The Rock Springs Massacre Of 1885: When 28 Chinese Miners Were Slaughtered, Homes Burned

By | April 2, 2021

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An illustration of a massacre published in Harper's Weekly, September 26, 1885. The violence against the Chinese laborers was carried out by white coal miners. (Getty Images)

Barely past the crack of dawn on September 2, 1885, an argument broke out between the Chinese and European immigrant workers of the Union Pacific Coal Company, and while it is difficult to know the exact sequence of events that took place in the mine that morning, two Chinese miners were beaten severely and one died. Rather than stopping or attempting to cover up the murder, the European miners actually marched out of the mine in protest of the presence of Chinese miners and traveled to the nearby town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, where they carried out one of the worst racially motivated massacres in U.S. history. 

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The Last Spike by Thomas Hill (1881). (California State Railroad Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

The context of the 19th-century American Western industrial climate is crucial to understanding this episode of violence. It is impossible to overstress just how important the completion of the transcontinental railroad was to the success of the United States as a nation, especially as the Industrial Revolution reshaped lifestyles and the economy across the globe. As a young nation, America saw western expansion as its destiny, but getting across safely was a long and often deadly task (just ask the Donner Party). The railroad was the country's only real hope of achieving that "sea to shining sea" dream. The Union Pacific connected the rail lines from Nebraska to Promontory Summit, Utah, where it met up with the Central Pacific Railroad, which would take you all the way to sunny California.

It was a dangerous job, and when the Central Pacific began hiring in January 1865, only a few hundred white men bothered to apply. Founder Charles Crocker turned to Chinese labor, which was plentiful at the time, as many had fled political unrest in China and continued migrating to America even as the Gold Rush of the 1850s died down. They faced perilous conditions, and many died, but they still fared better than their white counterparts, at least when it came to disease. The cultural tradition of making tea meant the water consumed by Chinese immigrants was boiled, killing off the parasites and bacteria that often lead to dysentery.