What began as a labor dispute between white and Chinese coal miners on September 2, 1885 turned into a bloodbath known as the Rock Springs Massacre that left 28 Chinese miners dead and 15 others wounded. Following the violence, white miners set 79 homes ablaze, effectively wiping out the Chinatown neighborhood of Rock Springs in what was then the Wyoming Territory.
Perpetrators of the violence against the Chinese immigrant community faced little to no consequences for the massacre. And anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese sentiment followed the Chinese immigrant community as they moved from the American West to other parts of the country.
Chinese Immigrants Mine Gold and Coal
The first major wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s with the hopes of mining gold and building the transcontinental railroad. As the second half of the 19th century wore on, the once plentiful jobs in gold mining and railroad building that had made the American West so enticing to emigrants from around the world began to dry up. This left a significant number of laborers, both white and those of color, out of work and facing a widespread economic depression.
As competition over jobs became fierce, prejudice and violence against Chinese laborers increased, particularly as they were generally willing to work for lower wages. The Chinese immigrant laborers were perceived as “taking jobs away” from white men.
Chinese workers began moving to Rock Springs in 1870 to work in coal mines owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. By 1885, there were approximately 600 Chinese and 300 white laborers working in the coal mines of Rock Springs. While the white population—comprised mostly of Irish, Welsh, English and Scandinavian immigrants—lived in downtown Rock Springs, the Chinese residents lived northeast of the town, in a section that came to be known as “Chinatown.”
Though both groups spent all day together in the mines, the white and Chinese laborers had little outside interaction and led completely separate lives.
Growing Resentment Toward Chinese Laborers
With plenty of cheap, Chinese labor, the Union Pacific Railroad was able to offer lower salaries to all their employees, regardless of race or ethnicity. Over the years, the white miners, who had joined a union called the Knights of Labor, asked their Chinese co-workers to join them in requesting higher wages from the company for all employees, and going on strike if their demands weren’t met. The Chinese laborers refused, eventually upsetting their white colleagues enough to prompt them to create an organization called “Whiteman’s Town” in 1883. This group existed for the purpose of attempting to bring about the expulsion of Chinese residents from the Wyoming Territory. The group is thought to have met on the evening of September 1, 1885.
The Massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming
On the morning of September 2, 1885, a labor disagreement developed between white and Chinese employees of the No. 6 mine of Rock Springs, which ended with one Chinese miner being severely beaten, and another killed following several blows to the skull with a pick. Though a foreman arrived on the scene to break up the violent altercation, the rest of the day did not continue according to the employees’ usual schedule.
Instead of returning to work, the white miners quickly went home to grab weapons, including guns, hatchets, knives and clubs. The group of disgruntled workers soon grew into a mob that counted women and children among its members. That afternoon, after making their way to Chinatown and nearly surrounding the entire area, the mob began to rob and then attack its Chinese residents, leaving a total of 28 dead and at least 15 injured.
During the riot, the Chinese miners who were able to do so fled to the hills beyond Rock Springs. Once Chinatown was vacated, the mob went through each small, wooden, company-built house as well as the neighborhood’s homemade shacks, first looting them, and then setting them all on fire.
Writing in a memorial tribute to the deceased members of their community, which doubled as a plea for justice to the Chinese Counsel in New York, the Chinese miners provided eyewitness accounts of what happened on September 2, 1885—at times, in horrific detail.
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“The dead bodies of some were carried to the burning buildings and thrown into the flames,” they wrote. “Some of the Chinese who had hid themselves in the houses were killed and their bodies burned; some, who on account of sickness could not run, were burned alive in the houses.”
By September 3, the more than 500 Chinese residents of Rock Springs had been forced out of town.
Federal Troops Take Chinese Back to Rock Springs
After spending about a week in the nearby town of Evanston, the Chinese population of Rock Springs was herded into boxcars and told that they were being taken to San Francisco, where they would be safe. But after disembarking from the train, they realized that they were back in Rock Springs, where federal troops were present not only to protect them, but also to escort them back to the mines.
Upon returning to Rock Springs, the Chinese residents saw that all of their homes, and entire neighborhood was nothing more than piles of ash and rubble, some of which contained the remains of members of their community.
“Some of the dead bodies had been buried by the company, while others, mangled and decomposed, were strewn on the ground and were being eaten by dogs and hogs,” the surviving Chinese miners wrote to the Chinese Embassy in New York later that year. Left homeless and penniless, they had no choice but to stay in Rock Springs and continue to work for the Union Pacific Railroad, living inside boxcars until their new houses were built.
It wasn’t only the Chinese miners who were upset about being back in Rock Springs; the ill will towards the group from many of the town’s white residents had grown worse. An 1885 op-ed written by a local named Alec Guinness and published in the Rock Springs Independent reveals the level of animus directed toward the Chinese community at the time.
“The action of the company in bringing back the Chinese means that they are to be set to work in the mines, and that American soldiers are to prevent them from again being driven out,” wrote Guinness. “It means that all the white miners in Rock Springs, except those absolutely required, are to be replaced by Chinese labor. It means that the company intends to make a ‘Chinatown’ out of Rock Springs...It means that Rock Springs is killed, as far as white men are concerned, if such program is carried out.”
How It Ended
Although 16 of the white miners who participated in the massacre were arrested, they were released on bail. Despite the fact that the violence took place in broad daylight, no white person was willing to testify that they witnessed any crimes. As a result, no charges were filed against the perpetrators. The closest the Chinese residents of Rock Springs got to justice was when President Grover Cleveland ordered Congress to provide $150,000 to the community to reimburse them for their loss of property.
Memorial of Chinese Laborers, Resident at Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, to the Chinese Consul at New York (1885). Reprinted in Cheng-Tsu Wu, ed., Chink! (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1972). SHEC: Resources for Teachers, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
The Rock Springs Massacre. Rock Springs Independent, September 1885. Reprinted in Cheng-Tsu Wu, ed., Chink! (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1972), 167. Digital History.
The Rock Springs Massacre. Library of Congress.
The Rock Springs Massacre. Wyoming State Historical Society.