Thursday, December 07, 2006

Reparations for the families of those who died building the transcontinental railroad

From: "Kaity Kao"

I'm writing a school paper and was wondering if you could help me:

1. Were there ever any reparations for the families of those (mostly Asians) who died building the transcontinental railroad?

2. Also do you know if there were any court cases brought regarding the building of the transcontinental railroad by any of those Asians?



Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Replying to your two questions: No and no.

The notion of reparations might imply intentional harm or negligence. Neither has been documented in worker deaths in constructing the Central Pacific. For example, deaths due to an avalanche are not the result of any bad act or indifference by those constructing the railroad. There were actually very few documented construction accident fatalities, and the reports of small numbers of casualties (perhaps totaling about 130, not all Chinese, and including the avalanche) were fairly specific. The idea that there were a large number of deaths comes entirely from a single very short 1870 newspaper article that claimed 1,200 dead, but even if that number is accurate, it is possible that an 1869 smallpox epidemic in Nevada, not construction accidents was predominantly responsible.

Additionally, there would have been great practical difficulties in attempting to bring such a lawsuit. The Chinese men were all single and without families, so what survivors would have been available to bring such a wrongful death lawsuit? The CPRR construction occurred in largely unoccupied wilderness, away from cities where courts existed. The anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent in 19th century California as well as lack of English language proficiency among the Chinese workers would also not have been conducive to successfully pursuing such a legal action, even if there had been any merit. For example, the California Supreme Court held in People v. Hall, 1854, that "a white man charged with murder could not be convicted on the testimony of a Chinese witness."

Also note that the Union Pacific Railroad workers were mostly Irish, so that although the UPRR is not known to have kept any records of deaths, it is likely that a similar number of non-Asian construction related fatalities would have occurred. The answers to your two questions regarding caucasian workers is similarly no and no, so this is not a racial matter, but instead reflects the legal treatment of worker injuries in the 19th century.

Caution is urged in writing about the Chinese railroad workers, as there is considerable misinformation in recent books.

12/07/2006 6:53 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), the first permanent trade organization for railroad workers in the United States, was founded in the early 1860's as a mutual aid society which created a variety of accident, death and burial insurance programs for its members.

12/07/2006 7:20 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Bill Chew"

I do not know of any published information about either reparation or court trials of the Chinese railroad workers of the CPRR. Althought there is a great debate about the number of deaths building the railroad (see the first three links referenced by the Cprr photograhic history Museum). I disagree with these comments, and appaled of the lack of recognition of the 1200 deaths reported by the two referenced newspaper. Journalism in 1870 is believe to be accurate unlike today's reporting. There maybe some question as to the source of numbers from these articles?
The reports from engineer Clements about a small number of deaths may be a monthly or quarterly period, and not a toyal as some claim.
The comments that the 1200 deaths ocurred from smallpox in 1870 is not logical because the mortality rate is only 30%. The payroll records for Dec 1867 shows only about 450 Chinese employed!Thousands were laid off after the hard work in the Sierras. Based on the mortality would suggest that there were 1500 workers employed in 1870!
It is difficult to understand the lack of recognition of the deaths building this railroad. The Chinese accept the dangerous task because of their desire to make money for their families back in China to improve their quality of life!
Please send me a copy of your paper, and the school, and classfor which this being written.
Respectfully, William Chew

12/07/2006 1:22 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

We cite the newspaper article "Bones in Transit" that appeared in the Sacramento Reporter of June 30, 1870.

Your comments say "1200 deaths reported by the two referenced newspaper" – what is the second newspaper article?

Not sure of the primary source for the information, but the only description states that "during a Jan. 1869 smallpox epidemic when nearly all that went into the Pest Cars died" – this suggests that the smallpox virulence was very high, not a 30% mortality as you state. How do you document the claimed mortality rate of the smallpox epidemic among the CPRR workers?

Other than the 1870 "Bones in Transit" article, all the other reports are of specific events, such as an explosion or avalanche, with small numbers of casualties reported in each instance. We know of no monthly or quarterly reports. The risk of construction accidents on flat land in Nevada and Utah would be expected to be much lower than in the California mountains during terrible winter conditions and where tunnels needed to be blasted, causing us to wonder if smallpox accounts for what otherwise seems a serious discrepancy in reported deaths (no more than 130 vs. 1,200).

Are you really asserting that the CPRR built all the way from Reno, Nevada to Promontory, Utah as fast as they could using only about 450 workers? To the contrary, on the day that the CPRR laid ten miles of track, "More than 4000 men and hundreds of horses and wagons were on the spot."

12/07/2006 2:15 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Thank you so much for all the information that your website and emails have provided. You've provided me with a number of new things to consider as i go into my paper. Thanks again!

12/08/2006 2:15 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


I hesitate to step into this discussion since I know from past editions of it that there are strong sentiments, and no little amount of emotion, wrapped up on each side.

