Presentation to unearth nuggets about Chinese immigrants’ roles in the West

Christopher W. Merritt, deputy state historic preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History, will give a lecture about Chinese immigrant laborers on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at the Park City Museum Education and Collections Center.
Photo courtesy of Christopher W. Merritt |

The Chinese population was a major factor in the success of gold mining and building railroads in the Western United States, but its contributions are full of gaps that history and archaeology needs to fill, said Christopher W. Merritt, deputy state historic preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History.

“They brought some fairly significant culture to the states, and it has been glossed over in our history books,” Merritt told The Park Record. “Many workers immigrated from China during the Gold Rush and worked in the Transcontinental Railroad, but those things are sort of treated as a side-note in our history, which was surprising to me when I began studying the contributions of this very large immigrant population.”

The 1870 United States census found that one of 10 Montanans were Chinese, and in Helena, one of every five residents were Chinese, Merritt said.

“By 1890, nearly 10 years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act that started a moratorium on Chinese immigration, anotherreason the Chinese population was drastically reduced to one Chinese for every 6,000 Montanans,” Merritt said. “The average age for a Chinese person in Montana went from 23 in 1870 to 78 by 1920, because there were no new Chinese immigrants coming to the United States.”

By that time, many of the 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds had never returned to China, he said.

“They had all come over in the 1860s, and by the time they had enough earnings to go home, 30 years had gone by,” Merritt explained. “Their wives and children didn’t know who these husbands and fathers were any more. So acts like the Chinese Exclusion Act had personal and heartbreaking consequences.”

Merritt will include this and other topics surrounding Chinese immigrants in the West during a presentation, which is free and open to the public, that will run from 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at the Park City Museum Education and Collections Center, 2079 Sidewinder Drive.

Merritt, the author of the book, “The Coming Man from Canton,” which is about the Chinese immigrant experience, will bring photographs and some artifacts to illustrate his points.

“I’ve been researching Chinese history and archaeology for more than a decade now and I’m an archaeologist by trade, so what I did with the book was a blending of history and archaeology,” he said.

Merritt’s interest in the Chinese immigrants started when he was an undergraduate at the University of Montana.

“I found that no one really talked about the Chinese contribution to the state’s history,” he said. “So I started doing some research.”

His studies in archaeology eventually earned him a master’s degree from Michigan Technological University.

“I learned that the Chinese were everywhere and involved in some pretty significant contributions out West with the mining and railroad,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why didn’t I learn any of that in my mainstream history classes?’”

When Merritt returned to the UM for his PhD, he worked with the United States Forest Service.

“There were some Chinese sites that I was able to get into to do some background research,” he said. “My dissertation topic was the overseas Chinese experience in the state of Montana.”

When it came time to present his dissertation, Merritt was ready to make a statement.

“I brought in all the major histories of Montana that started back with a volume that as published in 1889 and stood them all up in a wall that was three feet tall,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Look at these books. All of them combined have less than a page written about the contributions of the Chinese in Montana.’”

When Merritt’s career relocated him to the Utah Division of State History, he found a scenario that harkened back to his time in Montana.

“I came to Utah and knew the Chinese contribution to the railroad was such a big thing, so I thought I would find tons of archaeology and history about this,” he said. “All I found was footnotes, even though the contributions of the Chinese is more well known than they were in Montana. So I decided to continue the effort to bring this population’s contributions to light.”

Most of the Chinese who immigrated to Montana because of the Gold Rush were barred from working in underground mines by unions because people thought they would destabilize the workforce, Merritt said.

“The Chinese would go communities that did free-milling of gold,” he said. “Utah, with the exception of Park City, doesn’t have a lot of mining history, so the Chinese didn’t come to Utah to mainly work in mines. They came to work on the Transcontinental Railroad.”

So Merritt partnered with the Bureau of Land Management, the government agency that manages most of the grade of the railroad that was built by Chinese labor in 1868 and maintained by them until 1890.

Merritt learned that Ogden and Salt Lake had some of the largest Chinatowns in the West, he said.

“Park City had a good-sized Chinatown, too, and China Bridge parking lot is one of the reminders,” he said. “So I will talk about this, because we can’t forget the contributions of this population or the legal or social restrictions on this population over the decades.”

Merritt has enjoyed doing his research on Chinese laborers, but two events showed him the importance of his work.

One stems from an immigrant named Billy Kee, who started as a servant for a Montana senator in the late 1900s.

“When Billy wanted to go off on his own, the senator set up a hotel for him in the railroad, and within 10 years, Billy was the most wealthy Chinese person in Montana,” Merritt said. “He was able to circumvent the government and bring his family from China to the United States.”

Merritt wrote about the man in his dissertation, and in 2012, the real fruits of his labor matured.

“So I’m in Utah and get a random email from Billy’s grandson,” Merritt said. “The whole family had lost a part of their Montana history. So through my dissertation that had been posted online at the University of Montana, the family found a photo of this man and a photo of his father.”

The second story has unfolded in the last three years, and it reflects a change on how Chinese-Americans have organized themselves in the United States.

“A lot of descendant groups, including one from Salt Lake City, have come together with people from around the world to find out more about their heritage and their history,” Merritt said.

Throughout his work, Merritt has seen a cycle in how immigrants are treated in the United States.

“As early as 1868, a treaty between the U.S. and China was signed to disallow the immigration of women and children from China,” he said. “At the time, most Americans and politicians felt they needed the cheap labor in the West, but didn’t want the laborers to stay.”

That sentiment grew when scandals involving the railroads caused a recession in the 1870s.

“Unemployment rose and people started pointing fingers at the Chinese and blamed them for taking the jobs because there were so many of them,” Merritt said. “People blamed them for sending their money back to China and bringing opium to the United States.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed in 1892 and mandated that all Chinese immigrants had to register at a courthouse and get a federal I.D.

“This is first time in U.S. history that anyone had to get a photo I.D., and if they were caught without it, they would be deported,” Merritt said. “Those laws weren’t repealed until 1943, when the United States needed the help of the Chinese government during World War II.”

Merritt has seen the same type of rhetoric that has been passed down through the years involving other minority groups.

“If we don’t learn from the past we are destined to repeat it,” he said. “The more we learn, we can think about our actions and policies.”

This is why he gives presentations, Merritt said.

Archaeologist Christopher W. Merritt from the Utah Division of State History will give a lecture titled “Chinese Immigration and the West” at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at the Park City Museum Education and Collections Center, 2079 Sidewinder Drive. The event, which is presented in conjunction to “The Way We Worked” exhibit, is free and open to the public. For information, visit


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