Hells Canyon Massacre

Coordinates: 45°46′48″N 116°39′18″W / 45.780°N 116.655°W / 45.780; -116.655
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Hells Canyon Massacre
Part of Anti-Chinese violence in Oregon
Hells Canyon and the Snake River, near Dug Bar (2011)
DateMay 27, 1887 - May 28, 1887[1]
45°46′47″N 116°39′54″W / 45.7797222°N 116.6650000°W / 45.7797222; -116.6650000
Caused byGreed
GoalsExclusion, gold theft
Methodsambush, mass shooting
Chinese gold-miners
Casualties and losses
Locations in Hells Canyon
Chinese Massacre Cove & Robinson Gulch (Chea Po)
Dug Bar (fording location)
Salt Creek (Lee She)
Lime Point
Log Cabin Island (now Lower Granite Dam)
Penawawa, Washington

The Hells Canyon Massacre (also known as the Snake River Massacre) was a massacre where thirty-four Chinese goldminers were ambushed and murdered in May 1887. In 2005, the area was renamed Chinese Massacre Cove, and a memorial was placed there in 2012 in three languages, Chinese, English, and Nez Perce.


Two groups of Chinese miners, led by Chea Po and Lee She, departed Lewiston in October 1886 and headed upriver along the Snake into Oregon's Hells Canyon to search for gold. Chea's group stopped on the Oregon side of the Snake, near Robinson Gulch and the cove where Deep Creek empties into the Snake. Lee's group continued upriver to Salt Creek. Chea Po had chosen a location just upstream of Dug Bar, a ford used by horse and cattle thieves to cross the Snake.[3]: 115  Dug Bar was named for Thomas J. Douglas, a thief who had used the area to graze his horses. Douglas was killed in 1883, and a gang led by Bruce Evans, known locally as "Old Blue", began using Douglas's abandoned cabin in the spring of 1887, approximately 12 mile (0.80 km) downstream from Chea Po's camp. The gang consisted of Evans, J.T. ("Tigh") Canfield, C.O. (Homer) LaRue, Frank Vaughn, Carl (or Hezekiah) Hughes, Hiram Maynard and Robert McMillan, a fifteen-year-old boy.[3]: 115–116 

In late May 1887, May 25th according to Stratton,[3]: 116  the gang of seven white horse gang members robbed, murdered, and mutilated between 10 and 34 Chinese employees of the Sam Yup Company, reportedly for their gold.[4][5] Estimates of the value of gold stolen range from $4,000[5] to $50,000.[1] According to a contemporaneous news article, the gold dust was given to Canfield for safekeeping, but he double-crossed the rest of the gang and fled the county.[5]

The brutality of the Snake River atrocity was probably unexcelled, whether by whites or Indians, in all the anti-Chinese violence of the American West. After the first day's onslaught at Robinson Gulch, the killers wrecked and burned the camp and then threw the mutilated corpses into the Snake River. The bodies of the other Chinese received similar treatment. Since it was the high-water stage of the spring runoff, the dead Chinese were found for months (some accounts say for years) afterwards along the lower river.

— David H. Stratton, The Snake River Massacre of Chinese Miners, 1887 (1983), p.117[3]

Robert McMillan made a deathbed confession to his father Hugh recounting details of the massacre, which were published in 1891. According to Hugh McMillan, the Chinese miners were ambushed by a party consisting of Robert McMillan, Bruce Evans, J.T. Canfield, Max Larue, and Frank Vaughn in late April 1887. Hiram Maynard and Carl Hughes were traveling with the others, but did not participate in the ambush. Canfield and Larue first attacked the camp of thirteen Chinese from the bluffs overlooking the cove, driving them towards Evans and Vaughn, who were in the path of their retreat. Twelve Chinese were killed in the initial fusillade; then the remaining man had "his brains beaten out". The assailants stole gold dust worth $5,500.

