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.