Idaho History April 30, 2017

Chinese Miners

Grave by Chinese workings South Fork Salmon River

photo by Local Color Photography 09/30/2011

— —

Lick Creek Road to South Fork Salmon River

From McCall take Park St. to Davis St. to Lick Creek Road (Forest Road #48). You will drive past Little Payette Lake and Browns Pond, Lake Fork Campground and Slick Rock (8.5 miles). This road continues on through unique glaciated peaks and valleys to low elevation canyons. Sixteen miles into the trip, you will pass Duck Lake Trailhead. The road continues on for another 13 miles past Ponderosa Campground along the Secesh River to the South Fork Salmon River. One mile past the junction of Forest Road #674, Forest Road #48 and #674 split. Just to the north of the junction of the South Fork Salmon River and the East Fork South Fork Salmon River a Chinese Dugout is visible on the east side of the river which you may hike to. You have two options at this point – to continue on road #674 for 25 miles along the South Fork Salmon River to the Warm Lake Road, back to Cascade (20 miles) and McCall (25 miles) or continue on to Yellow Pine and take the Johnson Creek Road to Warm Lake Road and back to Cascade. (120 miles round-trip, 3 hours to Yellow Pine, 3 hours from Yellow Pine to Cascade)

source: Payette National Forest
— — — — — — — — — — —

Charlie and Polly Bemis in Warrens

USDA Forest Service Payette National Forest, Heritage Program
July 2002 Kathleen Prouty

Lalu Nathoy, locally known as Polly, was born in Peking, in the northern reaches of China. As famine stripped the provinces of food, Lalu’s family fell on hard times and traveled south. In 1869, Lalu’s father exchanged his daughter for money to buy seed in order to save the remaining family members (Elsensohn 1987: 16-18). In 1871, with two other young Chinese girls, she was shipped to the United States from Hong Kong (Idaho Statesman, 1924, reprinted 7-8-1954). Lalu was eighteen when she landed in San Francisco harbor An old woman smuggled her up to Portland where she was sold to a Chinese resident of Warrens for $2,500. The buyer hired another Chinese man to bring her by pack train to Warrens (Gizycka 1923).

C.J. Czizek, former State Mine Inspector and manager for the Little Giant Mine in the Warrens District (Idaho County Free Press 1919: p.1), was a friend and resident in Polly Bemis’ boarding house in Warrens. In a 1933 interview by The Idaho Statesman, Czizek said he knew Polly first about 45 years ago. “At that time (in the 1870’s),” he said, “there were about 1500 white men and 1500 Chinese working in the mines and but one woman, a Mrs. Johnson. ‘Big Jim’ an exceedingly tall handsome Chinaman, was the leader of the Chinese colony… He managed all their affairs. He always dressed in elegant brocaded silk robes and wore a mandarin cap with a scarlet button on the top. He brought a half a dozen Chinese women to the camp.

It was in Warrens that Polly met Charles A. Bemis, the son of Alfred Bemis for who Bemis Point, once the richest property in Warrens is named. Czizek said, “The younger Bemis was a jeweler in a Connecticut town and his father persuaded him to come out to the camp. The easterner fell for Polly at once and they became great friends.” (The Idaho Statesman, September 24, 1933).  Czizek also declared that Polly was not a poker bride as was widely believed.

Charles became involved in the saloon business early in life and by 1880 owned a saloon in Warrens. Polly’s name first appears in the Warrens census in 1880 (the census lists her place of birth as Peking, her age as 27). She is recorded as living in the same residence as Charles Bemis. Her occupation is listed as “housekeeping” (U.S. Census, Washington (Warrens) Precinct, Idaho County, Idaho Territory).

Other newspaper reports from The Warrens Times give brief glimpses into the life of Polly and Charles. In 1887, the Bemis’ house burned in a fire and all but some gold dust and coin was lost. In 1889, Charlie had the job of deputy sheriff in Warrens. Also, during that year on July 4th, he raced his horse, named Dash, twice and lost. Charlie Bemis was shot in the face during a gambling brawl in September 16, 1890. The bullet shattered his cheek and he was in danger of dying from his wounds. When the doctor gave up on him Polly nursed him back to health.

