Pioneer Chinese gardeners had a rough row to hoe – Second in a series

| February 8, 2010 | 0 Comments
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Second in a series.

Idaho’s Chinese gardeners filled a real need in the frontier communities where they settled. Many who had come to Idaho City and other Boise Basin towns as miners had turned to vegetable gardening because they could use skills they had learned growing up in south China’s Pearl River delta.

The Idaho World noted on May 13, 1869: “The excellently cultivated garden of a Chinaman, about two miles above town, is a scene to be observed along the road. In a patch not an acre in area the plodding, never-tiring, skillful John has made his garden, just at the roadside and sloping gently down to the shifting bank of the creek. Occasionally a sudden breaking of his water bulkhead will cause the stream either to totally wash away a portion of his little patch, or to ruin it by depositing thereon a depth of sand and slum which cannot be overcome.

“With manure packed in Chinese fashion by buckets slung from a shoulder bar, for a distance of half a mile, the industrious gardener has brought the ground to a high condition of culture, and from the small plat he yearly earns a sum which would be a fortune in itself to one of his own class in his native land. These Chinamen have certainly the art of raising a greater variety and amount of vegetables from a small plat of ground than our own people have yet learned to do.”

This praise and admiration for the Chinese was written by an educated and fair-minded editor, but there were many who were ignorant and prejudiced against them. Natural forces such as flood and drought were bad enough, but the patient and hard-working Chinese had to deal with thieves and vandals as well.

In Boise in the summer of 1870, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman reported that Chinese gardeners were delivering new potatoes door to door for 6 cents a pound. In July 1871 the paper noted that “John Chinaman makes his appearance bright and early every morning, with the traditional pole and baskets, the latter filled with every variety of fresh plucked and cool vegetables.”

What a convenience this was for the city’s housewives. The Olympia Washington Standard had a relevant comment in June 1879: “We are asserting only what everyone knows to be a fact, when we say that until the arrival of our Chinese gardeners, all our earliest small fruits and vegetable came by steamers from San Francisco, for which we paid exorbitant prices. Now, through the native tact and indomitable energy of Chinamen, these fruits and vegetables are raised from our own soil and brought to our doors weeks earlier than ever they were produced by white men.”

Boise’s riverside gardens made the pages of the Statesman often in 1890. In April: “The Chinese gardens between the city and the bridge look promising. Onions, lettuce, peas and other vegetables have been springing up until they have attained a fair growth.”

The high water that month threatened the loss of this promising crop, leading the Chinese to hire wagons and teams to haul dirt for building levees.

In December 1890 Mayor James A. Pinney told the city council that, “Chinese gardeners near the river are suffering many indignities at the hands of hoodlums and other roughs who break down their fences, and stone the Chinamen, and in other ways seek to injure these peaceable and well disposed individuals. They are entitled to the protection of the law and the officers should make efforts to arrest those who molest them. Some of the influential Chinese merchants have offered to give a reward of $25 for every conviction of persons seeking to harm these men or other Chinamen.”

Boise’s Chinese gardeners continued to be harassed by hoodlums, and in June 1892 the Statesman said that gunshots could be heard every night as the gardeners tried to scare away vegetable thieves. Even small boys were stealing watermelons, no doubt thinking it was a great adventure. Fortunately, nobody was killed or wounded. The only casualty mentioned in the Statesman was a neighbor’s cow, for which a Chinese farmer had to pay its owner.

Racial prejudice and damaging acts of nature were a continual challenge to Idaho’s pioneer Chinese gardeners, but they persevered.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. E-mail

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