Face to Face
In May 1887, a group of Chinese gold miners was attacked and killed in the deep crevices of Hell’s Canyon in Oregon. It marked one of the worst attacks on Chinese pioneers in Pacific Northwest history. No one was ever convicted.
As 2012 marked the 125th anniversary of this often-overlooked chapter of U.S. history, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (The Wing) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) came together to open the doors to recognize a rich and robust slice of Asian pioneer contributions in the West.
In 2010, the Seattle museum and USFS sponsored the Chinese Heritage Tour of the American West to connect people with the vanishing past in a real way — by going to the places where history occurred. The tour began in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District and made its way through the windy roads, mountainous terrain and mining areas of Oregon and Idaho. It traveled through arid flatlands and mountains of Nevada.
Participants — who ranged from teenagers to the retired — walked on the same rock walls in mining areas that Chinese pioneers worked in the 19th century. Participants also visited the final resting ground for those who never returned to China. Centuries earlier, the Chinese served as merchants, miners, cooks and laborers. They arrived in a new, rugged and at times unforgiving place because of turmoil, poverty and need back home.
Their footprint in the West was wide, serving to keep the economies of towns and mining camps running when others had left. For the tour participants, the chance to see history face to face and touch the walls and places in the open air made for memorable moments.
Some participants wept, as they thought of their parents, grandparents and relatives — and were again reminded how Asian immigrant history becomes a pillar of the American Experience. There were eye-opening moments and quiet nods of realization that generations of Asian Americans are standing on the shoulders of those who came before them.
There also was an acknowledgement of the human instinct to survive. It is just that in the 21st century, the faces, names, language and homes of these Asian pioneers have long vanished from daily conversation.
These historic places, many on federal lands and in state parks, can still be visited. Some might be barren. But they are places in the American West in which visitors can explore and breathe new life — and return home with stories, moments and an awareness that will last forever.