Thursday, July 18, 2024

Curiosity brings lives to light

| May 7, 2023 12:00 AM

“I wanted to tell their stories in their own words,” Helena author Mark T. Johnson told the crowd at the Northwest Montana History Museum last month, as he explained his research and focus on Chinese Montanans, who at one point made up as much as 15 percent of the territory’s population.

The Great Falls native took off to teach in Shanghai motivated by the notion that “the world isn’t as scary as the nightly news makes it out to be.” He stayed eight years and did more than teach. He assembled an international, multigenerational team to translate hundreds of documents languishing at the Montana Historical Society.

These primary documents, mostly letters between Chinese immigrants and their families, inform Johnson’s recently published “The Middle Kingdom Under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana.” In it, and in his presentation, he highlighted the newcomers’ successes and heartbreak: the sibling dynamic between two brothers, the pressures of political and economic realms, development of business ties and standing, and the worker who was deported after a government clerk misspelled his name.

Johnson constantly seeks more stories to tell. Before his presentation he spent time at the museum with a packet of documents related to longtime Flathead Valley resident Mar You.

Johnson made quick study of the papers. He noticed that Mar You had worked up from "laborer" to "merchant" — a rare feat that would have earned him some exemptions under increasingly stringent laws aimed at the Chinese. For instance, Mar You would have been allowed to have his wife and kids join him from China.

Johnson also saw that Mar You ditched his queue some years after taking up U.S. residency; the faded Qing Empire could no longer require it of him.

Still on the hunt for more evidence of Chinese presence in the Flathead, Johnson had time for a trip to Demersville Cemetery.

We came up short finding Chinese headstones but as we tromped our way out of the cemetery, Johnson stopped at depressions in the ground, barely deeper than what a large animal would leave after bedding down.

A careful researcher, Johnson wouldn’t jump to conclusions but he said, “I have no doubt Chinese were interred here but I do doubt that any remain, as they were exhumed and remains sent back to China.” The shallow depressions might have served as temporary graves for local Chinese who labored as cooks, cleaners and more in this very western part of the West. “Bone pickers” then would have sent the remains back to China for burial near ancestors.

“All this Chinese stuff is my hobby,” Johnson said. His day job is teaching teachers as a fellow with University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives.

It energizes him to bring these early Montanans’ lives to life. Back home, he studied an old map of Demersville Cemetery provided by the Flathead County records department and emailed me to say he identified where 18 Chinese had been buried — it was where we’d come upon the depressions.

“These are exciting developments!” he wrote, saying he wanted to do further research into the cemetery and Mar You.

Best of all, he offered to return and present more of Montana’s past.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at