New HA Thematic Issue: The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

This post was prepared by Rebecca Allen, SHA Associate Editor, ESA Cultural Resources Director

The first issue of Historical Archaeology, 2015, Vol. 49, No. 1, will soon hit your mailboxes, if it is not already in your hands. Dr. Barbara Voss (Stanford University) is the thematic issue’s guest editor for ‘The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America.’ This issue was born out of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. It is part of an effort to recognize the workers’ contributions in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the first transcontinental railroad, constructed from 1865 to 1869, that stretched from California to Iowa across some of the country’s most challenging terrain. To put this topic in perspective, I invite you to view a series of videos on the subject.

Display at Sacramento Railroad Museum, workers at Donner Summit (photo by R. Allen)

Dr. Gordon Chang (Professor of History, Stanford University) talks about his research, his perspective as an Asian American, and the creation of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. Dr. Chang states that the railroad workers are underrepresented in the documentary record. Although they appear in railroad payroll records, and are occasionally noted in newspaper accounts, no extant first-hand accounts from Chinese railroad workers have been found. Working with Drs. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fisken, Barb Voss helped to organize the Archaeology Network that stems from this initiative. Dr. Voss gathered together a roster of archaeologists who have worked on these or similar labor camps, and challenged archaeologists to offer a fuller picture of the Chinese railroad worker experience.

Chinese Railroad Workers Project Introduction Video from Chinese Railroad Workers on Vimeo.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project goals are further discussed in this introductory video featuring co-directors Gordon Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. While focused on the history and archaeology of 19th century railroad workers, the Project touches on important themes in the present-day globalized economy. As Fishkin notes, “China and the U.S. have been intertwined for over 150 years. Right now, especially when a lot of goods are being created through work on both sides of the Pacific, and migrant labor is a factor in shaping the products that we use both in China and the U.S., understanding how this first massive force of migrant laborers shaped both of our countries…holds lessons which are relevant to us today.

The Society for Historical Archaeology established the Overseas Chinese Research Group at their annual meeting in 1969, and published the first thematic issue devoted to Overseas Chinese archaeology in 2008 (HA, Vol. 42, No. 3, find it on our Publications Explorer). Researchers have learned and continue to learn the importance of working with the migrants’ descendants, regional and national heritage groups, and engaging historical and historian’s perspectives. This integration of approaches expands and explores the study of marginalized populations. The contribution of Chinese railroad workers is starting to be recognized – they were recently inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame – as seen in the above video. Historical archaeology has the unique opportunity to bring dimension and depth to the railroad workers’ history, to explore topics of daily life and economic networks, and to create studies that trace workers’ experiences as they encountered and adapted to new environments and landscapes. Historical archaeology adds depth and nuance to topics of labor, economic, and social histories of the American West, made possible by the completion of this first transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Historical Archaeology, 2015, Vol. 49, No. 1 represents the contribution of more than two dozen authors and researchers. It highlights several archaeological sites directly related to the transcontinental railroad (Donner Summit, California and Promontory Summit, Utah, as well as the contribution of workers after the first transcontinental railroad was completed, with articles on Virginia & Truckee Railroad camps and Mono Mills in California, Carlin, Nevada, and Montana. Topics of bioarchaeology, health practices, habitation, zooarchaeology, and the materiality of everyday life expand the view of workers’ experience. The volume ends with commentary and a call to embrace the new direction of multidisciplinary approach and multi-ethnic considerations. I encourage you to pick up this thematic issue, and read it soon.

Volume contents

Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Fragments of the Past: Archaeology, History, and the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America

Barbara L. Voss, The Historical Experience of Labor: Archaeological Contributions to Interdisciplinary Research on Chinese Railroad Workers

Paul G. Chace, Introductory Note to Chace and Evans’ 1969 Presentation, and reprint of 1969 SHA presentation, Celestial Sojourners in the High Sierras: The Ethno-Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers (1865−1868)

R. Scott Baxter and Rebecca Allen, The View from Summit Camp

John Molenda, Moral Discourse and Personhood in Overseas Chinese Contexts

Michael R. Polk, Interpreting Chinese Worker Camps on the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah

Lynn Furnis and Mary L. Maniery, An Archaeological Strategy for Chinese Workers’ Camps in the West: Method and Case Study

Charlotte K. Sunseri, Alliance Strategies in the Racialized Railroad Economies of the American West

Timothy Urbaniak and Kelly J. Dixon, Inscribed in Stone: Historic Inscriptions and the Cultural Heritage of Railroad Workers

Marjorie Akin, James C. Bard, and Gary J. Weisz, Asian Coins Recovered from Chinese Railroad Labor Camps: Evidence of Cultural Practices and Transnational Exchange

J. Ryan Kennedy, Zooarchaeology, Localization, and Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

Sarah Christine Heffner, Exploring Health Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

Ryan P. Harrod and John J. Crandall, Rails Built of the Ancestors’ Bones: The Bioarchaeology of the Overseas Chinese Experience

Mary Praetzellis and Adrian Praetzellis, Commentary on the Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Where Do We Go from Here?

