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Far East Culture In The Old West

March 6, 2012, 10:09 PM by Derek Olson

Far East Culture In The Old West
DEADWOOD, SD -

The Old West boomtown of Deadwood has a rich history. While primarily known as the resting place of Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood was also a cultural oasis and even had its own Chinatown District.

"They came because of hardship in their homeland; starvation, political unrest.  And they had to be pretty desperate to come because it was a life-threatening journey to get here," Adams Museum Exhibits Curator Darrel Nelson said.

The city of Deadwood was founded in 1876, one year after gold was discovered in the area.  In its heyday, the 1.5 mile long gulch was home to more than 9,000 people, including hundreds of Chinese migrant workers.

"Mostly, the individuals that were here, the Chinese that were here, were adult males that were from the ages of about 18 to 45 years of age.  So it was a relatively young population, just what you would expect to see in the mining camps," Deadwood's City Archivist Mike Runge said.

"They were coming to make a better life for themselves, but it was the hard way.  They came to some rough towns where there was racism.  They often got the bottom of the economic totem pole," Nelson said.

And because of those conditions, Deadwood's Chinese formed a tight-knit community that became one of the largest Chinatowns east of San Francisco.

"In Deadwood, to some extent, they stayed to themselves because they were in a foreign place, not an entirely friendly place, and so they had their own institutions.  They had their own fire department, their own functioning police department, their own social organizations, their own spiritual rituals, some of which were very interesting to whites," Nelson said.

There's even a Chinese section at the historic Mount Moriah Cemetery.

"There was a part where the unnamed poor were buried.  There was a part where the unnamed prostitutes tended to be buried because they had a pretty rough life.  So there were kind of socio-economic divisions in the cemetery just like there were in town," Nelson said.

Deadwood's Chinatown was as permanent as anything else in the town at the time, lasting for five decades.

"By the 1910s and 1920s, the population would start declining.  And by 1930, the last Chinese that were here left on the railroads," Runge said.

In 2003, the city began excavating on the site of the old Chinatown, located on Lower Main Street, and evidence of the area's rich heritage quickly began to surface.

"The artifacts that came out of the excavations actually mirror exactly what you would see those different business being, of which one of them being a Chinese laundry," Runge said.

The Chinese operated many laundries, strategically located around town.  Although they weren't formally affiliated with each other, they banded together when two white women opened a competing business.

"When these two women came in to open up this laundry, the Chinese, according to the newspapers, lowered their prices to put these women out of business.  And as soon as they went out of business, they raised their prices.  So you can see they were working together in order to keep that market cornered specifically for them," Runge said.

Each of the thousands of artifacts pulled from earth may have a story to tell, something that both Runge and Nelson hope to share.

"With those materials, we're hoping to further our understanding of what it really meant, the Chinese experience in Deadwood," Runge said.

With a cultural exhibit on permanent display at the Adams Museum and plans for another at the new Days of '76 Museum, more people should be able to see these artifacts.

"Not much of it has been seen because there are a tremendous number of artifacts, so that's a place where that can be shown," Nelson said.

"We're hoping also that down the line we'll be able to put some more of our collections online, as well, or also get them out to surrounding museums so they'll be able to see some of these truly magnificent pieces of history that are found here in Deadwood," Runge said.

Shedding light on a portion of Deadwood's history that's often overlooked.

"The Chinese kind of stand for the exotic component, and many people find that very interesting.  And fortunately for us, it's all real," Nelson said.

Find more information on Deadwood's Chinatown online.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
An earlier version of this story stated Annie Oakley is buried in Deadwood; she is buried in Ohio.

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