Eyewitness to Racism: Andrew Bugas and the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885

Andrew Bugas (Andrej Bugos) was not quite 20 years old in 1885 when he arrived in Rock Springs to work in the Union Pacific’s coal mines. Born in Austria, he came to the United States in 1880 to join his father in Mahoney, Pennsylvania, where young Andrew worked as a “slate picker” and a “trapper” in the coal mines. Slate picker and trapper were menial jobs usually performed by boys. Slate pickers plucked sharp-edged pieces of slate and other impurities from the coal. Trappers sat underground, usually in total darkness, opening and closing wooden doors (trap doors) located across the mine.

“Boys Picking Slate in a Great Coal Breaker, Anthracite Mines, Pennsylvania.” Photo from Coal Region History Chronicles.

It’s not certain what led Andrew to Rock Springs, but he probably heard of the coal boom in southwestern Wyoming. He had an adventurous spirit, which showed itself in 1888 when he left Rock Springs to travel the United States for eight years.

In 1885, Andrew walked into a situation in the Rock Springs mines that was about to spin out of control. The tensions between white and Chinese miners had reached a breaking point.

Chinese men had worked in the Union Pacific’s mines since the early 1870s. They had proven themselves to be hard workers who would labor for less pay. Even though they were paid less than whites, Chinese miners could earn many times more in the United States than they could in China. If they were careful, in a few years they could save a lifetime’s fortune to take back home.

By 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant and Congress limited the number of Chinese immigrants. But the new law was full of loopholes, and the immigration question was open-ended and confusing.

Union Pacific Railroad policies did not help an increasingly tense situation. Pay cuts and paycheck gouging by UP company stores led to unrest among the white miners. And, although white and Chinese miners worked side by side every day, they spoke different languages and lived separate lives.

As the anger of the white miners intensified, they staged a number of strikes but with no results. At the end of an 1884 strike, mine managers in Rock Springs were told to only hire Chinese. By the time Andrew arrived, there were nearly 600 Chinese and 300 white miners working the Rock Springs mines.

On the morning of September 2, 1885, Andrew was at his house located only a short way from Bitter Creek,  which was one of the staging areas for a mob of men, women, and even children determined to drive the Chinese from Rock Springs.

In a recollection held at the American Heritage Center, Andrew wrote that at 10:00 AM he was looking through his window and saw that the “[Chinese] dinner carriers, who daily carried the dinners on poles across their shoulders…were being stoned with rocks and chased by boys and men until they had to drop their loads and flee for safety.”

Rock Springs
View of Rock Springs, Wyoming, undated. Photo File: Wyoming – Rock Springs, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Andrew continued watching as “the mob with guns on their shoulders began their march towards Chinatown.” He left his house to follow the brigade “½ curious and ½ scared.”

When the mob came to a place of worship in Chinatown known as a joss house, Andrew saw them halt and send a committee to tell the Chinese inside of the mob’s intent. Confusion reigned among the Chinese men in the building; some seemed to want to stay and others to leave. Andrew heard and saw “loud jabbering and swinging of arms, etc. etc., that could be observed from outside…through the windows.”

As the time to evacuate the joss house neared, the mob grew impatient and moved toward the building. Andrew “saw some Chinese jump out the window upon a bundle of what looked like blankets.” By then, members of the mob were against the house and “some one hit the locked door with an axe or sledge from the way it sounded.” Chinese men (only a few women lived in Rock Springs) poured out through the doors and window while “the mob started shooting into the house and toward the fleeing men.” Andrew noticed that “hundreds of shots must have been wasted for the scare.”

He continued to follow the mob as they advanced into Chinatown “driving out of the houses those that were too frightened to run and setting fire with kerosene oil to all houses after first plundering each house of everything valuable.” He watched as some of the Chinese men were killed inside their houses while most were shot in the back as they ran.

“Here’s a Pretty Mess!” (in Wyoming) – 19 September, 1885 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast Source: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Soldiers were brought in to restore order. Andrew observed that “at first the soldiers and whites were distrustful of one another and many fist fights took place in the saloons.” But later, soldiers and miners began to fraternize. Discipline was not a strong suit among the soldiers. Andrew reported that “[on] several occasions a Chinaman was caught in darkness and his ‘pigtail’ cut off by soldiers.” That act, he noted, “was held to be a very grave offense by the Chinese and a soldier proven to have committed it was given severe penalty.”

The “blue coats” as the soldiers were known spent their money freely in Rock Springs and “were missed by Rock Springs businessmen when they finally left in 1898 after 13 years in Rock Springs.”

Andrew goes on to write that “…a year or so prior to the final withdrawal of the army from R.S…[o]ne or two companies or detachments of companies of colored soldiers came, the white army leaving. The colored army sojourn in R.S. while brief, was the most trying period for the peace officers as well as citizens in general…R.S. drew a breath of relief when this colored army was replaced by a white one…” He doesn’t elaborate on the what took place except to note that the town peace officers’ “resourcefulness in their line saved R.S. a dangerous outbreak and killing of probably many citizens and negro soldiers.”

Federal troops, shown here on Front Street in 1885, stayed in Rock Springs for 13 years. Wyoming Tales and Trails photo.

Andrew Bugas lived in Rock Springs until 1888 when he began his travels in the United States. But Rock Springs must have been home because he returned there in 1896, married a local girl in 1902, and raised a family. He opened a saloon, invested in a coal mine at Point of Rocks, and served as a state legislator, school district treasurer, and precinct committeeman. But he never forgot what he witnessed upon his arrival in Rock Springs. His account of the Rock Springs Massacre was written in 1933, many years later. The account can be found in the papers of his son John Bugas, which are held at the UW American Heritage Center.

AP Bugas
Andrew P. Bugas, undated. Find a Grave photo.


This post is edited from a previous American Heritage Center blog published in 2018.

This entry was posted in Chinese Americans, found in the archive, International relations, Labor disputes, Local history, mining history, Railroad History, Rock Springs Massacre, Uncategorized, Violence - history, Western history, Wyoming history and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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