A pig’s jawbone, left, and other excavated bones reveal clues to how Chinese settlers lived in early Jacksonville. Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon University
An archaeologist will share his findings at a history conference
From pig jawbone to pickled bear paw, archaeologist Katie Johnson is using animal bones to piece together clues to how Chinese settlers lived in Jacksonville in the 1880s.
Archaeologists have recovered thousands of animal bones during digs in a section of Jacksonville where Chinese people once lived. The bones reveal how people prepared their food and what they ate.
“We all have our favorite foods that we eat on Thanksgiving and other traditional holidays, like turkey and ham. So were the early inhabitants of Jacksonville,” said Katie Johnson, an archaeologist with the University of Southern Oregon’s Anthropology Laboratory in Ashland.
Pork dishes, often prepared in a wok or by other traditional means, were favorite dishes for Chinese settlers, she said.
Johnson will share his findings during a presentation on the history of Windows in Time “Connections Across Landscapes: Building Stories Out of Bones” from noon to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4 in the Adams Room of the Medford Library, 205 S. Central Ave. can also be viewed online and will screen live at select county libraries. See jcls.org to find screening locations.
Getting pork to make a favorite dish was often a labor intensive process.
“They could have gone down the street to the butcher. But often they would buy whole live pigs and butcher them themselves,” Johnson said.
Marks on the pig bones show the animals were cut into pieces with cleavers rather than a butcher’s saw, she said.
Taking on the bloody task themselves was a cheaper option than handing over the chore to the butcher. But Chinese settlers also faced discriminatory fees in stores.
“There was a lot of racism and anti-Chinese legislation at the time, like extra charges when Chinese people tried to buy something. The price could have been higher than for their European immigrant counterparts,” Johnson said. .
Chemical residue tests on excavated material can often tell more about food preparation. A substance that looked like reddish polish turned out to be an iron-rich substance used to pickle a bear’s paw, Johnson said.
Many cultures throughout time have used pickling to preserve meat, especially in the days before refrigeration. American, Chinese, Mexican and Scandinavian cultures are among those that pickle pig’s feet, for example – although the thought that bones, meat, skin, cartilage, fat and tendons are soaked in vinegar grows most people refuse a taste test.
Johnson said excavations in Jacksonville show Chinese residents did more than cook for their own homes. They would often make food for the larger Chinese immigrant community scattered across the country, including railroad camp workers in southern Oregon.
Chinese workers played a key role in building a network of railroads across the West, including in Oregon. Exclusion laws and the end of railroad construction caused most to leave southern Oregon, rather than stay and share in the prosperity they helped create as cities grew.
Johnson said many of the bones and artifacts found by archaeologists in Jacksonville come from a Chinese house that burned down along with part of the town in 1888.
Ashes and other debris helped preserve the site until a 2013 dig uncovered a trove of artifacts, from bones to coins to pottery.
“It was like a time capsule,” Johnson said.
A heritage grant from Oregon Parks and Recreation helped fund her detailed analysis of the excavated bones.
Registration is required to attend Johnson’s presentation in person or via the Zoom video conferencing service. To register, go to jcls.libcal.com/calendar/jcls_event/WIT-May-2022. A recording of the program will then be made available on the Jackson County Library Services YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/JCLSBeyond.
Previous lectures on the history of Windows in Time can be viewed on the YouTube channel.
Monthly lectures by writers, historians, and archaeologists explore aspects of southern Oregon’s heritage. The series is sponsored by the Southern Oregon Historical Society and the Jackson County Library Services.
Contact Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.