Polly Bemis wearing her wedding dress in 1894.
|Died||6 November 1933 (aged 80)|
|Resting place||Polly Bemis House, Idaho|
|Other names||Lalu Nathoy|
|Spouse(s)||Charlie Bemis (m. 1894; died 1922)|
Polly Bemis (September 11, 1853 – November 6, 1933) was a Chinese American pioneer who lived in Idaho in the late 19th and early 20th century. Her story became a biographical novel, and was the subject of the 1991 film A Thousand Pieces of Gold.
On September 11, 1853, Bemis was born in rural northern China, near one of the upper villages. As a child, Bemis had bound feet, which were later unbound. When she was eighteen, there was a prolonged drought, during which her father was forced to sell her to bandits for two much needed bags of seed.
In 1872, Bemis was smuggled into the United States and sold as a slave in San Francisco, California for $2,500. It was common for Chinese men of that time to have multiple wives and concubines, all having some social status and living under the same roof. When a Chinese man moved to North America, he might take a concubine with him or acquire one there, as custom required him to leave his wife in China to take care of his parents. An intermediary took her from San Francisco via Portland, Oregon, to Idaho, where her buyer, a wealthy Chinese man, possibly named Hong King, ran a saloon in a mining camp in Warrens, Idaho Territory, now Warren, Idaho. She arrived in Warrens on July 8, 1872. Bemis was 53 inches (130 cm) tall.
How Bemis gained her freedom from her Chinese owner is uncertain. According to academic Priscilla Wegars, her Chinese owner helped her gain her freedom. In mid-1880, the census listed her as living with saloon owner and fiddler Charlie Bemis (1848-October 29, 1922), who befriended her when she first arrived in Warrens, and protected her from unwanted advances. Charlie's "fearless personality, coupled with his skill at shooting, enabled him to maintain order without getting into trouble". During her time in her Chinese owner's saloon, Bemis would often call for Charlie if "things got too rough", or she would leave through the saloon's back door and enter through Charlie's, who "never failed her".
Bemis was not financially dependent on Charlie Bemis. Bemis took in laundry from miners and ran a boarding house that he built for her beside his own, a short distance from his saloon. Charlie was almost killed during a gambling dispute in September 1890, when he was shot in the cheek, and Bemis nursed him back to health. In additional to laundery skills, nursing skills, Bemis was an expert angler fishing in the Salmon River.
On August 13, 1894, Bemis married Charlie Bemis, son of a Connecticut Yankee jeweler. Bemis was a four and a half feet woman of Chinese descent. They moved from Warren to a site 17 miles north by trail at a spot that came to be called both Bemis Point and Polly Place. Peter Klinkhammer, the couple's friend, reported that this was a marriage of convenience as Bemis needed to establish legal residency in the USA and Charlie Bemis needed someone to take care of him. Bemis's struggle for legal permanent residency went to the courts in Moscow, Idaho and her residency was finally granted on August 10, 1896 in Helena, Montana. Together, Charlie and Polly Bemis filed a mining claim, becoming among the first pioneers to settle along the Salmon River (The River of No Return), only several yards from the riverside. Even today this house is not accessible by road. Boats are a common means of access. Although the couple had no children—Bemis was 40 when they married, she was noted for her concern for children. They also were known to garden and care for a number of animals, including horses and a cougar. Bemis was also noted for her nursing skills, fishing, friendliness, wit, and sense of humor.
Bemis saved Charlie's life a second time. In the summer of 1922, a fire gutted their home on the Salmon River, possibly caused by an untended or overheated woodstove. Charlie was inside at the time, and Polly, along with their friend Shepp, rescued him from the burning house. The Bemis' moved across the Salmon River to live with mining partners Peter Klinkhammer and Charlie Shepp, both German, who had been long-time neighbors and friends.
Klinkhammer and Shepp rebuilt a new home for Bemis in the same spot as the one that burned down, with the understanding that they would inherit this from her in exchange for their labor and for looking after her in her old age. During construction, she moved to Warren. While on a trip to Boise, Idaho, she stayed at the Idanha hotel and saw her first movie, rode her first streetcar, and had her first elevator ride. Bemis gave the photo of herself in her wedding dress to a young schoolgirl, Gay Carrey, who boarded with her during the academic year during this time. In 1924 she moved back to the now completed cabin on Salmon River.
On August 4, 1933, Shepp came to visit Bemis and found her lying on the ground, incoherent and incapacitated following what may have been a stroke. On August 6 she was taken to Grangeville, Idaho, where she stayed in the Idaho Valley Hospital for three months. Loquacious during her hospitalization, she spoke about many details of her life, and on November 5 a lengthy newspaper article was published about her. On November 6, 1933, Bemis died of myocarditis in Grangeville, Idaho at the age of 80. Two days later, Bemis was buried in Grangeville, Idaho.  After Klinkhammer's death in 1970, his sister bought a marker for Bemis's grave.
