Where East Met (Wild) West

Excavations in a legendary gold rush town uncover the unsung labors of Chinese immigrants on the frontier

Among items the archaeologists unearthed were a toothbrush (above) and a gaming die . The artifacts now repose in 630 boxes. (Adams Museum and House)
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So far, the archaeologists' tentative findings underscore the influence of Western culture on Deadwood's Chinese: French cleavers are buried beside Asian-style spoons, beer bottles beside porcelain jugs for rice wine, gambling dice beside mahjong tiles. Deadwood had its share of ethnic tension; in the 1870s, whites called for limits on Chinese immigration. Some historians, though, believe that relations between whites and the Chinese were better in the Black Hills than elsewhere in the West. "What makes Deadwood stand out is that the Chinese were able to achieve economic mobility," says Liping Zhu, a historian at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. Local papers editorialized against national anti-Chinese laws, and whites purchased Chinese lotto tickets—an act of trust, since the tickets were in Chinese.

Zhu, who is writing a book on Chinese immigrants in the Black Hills, isn't yet sure why they fared so well. But Eileen French, a researcher who scours local archives for clues to the town's past, speculates that one pioneering Chinese immigrant helped ease tensions. Fee Lee Wong arrived in the Black Hills in 1876 as a cook and, according to an oral history taken from his descendants, was traveling in a convoy of miners when they were attacked by outlaws. Wong fought well, and for his bravery the miners awarded him two mining claims. He sold one for $75,000 and would become one of Deadwood's leading businessmen—he owned the emporium and gaming house—and he worked as a broker between the white and Chinese communities.

Wong died in 1921 while visiting China. His family in Deadwood soon left, along with the rest of the Chinese community. "But the town still celebrates Chinese New Year," Fosha added as she stood before Wong's abandoned brick emporium on a recent trip to Deadwood. She hopes to excavate the building this year. "Look at that," she said, gazing at a set of washed-out white letters that read "provisions" painted above the door. She adjusted her sunglasses and fell silent for a moment. "I want archaeology to come alive in this project," Fosha added. "These people had names. They had faces. These people were alive."



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