In the Forest of Gold Mountain: The Chinese Experience at Tahoe

Lake Tahoe, like the rest of the American West had been the territory of native people, "Indians," as Columbus named them. Then discoveries of gold, silver and other abundant resources attracted immigrants from around the world.  At Lake Tahoe, the Comstock Silver Strike in nearby Virginia City transformed the landscape from Washoe Indian country into a frontier for extracting resources by people from around the world.  Chinese people mainly from southwestern provinces of China, joined these new arrivals, contributing their language, culture and expertise to the patchwork culture and society that would become "America."  The Chinese had a long tradition of trade with the New World.  In fact, it was Chinese tea that was dumped into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party.  Ginseng root was exported from New England in trade for beautiful porcelain, furniture and other exotic items from China.

Gold Mountain

The Chinese name for California was "Gold Mountain" after the gold strike of 1849, a name by which San Francisco is still known.  In the 1800s, intense political and economic turmoil in China, drove many men from their homeland.  Many came to the American West, including the Comstock, as sojourners, hoping to return home with their wealth.  Once they arrived, however, they found opportunities limited by anti-Chinese sentiment and legislation.  Some continued to mine, reworking small abandoned mines, but many turned to a wide variety of service related jobs.  Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad became famous for their skill and endurance.  Chinese merchants, serving a growing Chinese labor force with ethnic food, medicines and other items, eventually prospered by selling their wares to the community at large.

Fueling the Comstock

In the Tahoe Basin, from 1870-1890, Chinese laborers, organized by Chinese middlemen from Carson City, dominated the cord wood cutting and flume tending industries.  Lake Tahoe's timber, the "green gold" of the Sierras, was critical to supplying Comstock mines with bracing for shafts, fuel and building material.  Ninety percent of the forest you see today is less than 100 years old.  The forests were stripped of old growth in order to fuel the Comstock.

The largest known concentration of Chinese in the Lake Tahoe basin was in Glenbrook, on the east shore of the Lake.  Now totally obscured by urban growth, the Chinese gardens of Glenbrook were once famous for fresh vegetables.  In addition, archaeologists have discovered over 50 isolated sites where flume tenders and cordwood cutters worked and lived together in small enclaves, preserving as much of their traditions and culture as possible.

Living as Chinese in the Woods

Many Chinese men left their wives and families in China.  In the 1880s and 1890s U.S. Immigration laws prevented Chinese families from immigrating and forbade marriages between Chinese and non-Chinese.  Few Chinese enjoyed normal familyPhoto: Brown-glazed stoneware jug used by the Chinese to store food. lives and a typical Chinese American household consisted of several men living together for protection and companionship.  These bachelor household were especially common in logging and construction camps.

The artifacts from these campsites demonstrate how much these Chinese laborers continued to rely on their own traditions and culture, particularly in food and medicine.  They used traditional Chinese ceramic rice bowls and heavy brownware storage jars.  They frequently reworked metal cans and dishpans into lamps, woks, and steamers. Medicine bottles from Chinese pharmacies and opium paraphernalia are also common finds.

Photo: container of Ching Nig pills.Although opium use is usually associated with Chinese, it was widely used throughout Europe and the U.S. in the 1800s.  Europeans and Americans, especially upper class women preferred their opium in liquid patent medicines, while the Chinese preferred to smoke it.

Where Did They Go?

We can only guess about what happened to the many Chinese people who lived and worked in Tahoe's forests.  Many hoped to return home.  Many moved to the safety and security of urban China Towns or moved on to other boom towns needing their labor.  Most of what is known is pieced from newspaper accounts, census records, logging industry records and archaeological investigation.  Careful analysis of archaeological sites is just beginning to reveal a rich and fascinating story.

If you know any descendants of these Chinese Americans who worked in Tahoe during the 1800s, you can help write our nation's history by calling the:

Heritage Resource Manager of the U.S. Forest Service,
Lake Tahoe Basin (530) 573-2600.

Finding Out More

If you would like more information on the Chinese experience in the West, the following publications are also recommended:

  • Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese edited by Priscilla Wegars, 1993, Baywood Publishing Company
  • "The Chinese Experience in Nevada: Success Despite Discrimination" Nevada Public Affairs Review 2

Please honor this rich heritage and help protect these sites. If you find artifacts, please leave them and report finds to the:

Heritage Resource Manager of the U.S. Forest Service, 
Lake Tahoe Basin (530) 573-2600.