The next day, eight more Chinese returned to the camp by boat, where the gang shot and killed them, throwing the 21 bodies into the Snake River. The gang then stole the boat and traveled 4 miles (6.4 km) to the next Chinese camp, where they killed 13 more and retrieved $50,000 in gold. Hugh McMillan stated that Robert was present only for the first day's events, but the gang had discussed the next day's plans before Robert left the others.[6]

According to a modern account, Vaughn stayed behind to prepare dinner while the other six rode to ambush the miners. McMillan minded the horses; Canfield and LaRue shot from the rim of Robinson Gulch, while Evans shot from the river level; Hughes and Maynard were positioned upstream and downstream to catch any miner who tried to flee along the river. Their surprise attack was successful, and all ten of the miners at the camp were killed, the last with a rock after the gang had run out of ammunition.[3]: 116–117  The remainder of the modern account agrees with McMillan's deathbed confession: the gang returned to the Douglas cabin and restocked their ammunition; then on next day, Evans, Canfield, and LaRue ambushed a group of eight Chinese miners who returned to the cove, and finally sailed to a second camp, where they killed thirteen more miners.[3]: 117 

Horner and Findley accounts[edit]

Recently, attempts to formulate an accurate picture of the event were drawn from hidden copies of trial documents that contained grand jury indictment, depositions given by the accused, notes from the trial, and historical accounts of Wallowa County by J. Harland Horner and H. Ross Findley.[7]

Horner and Findley were both schoolboys at the time of the massacre but their accounts had glaring discrepancies. Findley believed the massacre was a planned event with more than just a motive to steal gold from the Chinese miners. He believed the arrested culprits wanted to eliminate the Chinese miners from the area as well, which they successfully accomplished. In contrast to most accounts, Findley recalled only 31 confirmed victims, and there was no mention of a trial. On the other hand, Horner believed that the event was a spur-of-the-moment event and affected 34 confirmed victims. The schoolboys initially only planned to steal horses, but they experienced difficulty crossing the river with the stolen horses. When the Chinese miners refused to loan their boats, the boys decided to take the boats by force.[7]

The bodies[edit]

The bodies of some murder victims began washing ashore soon afterward, swept downstream to places as far away as Lime Point (south of the mouth of the Grande Ronde River), Log Cabin Island (now the site of the Lower Granite Dam), and Penawawa, Washington. Each body bore unmistakable markings of great violence; J.K. Vincent, a federal official who investigated the crime, later wrote "every one was shot, cut up and stripped and thrown in the River."[3]: 117–118  Lee She's group went to visit Chea Po's group at Robinson Gulch in early June 1887, and found three bodies in the deserted, ransacked camp; they fled in terror to Lewiston, where they reported the crimes.[3]: 119 

A news article published in July 1887 called the corpses a "severe warning to Chinese miners" and blamed the victims: "More than likely it was the whites who look with an evil eye upon Chinese intrusion in American mines. The American miner kicks hard at the Chinese miner."[8] Other local Chinese Americans believed that all Chinese miners along the Snake had been killed once the mutilated bodies began to surface.[9] Initially, "a thorough investigation" described in a July 17, 1887 article concluded the Chinese had been murdered by rival Chinese miners, since the victims had been "shot in the back and mutilated by cleavers, a weapon in general use by the Chinese."[10] George S. Craig owned the Douglas cabin and discovered numerous skeletons in the area when he returned to winter his stock in the fall of 1887.[3]: 118 

Disagreements can be attributed to the fact that the bodies of the Chinese miners were found downstream after only two weeks. It is unclear whether the bodies were mangled in the course of human manslaughter or was the aftermath of being thrown into turbulent waters. The rapids and brute force of the current could have mangled the bodies against the rocks. However, it was confirmed that the Chinese men were shot because gunshot wounds were found on their bodies. Only ten bodies were identified on February 16, 1888: Chea-po, Chea-Sun, Chea-Yow, Chea-Shun, Chea Cheong, Chea Ling, Chea Chow, Chea Lin Chung, Kong Mun Kow, and Kong Ngan. Little is known about these identified men.[7]


Frank Vaughn confessed to the crime in 1888 and his testimony led to the indictment of the other six gang members on March 23, 1888.[11] In follow-up testimony given on April 16, Vaughn blamed Evans, Canfield, and LaRue for the massacre, and said that he, Hughes, Maynard, and McMillan had not participated.[11] Vaughn himself was arrested on April 18. By the time he was arrested, almost the entire gang had left America, save Vaughn and Hughes.[5]

I guess if they had killed 31 white men something would have been done about it, but none of the jury knew the Chinamen or cared much about it, so they turned the men loose.

