Polly Bemis: A Pioneer Chinese Woman in the Northwest

Polly Bemis

Pioneer Chinese Woman in the Northwest

By Fanny Wong, New York

In 1872, on a pier in Portland, Oregon, an eighteen-year-old Chinese girl waited. She had been smuggled to America, far away from her village in China.

My father was so poor he sold me for two bags of seeds for the next planting!

The girl closed her eyes and saw the image of bamboo that grew near her old home.

I am like a bamboo. A bamboo bends in the wind. I will bend but not break.

“Gong Heng!” A Chinese man called out.

The girl’s eyes flew open.

“I’m taking you to your master in Warren, Idaho,” said the man.

For nine days, the man led the pack train of mules on mountainous trails to the mining town. For nine days, Gong Heng gazed in wonder at the majestic Northwest wilderness. It helped soothe her worries.

What’s going to happen to me?

In Warren, the mules plodded down a rutted street to a saloon. A stranger hoisted the girl from the mule and announced to the people around, “This is Polly.”

Gong Heng wondered who they were talking about. Soon, she realized that Polly was her new name in this strange new land.

I was born in the year of the ox. I am stubborn and hard working. I will survive and I will go home.

Polly’s owner was an old Chinese man.He put her to work in the saloon. Men came to gawk at the one Chinese girl in town, and stayed to drink and play cards. She served drinks, cleaned tables, and swept floors. Her presence made her master’s saloon different from the others in town, including the one next door, owned by kind Charlie Bemis.

Sometimes Charlie heard trouble brewing in her master’s saloon. He would march over to break up a fight and stay to talk to the cheerful young girl who worked so hard and always had a smile on her face.

Soon Polly, a fast learner, could understand and speak some English.

One night, Polly swept the saloon after the last customer had left. Something on the floor caught her eye. It glittered. It gleamed. It was a gold nugget. She slipped it into her pocket.

A miner must have dropped it when he paid for his drinks with gold dust or a nugget.I may find some more.

On rare nights, she did spy gold dust, flakes and even nuggets. Even though she knew it would take years to scrounge enough gold to buy her freedom, there was hope on the saloon floor.

Month after month passed. Polly was always doing something to save money to buy her freedom. Charlie taught her how to work with gold. Polly made trinkets out of nuggets and sold them. She learned to make bread, stew, sauerkraut, fruit preserves, and other foods the miners liked.

“I learn right along,” she said to Charlie, pointing to her head.

Then everything changed. Polly’s master died. The girl who had been sold for two bags of seeds was now a free woman.

What’s going to happen to me?

 Polly had a big decision to make.

Should I buy passage back to China with my money? A Chinese friend wrote letters for me but I haven’t received any answer from my parents. Have they forgotten me? Where do I belong?

Even though there was a lot of discrimination against Chinese people in America, life in China for a young woman from a poor family was even worse. Polly made up her mind to stay. But what would she do? Where would she live?

At that time, a Chinese person could not buy property. Charlie could, with Polly’s money. He bought a boarding house for her. Before long, Polly’s boarding house was a popular place for people who passed through or miners who stayed longer. She was a good listener to their tales of woe and troubles.

Soon, Polly had woes of her own. Mining towns were violent places. Charlie got shot in the cheek.

“Will he make it?” Polly’s voice shook.

“I’m sorry, Polly. I’ve done all I could,” the doctor said. “Just make him comfortable till the end.”

It was then that Polly realized Charlie meant more to her than just a friend.

“Charlie won’t die. You see, I take care of him.”

Week after week, Polly nursed Charlie back to health. She packed herbs over the wound. She made nutritious soups to help him get strong. With Charlie’s recovery, Polly gained respect from the community for her loyalty and nursing skill.

Everyone in Warren knew Polly. Women were few and they were generally not respected. But this Chinese woman was trustworthy, kind and cheerful.

Charlie and Polly were married after his recovery. Soon after, Charlie took her by boat eighteen miles up the Salmon River. The land Charlie wanted to buy at the bottom of the canyon was flat enough to make a homestead.

“Well, what do you think?” Charlie asked.

“I love this wild place,” Polly said. “Need hard work.”

