Chinese Miners in the American West (Part 1)

As many of you already know, I hold the Chinese gold miners of the American West in high esteem for their ability to wrest the yellow metal from placer ground, both wet and dry. There are a number of reasons why the Chinese were so efficient at placer mining and I hope to touch on a few of these in this series as well as develop a bit of the history of Chinese miners in the West.

A Better Life

The Chinese first entered the gold mining scene in the United States and its territories during the California Gold Rush (1849-1855). Now don't let those dates fool you. There was still plenty of gold left in the gulches, streams, and rivers of California's Motherlode Region after 1855, but the "cream" of those fantastic deposits of gold had already been skimmed off, if that analogy is fitting. In the first year of the California Gold Rush there were about 500 Chinese in the placer mines of Northern California but by 1852 this number had swelled to over 20,000. By the early 1860s it's been estimated that nearly 35,000 Chinese miners were working the Sierra Nevada foothills for gold. The majority of these men (since very few women accompanied them) came from Chinese provinces where various forms of gold mining were the principal they had experience. In fact, much more gold prospecting and mining experience than most of the non-Asian miners who arrived in California ahead of them. Why did the Chinese leave proven gold ground in their own country for the California goldfields and the gold strikes to come in other parts of the American West? There were a number of reasons for this, including the fact that as gold miners in China they were not allowed to work independently for their own benefit and that of their families. In essence, they were often forced to work placer and lode mines in China at barely a subsistence level (a type of covert or even overt slavery) under the thumb of rich landholders, warlords, and other wealthy and powerful Chinese of the upper classes. They were also hired by Chinese mining "companies" to work gold mines throughout Southeast Asia in such varied locales as Vietnam, Borneo, and Malaysia. A major factor that impelled Chinese miners eastward to the American West was the Taiping Rebellion, a bloody internal conflict that killed over 20 million Chinese and lasted from 1851-1864. And lastly, like those men from other racial or cultural contexts who rushed to California, the Chinese simply sought a better life for themselves and the families they had left behind.

(The Taiping rebellion cost 20,000,000 lives and was a big driving factor in Chinese miners heading to the goldfields of the American West.)

Billions in Gold

Just how proficient were Chinese miners in the goldfields of the American West? From 1855-1870, Port of San Francisco historical records show that Chinese miners shipped home nearly $73,000,000 (USD) worth of gold (along with some silver). As you ponder this astronomical figure of the times, remember that gold was worth between $16.00-$22.00 a troy ounce back then. The value of all this precious metal today would be in the billions (yes, billions) of dollars! A good part of this take on the part of Chinese miners came from the California goldfields, but the rest was gleaned from placer (and some hard rock) mines scattered throughout the western and southwestern United States, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming. It's estimated that Chinese gold miners constituted a full 25% of all miners in the American West...the largest, single concentration of one ethnic or cultural group in the mines other than Anglos. (My buddy "Muskrat" might like to know that aside from California, the greatest concentration of Chinese miners in the American West from 1863 onward was in Idaho.) Despite the many depredations they endured and the "racial" laws or regulations passed against them in various locations of the American West, Chinese miners survived, endured, and most importantly...thrived.

(Chinese old timer in an unnamed gold camp.)

The Truth Hurts

In the early years of the California Gold Rush, Chinese miners were often relegated to working "borderline" placer gold ground. That is, ground considered unworkable, too hard to work, or not feasible due to low gold values. If a group of Chinese miners was able to claim good gold ground, they were often forced off that ground by Anglo miners bent on having it for themselves. These forced claim "abandonments" were usually carried out by implied threats of violence or by direct physical attacks, or sometimes through the passage of anti-Chinese mining "laws." The antagonism Chinese miners experienced in the American West was multi-fold in its origins. The Chinese were universally referred to at the time as "China Johns," a mostly derogatory term based on their skin color, language, culture, and customs (including wearing their hair in traditional "pigtails")...all of which were totally alien to those who considered themselves red-blooded patriots who had an intrinsic right to any gold on American soil. Of course, other ethnic groups suffered similar prejudices at the hands of Anglo miners, but none more than the Chinese and it must be said...the American Indians. All this said, there were instances in the American goldfields where Anglo and Chinese miners worked side-by-side or to mutual benefit with a measured respect for one another. But the sad truth is that these instances were the exception...not the rule. It's my belief that ethnic, racial, or cultural factors weren't the only reasons many Anglo miners despised the Chinese. I think one of the main factors in this regard was simple human jealousy, be that personal or professional. You see, the Chinese were invariably successful in any placer mining operation they undertook for reasons I'll discuss later on. This fact often stuck in the craw of many Anglo miners who weren't as adept at gold mining or very successful at it. Sometimes the truth hurts.

