Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A forgotten piece of Missoula's history returned to life this week in a push to pass a resolution remembering the role of the city's early Chinese residents and to mark for perpetuity where many of them came to rest.

It's also there in a forgotten cemetery in the Lower Rattlesnake where new residents have lived for the past century – all in homes built upon the unmarked graves of their Chinese predecessors.

Members of the City Council this week took up a resolution to memorialize Missoula's early Chinese history – one that's largely been forgotten beyond myth and the occasional excavation of Chinese artifacts in the historic Front Street district.

Paul Kim, a member of the ACLU in Missoula who recently completed a dissertation at the University of Montana, became aware of the city's early Chinese community after reading a research paper by UM Archaeologist Kelly Dixon.

“One thing she noticed that made me pause for a bit was this one line that Missoula used to have a Chinese cemetery, but it no longer exists,” said Kim. “There are (human) remains below residential subdivisions where bones occasionally rise when resident's do excavation or other landscaping in their yards. I was a bit shocked that that was the first time I was hearing about a Chinese cemetery in Missoula.”

Kim believes the forgotten cemetery stems from a number of causes, including a lack of academic interest in Chinese history Montana and that early Chinese residents lack a formal place in state history.

So he became curious: What's the relationship between the process of settler colonialism and how Montanan's talk about themselves in politics today? The cemetery in the Rattlesnake and how it became covered by housing may strike to his point.

“We only remember the Chinese community in Missoula when we dig up their bones,” he said.

Rich but forgotten history

According to old newspaper accounts dating to 1878, early Missoula residents hosted a “strawberry festival” to raise money to fence the town's first cemetery. That article appears to be the first to mention a cemetery in Missoula's newspaper record, Kim said.

This small image indicates the location of the cemetery at the base of Mount Jumbo, marked by the fence and several tombstones.
This small image indicates the location of the cemetery at the base of Mount Jumbo, marked by the fence and several tombstones.

Burials at that point included the town's first settlers, such as Frank Worden, but it didn't include many if any Chinese. And when the city incorporated in 1883 and the city's boundaries were defined, the Legislature also referenced the Missoula cemetery at the base of Mount Jumbo in what's now the Rattlesnake Neighborhood.

“Those two references are the first instance of the cemetery's function and that it was a notable landmark for residents in town,” Kim said.

But shortly after the cemetery was created, and given its distance from Missoula at the time, it began to fall into disarray. The City Council in 1885 sought to raise funding to provide upkeep for the graveyard.

It also issued a stern warning that anyone caught desecrating the cemetery would be “severely punished.”

“We understand that some parties, possibly thoughtless boys, have been desecrating the graveyard east of Rattlesnake, breaking tombstones, etc.,” early city records state. “The old graveyard seems to be going to rack and ruin pretty rapidly and it is time that those who have friends buried there should take steps either to remove the bodies to the new cemetery or else fix up the old.”

As white Missoula residents began to remove the bodies of their loved ones to the new cemetery, the old graveyard was opened to the Chinese. They soon represented the majority of new burials in the old cemetery.

Kim said white Missoulians were reluctant to be buried next to the Chinese for a number of reasons. One stems from blatant racism while the other resulted from fears of Chinese customs. At the time, Kim said, it was common practice for Missoula's early Chinese residents to bury a loved one for 12 years before exhuming their bones and shipping them via Chinese merchants back to their homeland.

A map of Missoula in 1894.
A map of Missoula in 1884.

Still, he noted, Missoula's white population held deep curiosity regarding their Chinese residents. Some instances are captured in old photos, including funeral processions in downtown Missoula.

“You have a large group of Chinese with regalia, instruments and fire crackers, and along both sides of the street you have the entire town of Missoula looking on with curiosity,” he said. “It's a stunning image to ponder when you think about how thoroughly this history has been erased up to this point and our town's own understanding of itself.”

Some newspaper headlines touched on the deceased including Tong Me Duck, who died of “Chinese consumption,” and Wung “Cranky” Sam, who's burial was described as a “solemn observance.” Sam was one of the residents buried in the Rattlesnake cemetery.

Western history

Over many years beginning in 1892, the American West became embroiled in the Chinese Exclusion Act. At least four Chinese workers were killed in Butte for no other reason than their race.

Certain politicians and groups, including the Knights of Columbus in Butte, were also passionate advocates that Chinese exclusion must be increased.

“If the Chinese are allowed to live in the American West, it would represent the total desecration of everything the West stood for, of what white men believe they are to themselves,” Kim said of the tumultuous period. “The reasons these riots were moved to actual violence and the conditions that allowed them to occur had a direct relationship to the political rhetoric that was percolating at the time.”

By 1914, burials ended at the Rattlesnake graveside, and it fell further into disrepair. By then, most Caucasians had been relocated to the new cemetery, though the Chinese were left in place. And as the graveyard fell into ruin, “the city crept in.”

Old real estate adds from the early 1920s described the grounds of the old cemetery as “prime real estate,” even after mentioning the property's early use as a graveyard. They encouraged new residents to live the Missoula dream in a house in the Rattlesnake at the base of Mount Jumbo.

Missoula circa 1900.
Missoula circa 1900.

But in the following years, bones began to emerge. “Coffin and skeleton uncovered by diggers,” one 1922 headline read. “Most of Skeleton is Uncovered,” read another headline in 1974, noting that the person was “probably of a Chinese person buried during the late 1890s.”

“Perhaps it was just a mistake that these houses were built over unmarked graves,” Kim said. “But if you ask the question if they know what they were doing, the answer is unequivocally yes.”

The Missoula City Council will consider the resolution next Wednesday. If approved, they'd officially recognize the history and contribution of the Chinese in Missoula's development. It would also locate funding to place a historical marker at the site of the old graveyard.

“I think it's important for us to reckon with the different parts of Missoula's history, especially the untold stories,” said council member Daniel Carlino. “The story of this Chinese cemetery is something that very few people in town know about. The people that were buried there are the same people who helped build Missoula.”