By Garret Romaine
On a thoroughly misguided hike outside of Elk City, Idaho in 1997, trying to trace Nugget Creek to its confluence with Newsome Creek, my team ran into massive piles of timber across the trail and became, well, confused. We spent the better part of a night concerned that we were lost in the wilderness, but as the sun came up, we stumbled into signs of civilization. Walls of rocks were stacked neatly into cubicles and apartments, and it was quickly evident that we were walking through a very old Chinese gold mining camp. In another ten minutes we were in a clear-cut, and we easily followed the skid road to pavement, and then camp. Crisis averted.
Most modern prospectors are aware of the impact Chinese miners had in the last part of the 19th century. I’ve seen “China Diggins” on topo maps probably a half-dozen times, and in my field excursions, I’ve seen stacked rocks in neat piles. I’ve learned not to count on panning much more than black sand anywhere there were Chinese miners for extended periods of time, because they were patient and thorough. They had to be – they couldn’t legally own claims, so all they got were leftovers, and they faced discrimination wherever they had success.
All that serves as an introduction to a new book by R. Gregory Nokes, a former reporter for the Portland Oregonian. Nokes stumbled onto a detective story straight out of the wild west that should bring a bit of sadness to every gold prospector. His book, “Massacred For Gold,” is the story of a large company of Chinese miners who labored in the depths of Hells Canyon, where the Snake River cuts like a knife between Oregon and Washington. About 34 miners, divided into three teams, worked several coves and gravel bars along the Snake about 35 miles from the town of Imnaha, Oregon. Unfortunately, these canyons also housed a ruthless gang of horse thieves and cattle rustlers, and when the cowboys saw the Chinese miners, the temptation to rob and murder the foreigners was too much to resist.
“[the] crew uncovered a rich deposit of nuggets and heavy gold flakes along the river bank. Tucker speculated that, centuries earlier, the river had cut through a vein of gold-bearing quartz somewhere upstream and that the gold had lodged in the crevices of the bedrock where the miners found it. He didn’t say how he knew all this. But, if he was right, the Chinese scored a major strike, yielding more than the typical find of tiny particles, called flour gold. It would explain why the Chinese mined in the cove for the next eight months. However much they did find, it cost them their lives.” (p. 16)
Accounts of the actual massacre are sketchy, conflicting, and painful:
From a local newspaper account written 40 years later: “They left one to hold the horses and another as a lookout above the camp to warn of anyone coming down the river. Another was sent below the camp to warn of anyone approaching from below. Then the other three took a position on the hillside above the camp and with high-powered rifles began the slaughter of thirty-one innocent and defenseless Chinese whose only weapon of defense was 22-caliber rifle. The rifles barked and one by one the Chinamen were shot down like sheep killing dogs. They killed all but one until their ammunition ran out and when he started to flee in a boat, they had to run after him and finish him off with rocks.” (p. 40)
The bottom line was that several young white men used rifles to gun down the Chinese miners, one by one. There were signs of torture, too, as bodies began to pile up on downstream sand bars, or float past the town of Lewiston, Idaho, 65 miles away. But there was little outrage; massacres of Chinese laborers were somewhat common in the west.
