Researchers working to uncover the history of Chinese immigrants in Montana

Posted April 12, 2022

This article originally appeared on KTVH. It was written by Tom Buchanan.

HELENA — A grant given by the Montana History Foundation will help give researchers the access to translate and interpret Chinese gravestones in four Montana cemeteries.

“I think the importance of this project – thankfully funded by the Montana History Foundation – is to try and give back the identity, the culture, the individuality, and the respect that these Chinese Montanans deserve,” says Mark Johnson, Assistant Professor with the University of Notre Dame.

During part of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants made up 10-15% of the entire territorial population of Montana. These Montanans worked the gold rushes, laid track for railways, and paid their fair share of taxes. But due to discrimination like interracial marriage bans, and restrictive gendered immigration, the Chinese population in Montana dwindled. This, plus a language barrier, has led to a gap in our knowledge about what life in Montana was like for Chinese immigrants.

“I do think it is metaphorically symbolic that we’ve got very well-groomed Forestvale cemetery across the fence. This is part of Forestvale Cemetery, but here at China Row it’s very, very unkept. It’s, we’ve got, you know, prickly pear cactus. We’ve got rattlesnakes and things like that out here. So, I think it’s metaphorically symbolic of the lack of acceptance, sadly, that many Chinese Montanans faced throughout their time here,” says Johnson.

But now, because of this $10,000 grant by the Montana History Foundation, researchers working under the banner of the Mai Wah Society out of Butte are attempting to translate and interpret Chinese gravestones. Their work will cover four gravesites. One in Billings, another in Bozeman, a third in Butte, and another here in Helena. While a certain number of the remains have been repatriated back to China, many headstones remain, containing portals into the lives of immigrants.

Uncovering the meaning behind the Chinese characters on the tombstones isn’t all that simple. Being from before the 1950s, these headstones are written in traditional Chinese script. Working with a linguistics professor from the University of San Francisco, they should be able to understand the traditional Chinese script. But then they have to take that script and integrate it into a specific dialect.

“Now, the Chinese Montanans who came here from 1860 to 1940 or so, tended to be from a very specific part of China. And the dialect they spoke is called Taishanese,” says Johnson.

Once they translate the characters and integrate them into the dialect, they will then be able to better understand how those immigrants would have pronounced their names, their villages’ names, etc. Then they hope to be able to match these findings to court records, census records and other similar records.

If you’d like to find out more about the Chinese experience in Montana, Johnson has a book out now. The book is called The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana.