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University of Idaho Community Enrichment Program (now defunct)

July 8-10, 2002

Trip Description

Idaho's most remarkable pioneer Chinese woman, Polly Bemis, arrived in 1872. Although the movie, Thousand Pieces of Gold, portrays her early life, it presents only part of her story. Following their 1894 marriage, she and Charlie Bemis took up a mining claim, not a homestead, on the remote Salmon River. Their first cabin burned in 1922, and Charlie died shortly afterwards. Polly's neighbors built another cabin for her, where she lived until just before her death in 1933.

The highlight of our three-day, two-night adventure into rugged north central Idaho will be a visit to Polly Bemis's cabin and grave on the main Salmon River, today easily accessible only by jet boat. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Polly Bemis Cabin is privately owned and in an excellent state of preservation, thanks to its isolated location and the caring attitude of the present owners. We will also visit Lewiston's Beuk Aie Temple, now restored and on permanent exhibit at the Lewis-Clark Center for Arts & History in Lewiston, as well as The Historical Museum at St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, where some of Polly Bemis's personal possessions are housed.

Trip Leader

Priscilla Wegars, Ph.D., will be your leader and guide for this unique opportunity. In 1982 she founded the Asian American Comparative Collection (AACC) in the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology at the University of Idaho, and later edited Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese (1993). Priscilla has conducted extensive research into the history of the Chinese in the Northwest, has directed several archaeological survey and excavation projects of Chinese sites in Oregon and Idaho, and has led numerous classes and tour groups to Chinese historic sites in the West. For more information, visit the AACC Web site.


Monday, July 8, 2002, 7:45 a.m. Meet the van at the west end of the Kibbie Dome parking lot (next to Perimeter Dr.). Load your luggage into the van and then you will leave your car parked there for the duration of the trip. The driver will then take you to the Laboratory of Anthropology, 3rd and Almon streets, for introductions and orientation from 8 to 10 a.m. A slide lecture on the history of Chinese men and women in the Northwest will provide background and setting for Polly Bemis's arrival in Idaho. A "hands on" examination of Chinese artifacts from the UI's Asian American Comparative Collection will follow the lecture. At about 10:15 a.m. we will board the University van and travel to Lewiston, driving past the former location of Lewiston's Chinatown, of which nothing remains. The last building, an old wooden "joss house," or temple, was demolished in 1959 when the Lewiston Morning Tribune expanded its plant. The temple's altar and other furnishings were moved to a secure stone structure nearby, where they remained for over 30 years. In 1991 the temple artifacts were relocated to the Lewis-Clark Center for Arts & History where they were cleaned and conserved prior to installation as the permanent exhibit, "Chinese at the Confluence: Lewiston's Beuk Aie Temple." Following our visit to the exhibit, we will eat our bag lunches at Prospect Park, formerly a Chinese cemetery, and then journey on to Riggins, where we will spend the next two nights at a local motel (included). You'll be on your own for dinner and will have time to purchase bag lunch items for Tuesday.

Tuesday, July 9, 2002. Following breakfast (on your own), we will board the van by 8:30 a.m. sharp and drive along the scenic Salmon River Road to meet our jet boat about 10 a.m. Don't forget your bag lunch, something to drink, your swim gear, hat, and sunscreen. On our leisurely trip up the River of No Return we hope to glimpse plenty of wildlife - bighorn sheep and moose are distinct possibilities! A lengthy visit to Polly Bemis's cabin and grave will provide an opportunity for a discussion of Polly's life, as well as another picnic lunch. On our return, we will stop at the Shepp Ranch across the river from Polly's cabin to visit Charlie Bemis's grave. We will return to the boat landing about 4:30 p.m., and reach our motel in Riggins about 6:00 p.m. Once again, you're on your own for dinner and to purchase bag lunch items for Wednesday. Please note that because it is impossible to guarantee river flows, there is a remote chance that unseasonably dangerous river conditions will regrettably necessitate canceling our trip to Polly Bemis's cabin. In that event, we will substitute another all-day boat or van excursion, returning to Riggins in the early evening.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002. After breakfast (on your own), return to the motel, pack up your belongings, and assemble by 9 a.m. for the remainder of the discussion of Polly Bemis’s real life. We’ll reboard the van by 10 a.m. and travel to The Historical Museum at St. Gertrude in Cottonwood. The Museum was founded by the late Sister Alfreda Elsensohn, author of Idaho Chinese Lore. It has some of Polly Bemis's possessions, as well as items that once belonged to other Chinese people who lived in the Grangeville-Cottonwood area. Our picnic lunch on the picturesque grounds of the convent will be followed by a discussion comparing and contrasting the book and the movie, Thousand Pieces of Gold, with each other and with the known facts about Polly's life. Afterwards we will return to Moscow, arriving by 5 p.m. However, to guard against unforeseen delays, please do not schedule anything urgent for that evening.

Clothing, Luggage, and Essentials

Dress casually in layers for warm or cool weather, wear walking or tennis shoes, and bring light rain gear. Although there will be some walking to visit the various sites, it will not be strenuous. If you wish, bring a swimsuit, aqua shoes, towel, and sunscreen in case time, weather, and river conditions allow for swimming. Cameras are welcome, at your own risk on the boat. Bring a bag lunch and beverages for the first day, plus money for two dinners, two breakfasts, and two additional bag lunches/beverages. We will furnish a large cooler for you to store your drinks and perishables.

