Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Poker Bride

The First Chinese in the Wild West

by Christopher Corbett

“The Poker Bride is a gorgeously written and brilliantly researched saga of America during the mad flush of its biggest Gold Rush. Christopher Corbett’s genius is to anchor his larger story of Chinese immigration around a poor concubine named Polly. A tremendous achievement.” —Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date February 08, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4527-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

When gold rush fever gripped the globe in 1849, thousands of Chinese immigrants came through San Francisco on their way to seek their fortunes. They were called sojourners, for they never intended to stay. In The Poker Bride, Christopher Corbett uses a little-known legend from Idaho lore as a lens into this Chinese experience.

Before 1849, the Chinese in the United States were little more than curiosities. But as word spread of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, they soon became a regular sight in the American West. In San Francisco, a labyrinthine Chinatown soon sprang up, a clamorous city within a city full of exotic foods and strange smells, where Chinese women were smuggled into the country, and where the laws were made by “hatchet men.” At this time, Polly, a young Chinese concubine, was brought by her owner by steamboat and pack train to a remote mining camp in the highlands of Idaho. There he lost her in a poker game, having wagered his last ounce of gold dust. Polly found her way with her new owner to an isolated ranch on the banks of the Salmon River in central Idaho.

As the gold rush receded, it took with it the Chinese miners—or their bones, which were disinterred and shipped back to their homeland in accordance with Chinese custom. But it left behind Polly, who would make headlines when she emerged from the Idaho hills nearly half a century later to visit a modern city and tell her story.

Peppered with characters such as Mark Twain and the legendary newswoman Cissy Patterson, The Poker Bride vividly reconstructs a lost period of history when the first Chinese sojourners flooded into the country, and left only glimmering traces of their presence scattered across the American West.


“Christopher Corbett has brought home a tale delicate and sad and not a little bit heroic, and in doing so he has rescued from oblivion an extraordinary chapter of the immigrant experience in America. With The Poker Bride and his earlier reconsideration of the Pony Express, Orphans Preferred, Corbett has established himself as a fresh and thoughtful voice in the historical realm of the American West.” —David Simon, author of Homicide: A Life on the Killing Streets and producer of the HBO series The Wire

“Exhaustively researched . . . Corbett uses Bemis’s story as a platform for a larger discussion about the hardships of the Chinese experience in the American West.” —Aaron Leitko, The Washington Post

“Corbett’s accomplishment in pulling this dark history into a popular narrative is all the more impressive when you consider the difficulty of reporting on a foreign population that lived mainly outside the reach of census takers and journalists . . . Corbett handles a great deal of sordid material with sensitivity”In restoring to the poker bride a more honest and complete history, Corbett undoes generations of self-serving mythology.” —Dominique Browning, The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice>)

“Corbett gracefully weaves the history of the Chinese in the 19th-century American West”Corbett’s intriguing book will appeal to readers interested in the narrative history of the American West and tales of the mining camps . . . Corbett’s accomplished book will engage history buffs and general readers alike.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Corbett delves deep into the soul of the real old west, using the story of one Chinese “sojourner”—a young woman named Polly—as the thread to link a thousand pearls of fact and lore and whatever you call those fragments of story that lie somewhere in between. All I can say is, Twain would be proud.” —Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City

“[Corbett] provides a colorful overview of the Chinese experience.” —Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal

“The main strength of Corbett’s book is his detailed description of life in wide-open California and the Pacific Northwest . . .
[Polly Bemis’] story is remarkable, and Corbett’s research is certainly thorough. The Poker Bride adds immeasurably to the Asian-American nonfiction catalog.” —Martin Brady, Bookpage

“Imagine McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Deadwood hand-stitched together and given a novel slant as a mini-epic of Chinese immigrant life. That suggests the polyglot vitality of Baltimore writer Christopher Corbett’s The Poker Bride . . . a juicy combination of social history and deconstructed myth . . . [Corbett] juggles facts and apocrypha like a master . . . The Poker Bride is a literary and historical sleeper—a true surprise . . . with The Poker Bride, Corbett cements his claim as an ace surveyor of America’s borderland of fable.” —Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

“Peppered with characters like Mark Twain and legendary newswoman Cissy Patterson, Poker Bride vividly reconstructs a lost period of history when the first Chinese flooded into the U.S., and left only glimmering traces of their presence across the American West.” —hyphenmagazine.com

“Christopher Corbett investigated an intriguing figure from Idaho’s past in The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West . . . Even though Corbett sticks to a straightforward, just-the-facts delivery of Polly’s story, the reader can’t help but become caught up in it.” —Jenny Shank, New West Books & Writers