In 1893, the couple bought a mining claim near the Salmon River, 1 miles from Warrens. Charles A. Bemis and Polly Nathoy were married on August 13, 1894. Herb McDowell, a Warrens resident recalled that every summer they would come to town to visit and to sell at the things they had raised on the ranch (McDowell 1987:2). In 1904, a devastating fire burned the business district of Warrens taking with it several buildings owned by Charley Bemis, including the saloon.

The Bemis’s went on to become legends in the Salmon River country. They have become the subjects of many a romantic tale in books and even a movie, A Thousand Pieces of Gold, based loosely on their life. Charlie Bemis passed away on Oct. 22, 1922 and Polly on November 6, 1933. They are remembered as possessing the spirit of adventure and tenacity required in the early days of the Idaho frontier.

source: Secesh History
[h/t BJ]
— — — — — — — — — —


Polly Bemis with her horses, Nellie and Julie, Feb. 6, 1910
Courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society, Neg. No. 62-44.7, Photograph by Charles Shepp

— — —

Chinese Sites in the Warren Mining District

In the late 19th century, thousands of Chinese immigrants flocked to the western United States to make their fortunes in the gold rush and in the railroad and fishing industries associated with the expansion of the American frontier. Many of these immigrants came at first to California, but by the 1860s, they had begun to move to other western states. In 1862, the Warren Mining District–located on the South Fork of the Salmon River in north central Idaho–was organized when gold was discovered near Warrens Creek. Due to the mining union’s exclusionary policies, Chinese immigrants were initially prevented from participating in mining operations. However, in 1869 the union miners voted to open the camp to Chinese miners since they were willing to mine placer gold (extraction of mineral deposits from excavations of sand, gravel, clay, or silt by washing or dredging), which many American miners were unwilling to do because of the labor intensive process.

The Chinese immigrants–-like other sojourners in the United States-–placed a high value on maintaining a traditional diet and lifestyle, which significantly impacted the social and cultural composition of the Warren area. Contemporary records indicate that during the summer mining season, there may have been between 800 and 1200 Chinese miners in the area. The population was mostly male, though some women were among their numbers. Between 1870 and 1900, the growing immigrant community at Warren included numerous Chinese-owned businesses including shops, a laundry, a saloon, a gambling house, a pharmacy and mining companies. Chinese were also employed as cooks, handymen, farmers, barbers, blacksmiths, fishermen and shoemakers; a majority of the women, as recorded in census statistics, worked as prostitutes.

source: National Park Service
— — — — — — — — — —

Warren Mining Camp Events

Payette National Forest

Horse stealing was a common occurrence in the West during the 19th century. On a summer trip into the mining camp of Warren in 1867, a Lewiston Journal correspondent reported, “I had the misfortune of having my horse stolen. No trace of him could be found …. I then procured another horse and proceeded,” (July 4, 1867)

A reporter writing from Warren, Idaho on Christmas Day in 1874 wrote: “In this camp about fifty white men are wintering and the number of Chinamen I do not know, probably about the same number. The principle employment of a large part of them is getting their firewood, cooking and eating their grub, assembling in small squads, poking fun at their neighbors who are disposed to work around and on their claims to some extent. Although they seem to be a happy community. Riding on snow shoes downhill, occasionally stagg dancing, and playing private jokes on upon each other form much of their amusement.” (The Northerner, January 9, 1875).

Whenever a crime was committed, the Chinese were immediately suspect as noted in this article: “From our correspondent at Warrens we learn that the safe extracted from Cronan’s store at that place a few days ago was found Sunday in a ditch in the rear of town, broken open and the gold dust and coins removed, but all the papers, county warrants, and a sum of greenbacks and gold notes remained untouched. Suspicion rests upon Chinamen.” (Idaho Signal, October 12, 1872)

The editor of The Nez Perce News summed it up in 1881:

“The camp [Warren] was never the scene of such excitement as characterized Florence in early days. Its residents were essentially law abiding, and shooting scrapes were exceedingly rare, so much so that but one lynching has ever occurred in the history of the camp, and that was only two Chinamen hanged two years ago… (August 4, 1881).

