The German Gulch archeological site has the potential to teach us much about lives of a diverse group of individuals living in the Butte area during the last half of the 19th century. The first records of mining activity in the German Gulch area can be traced back to 1864. This early mining activity employed both placer and hydraulicking techniques, and the drainage was continuously worked until the early 20th century.
In 1864, four German gold prospectors left Bannack, Montana and headed north hoping to find a new big strike around modern-day Butte. After several days of panning for gold in Silver Bow Creek, they went up a small stream and discovered rich gold sands in what would become German Gulch, named after the first discoverers. Within days of filing a claim on their discovery the area boomed, with hundreds of gold seekers heading into the area. Within a few weeks there were large settlements established at the head and middle of German Gulch, named Upper and Lower Town, respectively. These communities boasted all the amenities of most mining towns of the 1860s including saloons, butcher shops, hotels, restaurants, and even the large Kessler Brewery.
By the late 1860s, however, the easily found gold began to disappear and many Euro-American miners sold their claims and headed to the next big strike. Many of these claims were sold to Chinese miners who were already moving into Montana Territory in substantial numbers since 1862's discovery of gold in Grasshopper Creek. The Chinese miners would work less profitable claims than their Euro-American neighbors. However, rough estimates suggest that the Chinese actually produced about half of the total gold production out of German Gulch before 1900. Chinese miners would work in
German Gulch’s gold production is an amazing testament to the painstaking work accomplished by Chinese and Euro–American miners
Workers constructed this large earthen dam to supply water for mining operations.
large groups where they could share both the labor and profit, whereas Euro-Americans would generally work by themselves or in a small group. In the early 1870s, Chinese miners purchased over $150,000 in mining claims from Euro-Americans in German Gulch, which would translate to over $500,000 in today's money.
The 1870 Federal Census, the first available after the establishment of German Gulch, lists only 5 Chinese inhabitants in a district with 254 total residents. Other sources, such as property deeds and newspaper articles of the time, tend to make the 1870 census numbers appear inaccurate, as the Chinese were likely heavily undercounted. By 1880 the population of Chinese had risen to 39 in German Gulch proper, with an additional 70 located in immediately adjacent drainages. Before 1873, the Chinese living in German Gulch traveled the 30 miles to Deer Lodge to buy mining equipment and specially imported Chinese food and supplies. This changed when a Chinese merchant opened a store in Lower Town that directly imported goods from China.
The Chinese dominated the German Gulch district throughout the 1870s and 1880s, but by the 1890s the mining trend shifted in the area. Before 1890, most of the mining in German Gulch had been done by washing the gravels and sands of the creek through sluice boxes. This was a low-cost means of mining that the Chinese were permitted to pursue. However, by the 1880s, many hardrock mines opened in German Gulch with federal and state laws prohibiting the Chinese from engaging in these types of operations. Throughout Montana, the 1890s saw a significant drop in the Chinese population with many individuals returning to China or bigger American urban centers like San Francisco or Seattle. By the early 1910s, only a handful of Chinese were recorded in the area of German Gulch but these were elderly individuals who stubbornly held on to dreams of wealth. While hardrock mining of the early 1900s produced a lot of gold and other minerals, German Gulch never returned to its heyday of the 1860s or 1870s, and many of the cabins once occupied by Chinese and Euro-American miners were abandoned and forgotten.