Because our van has very limited luggage space, your luggage should consist only of a small, soft-sided bag that can fit under your seat. (This is in addition to your day pack which you can hold in your lap or place at your feet.) If the class is full, we will exactly equal the van’s 15-passenger capacity. Therefore, be prepared to be cozy! We also appreciate your cooperation and good humor in changing seats with your fellow passengers following our frequent rest stops.

Credit students must bring a notebook with them for keeping a journal of the trip. Enrichment students may also wish to keep a journal, but it is not required of them. You might also like to bring a day pack for easy access to your notebook, rain gear, lunch, and personal items since your luggage will only be available to you at the motel.

Once again, although we expect to return to Moscow by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, delays are always possible so it is best that you do not schedule anything urgent for that evening.

Included In Trip Fee

Services of experienced and knowledgeable trip leader, transportation by university van between Moscow and Riggins, one day's exclusive use of a jet boat and its professional operator/guide, two nights' double-occupancy lodging, and admission/donation fees to two museums.

Not Included: Meals, beverages, incidentals, college credit, optional gratuity to boat pilot.


Monday and Tuesday, July 8 and 9, Riggins Motel, 615 South Main, 208-628-3456. We have stayed there previously and agree with the review in Northwest Journal describing it as "very clean." In addition, it is centrally-located, close to restaurants and stores, has a hot tub, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Rooms are double or triple occupancy, with a four-bed room possibly available for families or groups traveling together. If you need to stay in a Moscow motel Sunday night and/or Wednesday night (on your own), please see the Internet for possibilities.

Reading List

You will get more out of the class if you can spare the time for some advance reading and viewing. The following sources will introduce you to the life of Polly Bemis as well as provide an overview of overseas Chinese history and/or archaeology in Idaho and the West. Libraries may also have the books or can get them for you on interlibrary loan. Gift shops at our museum stops sell some of them.

  1. Required: McCunn, Ruthanne Lum, 1981, Thousand Pieces of Gold. Any edition.
  2. Highly recommended: Movie, Thousand Pieces of Gold. This may also be available in libraries, on interlibrary loan, or at video stores. Please look for differences between the book and film versions.
  3. Recommended: Elsensohn, Sister Alfreda, 1979, Idaho County's Most Romantic Character: Polly Bemis, Cottonwood, ID, Idaho Corporation of Benedictine Sisters.
  4. Recommended: Elsensohn, Sister Alfreda, 1970, Idaho Chinese Lore, Cottonwood, ID, Idaho Corporation of Benedictine Sisters, pp. 81-88.
  5. Recommended: Wegars, Priscilla, editor, 1993, Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese, Amityville, NY, Baywood. Especially Chapter 9, "Besides Polly Bemis: Historical and Artifactual Evidence for Chinese Women in the West, 1848-1930," pp. 229-254.
  6. Recommended: Map, Idaho County-Western Half, Big Sky Maps.
  7. Recommended: Wegars, Priscilla, Chinese at the Confluence: Lewiston’s Beuk Aie Temple, Lewiston, ID, Confluence Press, 2000.
  8. Recommended: Wegars, Priscilla, "Charlie Bemis: Idaho's Most 'Significant Other,'" in Idaho Yesterdays, 44:3 (Fall 2000), 3-18. Available in class for $3.00.

Later additions

  1. Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer. Cambridge, ID: Backeddy Books. 2003.
  2. "Polly Bemis: Lurid Life or Literary Legend?" In Wild Women of the Old West, edited by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain, 45-68, 200-203. Golden, CO: Fulcrum. 2003.

Course Credit

An optional one credit in anthropology (Anthropology 421, Section 1) is an additional $45 (undergrad) or $56 (grad) for Idaho teachers. Unless you are already registered for summer school, you will register for this credit Monday morning (make check payable to U of I Bursar). Others who do not qualify for this rate pay $154 for undergraduate or $181 for graduate credit. There is no out-of-state tuition for summer classes. Participants taking the class for credit will need to keep, and hand in, a journal of their experiences and observations. The best journals are ones that are legible and that contain more than lecture notes and a recounting of the trip's events; they also include thoughtful reflections of your impressions, as well as an assessment of what you have gained from this class experience. Please hand in your journal when we arrive back in Moscow, or by noon Thursday, July 11, at the latest. It will be mailed back to you, so be sure your name and address are in it and legible. Please also include the course number.

Parking on Campus

Meet the van at the west end of the Kibbie Dome parking lot. You may leave your car there for the duration of the trip.

Cancellation Policy

For those who cancel on or before Monday, June 10, there is a $25 cancellation fee. There will be no refunds after that date; however, you may send someone else in your place.

Please save this letter. It will be your only communication with us.

Asian American Comparative Collection

Physical Address:
404 Sweet Avenue

Mailing Address:
Asian American Comparative Collection
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS 1111
Moscow, Idaho 83844-1111

Phone: 208-885-7075

Web: aacc

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