Idaho's most famous Chinese woman resident, Polly Bemis, arrived in Idaho Territory in 1872. She has received widespread attention since the publication of a biographical novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, and the release of a movie with the same title, loosely based on the book. Since Polly Bemis was inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in August 1996, it is important that we both celebrate the known facts about her and allow the stereotypical, undocumented legends to die out.
Polly Bemis's life has been greatly romanticized by many people who have written about her. There is no evidence for the truth of the most persistent legend, that she was "won in a poker game." As she neared death in 1933, both Polly and C. J. Czizek, "one of her most intimate friends from the Salmon country," vehemently denied the rumor.
Another common misconception, not in McCunn's book, is that Polly Bemis was once a prostitute. Again, there is no evidence for that assumption. Although a Chinese resident of Warrens (now Warren), Idaho, paid $2500 for her, and had her brought to that community by an old Chinese man (alas, not the handsome, young "Jim" of book and movie), Polly's owner undoubtedly purchased her as his concubine. In China at that time, a wealthy man might have one or more wives, plus one or more concubines, all living in the same household. Our term "mistress" most closely approximates the term, but it does not equate with the concept as it existed in China, where a concubine held a legally-recognized position as a family member, and whose children were considered legitimate offspring of the man and his primary wife.
Chinese custom decreed that if a man immigrated to the United States to work, his wife should remain at home in China to look after his parents. While abroad, however, he might take with him, or acquire, a concubine to perform "wifely duties" (see The Concubine's Children, by Denise Chong). A Chinese man fortunate enough to have a concubine would not use her as a prostitute because he would "lose face" through sharing her with others.
Other myths about Polly include the use of the name "Lalu Nathoy" for her; there is no evidence for that being her name. Also, there is no evidence that her owner's name was "Hong King."
We do not yet know how Polly managed to extricate herself from her Chinese owner; perhaps he died. Whatever happened, it occurred before mid-1880 since that year's U.S. Census lists her as living with, but not married to, Charlie Bemis. In September 1890 a "gambling affray" resulted in Bemis being shot. He hovered near death for some time, and Polly nursed him back to health. They married in 1894, and moved down to the Salmon River where they took up a mining claim, not a homestead, as is commonly believed.
For over two decades Priscilla Wegars collected documentary information about Polly Bemis in preparation for several, more accurate, works about her life. They include Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer (2003), a brief biography for 4th graders; the lengthy chapter "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, (2003); and Polly Bemis: The Life and Times of a Chinese American Pioneer (2020). Wegars has also taught a summer school/enrichment class for the University of Idaho in which participants compare both the book and the movie with what is known about the real Polly Bemis, while visiting Polly's restored cabin, now easily accessible only by jet boat. For more information about this class, see Tours. A slide lecture is also available, as are Lessons for 4th graders based on the book. A recording of Priscilla Wegars' slide lecture on Polly Bemis, presented for the Lemhi County Historical Society and Museum on February 10, 2021, can be viewed on YouTube.
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