The Coming Man from Canton: Chinese Experience in Montana, 1862-1943

The Coming Man from Canton: Chinese Experience in Montana, 1862-1943

The Coming Man from Canton: Chinese Experience in Montana, 1862-1943

The Coming Man from Canton: Chinese Experience in Montana, 1862-1943


In The Coming Man from Canton Christopher W. Merritt mines the historical and archaeological record of the Chinese immigrant experience in Montana to explore new questions and perspectives. During the 1860s Chinese immigrants arrived by the thousands, moving into the Rocky Mountain West and tenaciously searching for prosperity in the face of resistance, restriction, racism, and armed hostility from virtually every ethnic group in American society. As second-class citizens, Chinese immigrants remained largely insular and formed their own internal governments as well as labor and trade networks, typically establishing communities apart from the main towns. Chinese miners, launderers, restaurant keepers, gardeners, railroad laborers, and other workers became a separate but integral part of the American experience in the Intermountain West.

Although Chinese immigrants constituted more than 10 percent of the Montana Territory's total population by 1870, the historical records provide a biased and narrow perspective, as they were generally written by European American community members. Merritt uses the statewide Montana context to show the diversity of Chinese settlements that has often been neglected by archival studies. His research highlights how the legacy of the Chinese in Montana is, or is not, reflected in modern Montana identity, and how scholars, educators, professionals, and the public can alter the existing perception of this population as the "other" and perceive it instead an integral part of Montana's past.


[Though the Chinese] are coolies, and heathen; and “gobble” poor ground and carry away their treasures from our shore, they are yet a laboring element that can be, and is being, used to advantage on this continent. the direction of the labor stream has changed. It crosses now from the Orient, and whether we like or dislike him, Christianize and citizenize him, or he Paganizes us, or neither, “John” is an impending irrepressible fixture on the American Continent and the inevitable Coming Man from Canton.— New Northwest, August 13, 1869

The uncertainty about Chinese immigration expressed in the pages of the New Northwest newspaper of Deer Lodge, Montana, encapsulates the ambiguous historical interaction with this population. Montana’s vast land and natural resources offered opportunity for all seekers, and the need for cheap labor was a constant in the first decades of the territorial and state history. On the other hand, most Montanans fought over how best to deal legally and socially with the Chinese. Few supported the population’s continued habitation in the state. This ambiguity played out daily in Montana’s history until the Chinese population dwindled to a level that was no longer seen as a social or economic threat to the state’s European American majority.

Since Leeson (1885) published the first comprehensive Montana history, Chinese residents have remained an anecdotal appendix to the state’s mainstream narrative. Burlingame’s (1942) effort at a statewide historical narrative provided only a cursory examination of the Chinese, focusing on the stereotypical story of their purchasing former European American mining claims that the latter thought had been “panned out.” in 1959 K. Ross Toole’s thorough discussion of Montana’s historical development included only one paragraph about the Chinese population of the state (Toole 1959:72–73). the lack of interest displayed in the Chinese of Montana even by the state’s preeminent 20th-century historian reflects the general pattern of scholarly indifference toward this population. Toole’s refrain in that one paragraph perpetuated two main stereotypical themes . . .

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