(Anglo and Chinese miners posing together at Auburn Ravine, California in 1852.)

A Litany

The list of place names that Chinese miners were abundantly active in reads like a litany of some of the best gold locations of the American West.

California: Coloma, Columbia, Sonora, Placerville, Marysville, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Mariposa, Bridgeport, Weaverville, Oroville, the aptly named Chinese Camp, and many others.

Oregon: Jacksonville, Kerbyville, Canyon City, John Day, Olive Creek, and Baker City.

Washington: Walla Walla, Fort Colville, and Chelan.

Nevada: Pioche, Auroroa, Carson City, Dayton, Virginia City, Austin, Unionville, Tuscarora, and Mountain City.

(Pioche, Nevada during the boom years. The Chinese mined here too.)

Idaho: Pierce, Orofino, Elk City, Leesburg, Warren, Placerville, Centerville, Idaho City, Atlanta, and Silver City.

Montana: Missoula, Helena, Butte, Virginia City, and Bannack.

Wyoming: South Pass

South Dakota: Deadwood and Lead.

Colorado: Central City and Fairplay

Arizona: Prescott, Wickenburg, Pinal, La Paz, and Tubac.

(The Trigo Mountains near the once-rich dry placers at La Paz, Arizona just across the Colorado River from California. And yes, Chinese miners worked dry diggings here.)

(New Mexico: Although certain placers in the Land of Enchantment were rich, New Mexico was not a big target for Chinese miners as a whole. The placers were few and far between and most were not as productive as those in other states or territories. Still, the historical record indicates that some Chinese miners worked parts of the Old and New Placer Districts here in Northern New Mexico. I myself have discovered evidence of their workings in the Old Placers not far from the vanished gold boom town of Dolores.)

For you newcomers or greenhorns to small-scale gold mining, the above list is a great basic location guide if you're interested in gleaning a bit of color for yourselves. Remember the old adage...If you want to find gold, go where gold has been found. But here's a bit of old timer's advice for you. Don't bother prospecting or working where the Chinese placer mined. Why? You won't find much.

I'll explain why later...

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Eagerly awaiting the rest of this story!!

  2. Thanks JR! Leesburg is the reason Salmon, then Salmon City came into being. Salmon was a supply camp for Leesburg. Leesburg was a large for the time, gold strike. The town has a neat history behind it.
    It was named Leesburg by ex confederate soldiers after Robert E Lee. The "Yankee" miners didn't like the idea of living in a town named after an enemy, so the North side of Leesburg they renamed Grantsville. And a minor Civil War battle between Civil War miners , broke out over the name of the town. This time the Confederates won and the name Leesburg stayed. It is a neat place with quite a few buildings still standing. Modern day "beartrack mine" opened, and has since closed again, but tore down many of the original Leesburg buildings. The price of "progress " I suppose. Hunting in the area, there are still many more away from town and well hidden in the woods.
    There are still Chinese walls left from the Chinese miners. Salmon had a" China town "as well. There is also "China Springs" where three Chinese miners were murdered for their gold, a common thing back then. "Chinamen" were considered less than human, and killing them was barely even a crime. History is a wonderful thing if you can go to these places and see it first hand and not in some dusty book!

    1. That's some interesting history Gary. Thanks for adding more info about the Chinese miners in Idaho.

    2. Facinating history. Thanks for doing this.


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