During the late 19th century, countless Chinese women were brought to the United States, many against their will. Polly Bemis (1853–1933) was one of them. She arrived in the rugged mining town of Warren, Idaho, in 1872 as a slave, but eventually got free of her owner. Bemis spent about 60 years in the Warren area and was able to survive racial prejudice, as well as the natural elements of the frontier. With her wit and invincible spirit, Bemis overcame all struggles and secured for herself the legacy of being the Pacific Northwest's most famous Asian pioneer.
Sold into Slavery by Father
Polly Bemis was born Lalu Nathoy (possibly Hathoy) on September 11, 1853, in a remote region of Northern China near the Mongolian border. In keeping with Chinese tradition at the time, her feet were bound as a child in anticipation of bringing a good dowry for marriage. Binding the feet kept them small and curved them under, turning them into "golden lotuses," which Chinese men found attractive. The fact that Bemis' feet were once bound indicates her family must have been fairly well off at one point. Only wealthy families could afford to cripple their daughters by binding their feet; poor families relied on every member of the family to work. At some point in her childhood, however, Bemis' feet were unbound and she was allowed to work the fields with her father. The effects of the binding stayed with her through life, causing a peculiar rolling gait in her walk.
During Bemis' teen years, her family suffered as Northern China faced a severe drought. Lacking alternatives, Bemis' father sold her hoping to save the rest of the family from starvation. Later in life, Bemis reported that her family received $2,500 for her from a buyer who brought her to the United States. At the time, Chinese women brought a high price because they had become rare in the West due to new California restrictions that hampered the importation of Chinese women for prostitution. Chinese women cost a lot of money because they had to be smuggled in. Once in the United States, many were taken to women–scarce mining camps by their owners.
In an article in the journal Frontiers, Bemis historian Ruthanne Lum McCunn wrote that Chinese women were "disguised as boys, hidden in buckets of coal, or concealed in padded crates labeled as dishware." The details of how Bemis was smuggled into the country remain sketchy, but it is believed that she departed from Shanghai, China, and entered the United States at San Francisco. Later in her life, Bemis said that she had been smuggled into Portland, Oregon, by an old woman. There, a Chinese man bought her and transported her to Warrens, Idaho, now known as Warren. Historians believe Bemis traveled up the Columbia River from Portland, landing in Lewiston, Ohio. She completed the journey by pack train.
Taken to Idaho Mining Town
Eighteen–year–old Bemis landed in Warren, Idaho, on July 8, 1872. The town had sprung up a decade earlier after James Warrens discovered gold in the area. When Bemis arrived, there were many Chinese in the area. Many had come to the United States to help build the western portion of the transcontinental railroad. When the track was finished in 1869, they were left without work and many turned to gold prospecting. Once in Warren, Bemis was delivered to a wealthy Chinese American businessman who ran a saloon. No one is certain of the businessman's name. Upon Bemis' arrival, her master renamed her Polly.
The details of Bemis' first decade in Warren are unclear. At the time, many Chinese women were brought in to be prostitutes. Women were scarce on the frontier, most men came alone. It is uncertain as to whether the Chinese man who owned Bemis made her work as a prostitute or simply kept her as a concubine for himself. Historian Priscilla Wegars, writing in Wild Women of the Old West, said that she believed Bemis was brought to Warren to be a concubine. Wegars contends that it is unlikely a wealthy Chinese businessman would shell out that much money for Bemis only to share her with others.
It is likely that Bemis cooked and cleaned for her owner and she also served drinks in his bar. Bemis' wit and beauty made her a main attraction at the saloon. All early accounts of Bemis noted her beauty and her size—she was only four to five feet tall. Shortly after her arrival, Bemis met Warrens resident Charlie Bemis, who ran another saloon and for a time was deputy sheriff. He took a protective role toward Bemis, coming to her aid when times got rough.
It is not known when Polly Bemis and Charlie Bemis began seeing each other, but by the 1880 census, they were listed as residing together. In the census, Polly Bemis listed her status as "widowed." Historians believe this proves her status as a concubine and not a prostitute. If her owner had died and she was a concubine, she would have considered herself a widow.
Though Polly Bemis lived with Charlie Bemis, she remained financially independent and supported herself by taking in laundry from miners. She also ran a boardinghouse and restaurant in town. Through years of observation, Polly Bemis had learned how to cook Western food. Because Polly Bemis always had a way of making a lasting impression on people, her restaurant was always full. She had her own charming, straight–shooting personality. Once, when someone complained about the coffee, she brandished a butcher knife and asked the customer to reiterate his complaint.
