I’ve done a lot of research into the Chinese workers on the Transcontinental Railroad for my book. It’s unfortunate that there are no first hand accounts of the work from the actual workers. It seems unlikely that none of them kept a diary, but perhaps they were all lost to time in California or went back to China with their owners. Despite this lack of first-hand accounts most Californians learned something about the Chinese workers on the railroad.
A friend stumbled across a tombstone in a local graveyard for a man from Pakistan, dated to the early 1900’s and was surprised. As it turns out, Sikh immigrants worked to build the railroads in the western United States, but also helped build the levees that now protect Sacramento from seasonal flooding. For those who aren’t familiar with the Sikh people, who are frequently mistaken for Muslims: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sikh.
You can see some historic photos of Sikh workers here: http://www.sikhpioneers.org/t_usphot.html.
Fun fact: Due to miscegenation laws in California, Sikh (and Chinese) men were forbidden from marrying white women, an interesting side effect was that many Sikh men ended up marrying women of Mexican heritage.
Fun fact #2: While Sikh men have a long history of being police and soldiers, they are currently excluded from being police officers or soldiers in the United States, due to their religious tenets that require wearing their turban, a beard and dagger. There are only two Sikh soldiers in the U.S. Army, both of which have required individual exemptions every step of the way.
Stereotypically the frontier was filled with whites, Native Americans, a few Mexican banditos and a handful of Chinese. In reality, the frontier was a mish-mash of ethnicities and nationalities. I wonder how many small groups may have been lost to time, never memorialized by a headstone, waiting to be discovered by a wandering visitor.