My biggest concern is with the firm positions staked out on both sides, with so far as I have seen a real paucity of concrete evidence to support either one. I do not believe it is possible to get anything even remotely approaching an accurate estimate of deaths (Chinese OR white) based solely (or even primarily) on newspaper accounts.

First, 19th century newspapers are NOT necessarily known for their accuracy – for some of the same reasons as today, and for some different reasons as well. As with today, it is relatively easy to make mistakes when taking quick notes on a subject one is not particularly knowledgeable about, and then mistakenly interpret those brief notes when it comes time to write the article. To say nothing about what an editor might or might not do to an article that he has no first hand knowledge about. For example, Leslie's Illistrated published a fairly extensive article about the events at Promontory on May 10, 1869, based on dispatches sent by A. J. Russell, who was also the official Union Pacific photographer at the event. All evidence indicates that the Leslie's editor greatly changed the article from what Russell sent, and greatly changed the accuracy in the process. Having had occasion to read articles about a single event as reported in two different papers in the 1860s – the Sacramento Bee (Democratic) and the Sacramento Union (Republican) for example, one gets a very different impression about a single event by reading one paper or the other. And each will include details that were completely overlooked by the other. And this is with events where the papers are simply reporting an event – as opposed to a situation where the papers are actively debating each other on some issue.

In addition, US papers in the 19th century were like many European papers today – they were overtly partisan for particular political parties and positions – frequently identifying themselves as "Republican" or "Democratic" specifically. They made no pretensions about being "objective". (A whole different discussion is how "objective" modern 21st century US newspapers really are – or aren't.)

Even if we assume that the newspapers accurately and objectively reported what they believed to be true in the case of Chinese deaths (to take the specific case at hand), I do not believe an accurate count can be made based on the reported numbers. For starters, I suspect only the most dramatic deaths were reported, accidents and incidents with some descriptive impact. This is especially so since most of the work actually took place relatively far from any town with a newspaper and with no reporter anywhere near the incident). I suspect that many mundane deaths, individuals dying singly from illness or non-dramatic accident, likely were never reported in newspapers. And I think that true whether the the death was Chinese or white, or Native American (note many Native Americans were employed in the construction across Nevada). And since both Chinese and Native Americans worked in organized crews, and most whites had trouble telling individuals apart, many Chinese and Native Americans might have died in camp, unremarked in any newspaper. (Having lived for two years in Japan, where many Japanese had great difficulty telling individual "Europeans" apart, this difficulty is clearly not something unique to whites.) So I think counting the actual reported deaths cannot give any accurate idea of how many died – not even a reliable rough estimate.

Turning to the 1870 report of the bones of 1200 Chinese, I find the reliability of this number extremely questionable. Based on the brief wording of the newspaper article (or are there two articles?) The context suggests to me that the reporter took the estimated weight of the bones picked up (itself probably only a guess and not an amount actually weighed), and then divided it by the average weight he supposed that a Chinese person's bones would weigh – arriving at the 1200 figure. There is so much speculation and guessing at several different steps in the process that goes into deriving this number that I view it as nearly useless for developing any reasonably accurate figure of actual deaths. The number could easily be 50–75% wrong – in either direction (low or high).

To take the 1200 figure as accurate is highly questionable. But to take all the individual reported deaths (a couple of hundred?) and then ADD that number to the 1200 to derive a total is present a blatant falsity. If the 1200 figure is correct (which I greatly doubt), then to add the individual reported death to it is to double count every single one of those individual deaths, since according to the information we have, they should have been included in the 1200 figure.

To conclude about using newspapers to get any kind of estimate of Chinese (or white) deaths I believe is to waste time and energy on an impossible mission. I do not believe it is possible to get any reasonably accurate figure of deaths based solely on newspaper accounts.

So how to proceed? I actually do not think it is possible to develop a really accurate count of the deaths, although I think we could get a reasonable rough estimate. I don't discount newspapers entirely. They are useful to get a sense and flavor of what was going on – and what the prevailing attitudes were at the time. But the analysis should largely be based on other sources and comparative examples. First, someone needs to systematically look at the death rate on the Union Pacific. I actually suspect it will be higher than among the Chinese on the Central Pacific. Living conditions were much rougher, with the "Hell on Wheels" which served as the construction camps for the Union Pacific. The Central Pacific bosses simply did not allow such a thing to happen on the Central Pacific – Crocker and Strobridge were tea-totalers. And they kept their construction camps clear of those outside influences.

Second would be to look at deaths on other construction projects of the time. Working as a laborer was dangerous and abusive no matter what race you were. What was the prevailing norm for construction deaths at the time. (I think it was pretty high.)

Third, there are very good statistical records for causes of death in the Civil War. In this brutal war known for its high casualties, we often forget that the majority of deaths had nothing to do with warfare – they came from accidents and disease. It would not be unreasonable to expect a similar death rate from accident and disease in railroad construction camps.