Married Saloon Owner
No one knows for sure how Polly Bemis got free of her Chinese owner. It is unlikely he let her go or let her buy her freedom since she had cost him so much. A favorite Warren legend says that Charlie Bemis won her in a poker game with her master. This story, however, has been refuted. In his book Notorious Ladies of the Frontier, author Harry Sinclair Drago quotes mine inspector Jake Czikek as discounting the poker story. Czikek was a friend of Polly and Charlie Bemis. According to the book, Czikek spoke to a Portland Oregonian reporter shortly before Polly Bemis' death and claimed the poker bride story was false. "The folks who put that yarn together got their facts mixed up," he said, noting that Warren did have a poker bride—an Indian woman by the name of Molly.
In 1890, Charlie Bemis was shot in the cheek after a poker match by a disgruntled loser. The doctor who came to look at Charlie Bemis predicted he would die of infection. Polly Bemis, however, nursed him back to health. She used her crochet hook to cleanse the wound and stuffed it with herbs. She also took a razor and removed a bullet fragment from his neck. The two married on August 13, 1894, even though Idaho law prohibited a white person from marrying a non–white. The wedding took place because they were married by a judge who had an Indian wife.
At the time, many townsfolk wondered why Polly Bemis had married Charlie Bemis. She was industrious; he was lazy. He preferred playing cards to mining and in later years, neighbors noted that she tended the garden while he played his fiddle. In an article in the book Wild Women of the Old West, Priscilla Wegars addressed this issue. According to Wegars, Pete Klinkhammer, a friend and neighbor to Polly and Charlie Bemis, once said, "it was more a marriage of convenience on the part of both. They had known each other well for many years in Warren, where both were connected with the gaming houses. Polly was ever faced with the threat of being sent back to China." In other words, Polly Bemis took care of Charlie Bemis, and in return, their marriage meant she would not be deported. After the marriage, Polly Bemis received her certificate of residence and did not have to worry about being deported.
Took Care of Travelers
After their marriage, the Bemises moved out of Warren and built a two–story house along the Salmon River, also known as the "River of No Return" because a person could only navigate it in one direction. They built their home in a canyon several thousand feet deep. It was a 17–mile trail journey from Warren. For many years after they moved onto the land, Bemis never left the ranch. She stayed to tend the cows, horses, garden and orchard while Charlie Bemis returned to Warren on and off to check on the saloon. When Charlie Bemis traveled to Warren, he always took their produce to sell.
Living down in the canyon, the Bemises became known for their hospitality. People passing across the river always stopped to eat and chat. The ranch soon became known as "Polly Place," although it was also called "Bemis Point." Rivermen stopped at the Bemis ranch to trade their game for Polly Bemis' vegetables. Miners stopped, too. Polly Bemis also took in the ill or injured and returned them to health. Legend has it that Polly Bemis also took in a cougar cub once and nailed down a plate for the animal at the table, making the visitors eat with it. "There was nobody in my day who carried the respect Polly earned through her kindness to everybody," pioneer John Carrey wrote in a letter to McCunn, which she cited in her Frontiers article.
During their years in the canyon, the Bemises befriended their neighbors Pete Klinkhammer and Charlie Shepp. The two Germans spent their time in the area mining for gold up in the hills. A lot of information about Polly Bemis' later years is known through Shepp's diary. By 1919, Charlie Bemis was bed–ridden. The neighbors devised a way of communicating. When Polly Bemis needed help, she would hang a white dishtowel on a bush by the river and Shepp or Klinkhammer would come over. They later strung a telephone wire across the river. In his diary, Shepp wrote a lot about eating dinner at the Bemis place and once noted that Polly Bemis had caught 27 fish one day. Her angling skills were legendary and this entry shows why.
During the 1920s, Countess Eleanor Gizycka visited the Bemis ranch and later wrote an account of the visit for Field and Stream, published in 1923. According to Wegars' article in Wild Women of the Old West, Gizycka wrote that Polly Bemis "stands not much over four feet, neat as a pin, wrinkled as a walnut, and at sixty–seven she is full of dash and charm." The article drew more visitors to the area.
The Bemis home burned in 1922 and Polly and Charlie Bemis moved across the river to live with Klinkhammer and Shepp. Charlie Bemis died on October 29, 1922. Polly returned to Warren after his death and took in a six–year–old, Gay Carrey, to live with her. The girl needed to board in town during the week to attend school. In 1924, Polly Bemis returned to the canyon to live in a cabin Klinkhammer and Shepp had built for her.
Polly Bemis fell ill in August of 1933 and was taken to Grangeville, Idaho, by her neighbors, strapped on the back of a horse. She died November 6, 1933, at a nursing home in Grangeville and was buried in the local cemetery. Polly Bemis had wanted to be buried back in the Salmon River canyon, but the winter weather prevented her return. In the late 1980s, her body was moved back to her canyon ranch home and her cabin was restored as a museum. Polly Bemis' home is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Drago, Harry Sinclair, Notorious Ladies of the Frontier, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1969.
Pioneer Days in Idaho County: Volume 1, edited by M. Alfreda Elsensohn, Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1947.
Wild Women of the Old West, edited by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain, Fulcrum Publishing, 2003.
Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies, January 2003.
Western American Literature, Spring 1996.