By Jennifer K. Bauer
The Associated Press
LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — A black ponytail in a 1920s mason jar, empty graves in an Idaho forest cemetery, a massacre in an isolated river canyon — they’re all links in the little-told story of the Chinese in Idaho, who came by the thousands but then drastically left at the turn of the century. At one point, the Chinese made up a quarter of the state’s population. They were drawn by gold and exited on a tide of prejudicial laws created to stifle their population. Though it is not well known, their contribution to the state and their experiences here, a subject explored at Chinese Remembering, a recent history conference in its second year in Lewiston that has drawn tourists, teachers, historians, and interested locals.
The first recorded Chinese in the area was a man who signed the Luna House register in Lewiston in 1862. By the 1870 Census, 28.5 percent of Idaho’s population was Chinese. That was more than one out of every four people, said Priscilla Wegars, a historical archaeologist from Moscow.
“And I think they were undercounted at the time,” Wegard said. She was one of several featured speakers at the recent Chinese Remembering conference.
Chinese were among the thousands of miners who came to Idaho for gold, discovered in the fall of 1860 in Pierce. In the coming years, treasure seekers rapidly populated the Clearwater, Salmon, and Snake river regions. When gold became harder to find, or miners heard of bigger strikes elsewhere, they moved on and Chinese immigrants settled in, willing to work harder for less, says Carole Simon-Smolinski, Lewiston author of “Hells Canyon and the Middle Snake River.”
Chinese mining methodology was different. While many miners worked alone, the Chinese worked in large, often related groups and drew from their experiences using water in agriculture, she said. They formed neighborhoods with stores, gardens, and medical facilities and often kept communities alive between phases. By the 1870s, there were an estimated 1,500 Chinese in Lewiston alone.
“Their contribution was pretty profound,” Simon-Smolinski said.
But far from being seen as contributors to the evolving Western society, the Chinese were seen as a threat.
When the Nez Perce Indians first encountered Chinese people in the 1860s, they tried to talk to them, said Allen Pinkham, a Nez Perce tribal historian.
“All we got was a blank stare,” Pinkham said, so they called the Chinese “zelmin,” meaning “blank stare.”
The only other tie between the two groups that Pinkham knows of is a photo taken of young Chief Joseph in captivity after the Nez Perce War of 1877. In it, he wears a Chinese collar, shirt, and sash. Pinkham assumes that the photographer gave Joseph clothing to wear, a common practice by photographers with Indian subjects in the era.
“The irony of this thing — they put this photo on the U.S. bond issued several years ago,” said Pinkham, Joseph’s great-grandnephew.
Americans had very little understanding of Chinese customs. The perception exists today that most Chinese were opium addicts.
About one-third to one-fourth of the Chinese smoked opium, Wegars said. Unless locally banned, the imported drug was legal until 1909. A fingernail-sized amount, about three puffs, cost 25 cents and was about as much as the average miner could afford.
“If you’ve been out there on that rock pile six days, you’re probably going to want a little relaxation,” Wegars said. “That’s probably all you would need to forget you were hungry.”
Chinese had separate cemeteries, carefully chosen through feng shui practices to balance spirituality and geography. They were often located on the slope of a small hill enveloped by surrounding hills, said Terry Abraham, a retired library archivist from Moscow who studied Chinese cemeteries throughout the Northwest.
Some of these cemeteries, including the one in Pierce, contain shallow, empty graves.
It was customary for Chinese men to plan for the possibility of their death in the foreign land and make provisions for their remains to be shipped home, Abraham said. The southern Chinese believe the spirit resides in the bones and the dead and their ancestors can make good fortune for each other by following annual ritual observances. About every 10 years, someone would come West to collect remains. The culture’s emphasis on patrilineal descent meant the bodies of women often remained.
In a bill introduced and passed during the 1864-1865 session of the Idaho Territorial Legislature, state Rep. William Goulder, a miner from Shoshone County, wrote that the “Chinese deserved some recognition” in the form of a tax of $6 on each Chinese miner.
Coming laws prevented Chinese men from staking their own claims, from returning to the United States once they left, or bringing their wives and parents to the country to start families. One of these was the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which put a 10-year moratorium on more Chinese laborers entering the country. Even before the law passed, the Chinese population had dropped by 1,000 in Idaho. The laws were to prevent the ethnic group from taking work from white settlers, who often didn’t hide their prejudices.
In 1883, Lewiston’s Chinatown, located downtown near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, caught fire, says Lewiston historian Garry Bush. “No Lewiston firefighter would fight it until it threatened white structures.”
Bush says whites would cut off the queues of Chinese men to terrorize them. Cutting the traditional ponytail was a sign of treason in China, leading to execution. A couple of years ago, Bush was given a queue in a 1920s mason jar by someone who lived in the Clearwater River region.
One of the worst racial crimes in Northwest history occurred in Hells Canyon in 1887, when as many as 34 Chinese miners, who had worked their way upriver from Lewiston, were slaughtered along the river.
The crime was discovered when some of the bodies washed up two weeks later in Lewiston. Six Oregon men were charged with the crime, several from prominent families in nearby Wallowa County, Ore., says R. Gregory Nokes, a retired Oregonian newspaper reporter and editor who has written a forthcoming book on the massacre that lays out the case for a cover-up.
“It’s one of the worst crimes in Oregon history and it’s not in Oregon or Northwest history books,” he says.
Three of the accused fled and three were found innocent in a short trial for which few records exist. The crime was never fully investigated by U.S. authorities, despite complaints from the Chinese consulate.
Nokes and Wegars were part of an effort to change the name of Deep Creek where the massacre took place. Over the objections of Wallowa County commissioners, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially renamed it Chinese Massacre Cove in 2005.
“In my knowledge,” Nokes said, “it’s the first official acknowledgement that anything actually happened at that particular place.” ♦
Information from: Lewiston Tribune, www.lmtribune.com.