Idaho’s Chinese Mining Camps | TheFencePost.com

Idaho’s Chinese Mining Camps

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

Candy MoultonThe Magnolia Saloon in Placerville, Idaho, is now doing duty as the town's museum.

Gold mining in the Boise Basin of Idaho started in 1862 upon the discoveries of prospecting parties led by D. H. Fogus, George Grimes, and Moses Splawn, and miners flocked to the region. By the following year some 15,000 people were living in and near the mining communities of Idaho City, Centerville, Placerville, and Pioneer.

The miners followed a series of rough roads leading in from the south and the Owyhee country, as well as from the west, where they traveled by steamboat up the Columbia River to such jumping off points as Wallula and Umatilla, or came overland through the Baker Valley and along the Payette River.

Gold miners took advantage of the rich lode, combing the hills and pulling significant gold from the area. By the time the Central Pacific joined with the Union Pacific in May 1869, many of the Boise Basin mining claims were already heavily worked. The railroad meant that goods could be transported by train to Winnemucca, Nev., and then hauled overland north to Idaho City and other Boise Basin towns. In spite of the availability of goods, the miners had already begun to move on to new diggings. The 1870 census showed 2,158 residents in the same four cities that had populations of more than 15,000 just seven years earlier.

The population had shifted not just downward, but also ethnically. By 1870 the region’s population was almost half comprised of Chinese. They moved in to the basin to take advantage of the gold still remaining, as they would work claims other miners had already abandoned. They also had laundries and stores.

A good place to begin exploring Idaho City is at the Boise Basin Historical Museum, a building that formerly served as the town’s post office. There you will get a good overview of the area’s development. Not far from Idaho City is the now sleepy little town of Placerville, which has its own Henrietta Penrod Museum – housed in the former Magnolia Saloon – and collection of Chinese artifacts including china, fans, shoes, and silk items.

From Placerville I traveled to Centerville and then like the miners who started working gold claims in the Boise Basin, I continued north on highway 55 to Cottonwood for a visit to the Monastery of St. Gertrude. This private museum has an impressive collection of Chinese artifacts from the mining era in Idaho.

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One of the most famous Chinese women in the West is Lalu Nathoy, better known as Polly Bemis. Born in China in 1853, she was sold by her father and came to America as a female slave. Later sold for $2,500, she arrived in Warren, Idaho, and there endured a harsh life. Ultimately Charlie Bemis won her in a card game with Hog King, who then owned her. The girl worked for Bemis, and later the two of them married and relocated to a small farm along the Salmon River known as the Bemis place, or more commonly Polly Place. Polly spent much of the rest of her life there, after Bemis died from burns received in a fire at their home, she remained at the farm until her latter years when she spent time in Grangeville and Cottonwood.

The Museum at the monastery houses of Polly’s personal items including a sunbonnet, three dresses, a brown shawl, several pieces of jewelry, photographs, and items she crocheted.¬†Although not connected to the mining era, The Rhoades Emmanuel Memorial at the Monastery Museum is a stunning collection of exquisite Asian and European artifacts with by far the majority of the items from China, some dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Next column: On to Montana.

Gold mining in the Boise Basin of Idaho started in 1862 upon the discoveries of prospecting parties led by D. H. Fogus, George Grimes, and Moses Splawn, and miners flocked to the region. By the following year some 15,000 people were living in and near the mining communities of Idaho City, Centerville, Placerville, and Pioneer.

The miners followed a series of rough roads leading in from the south and the Owyhee country, as well as from the west, where they traveled by steamboat up the Columbia River to such jumping off points as Wallula and Umatilla, or came overland through the Baker Valley and along the Payette River.

Gold miners took advantage of the rich lode, combing the hills and pulling significant gold from the area. By the time the Central Pacific joined with the Union Pacific in May 1869, many of the Boise Basin mining claims were already heavily worked. The railroad meant that goods could be transported by train to Winnemucca, Nev., and then hauled overland north to Idaho City and other Boise Basin towns. In spite of the availability of goods, the miners had already begun to move on to new diggings. The 1870 census showed 2,158 residents in the same four cities that had populations of more than 15,000 just seven years earlier.

The population had shifted not just downward, but also ethnically. By 1870 the region’s population was almost half comprised of Chinese. They moved in to the basin to take advantage of the gold still remaining, as they would work claims other miners had already abandoned. They also had laundries and stores.

A good place to begin exploring Idaho City is at the Boise Basin Historical Museum, a building that formerly served as the town’s post office. There you will get a good overview of the area’s development. Not far from Idaho City is the now sleepy little town of Placerville, which has its own Henrietta Penrod Museum – housed in the former Magnolia Saloon – and collection of Chinese artifacts including china, fans, shoes, and silk items.

From Placerville I traveled to Centerville and then like the miners who started working gold claims in the Boise Basin, I continued north on highway 55 to Cottonwood for a visit to the Monastery of St. Gertrude. This private museum has an impressive collection of Chinese artifacts from the mining era in Idaho.

One of the most famous Chinese women in the West is Lalu Nathoy, better known as Polly Bemis. Born in China in 1853, she was sold by her father and came to America as a female slave. Later sold for $2,500, she arrived in Warren, Idaho, and there endured a harsh life. Ultimately Charlie Bemis won her in a card game with Hog King, who then owned her. The girl worked for Bemis, and later the two of them married and relocated to a small farm along the Salmon River known as the Bemis place, or more commonly Polly Place. Polly spent much of the rest of her life there, after Bemis died from burns received in a fire at their home, she remained at the farm until her latter years when she spent time in Grangeville and Cottonwood.

The Museum at the monastery houses of Polly’s personal items including a sunbonnet, three dresses, a brown shawl, several pieces of jewelry, photographs, and items she crocheted.¬†Although not connected to the mining era, The Rhoades Emmanuel Memorial at the Monastery Museum is a stunning collection of exquisite Asian and European artifacts with by far the majority of the items from China, some dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Next column: On to Montana.