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Polly Bemis: The Life and Times of a Chinese American Pioneer

Polly Bemis, Idaho's most famous Chinese woman, lived here for over 60 years. Although owned at first by a Warren, Idaho, Chinese businessman, she later married Charlie Bemis, and the couple moved to a remote area along the Salmon River. After two years in Warren after Charlie's death in 1922, Polly Bemis returned to the Salmon River and remained there until just before her death in 1933. Since that time, numerous articles, two books, and a movie have presented fictionalized versions of her life, often stating that she was a prostitute or that Charlie Bemis "won her in a poker game." Primary sources, combined with Chinese customs at the time, provide evidence showing that both statements are myths. This PowerPoint lecture also incorporates photographs of Polly and her home, and diary entries about her by one of her neighbors. (45 minutes).

As Rugged as the Terrain: CCC “Boys,” Federal Convicts, and World War II Alien Internees Wrestle with a Mountain Wilderness

This lecture explores some intriguing history of Idaho’s wild and scenic Lochsa River. In 1893 this site, at turbulent Canyon Creek, was a footnote in the saga of the ill-fated Carlin hunting party. Next, in 1933, it held nearly 200 tent-dwelling Civilian Conservation Corps recruits, most from New York State. The antics of these “city slickers” provide colorful insights into CCC camps housing young men far from home. In 1935 the site became Federal Prison Camp No. 11, a road-building facility for convicts mostly from the Leavenworth, Kansas, penitentiary. The authorities stressed rehabilitation, rather than punishment, but because the camp was not fenced, a few escapes occurred, some quite thrilling. The prison camp closed in May 1943, and Japanese detainees at the Kooskia Internment Camp continued road construction for two more years (see following lecture). (PowerPoint presentation; 30 or 45 minutes).

Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Road Workers at the Kooskia Internment Camp

The Kooskia (KOOS-key) Internment Camp is an obscure and virtually-forgotten World War II U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention facility that was located in a remote area of north-central Idaho between May 1943 and May 1945. It held "enemy aliens" of Japanese ancestry from Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington, and perhaps other states, and included Japanese Latin Americans from Peru, Mexico, and Panama. Although some of the 265 Japanese internees held camp jobs, most of these all-male, paid volunteers were construction workers for a portion of the present Highway 12 between Lewiston, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana, parallel to the wild and scenic Lochsa River. There was also an Italian internee doctor and a German internee doctor, at different times. "Digging in the documents" has produced INS, Forest Service, Border Patrol, and University of Idaho photographs and other records. These, combined with internee and employee oral and written interviews, illuminate the internees' experiences, emphasizing the perspectives of the men detained at the Kooskia Internment Camp. (PowerPoint presentation; 30 or 45 minutes).

The Chinese in Idaho

The Chinese began coming to Idaho in the mid-1860s. While most were then employed as miners, they also performed a wide variety of other occupations, and made important contributions to the growth and development of Idaho as a state. This presentation provides background on Chinese immigration and focuses on the Chinese experience in Idaho, including occupations, geographical distribution, customs, anti-Chinese legislation, and other topics as requested. Excavations of Chinese archaeological sites in Idaho have shown that the Chinese here relied mostly on familiar products imported from China, but utilized American-made goods on occasion. (PowerPoint and artifact presentation, 1 hour; lecture only, 30 minutes. Can be modified to emphasize northern Idaho, the Boise Basin, and so on).

Chinese Women in the West

This presentation examines the lives and occupations of Chinese women in the West. Besides Polly Bemis, other Chinese women are individually recognized for their particular contributions and accomplishments. Historical documents, such as newspapers, census records, and marriage license applications, help locate Chinese women in the West, while artifacts found on archaeological sites and in museums help us understand Chinese customs such as footbinding, and confirm the presence of Chinese women in areas for which no documentation exists. (PowerPoint and artifact presentation, 1 hour; lecture only, 30 minutes).

Not "Ancestor Worship:" Chinese Funerary Customs in Idaho and the West

During the late nineteenth century the Chinese in the interior Pacific Northwest usually buried their dead in exclusively Chinese cemeteries, such as those still surviving in Pierce, Idaho; Warren, Idaho; and Baker City, Oregon. In these cemeteries, pits are clearly visible where remains were later exhumed for shipment to China, but all such cemeteries probably still contain burials that were never disinterred. By the 1890s, and into the early twentieth century, Chinese people began to be buried in Christian cemeteries. While some remains from these cemeteries were eventually returned to China, most burials were interred there permanently, such as in Hope, Idaho; Lewiston, Idaho; John Day, Oregon; and elsewhere. Archival documentation exists for some of these cemeteries and burials. For example, records in one Idaho county contain a 99-year lease to "Jung Wah" for a portion of the local Christian cemetery, and funeral and cemetery records list the names of 46 people who were buried in the Baker City, Oregon, Chinese cemetery between 1894 and 1948. Further archival research, together with physical examination of cemetery sites, has provided a detailed picture of Chinese burial practices in these often remote communities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (PowerPoint presentation; 45 minutes).