From The Nez Perce News – March 18, 1886

Our Warrens Letter
H.C. Savage Mysteriously Disappears
Big Fire at the Meadows etc

Warrens, Idaho, Mch. 5, ’86

Ed. News: – The reported passage by the house of Mr. Hailey’s annexation bill, with the boundaries as formerly published, seems to give general satisfaction.

We are having some excitement in camp over the disappearance of an old resident, H.C. Savage. He was working on a mining claim with a partner, Warlick, on the south fork, sixteen miles from here. Savage cannot be found and circumstances indicate that he has been foully dealt with. Warlick is detained pending investigation. The country is being searched for a clue to the missing man.

The principal lodging and storehouse of the Fook Sing claims on the Meadows was burned to the ground this morning. The Chinamen, twenty-five or thirty in number, stood by perfectly paralyzed and saw the building slowly consumed with all their, blankets, clothes and grub. Loss about $5000. Fire commenced in the chimney. Bad for the Chinamen but good for the merchants. N.B.W.

source: Payette National Forest
— — — — — — — — — —

Ah Toy and Ah Kan – Crossing Paths in Warren

USDA Forest Service Payette National Forest, Heritage Program July 2002

During the last half of the 19th century, the people of China were undergoing a series of struggles that included warfare, slavery, natural disasters, overpopulation and environmental degradation. In order to improve their standard of living, thousands of Chinese sojourners and immigrants came to western America in search of economics opportunities. Many planned to return to China when they had made their fortunes. The Chinese found work in mines, building railroads, and canneries. They also worked a variety of service jobs in mining districts and ports.

Born in Canton, China, Ah Toy came to Idaho in a wave of Chinese migrating to the western states and territories after gold was discovered there. In 1880, when he was 31, he worked as a miner in the Warren area. In 1890 he took a trip back to China, probably to visit with family. He soon returned in 1891 and continued as a successful merchant man selling pork to the miners at the Mayflower Mine for 17 cents per pound.

In 1892 Ah Toy is noted on a delinquent tax list as owning 16 horses with a man called Ah Kan. Ah Kan came to central Idaho as a boy with his father in 1862. As a young man he ran a mule train, packing into Warrens. Later Ah Kan worked with Ah Toy at managing livestock, and packing and transporting goods. Both men prospered but their lives took different paths.

Ah Toy had a garden spot on the slopes of the South Fork of the Salmon River where he raised vegetables and strawberries, selling them to people in the area of Warren. He had a little mining claim that he worked also. He constructed ditches from a nearby spring to irrigate his garden, water livestock and placer mine at his claim. He grew hops, grapes, rhubarb, strawberries, and other produce. Ah Toy had the skills of a miner, gardener, livestock packer, merchant, and traveler and was capable of doing business with the ethnically diverse frontier population. He built a simple dugout into the hillside and found his niche in the local community.

Ah Kan accumulated a fortune and returned to China. He married and settled down to a life of ease. He soon grew homesick for the free life of the mines, and returned to America around 1910, leaving his wife with the promise that he would send for her. Shortly after he left China, a son was born but his wife died soon afterwards. The placer mines had ceased to be profitable and he never regained his former wealth. He became a herbal doctor in Warren and was population with the children.

Bu 1910 Ah Toy and Ah Kan were two of only six Chinamen living in Warren. Sometime after 1910 but before 1918 ah Toy moved to the vicinity of Meadows and Long Valley. In Old Meadows he had a restaurant and laundry. During Roseberry’s heyday he had a restaurant in the Cox General Store, and then in 1918, he moved to McCall and was the proprietor of the Idaho Hotel (now called Hotel McCall). Sometime before the 1920 census Ah Toy probably went back to China or moved elsewhere, for there are no more records of him.

