Readers of my novels know that I love to set my books in Idaho. Occasionally I venture over the border into Montana or Wyoming or Colorado, but the vast majority of my books take place in the state I love.
Great riches came out of the gold and silver rushes in Idaho during the 1800s, and I have used this part of our history in a number of novels (Heart of Gold is the most recent). Sadly, racial prejudice was alive and well in the camps, most of it focused on the Chinese. And so for this post in honor of Women in History month, I’m featuring an unusual love story from the gold rushes of Idaho.
Polly Bemis, a young girl from China (born 1853), was shipped to San Francisco as part of the slave trade of that era (circa 1872). Upon reaching America, she and several other Chinese girls were taken to Warren in central Idaho where she was purchased for $2,500 by a Chinese man. There she also met Charles Bemis, an educated fellow from a distinguished New England family who preferred gambling to gold mining. His saloon was next door to the dance hall where Polly worked as a “dancer and harlot.” Whenever she found herself in trouble with tough drunks, Charles never failed to come to her rescue.
One night in 1890, Charles was shot by a miner. The drunken man had said he was going to shoot out Charles’ eyes, but when he fired his gun, he missed. The “ball entered the face under the eye and plowed through the lower part of the head to the back of the neck.” Hearing the shot, Polly came running. The sheriff and doctor were sent for, and the doctor said Charles was going to die. Polly had other plans. With a razor blade, she cut the bullet out of the flesh of his neck and then nursed him back to health.
When Charles recovered, he proposed to Polly. After their marriage in 1894, they bought a small tract of land in a deep canyon of the Salmon River’s Middle Fork (The River of No Return). There, where winters were mild, they planted an orchard and berry bushes. Polly had a garden and raised cows and chickens. Charles did some hunting, but “chiefly he liked to read and smoke and play solitaire.”
Polly didn’t leave that deep river canyon for more than thirty years. Then in 1922, Charles died at the age of 74, some time after their cabin burned to the ground. Polly stayed in Warren while neighbors rebuilt the cabin. During this time, she once went down to Boise to visit some Chinese families. By this time, she’d almost completely forgotten her native language. While in Boise, she saw her first movie, rode her first streetcar, and had her first elevator ride. In 1924, she moved back to the completed cabin on the Salmon River.
Polly fell ill in 1933 and was taken to Grangeville, Idaho where she was nursed in a hospital for three months. Before she died, she asked to be buried at the side of her husband in the canyon. However, she was buried in Grangeville instead. Not until 1987 when the cabin was restored was her body moved and reburied next to Charles. The Bemis cabin was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
My primary source of information for the above post was Vardis Fisher’s Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West. However, as with many people and events from history, there are conflicting reports and differing stated facts. Plus Hollywood took lots of liberty with Polly’s story in the movie, A Thousand Pieces of Gold, starring Rosalind Chao as Polly and Chris Cooper as Charlie.