Asian American History in Baker City, Oregon

Chinese people were living and working in Baker City, Oregon at least as early as 1870. Twenty-nine men were miners, laundrymen, and cooks. Three women were listed as prostitutes, but may instead have been wives or concubines. The Chinese community constructed a temple in Baker City (called a "joss house" by the Euroamericans there), but this was demolished many years ago. Baker City also had, and still has, a Chinese cemetery on the outskirts of town. Japanese people began arriving in Baker City by 1900; 91 of them were listed there in the 1900 census. Of the 83 men, 73 were railroad workers, 4 were household servants, 4 were cooks, 1 was a laundryman, and 1 was a prisoner. Of the 8 women, 4 were prostitutes. Each one lived with a Japanese "landlady," who may have been the madam. Baker City's Mount Hope cemetery contains the graves of several former Japanese residents, and of some Chinese who were Christians. Although the Baker City Japanese were not herded into concentration camps during World War II, many were forced to leave because the area where they lived and/or worked was declared a "restricted zone," for unknown "security" reasons, and they were not allowed to remain there. Much of the information presented is based on interviews with representatives of the Fong, Hirata, Hayashi, Yasui, Kobayashi, Kurata, and Yano families. (PowerPoint presentation; 30 minutes; with Japanese and Chinese artifacts, 1 hour).

Chinese (and/or Japanese) Artifacts from the Asian American Comparative Collection

Within the past few years an increasing number of nineteenth and twentieth century Asian archaeological sites have been investigated in the West. Excavators often find utilitarian food and beverage containers, ceramic tablewares, opium- and tobacco-smoking paraphernalia, medicine bottles, gambling related items, and miscellaneous hardware and implements. Images introduce the audience to typical Chinese and/or Japanese artifacts, followed by a "hands on" session with actual examples. (PowerPoint and artifact presentation; 1 hour).

Chinese Heritage Tourism in the Pacific Northwest and Beyond

Large numbers of Chinese immigrants began coming to the western United States during the latter part of the 1850s.  They worked mainly as gold miners at first, and later on the railroads, but soon took up a wide variety of other occupations.  By the early 1900s most of them had died or had returned to China.  Their legacy remained, however, in the form of artifacts, documents, photographs, and archaeological sites.  Since the early 1990s, Dr. Priscilla Wegars, with the assistance of Professor Terry Abraham, has been leading educational tours to a number of the West's best-preserved Chinese heritage sites, some easily accessible only by raft or jet boat.  This illustrated lecture will integrate three concepts.  One is a discussion of sites that are associated with the western United States' overseas Chinese pioneers, the second is an examination of how such sites are publicized to attract both Chinese American and non-Chinese American visitors, and the third is an exploration of some of the partnerships that have evolved to investigate these sites and interpret them to the public.  We will also look at some efforts that were unsuccessful, and others that were, or are, culturally insensitive.  (PowerPoint presentation; 45 minutes).

"Female Boarding" Establishments and their Relationship to Prostitution in the Old West

Around the turn of the century, "the world's oldest profession" flourished in many western locations. From the 1880s to about 1910, newspapers, historical photographs, oral histories, police records, and other primary sources provide a wealth of information on prostitutes, their activities, and their ethnicities. Fire insurance maps of various towns often show buildings labeled "female boarding." Surprisingly, these were not residences for genteel young ladies. Instead, the phrase was a polite term for a house of prostitution. Because bordellos, or "parlor houses," emphasized high-priced luxury and entertainment for an affluent clientele, they became known as "resorts" or "sporting houses." Working-class men, on the other hand, usually patronized the lower-priced "cribs" and brothels. Besides examining the different features of the various establishments, this lecture also investigates the entrepreneurial madams who ran, and often owned, the houses; the "girls" who practiced this profession; and the men who purchased their services. (PowerPoint presentation; 30 minutes).

How "Mainstream" Museums Can Attract and Involve Asian American Audiences

Although museums today are eager to attract and involve people from diverse cultural backgrounds, actually doing so presents certain challenges. This presentation discusses how to reach out to Asian Americans more successfully, first by identifying relevant materials that may already be present in your collections; by learning more about the history of Asian Americans in your own community; by accurately interpreting your objects; by avoiding inappropriate exhibits and insensitive signage; by becoming more culturally aware of Asian Americans' concerns, and by examining examples of exhibits that have accomplished these goals. (PowerPoint presentation; 30 minutes).

Rice Bowls in the Diggings: Chinese Miners near Granite, Oregon

The 1862 discovery of gold on Granite Creek in northeastern Oregon resulted in Chinese miners purchasing or leasing placer claims in the vicinity between at least 1867 and 1891. Their legacy, 16 acres of hand-stacked rock tailings, is now known as the Ah Hee Diggings. University of Idaho archaeologists, assisted by Passport In Time volunteers, established that an adjacent terrace served as a "mess hall" for the Chinese miners. Evidence for such use included pieces of large Chinese cooking woks, cooking oil cans with embossed Chinese characters, and numerous fragments of "Bamboo" pattern rice bowls. Accompanying historical research demonstrated that in 1870 the Chinese, all men, comprised more than 80 percent of the local population. Although most mined, others operated Chinese stores, gambling houses, and other businesses in the town of Granite. That community thus became a sort of "ethnic village," providing a familiar, supportive environment for its Chinese residents. (PowerPoint and artifact presentation, 1 hour; lecture only, 30 minutes).

"Who's Been Workin' on the Railroad?" The Ethnic Origins of Rock Ovens on Railroad-Related Sites

Small, domed rock structures have been reported at numerous places in the West. Those that occur on railroad-related sites are mainly associated with railroad construction camps; a few are known to have been built by later section gang workers. While folklore has often referred to them as "Chinese ovens," no archaeological or documentary evidence has yet been found that would definitely support a Chinese association with either their manufacture or use in the United States. Instead, there is reason to believe that they were built and used mainly by Italian immigrants, for baking bread. See a .pdf of the article "Who's Been Workin' on the Railroad?: An Examination of the Construction, Distribution, and Ethnic Origins of Domed Rock Ovens on Railroad-Related Sites," by Priscilla Wegars, from Historical Archaeology, 25(1):37-65, 1991. (PowerPoint presentation; 30 minutes).

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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