Turning to other factors, we know that the Chinese actually ate a much healthier diet than the white workers on the Central Pacific (to say nothing of the Union Pacific). This likely lowered the death rate among the Chinese from what would have been expected if they ate what the railroad provided for its other workers. And the Chinese drank tea (boiled in preparation, even if cool by the time they drank it), so they didn't suffer nearly as much from water borne diseases which so affected the white workers.

We also need to get better estimates on how many Chinese were working on the Central Pacific. For starters, when ships arrived in San Francisco I would suspect that the published ship manifests would list the number of Chinese who arrived on each ship. And they might even give an idea of how many were to work on the Central Pacific. (Certainly not all the Chinese worked for the railroad, so one has to be careful how one uses the available information, and how reliable we think it is (or isn't) in estimating the Central Pacific workforce.

Sacramento newspapers might also give information on Chinese passing through headed for the construction camps, although I don't expect it to be systematic. The Central Pacific records appear to be silent about any Chinese employed in 1868 and 1869. Personally, with the race across Nevada in direct competition with the Union Pacific, I would expect employment to be pretty high – although we know that some of the laborers were the local Native Americans in addition to the Chinese and the whites. But I could be mistaken on that. In any case, I have not seen the results of any substantive research that systematically looks and any alternative sources in the absence of railroad records. The assumptions that Chinese employment was high (mine) or that it was low (some other researchers) are really nothing more that bald guesses. We need some actual substantive information to illuminate the question.

The 1870 Chinese bones were supposed to be shipped back to China for burial, so again they may well show up on published ship manifests. This could provide corroborating evidence for the earlier mentioned newspaper article. And there may or may not have been earlier – and/or later – shipments of bones.

To conclude, to date what I have seen presented about the numbers of Chinese workers, and the number of Chinese deaths, appear to be long on speculation and hyperbole, and short on substantive evidence and critical analysis. and I believe much of the analysis that has gone on to date has been colored by the discrimination and attacks that Chinese experienced in later years – the 1870s and 80s – when anti-Chinese agitation became MUCH more virulent and violent.

To briefly address the questions that started this most recent discussion, we can be nearly certain that no "reparations" were ever paid by the railroad for Chinese (or other) deaths during the construction of the Central Pacific, nor were there any court cases. But those two questions really beg the underlying and much more important questions – how many Chinese actually died, and equally important, how did that number compare to to death rates of white workers on similar construction projects of the time. While we all likely have opinions and guesses, I do not think anyone has actually done truly substantive research to answer either of these questions.

Keep in mind that while prejudice was rampant, there were many whites who felt favorably (if sometimes paternalistic) towards the Chinese. And from evidence I do see, it appears that the bosses on the Central Pacific were among these – at least based on many of their public statements, and some known actions they took. While both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific pulled most of their construction workers back from Promontory before the ceremony (the majority of spectators being Utah residents of the area who came up on several special trains), the Central Pacific brought in a select crew of six Chinese to carry forward the last Central Pacific rail in the ceremonies (three of them recorded in a photos, and at least four of them named and honored at the 50th anniversary in 1919 which they participated in). Note it was generally white crews that spiked down Central Pacific rail during actual construction, but the Chinese crew was selected for the ceremony, and the Chinese generally were also honored in speeches given there. Also, Strobridge invited the six man Chinese crew (as representatives of all the Chinese who had worked on the railroad) to his car to participate in a special dinner after the Golden Spike ceremony, and called on everyone present to give a round of applause in their honor.

—Kyle Wyatt

12/08/2006 2:36 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments and analysis!

Any suggestions as to how to encourage the further research along the several avenues that you suggest (which require access to the primary sources)?

12/08/2006 2:43 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Also note that uninformed modern claims that the CPRR management was indifferent to worker injuries is contradicted by the historical record, as it was the CPRR management that to take care of its workers created the first multi-location Health Maintenance Organization ("HMO") in the world! This was the Central Pacific Railroad Hospital.

12/08/2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Last year I shared some sites with Civil War statistics and information, as a comparison.

Also the note about the Chinese being honored by Strobridge.

Last, the note about the CP hiring Native Americans.

All I can do is encourage – and suggest some directions to look. To really delve into it will take some time and effort.


12/09/2006 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A newly discovered newspaper report shows that the notion of large numbers of Chinese casualties in building the Central Pacific Railroad is almost certainly a myth based on a single erroneous newspaper article. (On June 30, 1870, the bodies of 50, not 1,200 Chinese dead were reported to have arrived in Sacramento by train for reburial, and not all of this much smaller number had died of construction accidents.)

Consequently, any claims of more than 150 Chinese killed building the first transcontinental railroad now seem extremely dubious.

1/17/2007 10:01 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Does anyone know where to access the digitalized CPRR payroll records that Mr. William Chew has uncovered? I am a graduate student who is conducting research on this topic. Thanks for your help.


4/01/2017 8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believe that William Chew accessed the surviving CPRR paper payrolls at the California State Railroad Museum's Library in Sacramento, California.

Have never heard that those records were digitized. Please let us know if you find that they were.

4/01/2017 10:46 PM  

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