Story of forgotten Montana cemetery unearths Chinese American history

The cemetery was used from the start of Missoula's settlement until the early 1900s. Both White and Chinese citizens were buried there.
Story of forgotten Montana cemetery unearths Chinese American history
Posted at 6:29 PM, Sep 14, 2023

The Rattlesnake area of Missoula may seem like the ideal Montana neighborhood, but beneath its soil is a buried history of the city.

Three young residents of the city have chosen to unearth the forgotten history in the Rattlesnake neighborhood by releasing a documentary titled "The Bodies Beneath Us."

The documentary will tell the story of the mass gravesite beneath Rattlesnake Elementary School and the cemetery beneath Cherry and Poplar streets, which contains the remains of about 50 members of Missoula’s historic Chinese community.

Paul Kim, a producer of the film, began looking into the Cherry Street Cemetery during his college dissertation research. He was looking into Montana history and politics, when he came across a paper by University of Montana professor and archaeologist, Kelly Dixon. 

The paper, titled "Verily the Road was Built with Chinaman’s Bones: An Archaeology of Chinese Line Camps in Montana," mentions the remains of Chinese residents buried beneath the Rattlesnake neighborhood.

"So I was a little surprised that nobody had told me about that before," Kim says. "I was like, I feel like if there's a forgotten Chinese cemetery in Missoula, someone has to know something about it. And so, you know, pretty soon I just started to collect the facts. And I realized, like, no, nobody actually has done a really good job compiling exactly what happened there."

After finding an utter lack of information, Kim took it upon himself to piece together the puzzle.

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The cemetery at the base of Mount Jumbo, near what is now Cherry Street, was used from the beginning of Missoula's settlement to the early 1900s. Both White and Chinese residents were buried there — a fact that changed near the end of the 19th century.

In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration from China, and quickly changed the sentiment towards Chinese residents there. Locals started to boycott Chinese businesses in an attempt to force them out of town. Similar movements were seen nationwide.

Part of the racist sentiment towards the Chinese population in Missoula meant some White citizens no longer wanted to be buried next to a Chinese person. All the remains of White people in the Missoula gravesite near Mount Jumbo were exhumed to where the current Missoula cemetery still stands. 

The remains of Chinese people were left behind. 

According to Max Cumming, director of "The Bodies Beneath Us," many of the Chinese people buried near modern-day Cherry Street expected to one day be returned to their families.

"Because the sort of Chinese experience in Missoula had been devalued — because Chinese businesses had been driven out, there was nobody left to advocate for the people who were buried here in this cemetery,” Cumming said.

According to Cumming, by 1908, burials had ceased, and within the next three years, advertisements for land above the graves hit the newspaper.

"They were building houses on top of people's remains, and they didn't care," Cumming says.

Throughout the next decades of development on the cemetery land, bones resurfaced in the Rattlesnake area.

One 1974 newspaper headline, which Kim collected during his research, read "Most of Skeleton is Uncovered," noting the remains were "probably of a Chinese person buried during the late 1890s."

This summer, Kim fought at the city council for an official memorialization of the cemetery near Cherry Street.

The Missoula City Council approved the final resolution on August 14, writing, "NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the City and County of Missoula commit to supporting local community efforts to honor and commemorate the history of Missoula's Chinese community, including establishing and funding a historical marker in memorialization of this community's cemetery."

The recognition is gratifying for the filmmakers, they said. 

"You know, going on 120 years here now, more in the case of many of these people who are buried here, these people have been without recognition," Cumming says.

Council member Daniel Carlino brought forth the resolution on behalf of Kim and Cumming, expecting little pushback on the request. However, that was not the case.

"The cemetery memorialization process, to me, was an interesting one, in that there was no reservation nor pushback on council from the idea that this history should be memorialized," Kim said. "It was sort of unanimous that every member on council agreed — this is a pivotal part of Missoula's history and an important story to tell — and something that the city can provide resources to fund. Where I received pushback was from this attempt to connect the historical experience to contemporaneous political scores in the state today."

One argument that "The Bodies Beneath Us" crew is trying to make in their documentary is that there is a connection between the racist sentiments during the turn of the 20th century and the political rhetoric seen today.

"There is a lot of the same xenophobic rhetoric that we saw over 100 years ago that is pretty deeply saturated into modern America, and Montana, and politics," Cumming said. "Truly the most sort of pressing current political issues have their roots in the stories of these unmarked graves."

Cumming's condemnation of anti-Chinese rhetoric — specifically from Montana politicians — was originally included in the resolution to City Council, and was the cause of dissent.

Kim says he noticed the majority of the pushback came from Democrats on the Missoula City Council. 

Ultimately, Kim and Cumming's original language in the resolution was altered before final approval from the city council.

The resolution that passed also recognizes the significance of Chinese immigrants in Missoula, and reads, "WHEREAS, Montana once had a robust Chinese population across the state, peaking at more than 10 percent of the territory's early population. And  WHEREAS, Montana's Chinese population was vital to the creation of the state's cities, railroads, and communities."

Newspaper articles from the 19th century describe the "robust" Chinese population there, including large burial ceremonies and notable characters like Cranky Sam. Much of that history, however, has been forgotten over the past 100 years.

