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Far East meets Big Sky: Chinese miners' story told through newly discovered artifacts
A volunteer group chosen through Passport in Time, an archaeology and historic preservation program of the U.S. Forest Service, digs in the dirt Wednesday searching for small artifacts in the abandoned mining town of Louisville in the Lolo National Forest. The volunteers are excavating the area in search of artifacts from the Chinese mining community that lived in the area more than 100 years ago.
Photo by ASHLEY McKEE of the Missoulian

SUPERIOR - Standing in the mountains of a western Montana forest, Chris Merritt smiled as he held up fragments of a culture from halfway around the world.

The newly discovered artifacts - opium tins, soup bones, ceramic bowls, calligraphy stones, a poker chip, a snake oil bottle - are from the first large 19th century Chinese mining settlement in Montana.

Merritt, an archaeologist, handled the artifacts lovingly - as though they were the gold nuggets that the immigrants never found in the watery recesses of the Lolo National Forest.

"In archaeology, you don't need to find whole objects," he said. "Fragments are enough to piece together the story of history."

The history of Chinese immigrants in the American West is well-known - laboring in mines, railroads and laundries, facing hardship and prejudice - but the University of Montana and the U.S. Forest Service are teaming up this summer for the first detailed archaeological excavation of early Chinese gold mining settlements in the Big Sky state.

Merritt, a doctoral student at UM, will explore six sites in six national forests across western Montana. His work is being overseen by Kelly Dixon, an assistant professor of historical archaeology at UM.

Chinese laborers helped build the American West in the 19th century, but anti-Chinese laws, animosity and an economic downturn forced many to return to San Francisco, Seattle or China before the turn of the century. In Montana, Chinese immigrants made up 10 percent of the state's population in 1870, a figure that dropped to about 4 percent by 1890.

"The Chinese had a huge impact on every corner of this state, but we have huge gaps in our knowledge about how they adapted to what Montana could throw at them socially and environmentally," Merritt said.

"We know they had a classic story of the Old West, going to the places of least resistance" to seek their fortune and avoid the most overt prejudice, he said. "In this case, it was China Gulch and Louisville."

Merritt's dissertation project, which is funded by a $24,000 grant from the Forest Service, started last week in China Gulch and Louisville, an 1870s gold mining settlement near Superior, where archaeologists have documented the only known remnants of the first large influx of Chinese workers into Montana.

Over the years, the six Chinese settlements have been documented - as well as looted - and preliminary evaluations have been completed, but Merritt's project will be the first comprehensive study of the sites.

After gold was discovered in California in 1849, thousands of Americans and foreign immigrants flocked to the western United States to seek their fortune. Following rumors of gold, prospectors raced from place to place, staking claims and setting up mining camps along streams and mountainsides.

White prospectors tended to work alone or in pairs, but Chinese banded together in small groups in an effort to improve their chances.

Boomtowns sprung up overnight and often disappeared just as quickly. One such place was Louisville, where two Frenchmen found gold in Cedar Creek in December 1869.

The men filed a claim and made a pact to keep the site a secret until they returned in the spring, but one of them drunkenly disclosed the discovery while visiting a Missoula saloon.

A gold rush ensued, drawing prospectors from around the region, including Missoula where the population dropped from 2,500 to 500 as townsfolk headed north and west to Cedar Creek.

By the spring of 1870, 1,100 people had set up camp on about two acres beside the creek, pitching tents and erecting log buildings in a settlement they named Louisville - pronounced "Louise-ville" after the wife of one of the French prospectors.

But a few months later, all but about 100 of Louisville's inhabitants had departed for other prospecting sites after having failed to find significant gold in Cedar Creek.

At the same time, Idaho's Moose Creek mining district passed a law prohibiting Chinese from owning mining claims or property.

So about 500 Chinese prospectors came over the Bitterroot Mountains that summer and settled beside the nearly empty Louisville, where they sought gold from an unnamed creek just upstream of Cedar Creek.

Their settlement became known as China Gulch and the feeder creek as China Creek. They put up tents, built rock cooking ovens and placered gold, but it was harsh terrain and they faced starvation.

In 1871, after all but a few white prospectors had abandoned Louisville, the Chinese moved in and stayed until the late 1880s - when they departed after failing to strike it rich.

Mining companies reoccupied Louisville in the 1890s and 1930s, using it as a base for industrial mining until the 1950s, when the settlement was abandoned for the last time.

Archaeology - and looting - have been around for as long as people have wanted to document and profit from human and natural history.

In 1979, the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act outlawed looting, but Louisville had been picked over by then by Mineral County residents and artifact hunters who took most of the intact items.

China Gulch was reclaimed by the thick, damp forest and largely forgotten. Maps mistakenly located it half a mile away.

In 1995, Mary Williams, a Forest Service historian, led an expedition that discovered the actual site of China Gulch when they uncovered the remains of the rock ovens. They were the first such hearths identified in western Montana.

The Forest Service determined China Gulch to be a significant find, but the agency lacked the money and work force for a complete excavation, said Milo McLeod, archaeologist for the Lolo National Forest.

"We were excited, but we didn't know what we really had" until 2007 when Merritt did a more thorough examination of the site, McLeod said. "We got such unique information that we wanted to do a full follow-up investigation."

Among the most important evidence uncovered are 2,000 fragments of animal bones that the Chinese prospectors had boiled for marrow soup. The bones had been chopped and boiled repeatedly in a desperate attempt to fight off starvation.

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"These are the kinds of things that tell the stories of the daily lives of these immigrants," Merritt said.

Besides physical evidence, project officials also are using newspaper stories, claim records, maps and other materials to piece together the history of China Gulch and Louisville.

Another important source of information is area residents, who can relay stories their families have told for generations and who collected artifacts before it was illegal, Merritt said.

Small amounts of gold are still present in China Gulch and Cedar Creek, where prospectors still file mining claims.

An estimated $6 million to $7 million in gold has been found in Cedar Creek since 1870, a relatively small amount in the history of Western gold mining, Merritt said.

Harsh mountain weather, collectors and bulldozers left little surface evidence of the early occupation of the two settlements - except for the rock ovens and a collapsed log building that might have been a saloon, hotel or general store.

In the 1930s, the federal government inflated the price of gold in an effort to spur economic development during the Depression. Mining companies reopened Louisville and pushed most of the original town into Cedar Creek.

Much of the new excavation is being conducted by the Forest Service's Passport in Time program, which uses volunteers on archaeological and historic preservation projects nationwide. Merritt and McLeod are overseeing the work.

Working up a sweat in the mountain sunshine, the volunteers pulled away brush - to uncover some areas that looters might have missed - then marked off the sites and sifted down through the layers of dirt.

"I love it," said volunteer Steve Waylett, a retired Navy flight officer from Idaho. "It's a chance to see history come alive."

China Gulch and Louisville may be opened to the public and an interpretive sign and walking trail constructed after the excavation is completed by late summer.

Some of the artifacts are to be displayed at the Mineral County Historical Society Museum in Superior.

Mike Beckes, archaeologist for the Forest Service's Northern Region, said Merritt, who is just starting his professional career, and McLeod, who is retiring soon after more than three decades in the field, have formed an effective partnership.

"We know there was a Chinese presence here, but we don't know the fine detail - how these people lived, what they ate, their illnesses, where they got their supplies," Beckes said. "There's a lot more to tell."

Reporter John Cramer can be reached at 523-5259 or at johncramer@missoulian.com. Photography intern Ashley McKee can be reached at 523-5270.

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