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Journey to America: Shanghai to Springfield Print E-mail


Some three weeks after leaving Japan, the ship docked at San Francisco’s wharf.  The arrival of the Mission students attracted considerable attention in the local press, and descriptions of the boys and their educational goals were printed in newspapers across the United States.  Editorial opinion regarding the Mission was generally favorable, welcoming these visitors from what was viewed as “the oldest Empire” to “the youngest Republic.”  For their part, the Chinese students were deeply impressed by their first encounters with American civilization.  Lee admired the “solidity and elegance” of the city’s “lofty” buildings, the conveniences of “running water and electric bells and elevators,” and the “depot with its trains running in and out.”  After a few days’ pause in San Francisco, the Chinese set off, via the transcontinental railway, for their final destination: Springfield, Massachusetts.

“The Great Train Robbery”

Most of the boys retained picturesque memories of the journey eastward.  Young Shang Him’s recollections almost suggest an old-fashioned “Wild West Show,” complete with “wild buffaloes on the prairie with wild Indians on bare-backed ponies chasing and shooting them with bows and arrows.”  The Second Detachment, however, had a unique encounter with a violent criminal feature of America’s “Old West.”  On the evening of 21 July 1873, just west of the small town of Adair, Iowa, the engine of their train was derailed and the cars and some of the passengers were robbed by a gang of five or six armed and mounted desperadoes.  The Chinese, traveling in the second of two sleepers that remained upright on the rails at the rear of the train, were unhurt though badly frightened.  Lee Yen Fu’s detailed eyewitness account is especially vivid:

Our party, teachers and pupils, jumped from our seats in dismay and looked out through the windows...  What we saw was enough to make our hair stand on end.  Two ruffianly men held a revolver in each hand and seemed to be taking aim at us from the short distance of forty feet or thereabouts.  Our teachers told us to crouch down for our lives.  We obeyed with trembling and fear.  Doubtless many prayers were most fervently offered to the gods of China at the time.  Our teachers certainly prayed as they had never done before.  One of them was overheard calling upon all the gods of the Chinese Pantheon to come and save him.  In half an hour the agony and suspense were over. 8

Only later was it learned that the leaders of the gang were the infamous James brothers, Jesse and Frank.  Another engine was quickly dispatched to take them on to Springfield, away from the scene of what Lee wryly termed “one phase of American civilization thus indelibly fixed in our minds.” Newspaper accounts of the robbery at Adair noted the presence onboard of “aristocratic Chinese on their way to New England colleges.”9   An editorial in The New York Times expressed a hope that “when our Chinese visitors write home, in many-angled vermilion letters, the story of their inhospitable reception, they may be able to add that it was promptly and properly avenged.  It is enough that our Celestial neighbors should think and call us barbarous, without absolutely justifying the title by a repetition of exploits like this.”10

Final Destination

The trip by rail from San Francisco to Springfield, even with the violent interruption suffered by the Second Detachment, lasted about a week.11   Springfield’s importance as a center of rail communication between the New England states and the rest of the country made it the logical choice as the final destination for the four Detachments of the Educational Mission.  Officials of the Mission were on hand at Springfield Station to welcome the boys as they arrived.  After a day or two of preparation, spent in a local hotel, the boys, escorted by their host families, set off for their new homes where they were to live and begin their education in America.  With the arrival of the Fourth Detachment late in November, 1875, the Mission reached its full complement of 120 students.



1. New Shan Chow (1880).

2. Ships’ names and departure/arrival dates courtesy Edward J. M. Rhoads. Cf. Rhoads (2011), pp. 39-43.

3. New Shan Chow (1880).

4. Rhoads (2011), p. 151.

5. Qi Zhaoxi 祁兆熙, You Meizhou Ri Ji 游美洲日记 (“Journal of a Trip to America”), quoted in Qian & Hu (2003), 55-58; Qian & Hu (2004), 70-71.  English translation courtesy Bruce Chan. Qi was the father of CEM student Kee Tsu Yi (Qi Zuyi 祁祖彝 III, 82).

6. Yung Shang Him (1939), 7.

7. Lee (1887), 106; Lee (2003), 96.

8. Lee (1887), 107-08; Lee (2003), 96-97.

9. E.g., San Francisco Daily Morning Call, 23 July 1873, 1.

10. New York Times, 25 July 1873, 4.

11. Yung Kwai (2001), 14§.