Sue Fawn Chung, Forgotten Chinese Railroad Workers Remembered: Closing Commentary by a Historian

Contact your Representatives to Maintain the NHPA

SHA’s Government Affairs counsel just learned about a possible amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act that would significantly impact the protection of land and sites, allowing federal agencies to prevent inclusion on the National Register due to concerns about “national security.” We urge all members to contact their Representatives in the House — particularly those on the House Armed Services Committee (see here) — to voice your opposition to the amendment. A sample email is provided below.

Please note that time is of the essence because the markup is scheduled for this Wednesday. Contact Terry Klein (tklein@srifoundation.org) or  Eden Burgess (eden@culturalheritagepartners.com) with any questions.

Thanks for your help with this critical issue!

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Dear Representative ____:

My name is ______ and I am a constituent. 

I understand that this Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee will be marking up the NDAA and that the markup may include consideration of a bill that would amend the National Historic Preservation Act to allow federal agencies to object to the listing of a site on the National Register due to “national security” concerns (HR 135).

I strongly oppose such an amendment, as it is overly broad and the amendment is poorly drafted. In addition, I am aware that last Congress, DoD’s Maureen Sullivan, Directorfor Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health at the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, testified against a similar bill (HR 3687) as unnecessary and likely to cause confusion. Ms. Sullivan also testified that DoD sees no benefit to the bill and that DoD has never been stopped from maintaining or repairing any building, or from conducting any training exercise, because of the National Historic Preservation Act’s requirements. NPS and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also oppose the bill. 

I urge you to oppose this amendment to the NDAA. Thank you.

Florida Archaeology Month is Upon Us!

Every March Florida celebrates Florida Archaeology Month. During the month-long celebration, statewide programs and events are coordinated to encourage Floridians and tourists to learn more about the history and archaeology of the state. Preservation, of course, is an important theme that is worked in to many of these programs. A website is dedicated to the celebration and includes a full calendar of events and information about the Florida Anthropological Society and the local chapters located throughout the state. Organizations from across the state have access to the online calendar to submit events that they are hosting in recognition of Florida Archaeology Month. Florida Archaeology Month is a coordinated effort by the Florida Anthropological Society, the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, the Florida Archaeological Council and various local museums, libraries, public and private school systems, historical commissions and more.

Public programs that are put on during the month of March include lectures, tours, youth activities, primitive arts festivals, teacher workshops and much more. Each year there is a different theme, usually a specific time period in Florida’s history or prehistory. Sometimes this theme will coincide with an anniversary or commemoration of a specific event in Florida’s past. In 2012 the theme was the Civil War in Florida, to commemorate the start of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War. In 2013 it was Viva La Florida 500 to mark the 500th commemoration of the landing of the Spanish on Florida’s coast. In 2014 it was the Paleoindian period in Florida, and this year it is Innovators of the Archaic. This theme has giving archaeologists an opportunity to showcase the various types of technologies that were in use and developed during the archaic period in Florida. This lends itself very nicely to hands-on activities with children…and children at heart! It also gives archaeologists the opportunity to show how archaeology intersects with STEM subject areas, which has been a primary objective in the state’s education system the past few years.

Learning to map an archaeological site like an archaeologist

Every year a poster depicting the current theme is printed and distributed to the public and to libraries, schools, state parks, state offices and other venues to be displayed. These are meant to be promotional and informative tools, but have become quite the collector’s item as well. On one side of the poster there is always an artistic rendering depicting the theme. On the other side of the poster there is always a timeline with significant sites and events from the time period. The goal is that eventually the posters can be lined up to create a comprehensive timeline of Florida’s history and prehistory. All the posters are saved on the website in the archives in a downloadable format so that the public has access to the ones from previous years.

The front of the 2015 Florida Archaeology Month Poster

Between the poster and the website, the hope is that the public has a way to access the information from Florida Archaeology Month year round. Every year, this celebration provides various venues and organizations with the opportunity to promote Florida’s heritage and gives them a reason to showcase their community’s and Florida’s archaeological resources. Because archaeology is a multidisciplinary science, it is possible for almost everybody to participate in some way.