Forgotten Pioneers: The Chinese in Montana

Montana Historical Society
Helena, MT

The exhibit Forgotten Pioneers: The Chinese in Montana offers an unprecedented glimpse at a little understood chapter in Montana’s past. By 1870, the (mostly male) Chinese comprised ten percent of Montana’s territorial population. These pioneers helped develop Montana’s mineral resources and lay the tracks of the Northern Pacific. They established settlements and businesses, paid taxes, and provided services. The male-only population, however, necessarily dwindled. Their abandoned neighborhoods fell victim to urban renewal. Their culture, never well understood, became the stuff of myth and legend. Through an exhibit, magazine article, exhibit catalog, and public programs, Interpretive Historian Ellen Baumler with assistance of co-curator and Museum Registrar Rowena Harrington and exhibit designer Roberta Jones-Wallace, has brought new understanding to this forgotten story.

The result of four years of research and planning, Forgotten Pioneers opened in a 1,500-square-foot gallery in May 2015. To tell this story, the curators relied heavily on material culture and historical archaeology, and overcame language barriers by working with translators in California to interpret letters, banners, and signs in the MHS collection. To make this history as accessible as possible, the exhibit features over three hundred artifacts—ranging from “go” gaming pieces and ceramics, recovered from an archaeological dig, to Chinese medicines imported from China and sold in Chinese mercantiles, and a hand-painted ten foot banner, dated 1876, outlining rules for members of the Chinese Masonic Temple in Virginia City—displayed in representative environments: a noodle parlor, a laundry, a placer mining claim, railroad tracks, an apothecary, and a temple/fraternal hall.

To bring the story beyond the museum, Montana: The Magazine of Western History published “Into Gum Saan, ‘Land of Golden Mountains’,” in its Summer 2015 issue. This award-winning journal circulates to over 7,000 subscribers, members, and newsstands each quarter. Besides providing a permanent record of the research behind the exhibit, the article’s publication made it possible to produce an affordable offprint, which serves as a free exhibit catalog and has also been given to Montana teachers to supplement their Montana history curriculum. To further disseminate her research, co-curator Ellen Baumler developed the program “Chinese in Montana: Our Forgotten Pioneers,” which she offers through the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau (Montana’s NEH affiliate.) Over the last year, she’s given this program to enthusiastic audiences in Helena, Deer Lodge, Havre, and Bozeman reaching over 750 students and adults.

Forgotten Pioneers reintroduces the Chinese pioneers who helped build Montana to today’s audiences through rich resources and artifacts. Through innovative programming and publications, MHS is sharing this story beyond the walls of the museum and reaching new audiences with this essential story.