“Corbett has undone generations of mythology shrouding the curious stories of Chinese ‘poker brides’ . . . provides a comprehensive, panoramic view of the appalling discrimination the immigrants suffered.” —Charles Zhu, Beijing Today

“There is no alkali dust in these pages. The Poker Bride is a gorgeously written and brilliantly researched saga of America during the mad flush of its biggest Gold Rush. Christopher Corbett’s genius is to anchor his larger story of Chinese immigration around a poor concubine named Polly. A tremendous achievement.” —Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

“Utilizing his skills as a literary detective to piece together this saga of boom times during the Gold Rush, Christopher Corbett introduces us to one of the more beguiling characters to emerge from the Wild West. He tells the story of Polly Bemis—the poker bride—with panache, sensitivity, and wondrous detail.” —Wil Haygood, author of In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.

The Poker Bride offers a compelling look at a largely invisible—and mostly unremembered—population of the mid-19th century American West: Chinese laborers and prostitutes. In chronicling the life of one Chinese girl who was sold into slavery, brought to Idaho, and ceded to a man during a poker game, author Christopher Corbett weaves a fascinating tale about the underbelly of the Wild West.” —Laura Wexler, author of Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass-Lynching in America

“In Corbett’s expert hands, the extraordinary story of Polly Bemis, the unlettered Chinese concubine lost in a poker game, acquires tragic grandeur without losing any of its comical unpredictability.” —Christoph Irmscher, author of The Poetics of Natural History, Longfellow Redux, and Public Poet, Private Man

“On July 8, 1872, a young Chinese concubine arrived by horse in Idaho gold country, where a white gambler soon won her in a poker game. and so begins Christopher Corbett’s amazing tale of the Chinese in the making of the American West—a slice of largely forgotten history that is by turns funny, chilling, and poignant.” —Jill Jonnes, author of Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count and Empire of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World

“Corbett maintains a neutral journalistic stance, presenting his carefully researched evidence of Polly’s life to the reader with limited commentary . . . Corbett has done an admirable job of sorting out truth from fiction, bringing Polly’s remarkable story to a new generation.” —Jenny Shank, New West

“Corbett shows his skill as a journalist and reporter in his ability to find information and package it into a readable story. The amount of historical research that went into this book is noteworthy . . . The Poker Bride provides valuable knowledge on Chinese contributions in building the west.” —Diane Diekman, The Internet Review of Books

“[Corbett] turns a dark chapter in our history into compelling reading.” —The Week

“Corbett does an excellent job of panning out the facts in this historical account of Chinese immigrant workers in the 1849 California Gold Rush. History enthusiasts will enjoy Corbett’s well-researched account . . . Corbett knows the American West”He is successful in blending Polly’s story into the text as a backdrop for his larger historical themes. Polly’s remarkable life brings a human touch to the book”invaluable to anyone interested in the American West.” —Kathryne Cardwell, Winnipeg Free Press

“In The Poker Bride, Christopher Corbett uses a little-known legend from Idaho lore as a lens into the world of 19th century Chinese immigrants, who came to the West Coast during the Gold Rush on their way to seek their fortunes. Both books paint a powerful picture of these two pieces of Western American history, with the craftsmanship of a skilled storyteller.” —flashalertportland.com


Celestials and Sojourners

Although some one hundred thousand coolies sailed to the California coast in the three decades following the Gold Rush of 1849, most were illiterates whose horizons and American experiences were limited, and they left little in the way of writings published in China.

Land Without Ghosts
(edited by R. David Arkush and Leo O. Lee)

Swallows and magpies, flying in glee:
Greetings for New Year.
Daddy has gone to Gold Mountain
To earn money.
He will earn gold and silver,
Ten thousand taels.
We will buy a lot of land.

—Nineteenth-century Cantonese rhyme
(translated by Marlon K. Hom in Songs of Gold Mountain

The story of Polly Bemis in the American West is a story about gold. Gold was the reason she left China. If there had not been a Gold Rush in California in the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Chinese peasants would have had no reason to brave the Pacific crossing, and girls like Polly Bemis in poor villages in China might have never been sold by their starving families to supply the burgeoning sex slave trade in the American West. Polly Bemis was eventually sold for gold, too. But first her story was the story of the Gold Rush and the “Chinamen,” who left their villages and families and everything that was important to them with the dream of finding wealth on Gum Sam, or “Golden Mountain,” as they called California.

