Polly Bemis (possibly born Lalu Nathoy) (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 fictionalized in the 1991 film A Thousand Pieces of Gold.
Polly Bemis was born in rural northern China. As a child, she had bound feet. Later, her family fled from a group of bandits that raided her village. Subsequently, she was sold by her father for two much needed bags of seed. Bemis was then smuggled into the United States in 1872 and sold as a slave in San Francisco 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. Bemis worked for Charlie Bemis, who was often referred to as "Charlie" or "C.A". She served as his housekeeper and ran his popular boarding house in Warren. Charlie was almost killed during a gambling dispute in September 1890, and Bemis nursed him back to health.
On August 13, 1894, she married Charlie Bemis, and the couple 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, and sense of humor.
Bemis saved Charlie's life twice. In 1922, a fire gutted their home on the Salmon River, possibly caused by an untended or overheated woodstove. 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. Charlie Bemis died soon afterwards. He had been ill in the last several years, reportedly due to a lung ailment (probably tuberculosis). 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 who stayed 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. She died on November 6 of myocarditis at the age of 80. Two days later she was buried in Grangeville. Klinkhammer's sister bought a marker for her grave in 1970.
In 1987 the cabin was restored, her body was reburied by the cabin. The cabin, known as Polly Bemis House, became a museum and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. At the dedication ceremonies in 1987, 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. Polly Bemis is the subject of an extensive and ongoing series of paintings 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 an Indian."
Books and films about her life
- Polly Bemis' life was fictionalized in the 1991 film A 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)
- Thousand Pieces of Gold is a biographical 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.
- 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.