Chinese Artifacts

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese immigrants living in Montana imported goods directly from China. Imports came to Montana through a complicated system of businesses and transportation routes. In the 1860s and 1870s, before completion of the Utah Northern Railroad into Butte, goods from Chinese stores in San Francisco came to Montana by either overland freighters or steamboats. After completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, goods from San Francisco went via railroad to Corinne, Utah and then by wagon north to Deer Lodge and Helena, Montana. Fort Benton, on the other hand, received Chinese goods off steamboats traveling up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from coastal ports. After the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed across Montana in 1883, Chinese immigrants had far easier access to their traditional goods.

Deer Lodge, Helena, Butte, and Missoula were the most significant Chinese marketplaces during the late 19th century. Ceramics, dried and pickled foodstuffs, clothing, opium and related paraphernalia, and countless other sundries were imported and carried by Chinese markets in Montana. Chinese miners in German Gulch, for instance, imported a variety of exotic goods and food discovered by archaeologists including dates, sheepshead and flounder fish, soy sauce, opium, and ceramic tableware.

Supplying traditional goods to immigrants made Chinese merchants extremely wealthy during the 19th and 20th centuries, allowing many shopkeepers to make several journeys home to their families in China. Chinese immigrants in Montana relied heavily on imported goods, but also made due with locally available Euro-American replacements. The Chinese preference for their own goods is well-known among historians and archaeologists, though the exact reason seems unclear. The most likely explanation is that traditional goods provided some comfort by reminding the Chinese of their original homeland and the family and friends they have left behind to make their fortune in the United States.