Ah Kan continued on at Warren as the last of the Chinese immigrants to live there. In 1932, Forest Ranger A.E. Briggs talked of Ah Kan saying, “No one seemed to know how old he was, but he could have easily been a hundred years of age, judging from his appearance. He was very reserved and was never seen talking to anyone. Some folks say he was cranky, but who wouldn’t be at that age.” In March of 1934, Ah Kan was flown out of Warren by a local pilot and taken to the Grangeville County hospital where he passed away.

Two men, Ah Toy and Ah Kan, came and went, seeking their fortunes, sharing the trail for a moment then traveling their separate ways.

source: History Secesh
[h/t BJ]
— — — — — — — — — —

Ah Toy’s Horse

Excerpt from Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese By Priscilla Wegars

The 1910 memoirs of Walter Mann, an early forest ranger, reveal some rare and interesting glimpses of Toy, his gardens, and a horse Toy sold to ranger Mann (Mann, 1969):

I had bought this horse from Old Toy, a Chinaman. Toy had a garden spot on the slopes of the South Fork of the Salmon river where he raised vegetables and strawberries. Toy packed his vegetables on horseback out to the mines, where he sold them at a good profit. However, this horse, he would not trust to carry his vegetables, so he used him as a saddle horse. The horse would buck and throw Toy off. Then Toy would tie the horse to a tree, get a club and beat him, yelling “Ki Ti, Ki Ti” at every whack. Toy could then ride the horse.

After Mann bought the horse, he appropriately named him Ki Ti. While at the forest headquarters in McCall, Idaho, Mann tried his hand at packing supplies on the untrustworthy animal (Mann, 1969):

The pack was all on and I was starting to throw the diamond hitch, when away Ki Ti went – bucking, running, kicking, squalling. He bucked all over the little town of McCall, Idaho. He dumped the camp bed, scattered the sugar and flour, but for some reason the pack bags stuck to the saddle. Then the carton of matches caught fire and smoke came pouring out of the bags. I wondered if the horse would burn up. A crowd had gathered – everyone yelled – they gave me advice – it was fun for them. It was a great exhibition.

As it turned out, Ki Ti didn’t burn and Ranger Mann had many eventful years with the horse that Ah Toy would not miss.

source w/more info: (google book)
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Governor Issues Proclamation to Protect Chinese from Attack

by Evan Filby

Chinese Workers with White Miner. Personal Collection.

On April 27, 1886, Idaho Territorial Governor Edward A. Stevenson issued a proclamation that said, in part, “The life and property of our citizens, and those of the Chinese as well, who are engaged in our midst in peaceful occupations, are entitled to and must receive the equal protection of the laws of our Territory.”

Chinese miners had been active participants in the gold fields from the earliest days. Every region followed much the same pattern: Whites wrote district mining codes that excluded Orientals altogether, and might enforce the rules with violence. Then, unable to find enough cheap white labor, miners changed the rules to allow white owners to hire Chinese workers. Finally, whites began to sell played out (supposedly) claims, or abandon them to the Chinese.

In January 1866, the Territorial legislature passed a law that overrode local codes and allowed Chinese to work in the gold fields … upon payment of a $5 per month fee. With two or three thousand Orientals working in Idaho mines by 1868, this represented a tidy sum for the government. That number ballooned even further after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The 1870 census for Idaho enumerated 4,274 Chinese (28.5 percent) among the Territory’s 15 thousand inhabitants.

Yet they were still not really welcome, for various reasons: blind racism, perplexity at their “odd” diet and customs, and their infamous opium dens. There was probably an element of jealousy too. Chinese miners, often in communal groups, could wrest decent profits from claims that whites considered worthless. Few whites wanted to work as incredibly hard as the Orientals, but that was surely counted against them too.

Predictable results followed: a host of discriminatory laws and taxes, calls for their expulsion, and unpunished white offenses against Chinese. Crimes against Orientals sometimes included mass murders that were conveniently blamed on the Indians. Members of various “Anti-Chinese Leagues” met openly to advocate their expulsion from the United States. The Idaho Statesman reported (February 27, 1886) on one such convention, which called for a boycott of businesses that employed Chinese labor.

