Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"A Most Daring Outrage": Murders at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"A Most Daring Outrage": Murders at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887

Article excerpt

WHAT FIRST CATCHES THE EYE is a wide rock and gravel bar that extends for fifty yards or so along the Snake River in Hells Canyon, about forty miles northeast of Enterprise, Oregon. There is also Deep Creek, less impressive than its name, which trickles out of a break in the nearby cliffs, meanders across the uneven ground of a clearing, and nearly disappears amid the rocks of the bar before draining into the river.

Looking closer, one might see a stage set for a tragedy. Sloping cliffs surround the area in a kind of half-circle. The gravel bar, devoid of foliage, is blocked at both ends by man-sized boulders to the south and a rock out-cropping that slices across a sandy cove to the north. The river in front of the bar flows fast, deep, and wide, appearing impossible to swim. On the far side are the steep cliffs of Idaho. Back near the Oregon cliffs are two rough rock walls of a shelter, about ten feet by ten feet, of Native American origin. It was once used by a crew of immigrant Chinese miners who found Deep Creek a convenient campsite while they mined gold on the bar. (1) Unknowingly, they had set up their camp in a natural trap.

Nothing at the cove at Deep Creek, now known as Chinese Massacre Cove, suggests the awful events that happened there. Under a cloudless blue sky on a hot August afternoon, with sunlight filtering through the soft green leaves of an occasional hackberry tree, some of the area is even pretty. The rocks, strewn over most of the five-acre site, however, are not, especially when one realizes what happened there.

Next year will mark one hundred and twenty years since as many as thirty-four Chinese miners were massacred by a gang of seven horse thieves in one or more attacks in Hells Canyon, beginning on May 25,1887. Some of the victims were apparently shot down from the cliffs; others were slaughtered by attackers along the river. The killers threw the bodies into the river and fled with the miners' gold, estimated at between $4,000 and $5,000.

Three gang members, one just fifteen years old, were arrested and charged with murder. Three others fled and were never apprehended. In the end, no one was held accountable for the crime, among the worst in Oregon history and, in lives lost, one of the worst against the nearly 150,000 Chinese who immigrated to the American West in search of work in the nineteenth century. (2)

Several articles have been written about the massacre, some of them highly speculative. The most thorough and accurate is an account in 1983 by historian David H. Stratton, whose study made extensive use of diplomatic exchanges between the American and Chinese governments. Few reliable details about the crime itself, however, were known to Stratton or anyone else. Retellings of the story confused the location, the year of the massacre, the identity of the killers, the amount of gold, even the number of victims. (3) The lack of reliable information stemmed partly from a failure by law enforcement agencies to fully investigate the crime and partly because key documents from the investigation were missing, including all records of the 1888 trial. It is hard today to prove a cover-up, but it is also hard to ignore that one may have occurred. Several members of the gang came from prominent families, and leading members of the community rallied to their defense. Local newspapers apparently ignored the trial entirely, even though it was the first murder trial in the newly created Wallowa County. (4)

George Craig, a well-known Wallowa County rancher who attended the trial, was quoted in 1967 as having said, "I guess if they had killed 31 white men, something would have been done about it, but none of the jury knew the Chinamen or cared much about it, so they turned the men loose." (5) Still, it would not be fair to say no one cared. One newspaper account reported that the community was outraged, and a former U.S. senator, James H. Slater of Joseph, appealed to Washington, D. …

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