"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, March 18, 2016

Idaho’s Little Polly Bemis

Former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus once said, “The history of Polly Bemis is a great part of the legacy of central Idaho. She is the foremost pioneer on the rugged Salmon River.”

The tiny Chinese slave girl who came to the gold town of Warren, Idaho, in 1872 has been the subject of numerous articles, books, and even a fictionalized film of her life, Thousand Pieces of Gold. One might ask what it was that put her in the annuls of history. She didn’t discover anything, didn’t invent anything, didn’t rule anything, didn’t kill anyone. She did however save a man’s life–twice–and her small acts of kindness turned her own life around. In an age when Chinese people in mining camps were looked down upon and forced to take the most menial jobs, Polly was beloved by everyone.

There are various versions of how Polly ended up as a song and dance girl in the saloons of Warren. During an interview by Countess Gizicka for Field and Stream in July, 1921, Polly Bemis tells it in her own words: ‘My follucks in Hong Kong had no grub. Dey sell me, slave girl. Old woman, she smuggle me into Portland. I cost $2,500. Don’t looka it now! Old Chinese man, he took me along to Warrens in pack train.”

In that same interview, Gizicka describes Polly as, “not much over four feet, neat as a pin, wrinkled as a walnut, and at sixty-nine is full of dash and charm.”

The Chinese man who bought Polly (her real name might have been Lalu Nathoy) ran a saloon in Warren. Some accounts say that he helped her gain her freedom. Charles Bemis, better known as “Charlie” befriended her when she arrived in Warren. He owned a saloon and a boarding house. She eventually became his housekeeper and ran the boarding house.

In 1890 Charlie got into a gambling dispute and was shot. Polly stayed by his side, nursing him back to health. Four years later they got married. A friend of the couple claimed it was a marriage of convenience. Polly wanted to establish legal residency and Charlie needed someone to take care of him. The couple moved seventeen miles from Warren on the Salmon River and filed a mining claim. Their place was accessible only by river.

Charlie’s health started to decline, and in 1922 when their house was ravaged by fire, it was said that Polly saved his life again by getting him to safety. They stayed with some miners named Klinkhammer and Shepp who lived across the river. Charlie died shortly after the fire. Klinkhammer and Shepp built a new home for Polly on the old site and looked after her. She stayed there until her death in 1933 at the age of eighty.

Polly’s friendliness made her popular with all who knew her. She possessed a gritty determination and good humor to survive her life as a “slave girl” and turn a bad situation into a life of meaning, respect, and love by all who knew her. In 1988 her cabin, the Polly Bemis House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and made into a museum. She was also inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in 1996.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

First White Woman to Cross the Sierra Nevadas

One of the first white women to undertake the perilous overland journey to California was Nancy Kelsey. In the spring of 1841, she and her husband, Benjamin, joined the Bidwell-Bartleson emigration party in Sapling Grove, Missouri. This was a small group of brave souls consisting of thirty-five men, five women, and ten children. The group included Kelsey’s brothers and Nancy’s single sister (who married during the journey).

Nancy was 17 when she and Ben decided to make the journey after reading a letter by John Marsh who had gone to California by ship through the Strait of Magellan. They had two children, but their youngest child, a newborn boy only eight days old, died before they left Missouri. This left them with their one-year-old daughter, Martha Ann. One account states that Nancy became pregnant again en route only to lose it shortly after its birth in California.

Their journey was in trouble right from the beginning. They started late, May 12, and they did not have a map or a compass, no guide, or guidebooks. Those who had gone into California overland were mainly trappers. There had never been a wagon train attempt to California, and there was no known “road” over the Sierras. All they had were vague directions, and, in the end, help from the Indians.

They followed the Platte River to Fort Laramie (present day Wyoming) and onto the South Pass over the Rocky Mountains. Here, seven men decided to return to Missouri. Those remaining continued on to Fort Hall. Here the party split up again when part of the group broke off to take the more traveled road to Oregon. This group included Nancy’s sister and her new husband, and both of Ben’s brothers and their families. Those who chose California had no guide and very little information. About all they knew was that at the Great Salt Lake they were to not go too far south or north, but to head directly west, following the Mary’s River–if they could find it.

They did find what they believed to be the river, but by August 26, the group was getting low on food and hopelessly lost. They had to start killing their oxen as game was scarce. By mid-September they had abandoned all their wagons in western Nevada and set out on foot with the livestock they had remaining.

