Grant to help unravel mystery behind Montana’s Chinese tombstones

Posted April 4, 2022

This article originally appeared in the Helena Independent Record. Written by Phil Drake. A grant from the Montana History Foundation may help unravel mysteries that some Chinese people buried a long time ago in Montana have taken to the grave.

Among the $212,147 the foundation recently awarded for 28 projects across Montana was $10,000 for “Montana’s Chinese Cemeteries: Translating and Interpreting what Remains.” The foundation states the Butte-based Mai Wah Society will use the money to translate and interpret Chinese headstones in four cemeteries in Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Helena.

The group will also create a website featuring the project’s findings.

Charlene Porsild, president and chief executive officer of the Montana History Foundation, said her group feels cemetery preservation projects such as these share the vital history of ethnic communities and their influence on the state.

“The memory of each burial site touches a part of Montana’s communal past and has great value for present and future generations,” she said.

Mark Johnson, an expert in the Chinese experience in Montana and a fellow with the Institute for Educational Initiatives at University of Notre Dame, will head up the project.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.Johnson said the Chinese language evolved and many of the Chinese tombstones are written in traditional Chinese characters.

The Helena resident said many of the Chinese who settled in Montana were from Taishan, a southern county of China, and the project will need experts to help unravel the tombstones.

Johnson said he will have the help of Genevieve Leung, linguistics professor at the University of San Francisco and director of the university’s Asian Pacific Studies program, and Peter Lau, a retiree fluent in both Taishanese and English who spends six months each year in Taishan. Johnson will do the research using digital databases and local archives.

Johnson said he will relay the information to the two experts. He hopes the study will unveil the identities of the Chinese Montanans and “get both sides of it … the Chinese aspect and how they lived their lives here.”

“I think we will learn some interesting trends and patterns about the people who came to Montana,” Johnson said, “when they came, what conditions were like in China.”

He said traditionally, five or seven years after being buried, the bodies were repatriated back to China.

Johnson said the study could help find their second burial site in China.

“If we can just begin to tell the story of the Chinese in Montana with more fullness, recognize their individuality, their humanity and their culture … ” Johnson said.

The grant proposal says “an optimistic hope is to connect with surviving relatives through Peter Lau’s efforts, further linking Montana with specific villages in Taishan County.”

Ten tombstones will be reviewed at Chinese Row at Forestvale Cemetery near Helena, Johnson said. He said there are about 10 headstones each at Mountainview Cemetery in Billings and Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.

He said Butte’s Mount Moriah has the most, with more than 20 Chinese headstones.

Johnson said that at its height, the Chinese population of Montana was 2,532 in 1890. He said their story is told in his book “The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana (University of Nebraska Press, 2022).” More information is available at www.BigSkyChinese.com.

Zachary Coe, the community outreach manager for the history foundation, said it’s a pleasure to work on cemetery projects because they offer a unique perspective on the past and have the potential to enlighten areas of Montana’s history people may not realize exist.

“This work and the people doing it are a great reminder about the importance of historic preservation,” he said.

Johnson said many of them were stripped of their identity.

“I hope (we) can give that back to them,” Johnson said.