Some elements within these organizations wanted stronger actions, although leaders said, “We denounce all violence and attempted violence on the person or destruction to the property of the Chinese.”

Stevenson’s proclamation came about partly because, in late 1855, vigilantes lynched five Chinese suspected of murdering a white storekeeper in Pierce. This atrocity even came to the attention of the Emperor of China, and the Chinese ambassador demanded an investigation. (Nothing much came of that, of course.)

With all that publicity, Stevenson had to respond to a tip that plans were afoot to expel the Chinese from Idaho, by force if necessary. His proclamation enjoined such actions “with the assurance that the law will hold those who may engage in such deeds responsible, individually and collectively, for the results of their acts.”

The proclamation, and probably some internal squabbling, defused the conspiracy, so there was no outbreak of violence.

Collectively, the Chinese made a substantial, but largely ignored contribution to the growth of Idaho, and not just in terms of mining. However, the pressure against them never let up. The 1900 Census enumerated just 1,467 Chinese in the state (less than 1 percent).

source: South Fork Companion
— — — — — — — — — —

Massacre At Hells Canyon

by Kami Horton

In 1887, a gang of horse thieves gunned down as many as 34 Chinese gold miners on the Oregon side of the Snake River near Hells Canyon. Some have called it the country’s worst massacre of Chinese by whites. Though the killers were known, and at least one confessed, no one was ever convicted.

In 1995, a Wallowa County clerk discovered hidden trial documents, uncovering the nearly forgotten incident.

Why was the story buried? What happened to the killers? Who were the victims?

“Massacre at Hells Canyon” examines not only the murders but also the hidden history of the Chinese laborers who help build the West in their search for “Gold Mountain.”

Chinese gold miners working a small stream. Haxeltine, M. M., Photographer

Tens of thousands of Chinese laborers came to North America in the 1850s with the Gold Rush. In addition to gold mining, they provided necessary services to newly developed communities.

They operated laundries, tended vegetable gardens, opened boarding houses and worked as cooks. By the thousands, they worked on railroad projects that connected the West. They cleared farmlands, worked in canaries and provided labor for factories. But they also faced widespread discrimination.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from entering the country. It was almost impossible for Chinese residents to become citizens or legally own property.

Throughout the 1880s, Chinese immigrants watched their communities be burned, attacked and sometimes destroyed by racists mobs. In some places, Chinese were lynched or shot, while others were run out of town. They had almost no legal rights to defend themselves.

For decades, those incidents were excluded from many historical texts. Today that is beginning to change.

A memorial now marks the spot where the Chinese gold miners died in Hells Canyon, and groups are working to preserve the stories of the early Chinese Americans who helped settle the West.

source with half hour video: OPB Jan. 23, 2017
— — — —

Massacred Chinese gold miners to receive memorial along Snake River

By Richard Cockle

Joseph — In a Snake River jetboat, it’s easy to roar right past Chinese Massacre Cove without noticing it.

The spot where a gang of white frontiersmen gunned down nearly three dozen Chinese gold miners on May 25, 1887, is little more than a gravel bar broken by river-polished boulders and overgrown with stunted and gnarled hackberry trees, sumac and poison ivy.

“Just another place along the river,” says R. Gregory Nokes of West Linn. He wrote the 2009 book, “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,” published by Oregon State University Press.

Nokes and a group of friends calling themselves the Chinese Massacre Memorial Committee plan to have a helicopter deliver a 4-by-5-foot granite monument to the cove for a June 21-22 ceremony commemorating the killings. The monument will be engraved in English, Chinese and Nez Perce with the words:

“Chinese Massacre Cove. Site of the 1887 massacre of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners. No one was held accountable.”

The killers were believed to be a gang of Oregon horse thieves, ranch hands and a 15-year-old schoolboy. Their crime was discovered when the mutilated bodies of the Chinese miners — the killers apparently had hacked their victims with axes after they were dead — began showing up 65 miles downstream at Lewiston, Idaho.

“It was the most cold-blooded, cowardly treachery I have ever heard tell of on this coast,” Judge Joseph K. Vincent, a 19th-century Idaho justice of the peace and U.S. commissioner, is quoted as saying in Nokes’ book. “Every one was shot and cut up and stripped and thrown in the river.”

