It turns out a good historian can also make for a really good sleuth.

But talk about “cold cases” — this one was downright frozen.

Or so it seemed, at first.

Historian and teacher Mark Johnson and his students are unearthing some fascinating pieces of Chinese history in Montana, bringing it alive in rich and vivid detail and in the words of the Chinese who once lived here.

In the case of one immigrant, Ah Chow, what they found might have saved him from being lynched at Helena’s infamous Hanging Tree.

The unraveling of this murder mystery began when Johnson learned of a fascinating epitaph on the 1870 gravestone of John R. Bitzer in the Benton Avenue Cemetery: “Here he lies, his life cut short, his death avenged.”

Intrigued, Johnson headed for the MHS archives to learn more about Bitzer’s death.

But the mystery also led to a much larger story — a unique research collaboration between Johnson, the Montana Historical Society and Johnson’s social studies students at Concordia International School in Shanghai, China.

The students, their parents and grandparents are helping with an ambitious project to translate MHS archive documents written in Chinese, dating from 1894 to 1959.

Johnson and one of his students, Maddy Crispell, were in Helena at the end of May to do research and present a program at the Montana Historical Society, “In Their Own Words: Translating Documents from Montana’s Early Chinese Community.”

This research project also took Johnson and some of his students to a recent National History Day event in Washington, D.C., where Johnson was named “History Channel Educator of the Year.”

But back to the mystery story that began in January 1870.

According to Bitzer’s account, he was headed into town along Oro Fino Gulch Jan. 15, when he heard a disturbance in a cabin. Entering it, he reportedly found Ah Chow beating a woman. When Bitzer intervened, he was shot. He stumbled down to the Kiyus Saloon, and later died at the International Hotel.

Meanwhile Ah Chow fled.

Was the woman Ah Chow’s wife, or a prostitute?

Was the 36-year-old Bitzer a courageous, noble citizen, or was he dallying with Ah Chow’s partner or wife?

These were just a few of the questions Johnson’s students pondered.

Bitzer was shot in the groin, said Johnson, indicating he was lying down when wounded – possibly while assaulting Chow’s partner or wife.

By Jan. 22 Bitzer’s buddies posted a $300 bounty to bring in Chow dead or alive.

Meanwhile, the Chinese community raised a $150 reward, to bring Chow back alive and deliver him to authorities.

An article in the Rocky Mountain Gazette Jan. 21, 1870, reflects the sentiment of the times toward Chinese people: “…we would advise friends of the deceased not to place their entire reliance in the proffered aid of the Mongolians.”

Chow would never get his day in court to tell his side of the story.

On Jan. 24, vigilante X. Beidler caught Chow. He was lynched at Helena’s Hanging Tree. A sign was hung on his body: “Beware! The vigilantes still live.”

The 1870 Census lists Ah Chow and a wife, but, as Johnson points out, the name was not uncommon.

More compelling is a 1938 newspaper in which W. T. Thompson recounts the hanging: “ I remember the Chinaman’s wife used to bring food every day and place it in his mouth. I guess she was feeding his spirit. The body remained hanging for three days as a lesson to the other Chinese of the city. Hundreds of people drove out to Hangman’s Tree every evening in their carriages to see the body. No one seemed to think it was particularly horrible. On the fourth day they cut the body down and gave it burial. The wife placed a lot of food on the grave which was quickly eaten by some of the youngsters around town.”

But, it turns out, some of the community was horrified.

Beidler was handed his own note, signed by 200 anti-vigilantes, saying, “We long to see the day you are buried beside the Chinaman you murdered.”

Ah Chow’s story is but one in a much larger context. There were 2,400 Chinese immigrants in the Montana Territory, making up at least 10 percent of its population in the 1870s, said Robert Swartout, Carroll College professor of history.

“These were exceptional people,” he said. “It took tremendous courage on the part of these people to make it to Montana. They were not always well received. They often faced discrimination and sometimes violence. They were willing to bet on themselves and willing to take great risks to come to a distant land. We need to realize they’re an integral part of the Montana story.”

They were instrumental in building the Northern Pacific Railroad. They also worked as miners, cowboys, business owners and physicians.

“The vast majority were working class people and did not have a high level of literacy,” he said. They lacked both the time and education to write detailed memoirs. Because of this, their role in history is based on English language records, rather than their own words.

“Now, suddenly in Helena, Montana, in the archives of the Montana Historical Society, we have the rarest of finds,” said Swartout. “We have a collection of materials … written by the Chinese who lived here at the time. By examining the material, we get to hear a voice that had been lost to history.”

Translating those voices presents unique challenges.

“Most … modern Chinese people can’t read the script,” said Crispell.

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After the Chinese Revolution in the 1950s, most Chinese learned to read and write a simplified script, rather than the traditional characters.

However, some of Johnson’s students have older relatives who learned the traditional scripts and can decipher the elaborate characters.

One intriguing document, proved to be a hair loss remedy, requiring such Montana ingredients as antelope fur and bones.

Another is a medication specifically for treating lung disease for those working in the mines.

Yet another is a map of Xinhui County in Guangdong Province, the ancestral home of a vast number of 19th century immigrants to Montana.

The letters and postmarks also indicate an extensive Chinese community through much of Montana, not only large population centers in Butte and Helena, but also reaching to Bozeman, Havre, Billings and, particularly surprising, a center of traditional Chinese medicine at Jim’s Café in Cascade.

And there are the letters to and from China — although we only get to hear one side of the conversation — since the letters in China have long been lost.

Among the mundane exchanges about health and the continual need to send money, there are also surprises.

A May 9, 1895, letter, states: “Please tell ZhuYan that I have bought a child for him as requested in his previous letter. This child is a bit bigger, about 10 years old or so.”

It goes on to say a previous purchased child had apparently run away.

“Now I have brought back another child. This child cost more than 50 xx (unit) of silver (money).”

The letter then asks for prompt shipment of money to repay the loan for purchasing the child.

Another letter from De Yong urges an elder brother, De-Quan, who left for America more than 20 years earlier, to return.

De Yong writes Dec. 15, 1923: “It will be the best that you can get married here. You can have offspring for our forefathers and glorify our family among our neighbors. … Please come home soon. Coming back to China is an emergency that can’t be delayed. It is a fundamental family tradition.”

The translation project “has been a lot of fun,” said Crispell — so much so, she’s going to pursue history studies at George Washington University this fall.

“Others assume we are graduate students,” she said of her fellow student sleuths. “This (type of research) is very out of the ordinary for high school students.

“It’s really exciting,” she added. “Every time we sign on (to the computer) we discover new things,” as the latest translations arrive, telling the story of the Chinese immigrants — in their own words.

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