One day in 1989, historical archaeologist Priscilla Wegars decided to change things. She was conducting a workshop about the Chinese in the West and had taken the group to the old mining townsite of Centerville, Idaho, for a field trip. What she saw there bothered her. Present-day mining activities were churning up artifacts. Pottery shards, buttons, and fragments of bottles, opium pipe bowls, and implements lay around, undocumented, unable now to shed much light on the people who once lived and worked there, including many Chinese. She left vowing to do something to preserve this important historical evidence.
Fast forward to 1993. Wegars has returned to Centerville with a team of archaeologists
and volunteers to spend three weeks sifting systematically through parts of the site. The project, a unique partnership between the University of Idaho, the Idaho State Historical Society, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), came about in response to mining and relic collecting activities at Centerville. The former is legal and regulated by BLM, the latter is illegal. The researchers' primary objective was to learn more about the Chinese presence. Ideally, they would combine gleanings from archives such as census records, newspaper accounts, and other documents with information from the intact archaeological deposits they hoped to find in Centerville. Together, the two sources would provide a more complete picture of who had lived there than either could alone.
As it turned out, the excavation furnished little in the way of Chinese cultural remains from undisturbed sites (although many Chinese items were recovered that originally had lain elsewhere), so most of the project's findings were from documentary research. However, the 1993 dig raised additional questions, since it found intact Caucasian below-ground deposits and the potential for Chinese deposits. It also revealed the need to study and document unrecorded historic remains still visible on the surface.
Unlike the fruits of many such enquiries, the discoveries painstakingly made about Centerville are available to the public in a very readable book, written by Wegars and published by the Bureau of Land Management in 2001.
Uncovering a Chinese Legacy: Historical Archaeology at Centerville, Idaho, once the "Handsomest Town in the Basin" is a lavishly illustrated paperback, Number Five in the Idaho Cultural Resources Series. Nuggets such as Centerville a Brief History; Researching Centerville: an Interview with Priscilla Wegars; a brief explanation about opium during this era; and a photo gallery with photos and drawings of some of the artifacts are included here. You may obtain a copy of Uncovering a Chinese Legacy by contacting the BLM public room at 208-373-3890.
No description of this project would be complete without mentioning the late Jack Young, the BLM archaeologist who championed it from the beginning, gathered funds for it, and was only kept from participating in the dig by his battle with prostate cancer. BLM archaeologist Stan McDonald followed through and made sure the book was published. Research also was supported by the University of Idaho's John Calhoun Smith Memorial Fund.
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