During the summer of 1885, tensions had been building between Chinese coal miners and European coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory. Both groups were employed by the Union Pacific Coal Company and were having a dispute over wages.
According to Dudley Gardner in his article “The Wyoming Experience; Chinese in Wyoming” he states the following about growing tensions in the mines, “Growing anti-Chinese sentiment, coupled with Union Pacific’s wage-cutting policies, led to a volatile situation. Warnings of this sentiment came to the attention of the management of the Union Pacific, but they went unheeded. Seemingly, little was done to avoid events that eventually erupted in violence.
One of the contributing factors that led to the anti-Chinese movement in the coalmines was a perception that Chinese miners were treated better than whites. This false perception grew in part from cultural misunderstanding. In fact, on the average, Chinese coal miners made less and paid more for goods and services. For example, in the late 1880s Chinese miners earned between $1.73 and $2 a day for their labors underground. By comparison, white miners earned $2.50 to $3 each day. Meanwhile, Chinese coal miners rented their homes for between $5 and $7 each month. Union Pacific rented similar houses for $2.50 a month to white miners. Interestingly, for September 1885, when the Chinese miners only lived two days in the Union Pacific homes, they were charged either $1 or $2 rent. Meanwhile, the head of Union Pacific Coal Company, D. O. Clark, who lived in one of the finest houses in town in the years leading up to the tragedy in Rock Springs, paid only $5 a month rent.
Despite these facts, many whites felt that the Union Pacific granted the Chinese extra privileges. The major complaints of the white miners in the 1880s included the statement that “Chinese miners were favored in the assignment of rooms in the mines,” where the actual extracting of coal took place. The coal miners in Rock Springs thought that the Chinese miners were given the easiest “workings” where they could more easily extract coal and make more money each day. To this end, white miners accused J. M. Tisdel, mine superintendent in Rock Springs, of selling “privileges to Chinamen.” Adding to their discontent was the fact that Union Pacific coal miners were “compelled to trade at the Beckwith, Quinn and Company store.” Trade at Beckwith and Quinn was especially objectionable to the white miners since this company had brought the Chinese miners into Wyoming.”
On the morning of Sept. 2, 1885, growing tensions turned violent when a mob of European coal miners attacked their Chinese co-workers at the mine. Later that afternoon, an angry mob had formed which led to more violence within the Chinatown community of Rock Springs. At the end of the tragedy, the community learned that 28 Chinese miners had been killed and 15 more were wounded. Seventy-nine homes were set ablaze and the bodies of many of the dead were thrown into the flames. Several hundred Chinese workers were chased out of town and property damage was estimated at $150,000.
In the days and weeks following the riot, newspapers across the country reported on the event, including the Las Vegas Daily Gazette on Sept. 4, 1885 as seen here from the Library of Congress: “Worse Than Reported.”
“Rock Springs Massacre” illustration, seen below, is archived at the American Heritage Center and the Library of Congress. This illustration of the massacre was published in the Sept. 26, 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly and was drawn by Thure. de Thulstrup from photographs by Lieutenant C.A. Booth of the Seventh United States Infantry. https://www.loc.gov/item/89708533/
On September 8, 1885, the Springfield Globe Republic newspaper (Springfield, OH) reported that the sheriff of Sweetwater County arrested 22 of “the supposed” rioters in Rock Springs, as seen here from the Library of Congress: “Arresting the Rioters.”
Federal troops arrived in Rock Springs one week after the murders to restore order. They would remain in Rock Springs for 13 years, until 1898.
Although the killing and rioting had been done in broad daylight, law enforcement was unable to get any members of the community to attest to what they saw and the crimes that were committed. No European miners or community members were ever put on trial for the murders or looting.
Illustration by Frederick B. Opper in 1885 that shows Uncle Sam preparing a list of places in China where “Americans [have been] killed by Chinese” and a Chinese man preparing a list of places in America where “Chinese [have been] killed by Americans” including the latest incident in “Wyoming Territory”. From the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/item/2011660543/Several resources are available and accessible to learn more about the events that occurred in early September 1885 in Rock Springs, WY Territory. “Incident at Bitter Creek, the Story of the Rock Springs Chinese Massacre” by Craig Storti is a work of non-fiction, originally published in 1991. Numerous newspaper articles from Chronicling America, part of the Library of Congress, have been gathered together about the topic of the Rock Springs Massacre. In 2003, young adult author, Laurence Yep wrote a book of historical fiction to add to his Golden Mountain Chronicles, which documents the fictional Young family from 1849 in China to 1995 in America. The Traitor is a juxtaposition of two perspectives; Joseph Young, a 12-year-old Chinese-American coal miner and Michael Purdy, an outcast both living in Rock Springs. They become friends and live through the tension filled summer of 1885 and the events which led to the massacre of 28 Chinese miners. Tom Rea, editor of WyoHistory.org, wrote an article for Wyoming’s online encyclopedia, titled “The Rock Springs Massacre“.
-Jessica Flock, Wyoming State History Day Coordinator