Rock Springs is a small town in southern Wyoming with a population of about 23,000. It was created by the coal industry in the 19th century as coal was needed to fuel the trains. Those coal mines largely employed immigrants.

Historic downtown Rock Springs in 2007. Author: Milonica at en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

Rock Springs has self-designated as the “Home to 56 Nationalities” due to those immigrants, from Albania to Wales, who came to work in the mines. They have an International Day festival to pay tribute to those immigrants.

Rock Springs Coal sign, 2007. Author: Milonica at en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

But those immigrants of 56 nationalities didn’t always party well together. There was a time when, rather than inspiring local pride, this diversity sparked a massacre.

In 1882 the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the immigration of all Chinese laborers. This act was supposed to last for 10 years, but wasn’t repealed for 61 years, in 1943, at which time the U.S. allowed 105 Chinese to enter per year. Yes, that is 105. Per year.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is an indication of the widespread and socially acceptable racism against the Chinese in America.

At the time this act became law, a large number of Chinese immigrants had already been in the country for several decades. They had shown up to take their chances during the gold rush that began in 1848 and stayed to work on building the transcontinental railroad. After that, they found their way to the coal mines in the western U.S, initially acting as strikebreakers in the 1870s.

Chinese Camp in the Mines. Rock Springs massacre, 1885. Author: J. D. Borthwick via Wikimedia Commons

The Union Pacific Coal Department (UPCD) hired Chinese because they were willing to work for less than other laborers. But the white mine workers felt the Chinese were taking jobs away from the white miners and that their employer was using the Chinese to depress wages for everyone, causing economic anxiety. Rather than holding the company responsible for their circumstances, the white miners instead took it out on the most vulnerable of their co-workers.

On September 2, 1885, there were 150 white workers and 331 Chinese workers at the UPCD mine in Rock Springs. The Knights of Labor were a group working to unionize mine labor and had a hand in previous strikes. They had also worked for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. They started a chapter in Rock Springs in 1883. The previous strikes had caused aggravation and the loss of money for the mining companies, leading them to increasingly rely on Chinese labor.

The horrific details of this story can be found all over the internet if you search “Rock Springs Massacre”. I’ll give you the basics here.

On the morning of September 2, 1885, ten white miners found two Chinese miners working one of the best locations in the mine. Since miners were paid by the ton, location mattered. These white miners felt that they should be the ones to work that location and beat the two Chinese miners badly enough that one later died.

By that afternoon, a group of 150 white men, armed with guns and tools, approached Chinatown. (Also, I don’t know how many, but there were definitely white women cheering on the men and even taking part in the carnage.)

1885 riot and massacre of Chinese-American coal miners, by white miners. From Harper’s Weekly Vol. 29. Artist: Thulstrup, Thure de, 1848-1930. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Via Wikimedia Commons

This mob told the Chinatown residents that they had one hour to pack up and leave town, but that obviously wasn’t enough to satisfy their anger. Some of the Chinese were killed as they fled. The Chinese were robbed, scalped, mutilated, branded, decapitated, dismembered, and hanged. That evening the mob set fire to the houses where the Chinese lived, but that were owned by the company. Then they tossed Chinese, living and dead, into those fires.

At the end, there were 28 Chinese confirmed dead, although it is estimated the number of dead was closer to 50. Fifteen Chinese were injured. Seventy-eight homes were burned.

Editorial Cartoon by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 1885. Author: Thomas Nast (1840–1902). Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

When UPCD reopened for business, 45 white miners believed to be involved in the violence were fired. Sixteen men were arrested, although the grand jury refused to indict them and they were applauded when they returned home.

No one was ever convicted.