—George S. Craig, undated newspaper interview[3]: 125 

Three of the gang (Maynard, McMillan, and Hughes)[11] were brought to trial but none were convicted.[12][13]: 179–181  The trio were arraigned on August 28, 1888, and pleaded not guilty on August 29. Their testimony was consistent with Vaughn's, namely, that blame for the crime fell squarely on Evans, Canfield, and LaRue, all absent.[3]: 124  The jury found the three men not guilty on September 1, 1888, following a short trial.[11]

  • J.T. Canfield was imprisoned in Kansas for stealing mules and returned to Wallowa County to search for gold after his release. He was noted to be in the area during the trial, and moved to Texas before settling in Idaho and opening a blacksmith shop as Charley Canfield.[11]
  • Bruce Evans was arrested within a week of the massacre on an unrelated rustling charge. He escaped from custody two weeks later, possibly with the help of Hughes and Vaughn. When he fled, he left two children and his wife behind. His name is engraved on a memorial arch in the courthouse square of Enterprise, Oregon, honoring the early pioneers of the county.[11]
  • C.O. LaRue was rumored to have died in a dispute over a card game in California.[3][11]
  • Robert McMillan died of diphtheria in 1888 at the age of 16.[3][6][11]


In 1995, Charlotte McIver discovered a cache of documents relating to the 1888 trial in an old safe being donated to the Wallowa County Museum.[1] When the news came to the attention of R. Gregory Nokes, a reporter for The Oregonian, he began his own research into the massacre, going on to publish a journal article in 2006 and a nonfiction book, Massacred for Gold. The Chinese in Hells Canyon in 2009 after his retirement in 2003 allowed him to conduct research full-time.[14]

The United States Board on Geographic Names officially named the five-acre Deep Creek massacre site to the Chinese Massacre Cove in 2005[15] over the objections of Wallowa County commissioners.[16] This was the first ever official recognition of the crime.

Deep Creek, a fictionalized account of the massacre and its aftermath written by William Howarth and Anne Matthews under the pen name "Dana Hand" was published in 2010.[17] It was selected by The Washington Post as one of the best novels of 2010.[18]

Granite memorial erected in 2012.

In 2012, Nokes organized the Chinese Massacre Memorial Committee (with private funds and donations) to install a granite monument measuring 4 by 5 feet (1.2 by 1.5 m) in May 2012.[19][20] It was engraved with words in three languages: English, Nez Perce, and Chinese. It was dedicated on June 22, 2012.[21]

Chinese Massacre Cove.
Site of the 1887 massacre of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners. No one was held accountable.
Celmen Waptamaawnin' Toqooxpa 1887 wiwapciyaawnin' Mita' aptit wax piilept celmenm maqsmaqs kicuy pi'lyaw'aat Weet'u 'isii wepsisukin'
華工浴血灘 一八八七年 三十多名金礦華工 在此慘遭殺戳 至今無人入罪 [22]

Two episodes of the television show Ghost Mine, first aired in October 2013, covered the investigation of paranormal activity at Chinese Massacre Cove.[23]

Peter Ludwin wrote and published a collection of poetry in 2016, Gone to Gold Mountain. He states he was inspired after reading Massacred for Gold, the 2009 book by R. Gregory Nokes.[24]

In 2016, the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Public Broadcasting produced a 27-minute documentary Massacre At Hells Canyon.[25]