Before he ate his breakfast on the morning of January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall was inspecting the site where he was building a sawmill on the American River in California, about forty-five miles from what is today Sacramento. His partner in this venture was John A. Sutter, a Swiss entrepreneur who had settled there a decade earlier when the area was part of Mexico. Marshall, a millwright from New Jersey, noticed something shiny in the millrace, the channel for conducting water at a mill. He stooped down to pick up a tiny nugget that he said later was about half the size of a pea. And then he picked up another such nugget. He was not sure what these fragments were, but he had his suspicions. Years later, Marshall wrote an account of that day for Century magazine. It was a reminiscence of an event that would launch one of the greatest migrations in human history—the California Gold Rush.

“It was a clear, cold morning; I shall never forget that morning,” Marshall recalled. “As I was taking my usual walk along the race, after shutting off the water, my eye was caught by a glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. There was about a foot of water running there. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump for I felt certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and shape of a pea. Then I saw another piece in the water. After taking it out, I sat down and began to think right hard. I thought it was gold, and yet it did not seem to be of the right color; all the gold coin I had seen was a reddish tinge; this looked more like brass.

“When I returned to our cabin for breakfast, I showed the two pieces to my men. They were all a good deal excited, and had they not thought that the gold only existed in small quantities they would have abandoned everything and left me to finish the job alone. However, to satisfy them, I told them that as soon as we had the mill finished we would devote a week or two to gold hunting and see what we could make of it.”

The gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill was only the first bit of pay dirt, as it was then called. Gold mining that started in this California riverbed would sweep through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and the Pacific Northwest, and eventually even to the Klondike in Alaska. From Denver to Deadwood and points in between Americans (and foreigners aplenty) went looking for gold. The total value of the gold produced in California alone in the first decade of the rush was nearly $600 million, according to the mining historian William S. Greever.

Neither Marshall nor Sutter, who had founded an outpost that he called New Helvetia (Helvetia is Latin for Switzerland), would profit from the find. The fame of having begotten the Gold Rush followed Marshall around for the rest of his life, but he would be best known as a public drunkard. Sutter, who one historian noted had lived like a medieval baron on his vast estates before gold was discovered, lost everything. His employees ran off to look for gold and squatters seized his lands. He spent the rest of his life seeking recompense from the federal government and died in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., still waiting for that to happen.

But some others got rich. When news that gold had been discovered in California spread across the country and around the globe, “the world rushed in,” as J. S. Holliday, a distinguished historian of the Gold Rush, would say. Men came from Ireland, Australia, Peru, Chile, France, Mexico, and China. They sailed around Cape Horn (a journey that could take half a year from the East Coast). They crossed the Isthmus of Panama on foot (a quicker route but a more dangerous one), and some even walked across America. They risked typhus, cholera, dysentery, scurvy, drowning, and Indian attack to reach the goldfields.

San Francisco, still a mere village, was almost evacuated, the early history The Annals of San Francisco reported, noting that the town seemed as if it had been struck by a plague:

All business and work, except the most urgent, was forced to be stopped. Seamen deserted from their ships in the bay and soldiers from their barracks. Gold was the irresistible magnet that drew human souls to the place where it lay. . . . Avarice and the overwhelming desire to be suddenly rich . . . led to a general migration.

The world had never seen anything quite like the California Gold Rush. Nor had the world seen such men. “It was a driving, vigorous, restless population in those days. It was a curious population,” recalled Mark Twain in Roughing It. “It was the only population of the kind that the world has ever seen gathered together, and it is not likely that the world will ever see its like again.” It was also, Twain remembered, a world that was almost entirely made up of young men, “the very pick and choice of the world’s glorious ones. No women, no children, no gray and stooping veterans,—none but erect, bright-eyed, quick-moving, strong-handed young giants—the strangest population, the finest population, the most gallant host that ever trooped down the startled solitudes of an unpeopled land.”

Most of them did not strike it rich. Many died trying. Others simply died. And many a would-be gold miner in “the days of ’49,” as the old folk song put it, simply went home defeated. (Word of the gold strike reached the East so slowly in 1848 that the first great wave of miners—the true pioneers by California standards—did not reach the gold fields until 1849.) Greever noted that gold mining was secretive work and miners tended to hold their cards close to their vests. If a miner was doing well, why attract attention to a rich claim? And if he was not, there was always the matter of pride. Twain, who was an eyewitness to the fabled Comstock Lode mining boom in Nevada, took all that into account when he later mused: “And where are they now? Scattered to the ends of the earth—or prematurely aged and decrepit—or shot or stabbed in street affrays—or dead of disappointed hopes and broken hearts—all gone, or nearly all—victims devoted upon the altar of the golden calf—the noblest holocaust that ever wafted its sacrificial incense heavenward. It is pitiful to think upon.”

