Many residents of Idaho’s capital know the name “Boise” comes from the French word for “wooded,” but will those who call “The City of Trees” home recognize another familiar name in the valley that recalls Idaho’s storied past as a culturally diverse frontier territory?
“Chinden Boulevard,” or US Highway 20/26 is a vital East-West artery of the Boise metropolitan area which connects suburban homes to the workplaces, restaurants, and entertainment centers of the capital city’s quaint downtown. Many commuters on this road, or those pleasure-seekers out for a night on the town, are, perhaps, unaware that the road’s name bears the memory of the Chinese immigrants who came to the region decades before Idaho achieved statehood. Instead of the tattoo parlors and used car lots lining the road today, near the end of the 19th century, the road passed acres of beautiful vegetable gardens planted and cared for by Chinese immigrants, thus earning the name “China-garden,” or “Chinden.”
The discovery of gold in Southern Idaho in 1862 marked the beginning of a mass migration into the region that extended over the course of multiple decades and paved the way to statehood. Though united in their search for fortune and opportunity, the early prospectors and adventurers who braved this new frontier came from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. One early resident of Idaho expressed his first impression of Boise in these words: “In the courtyard of the Overland Hotel I saw, the morning of my arrival in Boise, an Irishman, a Spaniard, a Frenchman, two Chinamen, a Canadian, an Englishman—and not an American.”
Early Idaho was diverse and one prominent group in the cultural patchwork of the region was Chinese immigrants. In fact, in a population of about 20,600 in the territory of Idaho in 1869, 4,274 were Chinese. Though many Chinese came to the region in search of gold, over time they took up other pursuits. Indeed, it could be said that in the Idaho Gold Rush the Chinese abided by the idiom, “during a gold rush, sell shovels.” Instead of mining, many began shop keeping, cleaning laundry, raising pigs, and growing and selling vegetables to mining communities. Initially, the produce from these Chinese gardens was intended for Chinese miners, but—due to the quality and availability of the vegetables—the market quickly expanded outside Chinese circles to entire communities. The produce attracted such praise that one newspaper commented that, “most of their productions surpass in size and excellence the imported articles.” With Boise as the main supply center of the region and many Chinese looking to sell their goods and services to miner customers, many Chinese gravitated to the city, becoming a crucial part of both the city and territorial economy. In 1871, a newspaper noted that “The China population are planting gardens here pretty extensively. They are so patient and puttering that they do well.” These “patient and puttering” gardeners were known to group together to lease land for their various crops. Each took part in planting, harvesting, and selling their produce.
During the growing season, work in the fields would begin before dawn. By sun-up, their carts would be loaded and ready for making deliveries to homes or selling vegetables in the streets. Another newspaper report illustrates a typical interaction between a Chinese vegetable peddler and their client: “John Chinaman makes his appearance at our door bright and early every morning, with the traditional pole and baskets, the latter filled with every variety of fresh plucked and cool vegetables.” Clearly, the Chinese presence in Boise was prominent as they filled a variety of needs for a variety of customers on a regular basis.
While newspapers at times praised the industry of Chinese workers, their often patronizing tone is indicative of both the underlying and overt racism and persecution the Chinese in Idaho endured. Indeed, as far removed as the territory was, it was not far enough to escape the waves of anti-Asian legislation that spread in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After only a few decades, many Chinese left Idaho, and the once vibrant Chinese community became a shadow of what it once was. Today, Chinden Boulevard still passes through Garden City, the lowlands west of Boise’s downtown where scores of Chinese immigrants cultivated gardens to build themselves better lives. Though their exodus out of Idaho left a vacancy in Boise’s Chinese population that has not been filled since, the memory of their resolve in the face of adversity can continue to inspire generations of Idahoans as they travel along the old China-gardens road.