The television show Leverage aired an episode on Jan.1, 2012 called The Gold Job using the story of the Snake River Massacre as the back story for their con.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Files Found in Oregon Detail Massacre of Chinese". The New York Times. The Associated Press. 20 August 1995. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  2. ^ Nokes, Greg. "Chinese Massacre at Deep Creek". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Stratton, David H. (1983). "The Snake River Massacre of Chinese Miners, 1887". In Smith, Duane A. (ed.). A Taste of the West: Essays in Honor of Robert G. Athearn. University of Colorado Press. pp. 109–129. ISBN 9780871086419. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  4. ^ "Next stop Qochyax Island". KGW-TV. Portland, Oregon. Associated Press. 12 October 2005. Archived from the original on 9 January 2007. Retrieved 12 March 2007.
  5. ^ a b c d "The Chinese Murderers". Oregon Scout. Vol. IV, no. 43. 20 April 1888. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  6. ^ a b McMillan, Hugh (30 September 1891). "Murdered for Gold". Sacramento Daily Union. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Nokes, R. Gregory (Fall 2006). "A Most Daring Outrage: Murders at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887" (PDF). Oregon Historical Quarterly. 107 (3): 326–353. doi:10.1353/ohq.2006.0081. S2CID 159862696. Archived from the original on 28 January 2007. Retrieved 20 March 2007.
  8. ^ "Headlines". The Lebanon Express. 1 July 1887. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  9. ^ "Believed to Be True". The Daily Astorian. 13 July 1887. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  10. ^ "Chinese Not Killed by Whites". San Bernardino Daily Courier. 17 July 1887. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Nokes, R. Gregory (Fall 2006). "A Most Daring Outrage: Murders at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887" (PDF). Oregon Historical Quarterly. 107 (3): 326–353. doi:10.1353/ohq.2006.0081. S2CID 159862696. Archived from the original on 28 January 2007. Retrieved 20 March 2007.
  12. ^ "Lesson Fifteen: Industrialization, Class, and Race: Chinese and the Anti-Chinese Movement in the Late 19th-Century Northwest". University of Washington. History of Washington State & the Pacific Northwest, Center for Study of the Pacific Northwest. Retrieved 12 March 2007.
  13. ^ Nokes, R. Gregory (2009). Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press1. ISBN 978-0-87071-570-9. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  14. ^ Terry, John (24 January 2010). "OSU Press book recounts Chinese massacre in Wallowa County". The Oregonian. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  15. ^ "Committee meeting minutes - October 12, 2005" (PDF). U.S. Board on Geographic Names, Domestic Names Committee, U.S. Geological Survey. October 12, 2005. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 April 2006. Retrieved 12 March 2007.
  16. ^ Bauer, Jennifer K. (23 July 2009). "Historians track Chinese history in Idaho". Northwest Asian Weekly. The Associated Press. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  17. ^ "Authors | Dana Hand". dana-hand.com. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  18. ^ "The best novels of 2010". The Washington Post. 10 December 2010. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  19. ^ Cockle, Richard (26 November 2011). "Massacred Chinese gold miners to receive memorial along Snake River". The Oregonian. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  20. ^ Banse, Tom (8 May 2012). "Chopper Delivers Memorial Marker To Massacre Site". npr. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  21. ^ Bauer, Jennifer K (15 May 2012). "Massacre in Hells Canyon to be marked in stone at Chinese Remembering 2012". Inland 360. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  22. ^ "Chinese Massacre Cove". The Historical Marker Database. August 27, 2019.
  23. ^ Nokes, Greg (19 September 2013). "Local authors take on Syfy 'Ghost Mine' show". Portland Tribune. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
  24. ^ Wang, Amy (13 September 2016). "Chinese gold miners killed in Hells Canyon are remembered in new poetry collection". The Oregonian. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  25. ^ Horton, Kami (Dec 29, 2016). "Massacre At Hells Canyon". OPB. Oregon Experience.


External links[edit]

45°46′48″N 116°39′18″W / 45.780°N 116.655°W / 45.780; -116.655