A Brief History
On September 2, 1885, the Wyoming Territory was the scene of a terrible racially motivated riot that resulted in the deaths of a minimum of 28 Chinese immigrants, and possibly as many as 50. The aggressors in this case were also recent immigrants to the United States, coming from White, European countries. The rioting and killing was over the Union Pacific Coal Company paying Chinese miners less than White miners, undercutting the availability of jobs for White immigrants.
Not only did a couple to a few dozen Chinese immigrants lose their lives, additional people of Chinese descent were injured and around 78 Chinese homes were burned down. About $150,000 in property damage was done and amount well over $4 million in today’s dollars and a staggering amount for those days. The town of Rock Springs (in Sweetwater County in today’s State of Wyoming) was but a microcosm of the American West where tensions between Chinese and White immigrants had been increasing for years, including the passage of various anti-Chinese laws governing immigration. Employers were eager to hire Chinese workers that worked quite hard with few demands for less pay than White workers, creating enormous resentment against the Chinese by the Caucasian immigrant workers.
Tension and ultimately violence was perpetrated by a group called The Knights of Labor, which had created a local chapter in Rock Springs 2 years before the riot. The majority of the 150 White participants in the riot are believed to have been members of the anti-Chinese worker organization. The Knights of Labor is the common name the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was generally known by. The Knights were a labor union founded by Uriah in 1869 and grew to 28,000 members by 1880. By 1884 the Knights claimed over 100,000 members and was the biggest labor organization in the United States. By 1886, their numbers had swelled to the massive number of 800,000 American workers, about 20% of all laborers in the US. The Haymarket Square Riot of 1886 in Chicago was also at least in part instigated by members of the Knights of Labor. The severe economic depression called The Panic of 1893 saw a catastrophic decrease in membership, though the organization continued in reduced form until disbanded in 1949.
(Note: History and Headlines has several articles about riots, including “10 Goofy Named Riots.”)
The Rock Springs Riot inflamed White workers over the competition with Chinese workers, and other incidents of violence broke out soon afterwards in Washington Territory (now the states of Washington and Idaho). Federal troops had to be called in to return things to order, not arriving until September 9, 1885, and the troops escorted the Chinese that had fled Rock Springs back to the city. Fleeing Chinese had taken Union Pacific trains to Evanston, Wyoming, about 100 miles distant. White women had cheered the rioters as the violence took place, and newspapers were mostly sympathetic to the White laborers. Many of the Chinese dead were found either burned up or in pieces. When the US troops brought the Chinese workers back to Rock Springs, the Chinese found few of their dead had been buried, and many corpses and parts of bodies lay about along with burned out homes. By October 6, 1885, only 2 of the 6 original troops of US Army remained in Rock Springs, with a military presence remaining long afterwards. Other similar disputes developed elsewhere, including in Carbon County, Wyoming, where White workers of Finnish descent protested the use of Chinese labor, but their labor action was unsuccessful, as was the Rock Springs violence and protest. The Knights of Labor had refused to support the Carbon County protest and did not support a continued protest in Rock Springs after the deadly riot.
Only 16 White men were arrested in conjunction with crimes committed during the riot, and all had been released about a month later due to the failure of prosecutors to secure any indictments. The released rioters were treated as conquering heroes by their families and other White workers. The aftermath of the riot/massacre was not so supportive elsewhere. While the US Government resisted paying compensation to the Chinese that suffered death, injury, or financial loss, the Government of China warned that retaliation against Americans in China could take place. The British in China did their best to drum up anti-American feelings among the Chinese to gain their own advantages in trade with China. The US grudgingly ended up paying some reparations of about $150,000, but for property damage only and not for the killing and injuring of Chinese!
In the months following the Rock Springs Massacre, newspapers across the country were somewhat more critical of the actions of the rioters than the Wyoming papers had been, although of course others were more critical of allowing Chinese immigration to the US at all. Violent incidents continued against Chinese immigrants, mostly in the far West, but the Rock Springs incident remains the worst of the anti-Chinese violent events. Today, Rock Springs is a city of 23,000 people (5th largest city in Wyoming), and Wyoming is the least populated state in the United States (population about 580,000). Wyoming has an Asian population of about 1.3%, while Rock Springs has only about 1.1% Asian population.
When we think of racially motivated riots in the United States, we usually think of actions either by or against African Americans and European Americans, but as the Rock Springs Riot shows, there have been other ethnic or national origins at the base of riots, including some that resulted in considerable death, injury and property destruction. Questions for students: If you have any insight into the Rock Springs incident or any other riot with an ethnic or nationality factor, please share them with your fellow readers.
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For more information, please see…
Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. Penguin Books, 2004.
Gerteis, Joseph. Class and the Color Line: Interracial Class Coalition in the Knights of Labor and the Populist Movement (Politics, History, and Culture). Duke University Press Books, 2007.
The featured image in this article, a wood engraving by Thure de Thulstrup (1848-1930) showing the 1885 riot and massacre of Chinese-American coal miners by white miners from Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 29, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.