The killers’ take probably amounted to 312 ounces of gold dust valued at roughly $5,000 at the 1887 rate of exchange of $16 per ounce, Nokes says. One of the robbers, 21-year-old J.T. Canfield, was delegated to sell the gold for money and probably ended up with all of it, he says.

The massacre apparently was more than a mere robbery gone bad. The outlaws could just as easily have taken the unarmed Chinese miners’ gold and let them live, Nokes says. In those days, Chinese immigrants were unpopular in many quarters and would have had nobody in authority to complain to about their missing property.

“It was really a savage act of racial hatred,” Nokes says.

While it’s too late to seek justice, “we can honor their memory,” he says of the victims.

Among the layered tragedies of the massacre was the loss of the identities of the men who died. Only 11 names were left behind — among them Chea Ling, Kong Mun-kow, Ah Yow and Chea Lin-chung. But all the names had English spellings, leaving modern historians with no real idea who they were without the precise Chinese characters to go by.

“It is a pity. They died nameless,” says Chuimei Ho of Bainbridge Island, Wash., vice chair of the Chinese Massacre Memorial Committee. She’s a founder of the Chinese in North America Research Committee, which explores the history of Chinese in the Pacific Northwest.

She planned to spend several days this month scouring Panyu District archives south of Canton City, China, where the miners were believed to have come from, in hopes of unearthing their identities, she says.

“In a way, I feel very honored to be involved,” she says. “But I don’t want to raise hopes. It is a very small chance.”

Mike Brown Rustler and horse thief Frank Vaughan (left forefront), one of the suspected killers in the 1887 Chinese Massacre, later turned state’s evidence and was never charged. He’s seated with relatives in this photo, taken about 1909, at his remote home in the Imnaha River Canyon of northeastern Oregon.

Six Oregon men eventually faced murder charges in the massacre. Hiram Maynard, Hezekiah Hughes and a schoolboy named Robert McMillan, all of Wallowa County, were tried and found innocent in 1888. The ringleaders, Canfield, Homer LaRue and Bruce “Blue” Evans, fled Wallowa County and were never caught.

Another suspected conspirator, Frank E. Vaughan, turned state’s evidence and wasn’t charged, but a relative later said he “was guilty as sin.”

Chinese workers began immigrating to the “Gum San” or Golden Mountain, their term for the frontier-era American West, during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, historians say. Their numbers probably peaked at an unofficial 132,300 in 1882, Nokes says, and some scholars believe they made up fully a quarter of Oregon’s population as early as the 1870s.

Nobody knows exactly what set the Chinese Massacre in motion, Nokes says. One account by pioneer Ross Findley suggests the killers spent an afternoon watching the miners from nearby bluffs and planning the crime, then returned the next day and opened fire on them.

A separate account in the 1930s by Harland Horner suggests the gang encountered the Chinese miners while trying to swim a herd of stolen horses across the flood-swollen Snake River into Idaho. When the Chinese refused to lend the outlaws a boat, Evans came up with the idea of killing them.

Retired Washington State University history professor David H. Stratton wrote in an authoritative 1983 essay: “The brutality of the Snake River atrocity was probably unexcelled whether by whites or Indians, in all the anti-Chinese violence of the American West.”

A year after the massacre, Congress paid $276,619.75 to the Chinese government “out of humane consideration and without reference to the question of liability … as full indemnity for all losses and injuries sustained by Chinese subjects within the United States and the lands of residents thereof.”

The amount was $75,000 less than the Chinese had requested, and the Chinese massacre wasn’t specifically mentioned in the settlement.

Canfield, who ended up with the Chinese gold, is believed to have spent 10 years in a Kansas prison for stealing mules. Afterward, he went to Texas, then owned a blacksmith shop in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, Nokes says. He may have achieved some local prominence, because at his death in 1929 at age 63, his tombstone was the biggest in the Glenns Rest Cemetery.

source: The Oregonian on November 26, 2011

page updated June 23, 2020