Beyond the fences of the Forestvale Cemetery, hidden in tufts of cheatgrass, sage and prickly pear, the stories of Montana’s foreign pioneers decay in heavy thumbprint depressions in the ground.
As many as 200 Chinese immigrants were buried beyond the gothic arches, but the blank patch of prairie outside Forestvale wasn’t their final resting place—at least it wasn’t meant to be.
China Row, as it’s called, could be concealing more than a hundred bodies that were meant to be exhumed and returned to their native villages on a promise and some cash.
On Friday, June 22, the Montana History Foundation brought a team of cadaver dogs from the Institute for Canine Forensics in California to China Row to search for evidence of human remains. If the bodies are still out there, they’ve been there since burials began in the 1890s and ended in the mid-1900s.
The age is no trouble for the dogs. They got to work, nose against the earth, scanning for signs of human decomposition.
They found it in at least 12 different areas.
“The Chinese here in Helena were not that wealthy,” Ellen Baumler, Montana Historical Society interpretive historian and interpreter for the Forgotten Pioneers: The Chinese in Montana exhibit, said. “It’s possible that a lot couldn’t afford that service. It’s also possible that the bone collector didn’t do what he promised to do. We know that about a dozen remains were probably sent back to China.”
That’s a dozen out of potentially 200 graves.
Many of the Chinese that came to Montana for the gold rush were from the Guangdong province of China. Of those, a large portion were from the village of Taishan.
“They came looking to make a fortune like everybody else,” Baumler said. “Taishan was in the heart of this terrible civil war. There were millions of people that died during the war. There was famine, overpopulation and they were desperate to make money to send home.”
By the end of the war, the Taiping Rebellion, in 1862 about 20 million people were dead.
Montana saw its peak of Chinese immigrants in 1890 with 2,473 men and 59 women here to work. When mining dwindled and the gold rush was in its final chapter, the railroad made its way through the state and offered new opportunities for work.
But Baumler said the immigrants weren’t all laborers. Merchants, tailors, pharmacists and other professionals learned trades to support the original population.
“They always intended to return home but it became expensive,” Baumler said.
As the years passed and it became clear that most would live out their days in Montana, it became necessary to find a place to bury the dead—at least until they could return their bones to China.
In Chinese culture, bodies buried away from their families should be returned home so they can be properly honored. This requires that the bodies be buried in shallow graves, as shallow as 18 inches, until they decompose and just the bones remain.
Then, they are exhumed by a bone collector and shipped back to their families in China. Because they were only meant to be temporary, many graves were never marked.
“It was a terrible thing to die in a foreign place and not be able to get bones back to the homeland to be cared for by family,” Baumler said. “It was a major thing to have this insurance, that promise that if they died they would go back to China.”
China Row looks unremarkable to those who don’t know its history. Walk around and take a closer look. Notice the depressions and mounds in the ground—indicative of a spot where a body might have been exhumed and the shallow grave left open ready for the next burial. Spot the wide pile of bricks masked in prairie grasses—the ruble of a funerary burner used to cook the deceased a final meal for the afterlife. Find the handful of headstones that were erected for a few of the sojourning workers.
And beneath the surface? A mystery.
Adela Morris stood outside the perimeter of Forestvale, her blue and purple streaked hair ruffling in Montana’s gusting winds. Jasper and Kayle, border collies specializing in human remains detection, waited at her feet ready to see if there is anything in China Row.
“We have oral history here and there’s a couple of markers but that’s all we know,” Morris said.
Morris said she recognized the tell-tale signs of a Chinese burial area. The mounds and depressions immediately caught her eye as areas to check out. But as a handler, it’s not her job to tell her dog where to search or even to reward them for finding something. It’s up to the dog to determine if there’s scent, where there is scent and if that scent is strong enough to warrant an alert.
“It’s really important that we stay out of their head,” Morris said. “We’re working as a team here.”
If she points her dog to an area or rewards a dog for a find, it ruins the integrity of their work, Morris explained. Dogs innately want to please their masters, so they could alert because they know it’s what their handler wants or they could accidentally be rewarded for misidentifying a scent and ruin their training.
Morris has been doing this kind of work for years. Before she was using her dogs to sniff out historic burial sites, Morris was involved in search and rescue.
“I wanted to do something that made a difference,” Morris said. “My first dog was a live-find dog, which I loved, but I got so involved in what happens after the person dies. Then there was an evolution and we started doing old burials.”
Now, Morris is the president and CEO of the institute and specializes in locating historic and prehistoric burial sites. She and her dogs have worked 9,000-year-old burials in California—the limit on a dog’s ability to sniff out an old scent is unknown.
Morris scanned China Row with Jasper, walking up and down the area in a grid pattern. Jasper kept his nose pressed to the ground. If he finds something, he lets Morris know by sitting on the spot and waiting for her to acknowledge his find.
Then he sat. And then he sat again.
Each time Jasper hit on a spot, Morris walked over, took down the GPS location, notes on how sure Jasper seemed about the scent and marked the spot with a blue flag.
Then, handler John Grebenkemper took Kayle out over the same area. Again, it was alert after alert. Some matched up with Jasper’s finds. Others indicated places Kayle definitively decided there was scent but Jasper wasn’t sure.
Cadaver-sniffing dogs pick up on the scent of human remains, but China Row poses an extra level of mystery. There would still be evidence of human remains in the soil even if the bones were removed.
By the time the dogs were done, there was a collection of about 12 areas where the dogs detected human remains.
But that might be where the story ends for China Row.
Neither the Montana History Foundation nor the groundskeepers at Forestvale Cemetery have any intention of excavating the area.
A Ground Penetrating Radar could be used to scan the area for physical evidence beneath the surface. However, Baumler said it will likely be left undisturbed.
“Are there bones still there? I cannot say,” Morris said. “Were these dug up or is there still an intact burial there? I don’t know. I would say my dog has got something though.”
That’s an outcome Morris said she’s used to. The Institute for Canine Forensics often works with Native Americans to help them locate burial grounds and sacred sites so they can be protected. Most often the dogs are brought int to find or confirm human remains in an area and then the job is done.
“We’re usually hired by a construction company or Native Americans or a Chinese community to help document,” Morris said. “We will submit a report that has pictures, GPS locations and any other information we find. What the dogs do is add a layer of knowledge.”
But what’s really happening beneath the prairie grass outside Forestvale Cemetery remains a mystery.