suspected it was twice that amount, equivalent to $4.5 million today.

Chinese mining companies in Grant County were set up in a similar fashion to the kongsi business partnerships found in China. Partners were not paid a wage but earned a share of the profits based on their level of contribution and their expertise.

The miners sent their earnings back to China where it helped finance community centers, libraries and tower-shaped family homes called dialous.

As gold diggings played out, the Chinese survived the transition from placer mining to hydraulic mining. According to a 1892 federal mining report, about 79 percent of the workers at hydraulic operations in Grant County were Chinese, and two-thirds of the gold was extracted by Chinese.

But the Chinese population had significantly declined — by 1890, only 6 percent of the county’s population was Chinese. One reason for the decline was the move to underground hard-rock mining, which required a larger investment in equipment, a hurdle the Chinese mining companies could not meet, Hann said.

Another reason was growing anti-Chinese sentiment, which made it difficult not only for Chinese to find jobs with Euro-American hard-rock mining companies but also to make the transition from mining to farming or commerce. The Kam Wah Chung business in John Day was an exception.

This sentiment was made law in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. The act was made permanent in 1902 and not repealed until 1943.

The federal agents who wrote the 1870 mining report would have been surprised. While they noted that “it does not seem likely ... that the Chinese will either be universally introduced or universally excluded as a race,” the agents expected the Chinese to easily transition into underground hard-rock mining.

The Happy Camp 2 archaeological site was one of the last Chinese mining sites active in Grant County. A 1901 federal mining report noted that a few Chinese miners were working the “old placers of the Happy Camp mining district.”

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