The Rock Springs Massacre
In the buildings at the Number 3 mine, white men shot Chinese workers, killing several. The mob moved into Chinatown from three directions, pulling some Chinese men from their homes and shooting others as they came into the street. Most fled, dashing through the creek, along the tracks or up the steep bluffs and out into the hills beyond. A few ran straight for the mob and met their deaths. White women took part in the killing, too.
The mob turned back through Chinatown, looting the shacks and houses, and then setting them on fire. More Chinese were driven out of hiding by the flames and were killed in the streets. Others burned to death in their cellars. Still others died that night out on the hills and prairies from thirst, the cold and their wounds.
With Chinatown burning, the mob confronted the company bosses who hired the Chinese and told them to leave town on the next train. They did. Over in Green River, 14 miles away, Sweetwater County Sheriff Joseph Young learned of the killing spree about an hour after it began. He rushed to Rock Springs on a special train, but no one would join him in a posse. There was nothing he could do, he said later. He and a few men protected company buildings from the fire.
In Cheyenne, Territorial Gov. Francis E. Warren learned of the murders late that afternoon. Union Pacific officials took a special, fast train all the way from company headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, and arrived in Cheyenne about midnight. Warren joined them on the train. By daybreak on September 3, all were in Rock Springs.
Warren appeared to be the only person who knew what to do. He sent telegrams to the Army and to President Grover Cleveland in Washington asking for federal troops to restore order. And at Warren’s suggestion, the company ran a train slowly along the tracks between Rock Springs and Green River, taking stranded Chinese miners aboard and giving them food, water and blankets.
In Rock Springs, the governor met with more company officials, and then with white miners. The miners demanded that no Chinese would ever again live in Rock Springs, that no one would be arrested for the murders and burning, and they said that anyone who objected to these demands risked being hurt or killed.
To show he was unafraid, Warren left his railroad car several times during the day and made a show of walking back and forth on the depot platform. The people, now quiet and orderly, could see him clearly. Nothing happened.
Meanwhile, in Evanston, Wyo., on the railroad 100 miles west of Rock Springs, Uinta County Sheriff J.J. LeCain was nervous. Hundreds of Chinese miners lived there, too, and worked the coal mines at nearby Almy. White miners left work in Almy as well, and armed mobs were in the streets. A much larger round of killings could begin at any moment.
LeCain telegraphed Gov. Warren. With no territorial militia to command and still no definite word about federal troops, there wasn’t much Warren could do but go on to Evanston from Rock Springs. He arrived the morning of September 4. LeCain deputized 20 men who were barely managing to maintain order. On the fifth, a small detachment of troops arrived in Rock Springs. On the sixth, the striking white miners at Almy warned the Chinese that if they dared go to work, they wouldn’t leave the mines alive. Troops escorted these Chinese from their camp at Almy to the safety of the much larger Chinatown in Evanston. The company assured them their property at Almy would be safe. But as soon as the Chinese were gone, whites looted their homes.
By now, nearly all the Chinese wanted to get out of Wyoming as soon as possible. Ah Say, leader of Rock Springs’ Chinese community, asked first for railroad tickets. Company officials refused. Then, again through Ah Say, the Chinese asked for the two months of back pay the company owed them. Again, the company refused.
Two hundred fifty white citizens of Evanston next handed Governor Warren a petition asking the same thing—that the Chinese be paid off so they’d have enough money to leave. But the governor refused to do anything—a risky choice, as the situation could have exploded again at any moment. This was a matter between the company and its workers, Warren said, and none of his business.
More troops finally arrived in Rock Springs and Evanston nearly a week after the first killing. On the ninth of September, the company gathered about 600 Chinese in Evanston. Under the protection of armed guards, they were taken to the depot, loaded on boxcars and told they were headed at last to San Francisco and safety. Without their knowing, however, a special car carrying Warren and top Union Pacific officials was attached to the back of the train. About 250 soldiers were on board as well.
The train left Evanston that morning but traveled slowly east, not west, arriving in Rock Springs that evening. At the depot, an angry crowd of white miners had gathered. So the train continued a little farther, stopping just west of where Chinatown had been.
The boxcar doors opened. The Chinese realized they’d been tricked.
For several days, fearful of the jeering, catcalling white miners blocking the entrance to each mine, the Chinese would not go back to work. Again they asked for passes to California and were refused. Again they asked for their back pay and were refused. Finally, the company store refused to sell food or anything else to the Chinese who were not working and threatened to evict them from their temporary boxcar homes. About 60 refused to work and left Rock Springs any way they could.
The rest more or less surrendered. Any miner, the company declared, white or Chinese, not back at work by Monday morning, September 21, would be fired and never hired again anywhere on the Union Pacific lines. And so the miners returned to work.
Sixteen white miners were arrested and released on bail. A grand jury was called to consider what, exactly, should be the charge. Though the killing had been done in daylight, in front of other people, no one could be found who would swear to having seen any crimes. No charges were filed.
