A Landing a Day

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Posts Tagged ‘Polly Bemis’

Idaho City and Placerville, Idaho

Posted by graywacke on August 26, 2019

First timer?  In this formerly once-a-day blog (and now pretty much a once-a-week blog), I use an app that provides a random latitude and longitude that puts me somewhere in the continental United States (the lower 48).  I call this “landing.”

I keep track of the watersheds I land in, as well as the town or towns I land near.  I do some internet research to hopefully find something of interest about my landing location. 

To find out more about A Landing A Day (like who “Dan” is) please see “About Landing” above.  To check out some relatively recent changes in how I do things, check out “About Landing (Revisited).”

Landing number 2454; A Landing A Day blog post number 890.

Dan:  Today’s lat/long (N43o 55.308’, W115o 47.038’) puts me in W-Cen Idaho:

My local landing shows that I landed out in the boonies, but reasonably close to my two titular towns:

My streams-only map shows that I landed in the watershed of Elk Creek.  You’ll have to trust me when I say that the Elk ends up in Mores Creek:

Zooming back, it’s apparent that Mores Creek discharges to the Boise River (2nd hit); on to the Snake (86th), to the Mighty Columbia (180th):

Here’ an oblique Google Earth (GE) shot looking up the Elk Creek valley past my landing:

Staying with GE, I couldn’t get anywhere close to my landing on GE Street View, and I had to go all the way down to Idaho City to get a look at Elk Creek:

And here’s what the Orange Dude sees:

Amazing, isn’t it, that this tiny little stream dug out that huge valley?

Just downstream from Idaho City, Elk Creek flows into Mores Creek.  Here’s a look at the creek a few miles southwest from Idaho City:

Moving right along . . .

As you might suspect, I looked at way more than just the two towns on my local landing map.  And as you might also suspect, they were all:

In fact, the above symbol pretty much says it all about Idaho City and Placerville.  But I did see that in Wiki’s Idaho City piece, there’s a section entitled “Chinese.”  Here ‘tis:

Four thousand Chinese lived in the Idaho Territory from 1869 to 1875. Like many Chinese immigrants, they came to work as miners, laundrymen and cooks.

Although today Chinese are rarely seen except as tourists, the 1870 Idaho City census reported at 1,751 Chinese, nearly half of city residents.

Annie Lee was one legendary Idaho city woman who like Polly Bemis, escaped enslavement from the “world’s oldest profession”. She escaped from a member of the Yeong Wo Company in the 1870s to Boise to marry her lover, another Chinese man. Charged by her owner with grand larceny, she told a judge that she wanted to stay in Boise City. The judge subsequently granted her freedom.

Polly Bemis was Wiki-clickable:

Polly Bemis was born in rural northern China. As a child, she had bound feet, which were later unbound. When she was eighteen, there was a prolonged drought, during which her father was forced to sell her to bandits for two much needed bags of seed.

[A daughter for two bags of seeds?  Such a deal . . . ]

She was then smuggled into the United States in 1872 and sold as a slave in San Francisco for $2,500.

[Her value went up quite a bit!]

It was common for Chinese men of that time to have multiple wives and concubines, all having some social status and living under the same roof. When a Chinese man moved to North America, he might take a concubine with him or acquire one there, as custom required him to leave his wife in China to take care of his parents.

An intermediary took her from San Francisco to Idaho, where her buyer, a wealthy Chinese man ran a saloon in a mining camp in the town of Warren

How she gained her freedom from her Chinese owner is uncertain.  However, in mid-1880, the census listed her as living with saloon owner and fiddler Charlie Bemis who befriended her when she first arrived in Warrens, and protected her from unwanted advances.

Wiki goes on and on about Polly & Charles’ life.  The story didn’t really grab me, so I won’t bother with it . . .

Moving over to Placerville, from Wiki:

With the decline of mining in the 1870s, the town’s population declined.  A good percentage of the population was Chinese, as the Chinese were allowed to work the less rewarding claims that the white miners would not touch. The Chinese also established services like laundries and restaurants.