In an 1896 interview with her daughter, Nancy said, “Of course we did not where we were. The party scattered here to find the best way to descend the mountains. I was left with my babe alone, and as I sat there on my horse and I listened to the sighing and moaning of the winds through the pines, it seemed the loneliest spot in the world. The descent was so abrupt that an Indian, who had come to us on the mountain, was allowed to lead my horse for part of the way. At one place an old man of the party (George Hanshaw) became so exhausted, or nearly so, that they had to threaten to shoot him before he would proceed.

“At another place four pack animals fell over a bluff and we never tried to recover them. They had gone so far that it was no use to think of it. We were then out of provisions as we had eaten all of our cattle. I walked barefoot until my feet were blistered. For two days I had nothing to eat but acorns. My husband came near dying of cramps and it was suggested we leave him out, but I protested and declared I would never leave him as long as there was life. We killed a horse and stayed over until the next day when he was able to go on.”

They finally crossed the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley, north of Sonora Pass, and with the help of some Indian scouts reached John Marsh’s ranch on the San Joaquin River in November.

This journey was just the beginning of a long and adventurous life for Nancy, her husband, and their children. She and her husband lived in Napa Valley when the Mexican War broke out (1846). Her husband joined up with John Fremont to fight for the cause. Nancy and two other women made the famous Bear Flag for the Bear Flag Revolt.

She said, “I have enjoyed riches and suffered the pangs of poverty. I have seen U. S. Grant when he was little known; I have baked bread for General Fremont and talked to Kit Carson. I have run from bear and killed most all other kinds of smaller game.”

Nancy had a total of eight children and lost two. Over the years, she and her husband moved to Mexico, Texas, and back to California. Her husband died in 1889 and Nancy spent her final years in Santa Barbara County where she was known as a midwife and herbalist. She died in 1896 at the age of 73.

Sources:
Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel.
"Pioneering the West Took Courage and Grit," The Union Democrat.
Lake County Time Capsule: Nancy Kelsey, a Pioneer Story.
Nancy Kelsey, Wikipedia.

You might also be interested in my historical saga, Raveled Ends of Sky, depicting strong women in an 1843 overland journey based on true events.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

New Direction: A Woman’s Role in the American West


I don’t believe I’ve ever written a wimpy western heroine. At least, I’ve certainly tried to make all my female protagonists bold and strong and more than ready to take on all challenges and adversaries. They might face hardships and get knocked down, but they will always find a way to get back up and be victorious.

As I mentioned in my last post, which was also about a very strong woman – my mother – I’m going to be taking a new direction with this blogspot. I will be writing about the woman’s role in the pioneering and settlement of (mainly) the American West. This, folks, can encompass everything from how women ran their own businesses to what type of hat they wore. There will be stories of specific women who made history, but also what women dealt with in their daily lives.

Women took a big role in the making of this great nation, but their accomplishments and their hardships were usually swept under the rug and didn’t get mentioned in the history books. Where there were men, there were usually women, keeping things going in the background, keeping the home fires burning and dealing with a different form of adversity. Women were oftentimes left widowed to face the hardships alone and raise children. But with the opening of the American West came opportunities never before open to the "weaker sex," and many women took advantage of seeking their fortune without the help of a man.

If you're interested in reading posts on this topic, I hope you’ll sign up to receive my blog posts via email (if you haven’t already done so).

Friday, February 19, 2016

Taking the Next Step

My Mom, 1940
It’s been a long time since I posted anything on my blog. As my mother would say, “What will people think?” Well, sometimes I don’t care what people think. Especially when the death of that same dear woman is the reason I’ve been mostly absent from the world of writing for over a year.

Life–and death–sometimes throws us into a tailspin. A year ago my dear mother died at the age of 94 from an inoperable form of cancer. She was strong and determined to the very end, just as she had been her entire life.

When my father died eighteen years ago, also of cancer, I found myself writing The Daughters of Luke McCall to somehow get myself past the grief. The book was intended to be funny and lighthearted–opposite of the pain and sorrow I had experienced from watching him die. I remember laughing through the tears while I wrote that book. It was somehow cathartic.

I couldn’t do the same thing after my mother’s death. Perhaps it was different because when my dad passed, my family and I still had her to hold onto. When any loved one dies, it leaves you with a hole in your heart and in your life that can never be filled. When it's a parent, you are still their child, no matter your age at the time of loss. Sometimes it takes a long time to step back into the world of the living and pick up where you left off.

Last summer, even though I couldn’t get my head around creating anything new, I put one of my older romances out as an ebook. It was something, a baby step. As for writing blog posts, nothing came to mind. And now, just today, I finally finished a book I had started so long ago that it’s embarrassing. (At least it's finished until I decide to revise again!) This one took me in a different direction from my other books. Nothing like stepping out on a limb!

