Chinese Miners in Oregon

2 men with buckets and a rock sifter work near a stream. 2 girls and 1 boy look on.
Chinese miners in the late 1800s. (Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society) Enlarge Image
Chinese immigrants have a long history of mining gold in Oregon. The earliest groups worked placer digs around Jacksonville which boasts the first Oregon Chinatown, a claim that is disputed by Baker City. Chinatown populations could swell many times over in winter, when miners left bad-weather mountain camps. In fact, Oregon had a significant 19th century Chinese population. In 1870 Grant County, for instance, nearly half the population was Chinese. Immigrants from China also made up almost 70% of all miners in the county and Chinese workers operated four out of every five placer mines in the region.

Many of these immigrants came from mining regions in China’s Guangdong Province. There, Chinese mine companies trained skilled workers who then sailed to the United States. Many of these laborers were educated and came from prosperous families in south China. Most worked for companies which also owned stores, gambling halls, laundries, restaurants, and hotels. Chinese mining companies rarely paid wages like American businesses. Instead, they paid out shares of the profits based on a worker’s contributions and expertise. Worker earnings were most often sent back to China.

Wood and stone building that served as trading post. Two stories with stairs on the outside that lead to top level.
The Kam Wah Chung Museum in John Day. The site is based in a rustic building that was constructed as a trading post in 1876. Here Chinese herbal doctor Ing Hay administered traditional Chinese remedies to the Chinese gold-mine workers, pioneers, and others from a wide area. (Oregon State Archives, 2019) Get a high resolution of this image and others in the Oregon Scenic Images Collection.​
Americans often forced Chinese miners into reworking claims abandoned by white prospectors. As the 1900s approached, harsh Asian exclusion policies meant fewer Chinese immigrants worked claims. By 1890 only 6% of Grant County’s population was Chinese. At this time gold mining was also shifting to hard-rock mining, and Chinese companies could not meet the necessary startup costs. By 1902, the era of Chinese gold mining in Oregon was over. Immigrant workers could never break the racist barriers that prevented them from working alongside white American miners. The Chinese Exclusion Act became permanent that same year, ending all legal immigration from China.

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