Idaho Yesterdays, Vol 51, No 2

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Review of Nokes, /Massacre for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon/, IY 52, no. 2 (Fall 2010)

Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon.

By R. Gregory Nokes. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009. 208 pp. Photographs, map, bibliography, index. Paper cover, $18.95.

Cover ImageThe general appeal of Massacred for Gold is in its presentation, which reads like a “who-dunnit” novel that vacillates between the narrations of two stories—one, an account of a little known event in Chinese American history; the second, on how the author pieced the story together. R. Gregory Nokes was a reporter and editor of The Oregonian when he became interested in the subject, and it is this professional background that ultimately produced short chapters that read comfortably and much like a series of expanded newspaper articles.

Sleuthing the facts of the Snake River Massacre became a passion for Nokes, beginning as a personal mission in 1995 when he started searching for evidence about the murder of more than 30 Chinese miners that occurred over 120 years ago. Readers should not be surprised at the time or lengths to which the author sought “truth,” as this is the way that good historical accounts should be pursued. Nokes’ work provides a reminder to scholars and historians to expand historical inquiry by using primary research materials. His is an admirable example about learning to be comfortable and persistent in sifting through records. Admitting that some aspects of the crime, such as the precise number of Chinese who were part of the slaughter, may never be known due to hidden, tampered with, and destroyed evidence, Nokes establishes plausible suppositions. Most significant and early in the book, he challenges the theory that the Chinese were murdered for their gold as purported in the early legend of the massacre and instead provides more compelling evidence that this was a racially motivated crime of hatred.

Beginning with initial snippets of assorted stories and disconnected accounts about the incident, Nokes unravels the events of May 25, 1887, when a group of local schoolboys, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers from Wallowa County, Oregon, savagely murdered the Chinese gold miners. The beautiful and remote location of Hells Canyon was a perfect setting that allowed for the secrecy of the crime as well as the near impossibility of retracing the precise events of the massacre. Had the bodies of some of the Chinese not been found floating in the river just south of Lewiston, Idaho, the crime might have gone undetected and unrecorded. Through interviews and public records, Nokes reconstructs events, motive, and an eventual cover-up of the killings meant to protect the reputation of the locals. Although seven young men were identified as being responsible for the brutal beating, shooting, and axing of the miners, the jury of the Wallowa County Circuit Court acquitted all of them.

Nokes provides a brief chronology of anti-Chinese sentiments as context so that readers may understand how such acts of unparalleled cruelty could have happened. Similar actions of violence against the Chinese were happening throughout the West in Washington, California, and Wyoming. As the first federal immigration statute directed at excluding immigrants by race, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law was intended to appease organized labor’s complaints of rising unemployment by stopping the entry of Chinese skilled and unskilled laborers. That law did little, however, to prevent some of the worst incidences of violence. Complaints of lost jobs that were a consequence of the Chinese who were willing to work for lower wages led to their expulsion in rural and urban areas, and sometimes to death. Too often, there was little recourse or punishment. Sections of the book that recount efforts on the part of the Chinese in America to investigate this and other crimes and to seek damages—including efforts of Lee Loi, investigator for the Sam Yup Company and Cheng Tsao Ju as head of the Chinese legation—are particularly interesting. The outcome of their efforts shows the limitations they faced in the justice system but also indicates that the Chinese were not passive in their attempt to pursue their rights.

For scholars, the back-and-forth change in narratives from the killings to the author’s research will likely be disturbing as it often detracts from the central story of one of the worst incidences of violence ever to take place against Chinese immigrants in nineteenth-century America. While most aspects that detail the methodology of the author’s research are interesting, there are some that are superfluous to the study, such as his account of wearing a hat and having leg cramps on one of the journeys to the location. Another example involves the author’s detailing of the challenges and sometimes serendipitous findings of documents, including an intentionally hidden record that was recently discovered and shared by a court clerk. While these court records were a critical find, it is questionable whether a photo of the clerk who found the cache adds to the substance of the story.

The author’s limited use of recent studies in the book’s bibliography will also be troublesome for scholars of Chinese American history. While references to the early ground-breaking work of Betty Sung and Shih-shan Henry Tsai appear, more recently written histories challenging the theory of the Chinese as “sojourners” whose intention was to leave the United States do not. Compelling evidence shows that the Chinese went to substantial means to enter the United States, even after passage of the exclusion law, and that their choice to stay in American towns and cities offers a contrary theory to that of the “sojourner.” For example, the 1887 choice of Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On to settle and remain in the dying mining town of John Day, Oregon, is but one case in point.

Massacred for Gold is a compelling account that should be read by historians and anyone who wants to understand the history of the Pacific Northwest. It will likely encourage readers to delve into other accounts of Chinese American history. For Asian American scholars for whom the Pacific Northwest is a field of study that has only recently begun to be addressed, it is a good companion text and one that will help fill gaps and develop further inquiry about the lives of Chinese immigrants and their communities.

Marie Wong is an associate professor at Seattle University and teaches in the disciplines of urban planning and Asian American history. Dr. Wong is the author of Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon and is currently finishing a book on the history of Seattle’s pan-Asian community and life in the residential hotels.