Chinese Miners in the American West (Part 2)

In this post I'll continue discussing the history of Chinese miners in the American West and their mining contributions, techniques, and approaches.

Of "Celestials" and "China Johns"

I've already mentioned the fact that Chinese miners in the American West were, at the very least, misunderstood and maligned. At the worst, they were often the subject of ridicule and prejudice, and even physical attacks and killings in the gold camps. Known derogatorily as "China Johns" or with less venom as "Celestials," the Chinese endured their undeserved role as unwelcome second or third-class citizens of the mines and simply went about the business of mining gold. And at the latter they were experts. However, as the gold camps stabilized (if such a word is fitting) to one degree or another, many Chinese miners used their new-found wealth (however small that wealth might be) to pay passage for their wives and family members to the United States and its territories. These individuals set to work to mine for gold as well, but not in the mines themselves. Just as many non-Chinese miners and newcomers to the gold camps had already learned, often it was more beneficial from a monetary standpoint to "mine" the miners themselves. Soon, gold miners from other ethnic backgrounds were using services provided by the Chinese in the camps. Chief among these services were laundries, and cafes and restaurants, although these latter two terms are a bit overblown. Quite often all they amounted to were street-side stands selling noodle and rice dishes that were "toned down" to suit the taste of Anglo-American miners. This said, much has also been made (particularly in TV programs and Hollywood movies) of Chinese opium and gambling dens, and sections of the gold camps devoted to "cribs" housing Chinese prostitutes. Yes, these things did exist in the gold camps but they weren't a direct manifestation of effort on the part of Chinese miners. Every gold camp of the American West attracted unsavory elements who set out to mine the miners by hook or by crook. The Chinese were no different in this regard. Eventually, their own ethnic versions of pimps, prostitutes, con men, gambling sharps, drug purveyors, and criminals arrived on scene to cash in. After all, where there's a need those on the fringes of society will always find a way to satisfy that need.

(Anti-Chinese newspaper illustration circa 1855.)

The Group and the Individual

As you and I both know, placer gold mining requires little financial outlay (unless you're a commercial operator or TV reality "star" following a script). This was an important factor of consideration for miners of all ethnic persuasions in the American West. Just a few simple tools were needed on the front end...a gold pan, and pick and shovel. Later on, rocker boxes, wheelbarrows, sluice boxes, or "Long Toms" could be constructed quite easily at very little cost. All that remained was plenty of "elbow grease" and the Chinese had this in spades. They were used to hard, unrelenting labor back in China, the kind of work that can break the backs and the spirits of those who are unfamiliar with it. This isn't to say that Anglo, or Hispanic, or Black miners weren't used to hard work, especially if they were from rural areas or farms, plantations, and homesteads. But by and large, Chinese miners were far more used to long days of hard work in all sorts of conditions, harsh or benign. Most importantly, Chinese miners knew the value of remaining a cohesive group bound by ethnicity, cultural factors, and family linkage. They came to America in groups, they traveled to gold strikes in groups, they set up camps in groups, they mined in groups, and they returned home with their gold pokes in groups. There was no sense of the individual being greater than the group as was common in the thinking and actions of most Anglo miners. Everything the Chinese did was a group effort, including getting the gold. Once focused in this regard, Chinese miners went at things with patience, care, and the utmost efficiency without argument or complaint. Yes, miners of other ethnic origins formed groups or "companies" in many of the West's gold camps, but inevitably these were loosely formed and cohesion was always at risk if an individual miner felt he wasn't being treated the way he thought he should be or didn't receive a level of responsibility or workload commensurate with his "abilities." In other words, arguments and personal strife or conflict often plagued groups of non-Chinese miners. All this to the detriment of their overall success on a claim. Moreover, it's a uniquely Western idea that the individual counts more than the greater whole. This was an alien concept to Chinese miners of the day.

(Mining was always a group effort for the Chinese.)

You Are What You Eat

Among all the challenges faced by small-scale gold miners in the American West, staying healthy in the mines was first and foremost. Simply put, you couldn't get the gold if you were laid out with sickness or disease and the historical record shows that many Anglo Argonauts who rushed to the California goldfields died of conditions brought on by poor dietary practices or the lack of leafy greens, and vegetables and fruit. In the end, a constant diet of sow belly, beans, sugar, bread or hard tack ,and occasional wild game meat had its down side. Later on in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s many non-Chinese miners ate large quantities of canned foods which were easy to prepare (or eaten straight from the can), but these too left much to be desired in terms of a healthy diet to keep a man upright and going strong in the goldfields. This is another facet of Chinese miners that gave them an "edge" in working the placer mines of the American West. The Chinese knew that a high-protein diet combined with greens and vegetables, rice, cabbage, squash, onions, and cucumbers had served them well in China (although meats were hard to get there). Every Chinese peasant back home knew how to cultivate and grow vegetables, and Chinese miners or their family members did the same in the Sierra Nevada foothills as well as the Rocky Mountains when gold strikes occurred there. In dry placer regions where the lack of water prohibited cultivation like this, the Chinese paid to have barrels or gunny sacks of dried vegetables shipped to their camps. Additionally, Chinese miners were amazed to realize that in America, unlike China, beef, chicken, pork, and venison were plentiful and fairly easy to come by. So a healthy, high-protein diet was ensured and so was the overall health of Chinese miners. The final icing on the cake from a health standpoint in the mines was the fact that Chinese miners possessed a wealth of knowledge about herbal medicines and natural dietary supplements that they put into practice regularly. The same couldn't be said for the majority of non-Chinese miners in the camps who were five to ten times more likely to experience health issues, disease, or even death from poor diets and yes, the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse in the saloons and bawdy houses of the gold camps. The Chinese were lucky in this regard since they weren't given to strong drink as a group and weren't allowed in those aforesaid establishments even if they were!

My Aim

Each item described thus far in this post shows how Chinese gold miners managed to gain an "edge" over miners from other ethnic backgrounds in the gold camps of the American West. There are many other items to add to this list as you will see. None of this is meant to portray Chinese miners in a brighter light than other miners of the American West, Anglo or otherwise. But the efforts and contributions of Chinese miners in America has too often been relegated to musty corners in old library stacks never to fully see the light of day. Well, it's my aim to shine a clear light on their history and their contributions...something that's long overdue.

Best to one and all.

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. " my Aim" far you are hitting the mark for sure! Despised as they were, mistreated, robbed, and even murdered, they kept at it. That alone deserves respect. It would have been much easier to give up and do something else.The "Chinese walls" in mining lingo, are pretty amazing all in their own. Some of those rocks are really big. It took a lot of effort to do what they did. Often, if not mostly, they mined the "left overs" of what white miners considered worked out, but they still made it pay. Like scavengers picking the bones, they still got fat!
    I'm enjoying this one, like most or your work! Thank you!

    1. Thanks much Gary. As always, you are a student of of the history of the West just as I am.

  2. You bet! My Uncle Fred told me once at a young age "The Old West is dead and gone, you can't live there" Well, I've spent my life proving him wrong. Jim, I've had a Hell of a life! There isn't much I regret or would do different if I could. At the same time, I've cheated myself. Ranch / cowboy work doesn't pay well and for about half the time I was doing it, they weren't required to pay into Social Security. I have no retirement and little money saved, but like I said....It's been a Hell of a life! I wouldn't trade it for a million dollars. I've done what I set out to do, I've been a cowboy in the new Old West.

  3. Having money is fine, but like they say you can't take it with you. Living your life the way you see fit and loving what you do are always priceless. The years fly by so it's best to follow your dream and not do what others (or society) say you should do. Good job!


Post a Comment