In 1987, the cabin, known as Polly Bemis House, was restored. Bemis's body was reburied on the grounds by the cabin, which is located 17 miles north of Warren, Idaho. The cabin became a museum, and in 1988, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1987, a dedication ceremony was held and Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus stated, "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." Bemis was inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame in 1996.
Bemis is the subject of a series of paintings, Chinese in Idaho, by Chinese-American artist Hung Liu. The University of Idaho has described her as "Idaho's most famous Chinese woman," and offered an anthropology course called "The World of Polly Bemis".
Ongoing biographical debates
Current biographers continue to debate the details of Polly Bemis' life. For example, there is little evidence that she was ever actually known as "Lalu" or that "Hong King" was really her owner's name. Also, there is no evidence that Bemis was actually a prostitute; from a cultural standpoint, it is more likely that Bemis was a concubine. One National Park Service site claims she was an indentured dance hostess. Finally, as she neared death, Bemis denied the long-standing public belief that she was "won in a poker game."
According to a summary of author McCunn's research in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Charlie married Polly to prevent her from being deported as a result of the 1892 Geary Act, which required legal Chinese residents to carry a certificate of admission, something Polly lacked. Despite Idaho's anti-miscegenation laws, the Bemises were wed by a white judge, who himself was married to a Tukudeka Indian."
Books and films about her life
- A biography was written in the 1970s - see Idaho County's Most Romantic Character: Polly Bemis by Sister M Alfreda Elsensohn (published by Benedictine Sisters; Second Printing in 1987).
- Thousand Pieces of Gold is a 1981 biographical historical novel about Lalu Nathoy/Polly Bemis and includes an essay in which the author, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, documents her research for the book and her discoveries in the years since Polly's death. This novel was later adapted into the 1991 film Thousand Pieces of Gold, starring Rosalind Chao (as Polly) and Chris Cooper (as Charlie).
- Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer, written by Priscilla Wegars and published in 2003, is a noted elementary classroom history book.
- The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West, by Christopher Corbett (2010).
- Wild Women of the Old West, pages 45–68, 200-203, edited by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain, Golden, CO: Fulcrum (2003), ISBN 978-1-55591-295-6.
- D'Ambrosio, Brian (January 5, 2017). "Sold Off By Her Father". truewestmagazine.com. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
- "Polly Bemis". Ruth McCunn. Retrieved December 16, 2011.
- "Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer". Book Review. The Asian Reporter. Retrieved December 14, 2011.
- Wegars, Priscilla. "Polly Bemis". Asian American Comparative Collection: Ongoing Research. The University of Idaho. Retrieved December 14, 2011.
- Eigeman, Anne (Fall 2003). "Polly Bemis:A Chinese American Pioneer" (PDF). CRM Journal. National Park Service: 115–117. Retrieved December 16, 2011.
- McCunn, Ruthanne Lum (2004). Thousand Pieces of Gold. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. p. 308. ISBN 0-8070-8381-X. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
- Riley, Glenda; Etulain, Richard W. (2003). Wild Women of the Old West. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. pp. 50–52. ISBN 1-55591-295-8. Retrieved December 24, 2011.
- Riley, Glenda; Etulain, Richard W. (2003). Wild Women of the Old West. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. pp. 57–61. ISBN 1-55591-295-8. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
- D'Easum, Dick (1984). The Idanha: Guests and Ghosts of an Historic Idaho Inn. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press. p. xii. ISBN 0-87004-414-1. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
- "Lula "Polly" Nathoy Bemis". Find a Grave. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
- Fry, Kate (2008). "Polly Bemis, Pedagogy, and Multiculturalism in the Classroom" (PDF). Purdue, IN: Purdue University. pp. 2–10. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
- "Polly Bemis". National Women's History Museum. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
- "Idaho - Idaho County". National Register of Historic Places. Retrieved December 24, 2011.
- "SCAD Presents Painting Exhibition by Hung Liu". Savannah College of Art and Design. December 17, 2007. Archived from the original on December 15, 2012. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
- "Anthropology" (PDF). University of Idaho. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 6, 2012. Retrieved December 24, 2011.
- "The World of Polly Bemis". University of Idaho. Retrieved December 24, 2011.
- "Polly Bemis House". Asian-Pacific Heritage Month. National Park Service. Retrieved December 16, 2011.
- Hong, Terry (March 20, 2010). "Nonfiction review: 'Poker Bride'". San Francisco Chronicle. p. E–2. Retrieved December 14, 2011.
- Elsensohn, Alfreda M. (1979). Idaho County's most romantic character, Polly Bemis. Cottonwood, Idaho: Idaho Corp. of Benedictine Sisters.
- Sinnott, Susan (2003). Extraordinary Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. New York: Children's Press. ISBN 9780516293554.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Polly Bemis.|
- Biography of Charles Bemis
- Classroom lesson guide from the University of Idaho
- Encyclopedia of World Biography entry on Polly Bemis
- Photo of Polly Bemis upclose in 1923
- Photo of Polly Bemis in front of a cabin, probably 1920s
- Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer
- Polly Bemis Ranch, a National Historic site
- University of Idaho Asian American Comparative Collection