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Animal bones reveal Jacksonville history

A pig’s jawbone, left, and other excavated bones reveal clues to how Chinese settlers live in early Jacksonville. Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon University
Archaeologist to share findings during history talk

From a pig’s jawbone to a pickled bear’s paw, archaeologist Katie Johnson uses animal bones to piece together clues to how Chinese settlers lived in Jacksonville in the 1880s.

Archaeologists have recovered thousands of animal bones from excavations 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 during Thanksgiving and other traditional holidays, like turkey and ham. The same was true of the early inhabitants of Jacksonville,” said Katie Johnson, a staff archaeologist with the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology in Ashland.

Pork dishes, often prepared in a wok or through other traditional means, were a favorite among Chinese settlers, she said.

Johnson will share her findings during a Windows in Time history presentation “Connections Across Landscapes: Building Stories Out of Bones” from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, in the Adams Room of the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave. Her talk can also be viewed online and will be screened live at some library locations in the county. 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 were buying whole live pigs and butchering them themselves,” Johnson said.

Marks on pig bones show the animals were chopped apart with cleavers, rather than a butcher’s saw, she said.

Taking on the bloody task themselves was a cheaper option than having the butcher carry out the chore. But Chinese settlers also faced discriminatory fees at stores.

“There was a lot of anti-Chinese racism and legislation at the time, like extra fees when Chinese people tried to buy something. The price could have been higher than for their European immigrant counterparts,” Johnson said.

Testing chemical residue on excavated material can often reveal more about food preparation. A substance that looked like reddish varnish 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 pigs’ feet, for example — although the thought of bone, meat, skin, cartilage, fat and tendons soaking in vinegar causes most people to decline a taste test.

Johnson said excavations in Jacksonville show Chinese residents weren’t just cooking for their own households. They were often making food for the larger community of Chinese immigrants scattered across the land, including workers at Southern Oregon railroad camps.

Chinese laborers were key in helping to build a network of railroads across the West, including in Oregon. Exclusionary laws and the end of railroad construction caused most to eventually leave Southern Oregon, rather than stay and share in the prosperity they helped create as towns grew.

Johnson said many of the bones and artifacts uncovered by archaeologists in Jacksonville come from a Chinese home that burned down along with a section of the town in 1888.

Ash and other debris helped preserve the site until a 2013 excavation uncovered a trove of artifacts, from bones to coins to pottery.

“It was like a time capsule,” Johnson said.

An Oregon Parks and Recreation heritage grant helped fund her detailed analysis of the excavated bones.

Registration is required to attend Johnson’s presentation in-person or via the Zoom videoconference service. To register, visit jcls.libcal.com/calendar/jcls_event/WIT-May-2022. A recording of the program will later be made available on the Jackson County Library Services YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/JCLSBeyond.

Previous Windows in Time history lectures can be viewed on the YouTube channel.

The monthly talks by writers, historians and archaeologists explore aspects of Southern Oregon heritage. The series is sponsored by the Southern Oregon Historical Society and Jackson County Library Services.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.