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
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.
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.