What do Montana and China Have in Common?

Immigration, but there’s more to the story.

After 1849 and before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, thousands of Chinese, mostly male, arrived in the US at first to participate in the Gold Rush.  Most did not find fortunes waiting for them; instead they found themselves working on the railroad and in the mining industry of the West.  By 1870, the Chinese population of Helena, Montana was at least 10% (conservative estimate).

“So?”  You ask?  Well, I had the good fortune last week to take a very small part in a research project on a historical mystery discovered by Mark Johnson, NHD coordinator in East Asia and teacher at Concordia International School Shanghai.  Mr. Johnson spends his summers back home in Montana and a couple of years ago stumbled upon a gravestone for John Bitzer, died 1870.  On his gravestone is the epithet, “Here he lies, his life cut short, his death avenged.”

Intrigued, Mr. Johnson poked around the Montana Historical Society and found, “that Aw Chow, a Chinese resident of Helena, had shot Bitzer during a domestic disturbance in January 1870.  Ah Chow disappeared, fearing vigilante justice.”  He was caught and lynched six days later.  As Mr. Johnson continued to dig around, questions about the shooting, the reason behind it (Bitzer’s account and Aw Chow’s were, of course, different), issues of racism, frontier western history, etc. kept popping up.  And that’s when Mr. Johnson took the case back to his students in Shanghai to pursue “the truth.”

And since many of his students were NHD students, they knew exactly what to do–read secondary sources, ask questions and conduct a long-distance correspondence with the staff at the Historical Society.  As new information is discovered, new questions arise and the research continues.

Last week, Mr. Johnson brought two students with him to take pictures of the newly discovered documents written in Chinese.  They are sending the photos back to Shanghai where a group of Chinese students and parents are translating the items.  Stay tuned…..

With Alex and Mr. Johnson, examining a delicate map of China.

With Maddy, reading a headstone in the “China Row” section of a Helena cemetery.

Stay tuned…..  Cathy



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5 responses to “What do Montana and China Have in Common?

  1. History Teacher

    This has been a terrific opportunity for our students at Concordia International School Shanghai to engage in authentic, historical research. We have spent the past two weeks, working with parents translating and researching the documents Mr. Johnson has sent back to us. We have begun putting together a website:


    Social history is one area of history often overlooked, as it deals with the more mundane aspects of day to day life. We found that many of the documents were requests for money to be sent back home. Indeed, the Chinese word for “emigrant” is more accurately translated as “sojourner”, indicating a traveler who will one day return. And in fact, after death, many of these “sojourners” did indeed return to their villages in Guangdong Province. Over 60% of the Chinese who ventured to America came from this one province.

    This has been a fascinating project for our students as we wind up the school year and we look forward to continuing this work next year.

    Mike Burns
    Concordia International School Shanghai
    Shanghai, China

  2. Jae Min Jang

    I was part of this project in Shanghai. Since I can’t read traditional Chinese, I researched the process in which the dead bodies and remains of the Chinese were returned back to China from America. Moreover, I learnt about all the hardship and discrimination that the Chinese people had to fight against as an outsider in a completely alien environment. Overall, the two weeks that I have spent researching was definitely worth the time, and I have learnt a lot through this experience.

  3. Ashleigh

    This research opportunity has been surreal. For the past two weeks, I, along with 14 other Concordia International School students, have been translating traditional document and generating a website to display our research. We were happy to lend our abilities to this inspiring and unique project, and we are all extremely grateful for being able to participate in such a remarkable investigation!

  4. This has been an amazing project! As a high school history teacher, to get to go out into the field and conduct original research with students is a special experience. And, to be joined on our research project by Dr. Gorn made it all the more unique. We were honored to have Dr. Gorn’s participation and her contributions to brainstorming new ways to think about the stories we researched. Her energy, enthusiasm, and expertise in how to think about the past were all of great value to our project.

    The students, teachers, and other family members working back in Shanghai to translate the documents did an outstanding job. This long-distance collaboration truly highlights how 21st century skills can combine with more traditional historical research to uncover more about the past than ever before.

    Thank you to the Montana Historical Society, Humanities Montana, and the Mai Wah Museum for the support and interest in our project. We hope to continue this kind of work in future years, empowering students as historians and watching the key skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and a love of history blossom as a result.

  5. NHDevotee

    Wow! Who knew Montana had such a diverse past? Thanks for sharing these experiences!

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