In all, 28 Chinese were killed, 15 wounded and all 79 of the shacks and houses in Rock Springs’ Chinatown looted and burned. Chinese diplomats in New York and San Francisco drew up a list of damages totaling nearly $150,000. Congress, under pressure from the president, finally agreed to reimburse the miners for their loss. Still, the government continued to limit the number of Chinese who could come to the United States. Never having planned to stay in the first place, the Chinese gradually left Wyoming throughout the following decades.
In Rock Springs, federal troops built Camp Pilot Butte between downtown Rock Springs and Chinatown to prevent further violence and stayed for 13 more years.
Thanks to Gov. Warren’s decisive courage in the first days after the riot, many more killings were avoided. But Warren also refused to help with the back-pay question and helped trick the Chinese onto the train that took them back to Rock Springs. These actions kept a big supply of Chinese miners around, making sure coal kept flowing from the mines to run the railroad and making it easier for the company to resist demands from the white miners for higher wages. And that was what the Union Pacific had wanted to do all along.
- “The Massacre of the Chinese,” New York Times, Sept. 5, 1885, accessed April 26, 2011, at http://www.ghostcowboy.com/node/118.
- “’Rock Springs is Killed:’ White Reaction to the Rock Springs Riot,” accessed April 26, 2011, at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5042, a version of events published in the Rock Springs newspaper, the Independent.
- “’To This We Dissented’: The Rock Springs Riot,” accessed April 26, 2011, at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5043/. This detailed account sent by the Chinese miners to the Chinese Consul at New York may be the best firsthand report of the September 1885 events in Rock Springs. The account includes precise physical descriptions of the corpses and of the damage to Chinatown.
- Francis E. Warren served nearly 40 years in the U.S. Senate where he quietly became one of the most powerful men in America. He died in office in 1929. He stayed a close friend of the Union Pacific throughout. His papers are among the many treasures at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Papers from his two different stints as territorial governor are at the Wyoming State Archives in Cheyenne. Finder’s guides for these are online at http://libtextml.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=wy-arrg0001_06.xml and http://libtextml.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=wy-arrg0001_10.xml.
- Bowers, Carol. “‘Chinese Warren’ and the Rock Springs Massacre.” The Equality State: Essays on Intolerance and Inequality in Wyoming. Mike Mackey, editor. Powell, Wyo.: Western History Publications, 1999, 37-62.
- Gardner, Albert Dudley. Two Paths One Destiny: A Comparison of Chinese Households and Communities in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, and Wyoming, 1848-1910. Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, May, 2000. Excellent use of census data for a picture of 19th century Chinese communities in the West.
- Gardner, Dudley. “Wyoming History,” accessed April 26, 2011, at http://www.wwcc.cc.wy.us/wyo_hist/chinese.htm and http://www.wwcc.wy.edu/wyo_hist/ev.wyoming_and_the_chinese.htm. Background on the three Chinatowns in territorial Wyoming, and some census data. Gardner teaches history at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs.
- Larson, T.A. History of Wyoming. [Which edition?] Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965, 140-144.
- Nokes, R. Gregory. "'A Most Daring Outrage': Murders at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2006, accessed April 25, 2011, via JSTOR at http://www.jstor.org/pss/20615657. An account of the May 1887 slaughter of 34 Chinese gold miners by a gang of seven horse thieves on a sand bar in the Snake River on the Idaho-Oregon border.
- Storti, Craig. Incident at Bitter Creek: The Story of the Rock Springs Chinese Massacre. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991. Storti’s book is good on the politics leading up to and following the massacre and on life in Rock Springs’ Chinatown in the 1870s and 1880s.
- Takami, David. “Chinese Americans,” accessed April 26, 2011, at http://www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=2060. More on the Chinese in Seattle, Wash., and the Northwest, including the forcible expulsion of Chinese from Tacoma and Seattle in 1885 and 1886.
For Further Reading
United States Citizenship. "Chinese Immigration and the Transcontinental Railroad." Accessed August 12, 2013 at http://www.uscitizenship.info/Chinese-immigration-and-the-Transcontinental-railroad/. Good article on the topic, with links to much more information about Chinese immigrants, their role in building the transcontinental railroad and more.
The first photo shows Rock Springs’ No. 2 Mine, no date, from Wyoming Tales and Trails, with thanks. The illustration of the Chinese men on board ship ran in Harper's Weekly April 29, 1876, and is available from the Library of Congress. The Thomas Nast illustration of the massacre and his cartoon of the Chinese diplomats both ran in Vol. 29 of Harper’s Weekly in 1885 and are likewise available from the Library of Congress. The photo of federal troops in Rock Springs, 1885, is from Wyoming Tales and Trails. The photo of the street sign is by Tom Rea.
About the Author
Tom Rea lives in Casper, Wyo., where he is editor and co-founder, with the Wyoming State Historical Society, of WyoHistory.org. He worked for many years in the newspaper business, and his books include Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001, 2004); Devil’s Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 2012); The Hole in the Wall Ranch: A History (Pronghorn Press, 2010).