Chinese miners were among those seeking their fortunes in the U.S. gold rushes of the 1800s.

Chinese miners were among those seeking their fortunes in the U.S. gold rushes of the 1800s. PBS photo

I grew up hearing the histories of the gold rushes, and the narratives of people like Chinese-American pioneer Polly Bemis were my early introduction. I read the stories of Idaho County and the gold rush of 1862, and the long-term effects of that gold rush.

Polly Bemis

Polly Bemis

What I loved most was the history of the Chinese, their work ethic, and how much America lost by abusing them and being scared of what they brought to the country.

The initial boom for European miners was 2-10 years before the gold claims were “played out,” but the Chinese worked the same claims until they were “excluded” from working them. To put it in perspective, the Chinese worked claims for 30 years that white miners had given up on after two.

I grew up on the stories of the Chinese in Idaho County, Idaho, and the concept that they could work a claim long after everyone else gave up. They were able to work harder and smarter, and frankly, they were just hungrier for it. They also formed teams and worked together.

I remember early on seeing a tiny, one-foot-deep canal dug from a creek, running 200+ feet along a ledge with what seemed like less than one foot of vertical drop, full of water. I asked who did this, and my father explained that it was a Chinese ditch. He made the point that no one else had the natural engineering skills to make that ditch, or keep that water flowing. I saw it in the 1980s, at least 100 years after it was dug, and it was still operational.

Seeing the natural work ethic of the Chinese in Idaho, I always wondered what America would have looked like had we embraced that wave of immigration. How much stronger would we have been as a country? But we were scared of people who were willing to outwork “us.”

By the 1880s, Idaho was not a nice place for the Chinese. Exclusion orders, massacres, rules against bringing your family into the region; but still the Chinese outworked everyone else.

Today, we question the Chinese work ethic, we question the Chinese boom, and we talk about how they can’t keep growing. But if you look at that ditch, or look at the amount of work they did in Idaho in the 1860s, you reach the conclusion that culturally we don’t have a clue.

When their back is put against the wall, the Chinese have a level of drive that is just so strong. We should not question whether they will have a second or third stage of growth; the only question should be when that will be.

China is a work-driven culture. Don’t count them out.

As an aside, I got interested in Idaho history because my extended family worked the same land as the Chinese. My great-uncle was “Buckskin Bill, the Last of the Mountain Men.” He “squatted” on Five Mile Creek on the Main Salmon River in Idaho. Before I was born, my father and the family lived on the river for 12+ years. My oldest brother died on the river, and my family never went back. My mom wrote a book about those years: A River Went Out of Eden