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12 November 2010

The First Chinese Bride in the West



You think you've got problems? Try being a Chinese girl in the American West!

In 1872, a young Chinese girl, Lalu, was sold by her father during a famine and shipped (some say smuggled) from China to San Francisco for nefarious purposes. The girl was pretty, and as she stood on the dock, a miner working a claim in Warrens, Idaho, near the Salmon River, bought her for the fabulous sum of $2,500. Consequently she made the 12-day trip over towering mountains and through steep canyons on the back of a mule into the Idaho gold country. In Warrens she worked in the her owner's bar as a "hostess."

There were so few women in Idaho’s rough and tumble mining camps that a Chinese girl was automatically relegated to the status of "sing-song girl.” However, her luck changed when her owner lost her in a poker game to a neighboring dining hall/saloon keeper, Charlie Bemis. Charlie turned out be the girl’s protector and, apparently, her sole love interest. The photograph at the right is Polly Bemis in her wedding dress in 1894.

The story of Lalu's adventures has been romanticized to some degree in the novel Thousand Pieces of Gold, but it doesn't change the underlying facts: Lalu (renamed Polly) worked in Charlie’s dining hall, saved her money, and prospered. Later, she saved Charlie's life when a gunshot wound in his neck festered, and when he recovered, Charlie married her. Such an act was unheard of in America, which at the time was full of prejudice against the Chinese and poised to enact the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some say Charlie married her to save her from deportation.

The Bemises left Warrens and purchased a small farm near the Salmon River. The industrious Polly tended her vegetable gardens and planted orchards, kept cows and chickens, delivered babies and nursed the sick on neighboring farms, even tamed a cougar cub. She was admired and loved by those who knew her.

In 1923, after Charlie had passed on, Polly came down out of the mountains on horseback to Grangeville, Idaho, where she got her first taste of “civilization.” She’d come for new spectacles and some dental work, but the wonders she beheld fascinated her. She had never seen an automobile, or a train, never heard a radio, seen an airplane, a motion picture, or electric lights. In Grangeville she delighted in watching movies, riding on the train, and eating in restaurants.

But she loved her little farm on the Salmon River, and she rode back to spend the remainder of her life on the river banks where she could fish.

In later age, Polly suffered a stroke; friends found lying in her garden, barely alive. She was taken over the mountains on horseback to the county hospital in Grangeville, where she died in 1933. She is buried in the Grangeville cemetery with a simple stone marker: Polly Bemis, Sept. 11, 1853 - Nov. 6, 1933.

Sources: The Chinese in America, by Iris Chang; Poker Bride, by Christopher Corbett; Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

What a great story. Sounds like the writers of Broken Trail must have used her life as inspiration.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lynna! Have you seen the movie "A Thousand Pieces of Gold"? I loved it.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow!

6:16 AM  

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