Could there have been a Chinese Mason as depicted by Lo in my story “Calamity Jane: How the West Began”? To answer that, let’s first outline the Chinese community in the Montana Goldfields. The following is from “Montana Pay Dirt” by Muriel Sibell Wolle (p.38):
“Virginia City, like other western camps, had its Chinese population. It was fortunate for the prospectors that the Orientals, most of whom had drifted east from California, followed the stampede to the gulch as soon as they did, for the miners were too busy staking claims and shoveling dirt to bother with creature comforts and were glad enough to get the Chinese to do their laundry and some of the cooking. Most of those who opened restaurants were well patronized, but it was the laundries which really paid off, for the sands of Alder Gulch clung to the miners’ clothes and the thrifty laundrymen panned the wash water and pocketed the accumulation of dust.”
More detail and subsequent history is found in “A Guide to Historic Virginia City” (p.23):
“At the end of the 1870’s nearly one third of Virginia City’s population were Chinese, segregated at the far west end of Wallace Street by a city ordinance. According to the ‘Montana Post’, the first Chinese came to Virginia City in June 1865. By the end of 1866 it is estimated that 150 Chinese lived in the area. Many of the first Chinese to arrive were experienced miners who had left played-out mining districts in California and the Pacific Northwest, and Idaho. Following a pattern established in earlier mining regions, when Euramericans left for richer strikes elsewhere, the Chinese took over their claims and reworked the diggings for another twenty-five years. Some Chinese miners worked their claims alone, while others mined in partnerships. J. Ross Browne, a federal mine observer, estimated that because of careless mining techniques only about half the gold in Alder Gulch had been taken out by 1868. The Chinese, denied access to richer claims, painstakingly extracted what earlier miners left behind.
“Many Chinese in Virginia City were employed as domestic servants or were in restaurant and laundry businesses. Bishop Tuttle wrote in July 1867 that ‘Chinamen do nearly all the laundry work, and do it neatly too. Chinese servants are quite in vogue.’ Like their white counterparts, Chinese residents managed stores, owned brothels and gambling houses, and built their own Chinese Temple, or joss house, and Masonic Lodge neither of which still stands. Two hundred sixty-five Chinese lived in the gulch in 1880. By the turn of the century their numbers were dwindling, and no Chinese lived there after 1920.”
So there was a Chinese Masonic lodge. But the above passages describe a time a little later than the events depicted in “Calamity.” Most of the Chinese came to this area later, after the completion of the Transcontinental Railway. Were there any present at the time of Plummer’s execution? We are told by Virginia Towle in “Vigilante Woman” (p. 115) that In 1863 Virginia City there was one Chinese restaurant among the many businesses, so yes, there were Chinese at this place and time. According to Goulder in “Reminiscences of a Pioneer” (p. 54) they were actually the majority in the nearby town of Oro Fina by the time of this story, having taken over the “played out” claims when most of the white populace left for Bannack.
So there were Chinese in this area at the time of my story, and at some later date they had their own Masonic temple. In this era of entrenched discrimination against the Chinese, how does Masonry fit in? Lo describes to Jane in my fictional “Calamity” that Masons believe all men equal in the eyes of an all-seeing God. That is a paraphrase from the book “Freemasonry- Its Aims and Ideals” by J.S.M. Ward, written early in the twentieth century (p.187):
“The aim of Freemasonry is to combat Atheism and gross Materialism, to set men’s feet on the path of salvation and to help them towards the Light; but it holds that there may be many paths that lead to the throne of the All-Loving Father which all start from a common source.”
So could there have been a character like Lo in “Calamity”? It’s a stretch, but consider the obituary of a man named Lee who lived in nearby Pioneer, Montana, and who was given by some the title of mayor of that town. This passage is taken from the Montana Standard (Butte), October 27, 1929; as found in “Shallow Diggin’s” Compiled by Jean Davis, (p. 34):
“The Chinese carried away their tailings in baskets and built walls that still stand, a mute testimony to the industry of the Mongolian. Tim Lee was apparently a benign sort of nabob, but he is credited with having had a nervous trigger finger which got out of control twice under justifiable circumstances, it appears.
“At any rate he had the respect of his white neighbors and is said to have been the only Chinese to have been accepted into fellowship in a lodge of white Masons.
“When Lee died a few months ago in Deer Lodge, he was given a funeral that the family of a white man of standing might have envied.”
There’s our man, the one who teaches Calamity Jane to deal Faro. I hope he wouldn’t mind my changing his name from Lee to Lo for the sake of a small joke.