"You pull a Missoulian in 1890 off the street, and you say, 'Do Chinese people live in the town?' and they say, 'Of course,' you know? It's obvious," Kim says. "But you pull a Missoulian off the street today and you ask them 'Was there a Chinese community here historically?' and they're like, 'I have no idea.' It's not something ... a history that people are really familiar with."

"The Bodies Beneath Us" is meant to tell these forgotten histories — and the Cherry Street Cemetery isn’t the only buried story in the Rattlesnake.

The second piece in the documentary tells of the Missoula County Poor Farm, Pest Houses and Pineview Hospital. These were once at the site of Rattlesnake Elementary School and Pineview Park.

Anyone deemed unfit, unworthy or too injured to work was sent to the poor farms in the 19th Century, where conditions were deadly. In fact, during the poor farm fire of 1936, residents in the surrounding area could hear the ‘pop’ of bed bugs from the building, according to Dylan Yonce, producer of "The Bodies Beneath Us."

"Imagine what it would be like to be sent there, to be alone there and to live there, to die there," Yonce says. "I think that just paints a really good picture of the kinds of conditions that these people had to live through, and what it might be like to be a resident at the poor farm."

When people died at the poor farm, Pineview Hospital or the pest houses — where those with communicable diseases were sent — they were buried in a mass grave, on-site. Today, it is estimated that around 1,000 people's bones remain under the elementary school.

"Like, why does this ... White and pretty wealthy community here in Missoula not remember this story? Well, maybe because it's about poor people who were never given an opportunity to die with dignity and have a proper burial or have family that could afford to do that," Yonce says.

Yonce grew up in Missoula and went to Rattlesnake Elementary, where a memorial structure now sits near the playground.

"But I used to play on that when I was little," Yonce says. "I don't remember going out there and having my teacher explain to me, like, 'Oh, this is what this memorial is.' It was like, Oh, look at this fun, concrete thing that I can climb."

While Yonce hopes the documentary will illuminate this history for the students at Rattlesnake, she realizes it's a tough topic to talk about, not just because it's emotionally jarring.

"To their credit, it is incredibly difficult to find information about the poor farm, other than stuff that's kind of like, overarching because of the nature of the fact that none of these people's stories to my knowledge were recorded, really, on an individual basis," she says.

One of Yonce's most valuable sources on the poor farm was her own grandfather, a journalist who interviewed a nurse from Pineview Hospital. He died in April, shortly after his interview for "The Bodies Beneath Us."

"This kind of like, was an opportunity for him and I to explore a part of our relationship that we never had been able to and getting to talk to him about the documentary and about all these other really complicated thoughts I was having about history and memory in Missoula, was really rewarding," Yonce says. "And, I think that it gave me an opportunity to engage with him in a really human way that I might not otherwise have had before he passed away. And so that was really valuable to me."

Her grandfather was one of the closest sources they had to the poor farm itself since so little was archived about the people there.

"One of the biggest disservices of losing this archive and of this historical slippage is that people have really cool stories and people are interesting and they tell us so much about ourselves, they tell us so much about our world, and there's just like no way that I will know about them, which is pretty devastating," she says.

Similar to the story of the Chinese cemetery, Kim hopes to connect the Missoula County Poor Farm with modern politics.

"Let's look around: Where are people in our society that we systemically cheapen their humanity because of ideas we have about them?" he said. "And there are all sorts of groups of people in Missoula that come to mind. You know, we think about our unhoused community, we think about people who are non-White."

Both the Poor Farm and the Mount Jumbo gravesites contain stories of forgotten history brought together because of one neighborhood and told by three young historians.

"These two stories kind of parallel each other because they are ultimately stories about exclusion, and also like the violence of the archive and of memory," Yonce says.

Yonce, Kim and Cumming hope to inspire Missoulians to rethink their history and what they’ve believed to be true, but they also want to show their love of Missoula and the community through the project.

"It's kind of my dream come true to work on a project like this, that is so community-driven and comes from, like, such a deep love and care of my community," Yonce says.

"The documentary is absolutely not about sort of how Missoula as a whole has victimized these people or has desecrated their memory, because it's not Missoulians, individual Missoulians, or even the community that has done this, right? It's forces that are much larger than any individual," Cumming says.

The trio is looking to premier the documentary at the Big Sky Film Festival in February. The premiere will mark two years since starting the project — two long, difficult years for the filmmakers.

In addition to the extremely scarce resources on this subject, the film was entirely self-shot and self-funded. Cumming estimated thousands of dollars in personal expenses, not to mention hours of labor.

It was also the trio's first experience with documentary storytelling and equipment.

"Max and Paul have been a great team to work with. I think that they are both like incredible historians and human beings and it's been super fun to work on this project with them and to kind of like work through all of the emotional baggage that comes with telling a story like this," Yonce says.

Looking forward to the final cut, the feeling is surreal for Cumming.

"It still hasn't hit me. I don't think it will until sort of the final edit is done," he says. "But it'll be good. I think it'll be really sort of gratifying to be able to put, sort of, this chapter of my life behind me and then also to release it out. You know, I guess when the documentary ends for me is when it begins for everyone else. When I'm done working on it is when everyone else can see it."

More information on the documentary can be found on their Instagram.

This story was originally published by Claire Peterson at Scripps News Missoula

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