Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China's Daughter, Idaho's Legendary Pioneer

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China's Daughter, Idaho's Legendary Pioneer

Article excerpt

When I set out to reclaim the life of Idaho's legendary Polly Bemis in 1979, I had no training in research and very little experience. "Don't worry," a psychic told me, "She's holding your hand." Two years later, Thousand Pieces of Gold--my book about this Chinese American pioneer's experiences as a slave and free woman in the American West--was completed and published.' But I have yet to stop work on reclaiming the life of Polly Bemis, born Lalu Nathoy, and my intent in this article is to describe how I embarked on this project, present the findings that formed the basis for Thousand Pieces of Gold, examine subsequent discoveries, and make a final assessment.


I first came across Lalu/Polly in Sister Mary Alfreda Elsensohn's book Idaho Chinese Lore. (2) Even in that brief sketch, Lalu/Polly struck me as extraordinary, for she had not only overcome great hardships but also survived with her humanity intact, her spirit undiminished. Her life cried out to me to write a book-length biography, and I wrote to libraries and historical societies throughout the Pacific Northwest for anything they might have about her.

I was sent numerous photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, a pioneer's unpublished memoir, references in books, and a master's thesis. The wealth of material was gratifying, but unfortunately, there were many conflicting "facts" and huge gaps in the information, especially about her life in China. Indeed, it soon became dear that unless I passed over those years, I could not write a nonfiction book. Yet I felt very strongly that in order to understand Polly in America, it would be crucial for the reader to know about Lalu in China. Instead of a biography, then, I decided to write a biographical novel. That did not mean I was willing to take liberties with the truth. Rather, it meant I threw myself into the kind of intensive research that would, I hoped, help me sort through the disparate facts and fill in the gaps.

U.S.-China relations at that time, coupled with my limited financial resources, precluded travel to China. But I read dozens of books, particularly those dealing with village life, bandits, and the flora and fauna of nineteenth-century Northern China. I studied the crops, the cycles of cultivation, the farm implements used, daily routines, the holidays, and the folklore of the area until I knew it so intimately I felt as if I had lived there myself. Similarly, I steeped myself in the history and geography of Idaho, especially of the town of Warrens (now known as Warren), Idaho, and the Salmon River country where Polly had lived.

It should be noted that existing histories, even those sympathetic to the Chinese, did not include their viewpoint. Also, one of the many long-range effects of intense anti-Chinese violence and legislation (both local and national) that prevailed in nineteenth-century America is the complete absence of descendents of Chinese pioneers still in the area. I was able to locate white people who had known Polly and went to Idaho to interview them. Then I began reconstructing Lalu/Polly's life.


Most of what we know about Lalu/Polly's early life can be traced to an interview she gave Countess Eleanor Gizycka in 1922 and three newspaper articles published in the next decade. (3) From these accounts, we learn that Lalu Nathoy was born on September 11, 1853, in Northern China, near one of the upper rivers, in an area frequently ravaged by bandits. (4) Although Lalu's parents were impoverished farmers, her feet had been bound as if she were from a family of means, then unbound. When Lalu was eighteen, there was a prolonged drought, and her father was forced to sell her to bandits in exchange for enough seed to plant another crop that would, he hoped, save the rest of their family from starvation. Since Lalu said she'd been in Shanghai, that might have been her port of departure for the United States. …

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