How bigotry is woven in with our Western roots

Rock Springs, Wyoming, has a largely unrecognized history of racial violence.


I’ve traveled frequently to Slovenia to see the place where my grandparents came from, and I remain amazed why they would trade that land of lush forests for windswept Rock Springs, Wyoming. But with thousands of migrants on the move in Europe these days, it’s understandable: They simply wanted a better life. Less understandable is some of the anti-migrant rhetoric we’re hearing at home.

It’s not the first time bigoted attitudes have surfaced in the United States. Rock Springs was ground zero in 1885, when hate talk spurred an orgy of medieval brutality and the murder of Chinese immigrants. 

Chinese people came here in the 1860s, first as railroad workers, and later as miners for the Union Pacific Railroad Company, many in the Rock Springs coal pits. In 1870, the company paid “white labor” up to $3 a day; the Chinese were paid a dollar less under what the company called a “race differential.”

The Knights of Labor, then organizing white miners in Rock Springs, also were championing a nationwide hate campaign against Chinese. Called “Chinamen,” or “Chinks,” they were yesterday’s version of today’s Mexicans, seen as “taking white men’s jobs,” or like Muslims, having strange customs. In 1870, Cheyenne’s Wyoming State Tribune suggested it was time to “throw back the tide of heathen paupers from our shores.” 

On the afternoon of Sept. 2, 1885, whipped-up white miners fanned out from the separate “Whitemen’s Town” in Rock Springs and mounted a scorched-earth attack on Chinatown. The raiders – including two women seen firing rifles – killed “at least” 28 Chinese that day and terrorized the fleeing survivors. The consul’s investigation grimly noted the “more or less mutilated” and burned bodies. Wyoming Gov. Francis Warren asked for help from U.S. Army soldiers in Rock Springs, though some suggested he was motivated more by company needs than a desire to quell violence.  

A week later, some of the Chinese returned, this time accompanied by federal troops who stayed for 13 years. “The company intends to make a ‘Chinatown’ out of Rock Springs,” the Rock Springs Independent lamented. “It means that Rock Springs is killed, as far as white men are concerned.” 

The Chinese identified perpetrators, and authorities arrested 16 men in Rock Springs. However, a white grand jury indicted no one, because no crime was committed “by a white person.”

A Harper's Weekly illustration from 1885 of the massacre.

I knew nothing about this as a kid growing up in Rock Springs. Nobody talked about it, and schools didn’t teach this tarnished bit of local history. Last I heard, there’s still no memorial to the mass killings. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when I wrote a story about the massacre, that I managed to learn about it. My source was an uncle who cared about local history. 

That history was all around me, many years later. Camp Pilot Butte, where the Army troops lived, remained intact for decades after they left. I even attended catechism in rooms we called “the barracks,” and played outside on the old parade ground, which had been turned into a playground. Remnants of nearby Chinatown surfaced when a school, built on the old site, expanded along “Ah Say Avenue,” which was named after a local Chinese leader.

Though a few Chinese continued as miners, the Rock Springs turmoil prompted the Union Pacific to shift its recruitment strategy to depressed southeastern Europe. That’s how my Slovenian grandfathers came to Rock Springs, part of a migrant flow between 1876 and 1914, when 5 million people left hardscrabble lives for America. By 1910, about half the miners in Rock Springs came from the same area, among them one of my grandfathers, who entered mine tunnels there in 1918. My other Slovenian grandfather opened a blacksmith shop in Rock Springs.

Like the Chinese, they encountered ridicule and suspicion about their politics, which many believed were dangerously leftist. When other ethnic groups arrived in growing multinational Rock Springs, racist name-calling was the norm, and sometimes, people duked it out in the local park. But there was no mass murder, because, simply, the newcomers were mostly white. 

For me, the family’s migratory movement has been circular. Last year, I applied for, and amazingly, was granted Slovenian citizenship. I can always go back to the old country.

Had the Chinese been welcomed or even tolerated, those terrible events in 1885 might not have occurred. If so, my forebears might never have come here. They might have hunkered down and stayed in Slovenia. I’d never have had to seek citizenship: I’d already be living there. 

But now I can leave this country, and if hate wins our election, I can honestly say, as some friends only half-jokingly declare: “I have an escape route.” Perhaps I won’t have to take it.

Paul Krza is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He was a longtime newspaperman in Wyoming and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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