Butte

Buildings from the Original Chinatown

 

During the 1880's Butte had a large and very active Chinatown, numbering nearly 500 people. In the nationwide economic downturn of 1884, local labor unions in Butte ordered all Chinese immigrants to leave town, blaming the Chinese for their unemployment problems.

 

The Chinese community chose to resist the order, and, remarkably, no harm came to them. During subsequent economic downturns, in 1891-92 and again in 1896, the unions actively promoted a boycott of all Chinese owned and operated businesses. The latter boycott became increasingly vitriolic.

 

Fearing for their lives, some in the Chinese community left Butte in 1896-97. However, a significant number of Chinese merchants retaliated by filing a suit in federal court asking for an injunction to stop the boycott. The case, known as Hum Fay, et. al. vs. Baldwin, was heard in the Ninth Circuit Court in Montana in 1898. Unlike almost every other court case brought forth by Chinese immigrants during this time, this court ruled in favor of the Chinese plaintiffs.

 

In May, 1900 the unions were ordered to stop the boycott. The Chinese were awarded $1,750 for fees and expenses, but they did not receive any financial compensation for their business losses. Things eventually returned to normal in Chinatown, and there were no further organized actions against Chinese immigrants.

 

This was one of the most significant legal victories for Chinese immigrants anywhere in the United States during the 19th century. It went directly counter to the prevailing prejudice and bigotry of the times, which in many other cities in the West resulted in severe violence against local Chinese. After winning their case, the Chinese community in Butte remained a vital force in the town for many years.

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Sources: Swartout, Shumsky, National Archives, local newspapers

 

Click here to see an artifact from Butte's Chinese history.

 

About this site: Many historic buildings in Butte have been preserved and restored, including several that were part of Chinatown in the 1890's. The buildings shown here now house the Mai Wah Society Museum, dedicated to documenting the history of the Chinese community in Butte and Chinese immigrants throughout the West.

© 2020 Tim Greyhavens. All rights reserved.

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