With her blessing, Polly and Charlie became the first to settle by the Salmon River. They kept chickens, a dog, a cow, and a few horses. Using farming skills learned from her childhood in China, she nurtured the soil and coaxed cabbage, beans, corn, and fruit trees to grow strong and bountiful.

Polly hauled water from the river. She fed the animals. She chopped wood. Although life was not easy on this rugged patch of land, she was content. The babble of the river and the wildlife around her soothed her.

Charlie and Polly lived an isolated life until Peter Klinkhammer and Charlie Shepp settled across the river. The new neighbors became best friends. They took Polly’s produce as well as their own to Warren to sell and buy necessities, such as coffee, soap, thread and fishing gear.

She made friends with prospectors who passed her homestead. “I feed you a good meal.”

This five-foot tall Chinese pioneer, brown and wrinkled from the sun and age, became a folk legend. Journalists and visitors traveled to see this feisty woman who told them her improbable life story.

One day, in the summer of her 28th year on their homestead, Polly was fishing on the banks of the river.

Fire! She saw smoke licking out the upstairs window of the room where Charlie was bedridden. Her heart raced as fast as her feet to save Charlie.

“Hurry, Peter!” she shouted to her neighbor as he crossed the river on a boat. Peter and Polly carried Charlie down the stairs through the smoke.

After the fire, Charlie and Polly stayed with the neighbors. Sadly, Charlie died several months later. Lost in grief, Polly again wondered. What’s going to happen to me?

She closed her eyes and saw the image of the bamboo that grew in her village.

I am like a bamboo. A bamboo is strong and it bends in the wind. I will bend but not break!

“Can you build me a small cabin right where the old one was?” Polly asked her neighbors.

“American soil in my fingernails; here to stay.”

Polly’s neighbors built her a small cabin on the same spot of the burned home. She lived there alone for ten years, a pioneer to the end.

Polly had found her place in the world in the wilderness of the Northwest. A girl who was sold for two bags of seeds became a pioneer woman!

Author’s Note:

Gong Heng was born in China in 1853. Her farming family was rich enough that Gong Heng’s feet were bound. At that time, foot binding was still practiced in China. Women with small feet were thought be feminine. Girls as young as five or six, from well-to-do families, had bindings on their feet to prevent them from growing. It was a painful process and the feet became grossly deformed.

When Gong Heng’s family fell into hard times, her mother released the binding so the girl could help in farming. Her feet were already deformed and never grew to full size. As a result, her gait was an unusual rolling one.

During the late 19thcentury, many Chinese women were brought to the United States, mostly against their will. Gong Heng was one of them. When she was a young teenager, a prolonged drought ruined the harvests, and the countryside was overrun by bandits. In desperation, her family sold her to a group of bandits for two bags of seeds for the next planting. She was their slave until she was sold to a woman who smuggled her to the United States.

A Chinese man in Warren, Idaho, probably bought Gong Heng sight unseen through a middleman. Now known as Polly in Warren, she was very resourceful and hard working. She learned the cooking styles and customs of White folks. She was renowned for her kindness and nursing skills. To the White residents and miners of Warren, Polly was an eyeopener. They were accustomed to the poor Chinese miners who lived in shacks in another part of the town. Polly was feisty, cheerful and intelligent. Unlike the dancing girls in the saloons, she was a woman they respected.

Still, America didn’t seem like home to her until her husband, Charlie Bemis, bought a small piece of land by the Salmon River in 1922. It was there that Polly became a pioneer woman, living off the land and making it a home.

At the age of 80, Polly suffered a stroke. Her neighbors took her to a hospital in Grangeville 87 miles away. But she died and was buried in Grangeville. Fifty-four years later, her remains were exhumed and reburied next to her home on the Salmon River.

Polly never could become a citizen of the United States, even by marriage. In 1943, ten years after her death, the law that denied naturalization to Chinese immigrants was repealed.

At the time of her death, she was well-known in Idaho. Journalists wrote about her. Polly’s restored cabin is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and she was inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in 1996. Her belongings are displayed in the Idaho State Museum. Polly had become a legend.

Bibliography

Elsensohn, M. Alfreda, Idaho Chinese Lore, Idaho Corporation Of Benedictine Sisters Cottonwood, Idaho. 1993

Wegars, Priscilla, Polly Bemis, Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho. 2020

http://americansall.org/legacy-story-individual/polly-bemis (accessed 2-9-2021)