Chinese Miners in the American West (Conclusion)

The Chinese were some of the best placer gold miners to ever come down the pike in the American West. The same can probably said for their presence in the alluvial goldfields of Australia, the Yukon, and numerous other locations throughout the world where big placer strikes occurred. In this, the final post of this series, I'll be talking about exactly why this was so.

1) Placer Mining Experience

As I mentioned earlier in this series, most of the Chinese who "rushed" the American West from 1850 until the 1880s already had a full measure of experience when it came to placer mining. Many Chinese miners arriving in the United States and its territories of the time hailed from provinces in China where placer gold mining had a long tradition or they had worked as laborers in placer mines in Malaysia or Southeast Asia. This was in direct contradiction to the majority of non-Chinese miners who arrived at early strikes like the California Gold Rush. These men knew little about placer gold and placer mining in the greatest sense and typically learned what they knew "on the job." As you already know, becoming skilled or proficient at placer mining takes time and experience and there's a certain time lag involved in that process. For the Chinese there was no such time lag and when they hit the mines they went straight to work in the most efficient way possible. To a certain extent, this mining background gave them a big edge over non-Chinese placer miners who struggled initially to get things right.

2) Group vs. Individual Effort 

Again, everything the Chinese did was a cohesive, group effort. Chinese miners consistently applied this sort of unified approach to mining throughout the alluvial goldfields of the American West from their arrival in the California Motherlode right on up to the last big gold strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contrast this approach to the typical mining approaches of most non-Chinese miners and you'll readily see the difference between the concept of "rugged individualism" and a concentrated, group effort to get at and recover the gold. And for the Chinese it made no real difference whether they were working "borderline" placer ground or solid claims they had purchased at highly inflated prices. They went at their gold recovery work with the same intensity and the same highly efficient group effort.

3) Designated Tasks

Every individual in a Chinese group (or "company" as they were known back then) was assigned to or specialized in a designated mining task. For some this was the hard work of swinging a pick, hefting a shovel, or moving large rock from streambeds or washes. For other Chinese miners it meant carrying gold-bearing dirt in large, heavy baskets strapped to their backs or stacking sterile river rock in neat piles some distance away from where they were working. Still others manned and operated sluice boxes, "Long Toms," or rockers ("miner's cradles"). Even these latter functions were specialized with more than one person performing various tasks to keep things rolling along smoothly and efficiently. I guess the best analogy I can come up with here is this: have you ever watched a colony of ants at work? That's how the Chinese went at placer gold mining (with no allusions to Chinese miners being "subhuman" as many of their non-Chinese counterpoints back in the day liked to think).

4) Knowledge of Hydrology

Most Chinese miners (if not all of them) came from the peasant class. Since China was primarily an agrarian nation at that time the Chinese knew how to use water effectively in myriad ways. They knew how to use water wheels and windlasses, how to divert streams and rivers with flumes, and most importantly, the effects of hydrology on gold deposition. A good number of non-Chinese miners and on-scene historical observers have stated in diaries and personal accounts that Chinese miners were remarkable in their ability to find gold pockets and paystreaks. In fact, in one historical account the writer likened their abilities in this regard to "bloodhounds with a nose for gold." Once more, most non-Chinese miners of the day came to this sort of placer mining knowledge through trial and error or hard-won and lengthy experience. For Chinese miners stream and wash hydrological and gold deposition factors were essentially second nature. Again, this gave Chinese miners a distinct edge in most gold areas of the American West.

5) Accustomed to Hard Work

I touched on this fact about Chinese gold miners before, but it's worthy of a second look. As peasants and forced laborers in the mines back home, the Chinese were accustomed to long days of unrelenting labor without the "Sunday off" mentality of most non-Chinese miners. In the mines of the American West the Chinese worked seven days a week at getting the gold. Tasks such as doing laundry, cooking, or gathering food and supplies were handled by members of the group assigned to those tasks as part of a "rotational" day off. Did the Chinese as a whole ever take "days off" from mining like non-Chinese miners at various times? Undoubtedly they did, but the historical record paints a picture of the Chinese work ethic that's at variance with non-Chinese miners in the American West especially when it came to taking the "Lord's Day" off for relaxation and a certain amount of "refitting." Perhaps the only time the Chinese stopped their work was when the weather intervened (floods, heavy rains and snows, etc.) and forced them away from their placer ground. What the Chinese did in desert or dry placers when the summer months rolled around is open to question, but at least one source stated they were known to work at night in some instances and laager in during the heat of the day. How true this is I can't say, but it sounds like something Chinese miners might do. In other words, Chinese miners had a work ethic that surpassed that of most of their contemporaries in the mines of the American West.

 (Chinese miners at "rest" in camp. Note that other Chinese are swinging picks in the background.)

6) The Three "Ps"

Periodically here in Bedrock Dreams you've heard me talk about the importance of what I call the Three "Ps" when it comes to being a successful small-scale gold miner. What are the Three "Ps?" Patience, persistence, and perseverance. Chinese miners had the Three "Ps" locked down tight. I would also add care and being meticulous to this mix. It's no secret that non-Chinese miners in the American West often "skimmed the cream" from newly discovered placers and then moved on to "greener" ground. That, or they simply bypassed smaller gold placers containing gold values that were not what they considered economically feasible to work. Many supposedly "played out" placer locations or claims abandoned by other miners often became a direct target for Chinese miners and their version of the Three "Ps." The end result? I've said it before and I'll say it again now. When the Chinese worked an area they left very little behind, if anything at all. Virtually no stone was left unturned if it could be moved by human hands in group effort. This attention to detail in their mining efforts, their consistent practice of the three "Ps," and their careful, methodical, and meticulous approach to mining made the Chinese some of the best gold miners (if not the best) in the American West. Thus my admonition to you that you're just wasting your time if you're trying to find decent amounts of gold in an area or location the Chinese once worked. You see, they left little behind them.

(Chinese women were a rarity in most of the early gold camps of the American West but things changed as the camps grew into towns or settlements.)

The Next Time...

To sum things up here, I want to state that I don't think Chinese miners were some form of "supermen" or superhuman when it came to all things placer mining. They were just damn good at what they did and probably better than most of their contemporaries working richer claims around them. Call it what you will...chutzpah, the real deal, or kicking ass and taking names...when it came to placer mining in the West the Chinese took no prisoners. They deserve our respect today just as they should have been respected back then. They also hold a place in American mining history that can never be pushed aside or relegated to memory. So the next time you find yourself in front of a gigantic pile of river rocks stacked by the Chinese, do what I do. Take a moment to reflect on the men who stacked those rocks. What they endured, what they sacrificed, and what they accomplished.

After all, it's only fitting.

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Great series. I think the biggest reason they were not more respected is the language and culture differences. They were just too different than the rest, then you throw in the fact that they were good at finding gold, even in places you gave up on.....well, that wouldn't make ya love them! Fact of it was, they were better at it than you, and that never sits too well.....

    I recently rediscovered the old TV series Kung Fu with David Caradine. It has to be the strangest Western ever made, but it's better than I remembered. A lot of good wisdom and advice packed into those shows too. Kind of enjoying watching them again.

    1. Thanks Gary. "Kung Fu" was an anomaly but a good 'un!

  2. Hey Jim, we went over to Leesburg yesterday. I took a lot of pictures. It'll take a few days probably, but I'll have a video on it if you are interested soon.

    1. Sure thing. Be interesting to see. Thanks Gary.


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