Nokes does an excellent job of pulling together a story about western gold rushes, Chinese customs, and community values. Here’s his description of the town of Lewiston, Idaho, as it grew around the gold rushes nearby:
“Prior to the discovery of gold nearby, there was no such place as Lewiston. But when gold was found along the Clearwater River in 1860 and 1861 – near what is now Pierce, Idaho – it ignited an overnight gold rush, creating the need for a centrally located town to supply the thousands of miners pouring into the region….By mid-decade, however, the boom had run its course. Caucasian miners had scooped up most of the easily mined gold from claims along the Clearwater and its tributaries, then departed in droves for new and more promising gold strikes in southern Idaho…When the Chinese first arrived, the white miners viewed them as unwanted intruders. Even the possibility of Chinese competition alarmed Caucasians. To keep the gold for themselves, the miners organized whites-only mining districts. Typical was an edict from the Oro Fino mining district on April 14, 1861, which affirmed “the complete exclusion of the Chinese and Asiatic races and the South Pacific Ocean Islanders from the mines.” Similar bans were enacted by miners in nearby Warren, Nez Perce, and Salmon River mining districts.” (p. 30-31)
Without spoiling the ending, it’s common knowledge that the murder of a Chinese laborer was rarely punished. At the time, as Nokes documents, there were several similar attacks, including a riot in Wyoming and the rumored detonation of an entire mine by an owner who couldn’t afford to meet payroll for 130 Chinese miners. The most that could happen to a drunken cowboy for shooting a hapless Chinamen outside the local saloon was a $20 fine for discharging a firearm in public. One problem back then was an economic environment that turned quickly negative when the railroad construction boom petered out:
“Within a decade, however, circumstances changed dramatically. Tens of thousands of workers, both Chinese and Caucasian, were laid off during the financial panic of 1873 and the long recession that followed. What had been a labor shortage turned into a glut, and workers were thrown into a fierce and sometimes violent competition for scarce jobs. Whites were enraged that some employers preferred to hire Chinese, caring more about low wages and work habits than skin color.” (p. 35)
So, what could entice a band of foreign-born miners to travel so far from home, in a hostile land, to work so hard? Nokes explains the history of China at the time, and shows how economic conditions and the promise of rich finds was as powerful for poor Chinese laborers as it is today. Stories of fabulous wealth in California had trickled back to China since 1849, and over the course of four decades, there were enough success stories in America to continue pulling Chinese workers across the Pacific.
“The Chinese knew from their earlier experiences in California that after impatient Caucasians had mined the most accessible gold, they would be only too happy to sell their claims to the Chinese, or simply abandon them. That is indeed what happened. Once Chinese could move into the mining camps and work the old claims, they soon outnumbered Caucasians in mining towns throughout the region.” (p.31)
Rugged topography of the area near Hells Canyon features basalt flows and imposing cliffs.
By tirelessly tracking down court documents, interviewing surviving family members, locating cemetery and census records, and squinting at microfiche records from the time, Nokes pieced together not only the history of Chinese miners in the west, but also manages to explain, but not condone, how a community could harbor such murderers in its midst. He correlates the treatment of Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce Indians with the treatment of the Chinese, and deftly inserts himself into the story to keep it moving along. The result is an excellent book, with a kind of headlong momentum toward closure that always appears tantalizingly close, but like justice itself, never quite arrives.
I appreciated the numerous references to gold mining, buried treasure, and the history of the west. It isn’t clear to historians if the entire gold cache gleaned by the Chinese was ever completely recovered. There are all kinds of false leads, rumors, and legends surrounding what the Chinese recovered, but there are no definitive totals. Did the Chinese store all their gold in a single sack, or did each miner have his own stash? Did the robbers get a chance to split up their loot, or did the gang’s leader hide the ill-gotten gains by himself and dig it up later? Even Harland Horner’s history of Wallowa County, taken from a 1925 article of the Chieftain, which Nokes recounts, isn’t definitive:
“…Although several thousand dollars in gold dust were found by the murderers, much of the treasure was never unearthed. Each apparently had a cache of his own, and thirty hiding places are difficult to find. Twenty years after the tragedy a sheep herder found a small rusty baking powder can which had been washed out of a sand bank by the action of water. Curiosity impelled him to pick it up and he was started to find it contained gold dust. The battered can yielded more than six hundred dollars worth of dust. The little hoard had cost a life.” (p.18)
But I also appreciated the telling of a sad story, the necessary righting of a long-time wrong, and how, at long last, a public monument may come to be erected at the lonely site of the massacre. Nokes brings to life not only the misfits who committed the dirty deed, but also explores the motivations behind a luckless band of foreign miners, toiling so hard, so far from home. He exposes the community members who helped bury the truth and hide official records, and turned a murder-mystery into a detective story with ease.
It’s hard not to be angered by the entire story, and it would have been easy for Nokes to fall heavily on the side of moral outrage and advance straight to lecturing. But he repeatedly falls back on his training as an objective journalist to stay balanced. This is about as close as he comes to condemnation:
“The Chinese contribution to the development of the American West was substantial. But their efforts won them scant praise and little recognition – they didn’t fit neatly into the popular narrative of the conquest of the West by courageous white pioneers and gun-toting cowboys.” (p. 34)
In the end, it’s a tale that needed telling, and Nokes was the right man for the job.