Chinese immigrants played an important role in the economic development of the West, including Montana. The 1860s mining boom and the subsequent railroad development in the region drew a diverse mix of people, including many Chinese. In spite of their role in building Montana, Chinese pioneers faced intense discrimination and their stories are often lost to history. This document is one of the few pieces of evidence we have about the life of Mrs. Wo Hop of Butte. It illustrates the precarious position of the Chinese, and especially Chinese women, in late nineteenth-century Montana.
While American businesses had welcomed—and even recruited—Chinese workers in the mid-nineteenth century, by the 1880s native-born Americans on the West Coast increasingly blamed the Chinese for unemployment and lower wages. Pressure to end economic competition, paired with the idea that the Chinese were racially inferior by nature, culminated in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The act prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States, and it was the first immigration law in American history to exclude a group based on nationality. The law allowed for the admission of certain upper-class individuals like merchants and teachers, but it was extremely difficult for these non-laborers to prove their status. Thus, until its repeal in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively ended Chinese immigration.
Mrs. Hop, whose husband was a merchant in Butte, carried these papers to prove that she was in America legally. As a Chinese woman, Mrs. Hop was in an especially dangerous position. The bulk of early Chinese immigrants to the United States were men, and Chinese women and families were seen as anomalies. The stereotype among native-born Americans was that Chinese women were brought to America as prostitutes, and religious and civic leaders promoted the idea that their presence posed a moral danger to American society. The Page Law of 1875 had imposed stiff penalties on the importation of Chinese prostitutes, and the enforcement of the law reflected a strong cultural assumption that women who immigrated from China were coming for illicit purposes. Continue reading Discrimination: The Case of Mrs. Wo Hop→
In 1909 the Anaconda Standard ran an article called “The Uplift of the Indians.” It argued that Indians could be brought from their “untutored, childlike state” and transformed—through education, private property ownership, and conversion to Christianity—into productive American citizens. Perhaps no Montanan of her generation better exemplified this assimilationist ideal than Blackfeet descendent Helen Piotopowaka Clarke. While Clarke’s remarkable personal and professional accomplishments earned her great respect and admiration, they also revealed the persistence of anti-Indian prejudices at the turn of the twentieth century.
Helen was born in 1846 to a prominent Scottish-American, Malcolm Clarke, and his Blackfeet wife, Cothcocoma. She spent most of her childhood at a convent school in Cincinnati and returned to Montana just a few years before a group of Blackfeet men murdered her father in 1869. Later that year, Helen’s brothers participated in the Baker Massacre during which troops, ostensibly on a mission to capture Malcolm Clarke’s killers, slaughtered a peaceful and unassociated Blackfeet camp.
Following these tragic events, Helen Clarke moved back east and had a brief but successful acting career in New York. In 1875, she returned to Montana, where attorney and family friend Wilbur Sanders found her a teaching position in Helena. Not everyone in Helena was happy with her hire. Elizabeth Chester Fisk, whose husband edited the Helena Herald, withdrew her children from school because she objected so strenuously to Helen’s mixed ancestry. However, enough Helenans were accepting of the refined, devoutly Catholic, and talented woman that they elected Clarke county superintendent of schools in 1882. She held the position for three terms—one of the first two women (and only person of Indian descent) to hold elective office in Montana Territory. Continue reading Helen Piotopowaka Clarke and the Persistence of Prejudice→
Across the frontier West, abandonment, poverty, domestic abuse, and poor education led some women to crime. When women stood accused of serious crimes in all-male courtrooms, gender, race, and social status worked against them. And, once incarcerated, women served their time neglected and forgotten in prisons built for men. The Montana Territorial Penitentiary at Deer Lodge, built in 1871, was no exception.
In 1878, Hispanic prostitute Felicita Sanchez became the first female inmate at Montana’s prison. True to form, her ethnicity, profession, and gender were factors in her three-year sentence for manslaughter. As the warden led her to an empty cell within the men’s cell house, three guards refused to attend a female prisoner and resigned.
A year later, Mary Angeline Drouillard was the second woman sentenced to Deer Lodge. Drouillard sat in the Missoula County jail for a year, awaiting trial for the shooting death of her abusive husband. At twenty-four, she was three times married and twice divorced, a battered woman whose multiple partners implied loose morals. These factors and her French Canadian heritage guaranteed conviction. Although Mary’s young daughter had witnessed the crime and could have corroborated her mother’s story, no one questioned her, and the judge sentenced Drouillard to fifteen years in the penitentiary. Continue reading Biased Justice: Women in Prison→