Polly Bemis is arguably one of Idaho’s most famous pioneers. The story of her life also could be one of the most embellished.Sold by her parents in China, Bemis was 18 when she stepped off a pack train to start a new life in a mining town in remote Warren, Idaho. She lived out her days in the state and was a curiosity in her own time. The myth-making began before she died in 1933, and tall tales shaded by stereotypes persist today.
In the new nonfiction book “Polly Bemis: The Life and Times of a Chinese American Pioneer,” published by Caxton Press, historian Priscilla Wegars lays out the evidence for what can be proven about Bemis’ life, along with the mysteries that remain.
Despite discriminatory laws and widespread prejudicial attitudes toward the Chinese at the time, people saw Polly as different, said Wegars.
“She was just an amazing woman. As I said at the end of the book, everybody loved her. You could have this friendship with her; it was OK. People weren’t thinking of diversity. It was good for Euro-American people to know her as a Chinese American woman who was making a life in this country, despite all the adversities she encountered.”
Some of the falsehoods the book discounts with hard evidence are that Bemis was a prostitute and that her husband, Charlie Bemis, won her in a poker game.
Wegars is the volunteer coordinator of the Asian American Comparative Collection at the University of Idaho, which documents the Asian experience in the state through artifacts and bibliographical materials. Proceeds from the book will benefit the collection. Wegars talked to Inland 360 about her work to demystify Bemis’ life.
Bemis was not won in a poker game
The story that Charlie Bemis won Polly in a poker game was repeated and embellished by different writers over decades. In her book, Wegars shows how the story was romanticized over time. For example, Lewiston author Ladd Hamilton’s 1954 article, “How Mr. Bemis Won the Chinese Slave Girl,” described her as a “sloe-eyed slave girl with the skin like whipping cream,” “velvet hair” and “smooth, warm thighs.”
The 1981 novel “Thousand Pieces of Gold,” by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, and a 1991 movie loosely based on the book, spread the poker game story to a wider audience.
Wegars was familiar with the book when she was working on her Ph.D. at the UI in 1988 and met a student who was writing a paper about Warren, Idaho. The woman had interviewed an uncle, Herb McDowell, who as a boy knew Polly. He told her, “Polly wasn’t won in no poker game,” explaining that some old-timers made up that story.
“I found that really intriguing,” said Wegars, who began a search for facts. For more than 30 years she gathered information from historical archives and other sources. “This material was available to other people, but they had not used it or had not found it.”
This included a 1933 newspaper article that ran in the Oregonian in which the author interviewed Bemis through a nurse at a Grangeville hospital. The nurse asked Bemis questions and sent letters about their conversations to the reporter. His finished story included a line stating that the patient denied that she was won in a poker game by the man who later married her. Wegars searched for the original letters but was unable to find them. That doesn’t mean they’re lost, she said.
“I’ve covered a lot of ground, but I bet there’s more out there. You can’t go to every repository that doesn’t have their things categorized.”
Bemis was not a prostitute
There is no evidence that Bemis ever engaged in promiscuous sexual relations or received money for doing so, according to Wegars’ research.
“I do not doubt that she was sexually abused and raped by the person who bought her, but that doesn’t make her a prostitute,” Wegars said.
In a 1921 interview, Bemis said her parents sold her because they had no food. Although she may have been purchased as a servant, Wegars argues that her price, $2,500, is too high to justify that assumption. Most likely, a wealthy merchant bought her as a concubine, which is not the same thing as a prostitute. A prostitute provides sexual services to many, Wegars said. Concubines were legally recognized members of Chinese households. Wealthy Chinese men often had more than one wife and one or more concubines.
“Chinese men did not share their women with other men, especially men of lower classes,” Wegars said.
Many Chinese women in the U.S. at that time were labeled prostitutes in unofficial and official records because of mistaken cultural assumptions, Wegars said. “There were Chinese prostitutes, but that doesn’t mean all Chinese women here were prostitutes.”
Americans had little understanding of Chinese women because they lived circumscribed lives, Wegars said. “They were secluded. Many had bound feet and couldn’t walk well. They were mostly confined to the home when they were here.”
Bemis listed herself as a widow in the 1880 census.
Bemis is buried near her cabin along the Salmon River, 37 miles outside Riggins. Years ago, Wegars used to take people on summer tours to the home and talk about the differences between books, the movie and her real life.
One question students always asked her was, “what happened to her little brothers?”
The first third of “Thousand Pieces of Gold” is about Bemis’ family and life in China. It was all speculation, Wegars said. “We don’t know anything about her family in China.”
It is known that Bemis likely was from a minority group living in northern China. Most of the Chinese immigrants in Idaho in the late 1800s came from southern China and spoke a different language.
“She could not have spoken to Chinese people here unless it was in a very rudimentary way or through English,” Wegars said.
Wegars shows that Bemis’ Chinese name remains unknown, as does the name of the Chinese man who bought her.
“Again, maybe down the line somebody’s going to find out. Maybe, somewhere, there’s a diary,” Wegars said. “This is what we know so far.”
The book is for sale online and at BookPeople of Moscow and And Books Too in Clarkston.