I then Googled Chinese Idaho history.  I found this 2009 AP article by Jennifer K. Bauer.  Here are some excerpts:

. LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — A black ponytail in a 1920s mason jar, empty graves in an Idaho forest cemetery, a massacre in an isolated river canyon — they’re all links in the little-told story of the Chinese in Idaho, who came by the thousands but then drastically left at the turn of the century. At one point, the Chinese made up a quarter of the state’s population. They were drawn by gold and exited on a tide of prejudicial laws created to stifle their population.

The first recorded Chinese in the area was a man who signed the Luna House register in Lewiston in 1862. By the 1870 Census, 28.5 percent of Idaho’s population was Chinese, although their population was likely underestimated.

Chinese were among the thousands of miners who came to Idaho for gold, discovered in the fall of 1860 in Pierce. When gold became harder to find, or miners heard of bigger strikes elsewhere, they moved on and Chinese immigrants settled in, willing to work harder for less.

Chinese mining methodology was different. While many miners worked alone, the Chinese worked in large, often related groups and drew from their experiences using water in agriculture. They formed neighborhoods with stores, gardens, and medical

But far from being seen as contributors to the evolving Western society, the Chinese were seen as a threat.

When the Nez Perce Indians first encountered Chinese people in the 1860s, they tried to talk to them, said Allen Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal historian.

“All we got was a blank stare,” Pinkham said, so they called the Chinese “zelmin,” meaning “blank stare.”

Americans had very little understanding of Chinese customs. The perception exists today that most Chinese were opium addicts.

About one-third to one-fourth of the Chinese smoked opium.  Unless locally banned, the imported drug was legal until 1909. A fingernail-sized amount, about three puffs, cost 25 cents and was about as much as the average miner could afford.

“If you’ve been out there on that rock pile six days, you’re probably going to want a little relaxation. That’s probably all you would need to forget you were hungry.”

Chinese had separate cemeteries, carefully chosen through feng shui practices to balance spirituality and geography. They were often located on the slope of a small hill enveloped by surrounding hills, said Terry Abraham, a retired library archivist from Moscow who studied Chinese cemeteries throughout the Northwest.

Some of these cemeteries contain shallow, empty graves.

It was customary for Chinese men to plan for the possibility of their death in the foreign land and make provisions for their remains to be shipped home, Abraham said. About every 10 years, someone would come West to collect remains. The culture’s emphasis on patrilineal descent meant the bodies of women often remained.

Various laws prevented Chinese men from staking their own claims, from returning to the United States once they left, or bringing their wives or parents to the country to start families. One 1882 law put a 10-year moratorium on more Chinese laborers entering the country. Even before the law passed, the Chinese population had dropped by 1,000 in Idaho.

In 1883, Lewiston’s Chinatown, located downtown near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, caught fire, says Lewiston historian Garry Bush. “No Lewiston firefighter would fight it until it threatened white structures.”

Bush says whites would cut off the queues of Chinese men to terrorize them. Cutting the traditional ponytail was a sign of treason in China, leading to execution. A couple of years ago, Bush was given a queue in a 1920s mason jar by someone who lived in the Clearwater River region.

One of the worst racial crimes in Northwest history occurred in Hells Canyon in 1887, when as many as 34 Chinese miners, who had worked their way upriver from Lewiston, were slaughtered along the river.

The crime was discovered when some of the bodies washed up two weeks later in Lewiston. Six Oregon men were charged with the crime, several from prominent families in nearby Wallowa County, Ore., says R. Gregory Nokes, a retired Oregonian newspaper reporter and editor who has written a forthcoming book on the massacre that lays out the case for a cover-up.

“It’s one of the worst crimes in Oregon history and it’s not in Oregon or Northwest history books,” he says.

Three of the accused fled and three were found innocent in a short trial for which few records exist. The crime was never fully investigated by U.S. authorities, despite complaints from the Chinese consulate.

Nokes and Wegars were part of an effort to change the name of Deep Creek where the massacre took place. Over the objections of Wallowa County commissioners, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially renamed it Chinese Massacre Cove in 2005.

“In my knowledge,” Nokes said, “it’s the first official acknowledgment that anything actually happened at that particular place.”

I’ll end this post with a couple of pictures posted on GE within five miles of my landing.  First this, by Wade Patrick:

And then this, by Bentley Hunter and Gigee Lindsley:

That’ll do it . . .




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