Try to find a credible trace of the Chinese population that lived in the Wood River Valley and the other Western mining communities during the days of gold and silver. Most likely you will only find newspaper clippings"”many reflecting the virulent anti "Celestial" bias that spread cruelty and chaos in the mining communities, not to mention the seedy legislatures that passed odious exclusionary laws.
Here and there you may find graves”empty graves, the bodies long since repatriated by benevolent societies that sent agents (known as bone collectors) to locate remains for shipment back for burial in China. The movement of those bodies was known as "the caravan of the dead."
It is thus a joy to find a contemporary book that profiles this remarkable Chinese population and celebrates Idaho's most memorable native of China, Polly Bemis, the poker bride. As an attractive young girl in China she was sold by her destitute parents into sexual slavery in America. She was singled out for shipment in 1872 to a Chinese man in northern Idaho. She became his concubine, but he soon lost her in a poker game to a feckless gambler and idler from Connecticut, Charlie Bemis.
When Bemis was shot in a gambling dispute, Polly nursed him to recovery. Polly and Charlie eventually did something remarkable, and dangerous, in its time: they married. The two moved to an isolated little farm on the Salmon River, a day's horseback ride out of Warren. It was one of the most inaccessible places in America.
Charlie died in 1922. Polly lived there until 1933, when she became ill and two prospectors brought her down to Grangeville. She died there at the age of 81. Her body was not returned to China, but to the ranch, where she wanted to be buried within earshot of the roar of the River of No Return.
This is not just a biography of Polly Bemis. It is a grand story of the Chinese in the West. Some of the characters bring tears to your eyes. Their courage and resilience is staggering. If you care about Idaho and the American West, get this book. It is informative, entertaining and deeply touching. Corbett, a journalism professor in Maryland, has given us a great gift.
Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture
By Vardis Fisher, Native American Books Distributor, 1937
During the depression the federal government commissioned some threadbare writers on the economic abyss to write guides to the states. The first completed was a guide to Idaho written by Vardis Fisher, who then, and even now, years after his death in 1968, is the preeminent Idaho author.
Reading the basic book now, nearly 75 years after its publication, is like sauntering through an elaborate Hollywood backlot, featuring villages and landscapes radiant with an unspoiled simplicity and relative isolation. Subsequent editions are altered and/or expanded, but even they sustain the essence of an Idaho partly vanished, but still accessible if you hit the backroads.
Original copies are pricey (nearly $600 for first editions in good condition) but subsequent editions can be found for around $10. This is a delightful gift for anyone who relishes books and celebrates Idaho.
Fisher, incidentally, is best known for his book Mountain Men, adapted by Sydney Pollock for his Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson. He also wrote a highly controversial book on Brigham Young and the Mormons, Church of God. Fisher, himself the son of a Mormon bishop, was an aggressive atheist, living near Hagerman on the Malad River. He was not a great American writer, but he was certainly our writer.