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Idaho Archaeology Dig Finds New Clues About Life Of Polly Bemis

by Doug Nadvornick - September 12, 2021

This summer, Idahoans celebrated the life of one of the state’s most famous Chinese-American citizens. Polly Bemis now has her own statue in Boise. For those not familiar with her story, Bemis came to the U.S. in the early 1870s. It was a time when many Chinese men were coming to the States to find work, in the mines or wherever else they could.

Some opened their own businesses. “Because of both U.S. laws and Chinese cultural traditions, a lot of women didn’t migrate into the United States and so that was kind of unique," said Renae Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Idaho. “She was sold by her family, which was not a terribly uncommon thing in that time period and then smuggled into the country through Portland and purchased by a Chinese man in a remote mining town in Idaho. She came in neither knowing English, the language of the United States, or the language that most of those Chinese immigrants knew and were speaking at the time," she said. Campbell says much is known about the life of Polly Bemis, but there are myths as well and those have driven the interest in Bemis's story. “She’s been written up in a couple of literary works. There was a historical novel that was written about her that was turned into a movie called “A Thousand Pieces of Gold.” Because of the notoriety that came from that, she has been inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame. She’s also been called one of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous Chinese women," she said. Campbell was drawn into the Polly Bemis orbit through her work at the university’s Asian American Comparative Collection. “What we are doing is an archaeological project that’s kind of in conjunction with a new book that my boss, Priscilla Wegars, wrote that came out in 2020 about the true life of Polly Bemis," she said. The true story includes a marriage to a man named Charlie Bemis. For years, they lived on a ranch in the mountains of central Idaho.

"She led a life of total subsistence on this kind of rural and beautiful landscape. But she became well known by locals who had travelled down the river or across to access some of the mining claims, they would travel a trail near her house and she sold them vegetables and fish that she caught. She became a really beloved figure in her local community," Campbell said.

The Bemises lived there for several years. One cabin burned. It was later rebuilt. Charlie Bemis died and Polly lived there alone. The 26-acre Bemis compound has been cared for over the years. Last spring, Campbell was part of a nine-person university team that spent a few days digging at what is now a national historic site. “We were hoping we might find a bunch of nails. If a house burns in place, the lumber disintegrates, but we have those nails behind that can be a nice indication. So we did a metal detector survey, a couple of what are called shovel test probes, which are basically just 50 centimeter round holes that you dig into the ground and then we did two formal one meter-by-one meter squares outside the house in the location where the statue is going to go," she said. That statue will be a bronze bust of Polly Bemis that will greet visitors to the ranch. Campbell says she was pleasantly surprised by what the team dug up. “We found buttons, cartridge shells, things like that. We also found fragments of porcelain plates and a fragment of a stoneware crock, which is something you would use to store food. We knew that because Polly was living out there and she’s got that giant garden, she was doing a lot of food storage. We also found a tiny little metal tag that was on a plug of tobacco," she said. Campbell says diaries kept at the time show Bemis smoked a pipe. She says the artifacts that were found are being washed and catalogued this fall. The items will be returned to the property owners so they might be displayed back at the ranch.


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