Chinese Influence in Early Deadwood

When you think of the early days of Deadwood, what group comes immediately to your mind—miners, gamblers, prostitutes—others portrayed so convincingly in HBO’s Deadwood Series?

In fact, one of the largest groups to populate early Deadwood was Chinese. While not commonly associated with the area, the Chinese played a vital part in the gold rush in the Black Hills. News of the gold strike brought the Chinese to Deadwood for many of the same reasons that others came in the mid to late 1870s. Contractors following the gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s had brought many Chinese laborers to the United States. A large percentage had also worked in the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, the western link of the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. Once large projects were complete, workers were often left to find other employment.

Chinese people actually comprised the largest ethnic group in the city in the early 1880s, with an estimated 400 living in Deadwood proper (although the census of Lawrence County for 1880 only recorded 213). The majority lived in the lower section of the city called Elizabethtown, near what was referred to as the Bad Lands. The slang name for this section of town came partially from the concentration of saloons, dance halls, and other less than desirable establishments in the area. Some of the area’s reputation came from the erroneous stories and “mysterious ways” of the Chinese who frightened some residents. Real concern also came from some Chinese operations which included opium dens, prostitution, and gambling halls.

The majority of Chinese, however, engaged in legitimate concerns: retail, dry goods, pharmacies, “washee” houses, shoe repair, reworking abandoned placer mines, furniture repair, and restaurants, to name a few.

The Chinese were quite successful in business due in large part to their hard work, ingenuity, and practice of a frugal lifestyle. They recreated familiar customs and surroundings such as gardens, temples, and courtyards with vases and statue areas.

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