As for posting to this blog–it’s going to take a different direction, too. More on that next time. The important thing to any setback in life is to eventually pull yourself up by the bootstraps and take the next step, leap the next hurdle, and move forward. It's what my mother would do.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Inspiration for Hattie's Cowboy


The Story:

She didn’t want a husband. He didn’t want a wife. They had the perfect relationship ... until love came calling.

Hattie Peyton Longmore hasn’t had much of a future since her selfish husband divorced her and set her out in the streets of San Francisco. Struggling to keep a roof over her head, she jumps at the chance to move to her brother’s Idaho ranch to help him raise his motherless daughter. But when Hattie arrives, it isn’t her brother who greets her, but his best friend, Jim Rider, with the news of her brother’s murder. She longs for strong arms to comfort and shelter her in this strange, lonely land, and the handsome cowboy is more than eager to comply. She doesn’t have to worry about a rake like him wanting to marry. With him, she’s safe. With him, she’ll never have to disclose her greatest failure as a woman.

Jim Rider has always been wild and free, but his best friend’s pretty sister might just be worth sticking around for, at least for a short-term love affair. Besides, he needs to find Billy’s killers—and he wouldn’t dream of leaving Hattie out in this empty land alone until she can find some hired help, or a husband. The latter shouldn’t be too hard since every available male within traveling distance winds up on her doorstep, something that soon rubs him about as raw as a burr under the collar. It comes as a bit of a shock to his freewheeling mind-set when he realizes he doesn’t want anybody in her bed except him, and he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent it ... even if it means marrying her himself!

Behind the Story:

"Wherever men have lived, there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

As a writer and student of history, this is one of my favorite quotes. You can look at any place and there will be history there. There will be people who have passed through a place, or by a place, or who have been affected by a place, if for no other reason than to avoid its harshness, to fear it for some reason, or to bury a loved one on their way to another destination. Even that lone marker left in the wilderness will carry with it somebody's story.

I chose to set one of my books, Hattie’s Cowboy*, in my own back yard, literally, because there was a story here to be told. Numerous stories, as a matter of fact. There was, first and foremost, the story of my own people who settled this region in 1915, and my own life spent here following in my grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, farming and raising cattle with my husband. My grandfather started out raising sheep; it was big business in Idaho in those days. It was my father and uncle who, in the 40s, shifted gears into raising cattle because my dad, for one, hated sheep. He spent years working all over the west shearing them in the spring, but he didn’t raise them. His dislike for the little woollies was something I had some fun with in the book. My hero, Jim Rider, a died-in-the-wool (no pun intended) cowboy, would rather die than be caught owning range maggots (sheep), an issue that nearly makes him ride off and leave the love of his life, Hattie Peyton, to tend her own darn sheep!

Besides the ranchers and farmers who settled the area, I also wanted to include others in my story: the Indians, the miners, the soldiers, and the outlaws. The latter found this untamed area ripe for the picking. They would lay in wait along Idaho’s Gold Road for gold shipments coming out of the mines in Virginia City, Montana, headed to Salt Lake City. Another road, one that ran right past my heroine’s ranch, also had historical value. It was known as the Salt Road, a winding passage through the mountains of southeastern Idaho that began near the Oneida Salt Works on the Idaho/Wyoming border and joined the Gold Road at Eagle Rock (now Idaho Falls). Not only did three hundred teams of oxen continually haul their precious white cargo over the Salt Road, but it was also traversed by soldiers, Indians, gold seekers, and emigrants.

Many might pass through this area where my ancestors took root a hundred years ago, and they might see nothing but wide open country dotted with farms and rangeland and mountains. They won’t see historical sites along the road for famous or infamous characters. It was common people who left their mark on this land. Sadly, common people seldom go down in history, but their stories, their struggles, are often more interesting than those of the notorious characters who fill the history books. Often the very nature of their mundane lives makes them easy to relate to. Why? Because we can see ourselves in their daily struggles. Because the human condition always focuses on the basic needs and emotions of all people, of their struggle to make a living and provide a home for themselves and their families, of their desire for love, success, and perhaps even power.

Hattie and her cowboy are fictitious characters, but they represent the real people who settled this part of the world. They represent my people. I hope as you read their fun, lighthearted story set in a hard, unforgiving land, that they’ll make you laugh, cry, and love every minute of their story. And perhaps, in the end, they'll become very real people to you, too. It's the most a writer can hope for.
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*Available for Kindle and Nook. Hattie's Cowboy, was originally published by Zebra Books as Mountain Ecstasy. The paperback is still available under that title.