James Wilson Marshall’s morning stroll along the millrace would change everything. “The California gold rush made America a more restless nation—changed the people’s sense of their future, their expectations and their values,” noted Holliday. “Suddenly there was a place to go where everyone could expect to make money, quickly; where life would be freer, where one could escape the constraints and conventions and the plodding sameness of life in the eastern states.”

When Marshall made his discovery, there were only a few thousand people living on the Pacific Slope. California was not a state yet; it had only recently been part of Mexico. Within two years there would be 100,000 new arrivals on the West Coast, most of them digging for gold or providing some service that gold seekers needed. By 1860, the population of California—rocketed into statehood in 1850 because of gold—would approach 400,000. Little more than a decade later, when Polly Bemis was smuggled into the port of San Francisco, probably in a padded crate, the population was nearing 600,000. And San Francisco, which had been a sleepy village at the time of James Wilson Marshall’s discovery, was a city—one of the ten largest in the United States.

Word of the discovery of gold in the California hills in the winter of 1848 had the same impact among the peasants of the densely populated Pearl River delta in southern China as it did in Boston’s Back Bay or along the rocky coast of Maine or in the rolling Berkshire foothills of western Massachusetts. New England sent some of the first pioneers, but the world did, indeed, rush in, and part of that world was from China. By the end of 1852, an estimated 25,000 Chinese immigrants were living in California. Horace Greeley’s star reporter, Bayard Taylor, jostling on the crowded waterfront of early Gold Rush San Francisco, could not help commenting on the mysterious “Chinamen,” with their long queues, their mysterious eyes, and the almost immediate popularity of their strange cuisine—much favored by pioneers of all nations, for it was tasty and, at one dollar a plate, a fine bargain in a world where few bargains were to be had. Of all the Argonauts—as the Gold Rush pioneers were called, in reference to the adventurers of Greek mythology who joined Jason in his search for the Golden Fleece—no one was more exotic on the Pacific Slope than the Chinese.

The news of gold on the American River was said to have reached Hong Kong before it reached Boston (the sailing time across the Pacific Ocean was considerably faster than travel to the East Coast, and there were long-established trade routes in those waters). California was a far country in those days, and there was no telegraph line linking it with the East. The transcontinental railroad was twenty years in the future. Even the swift couriers of the Pony Express had not yet crossed the country. Word drifted back East slowly. Major newspapers did not begin noting the gold strike until late summer, and even then many accounts were based on letters that residents of California had sent home.

But the first word of gold in California reached Hong Kong as early as the spring of 1848, according to the historian S. W. Kung. The Chinese appear to have heard about the gold strike before President James Polk—Polk did not address Congress on the subject of gold in California until December, nearly a year after the discovery—and they wasted no time in responding. First hundreds, soon thousands, and then tens of thousands of Chinese peasants would sail for California. The lure of gold and the hope of riches were enough to send them across the ocean into an unknown world.

“Before long, China sent forward her thousands of thrifty wandering children, feeble, indeed, both in body and mind, but persevering, and from their union into laboring companies, capable of great feats,” noted The Annals of San Francisco (with no small tinge of racism) in 1855.

The rush to California attracted an enormous number of risk takers. Peasants in the Pearl River delta saw California as a place of wealth and opportunity, Marlon K. Hom, a historian of Chinese immigration and translator of Cantonese poetry written by early immigrants, points out. For a peasant from the Pearl River delta, the trip to “Golden Mountain” was largely a financial undertaking, a risky chance to ensure his family’s economic future.

Each ship coming from California to China, especially in the early boom days of the Gold Rush, when lucky strikes were more common, brought the kind of news that sent thousands of Chinese peasants to the Pacific Slope. The early Chinese immigrants were often successful; the historian Corrine Hoexter recalls that in the winter of 1850-1851, the sloop Race Horse brought several Chinese miners home to Hong Kong with fortunes of $3,000 and $4,000 each.

“The glamour of gold outweighed the dangers in the first few years. . . . As they showed the gold dust to friends and relatives at homecoming banquets, reports of the fabulous ‘Gum Shan,’ the ‘mountain of Gold,’ across the water spread like flames through dry underbrush,” Hoexter notes. Every ship leaving Canton carried more and more peasants headed for the gold fields. The Custom House in San Francisco recorded 2,716 Chinese immigrants in 1851. One year later, that figure leaped to 20,000. By the time Polly Bemis arrived in the country, more than twenty years later, there were more than 100,000 Chinese on the Pacific Slope.

Virtually all these Chinese immigrants to the United States came from the Pearl River delta—Kwangtung (Guangdong) province, near Hong Kong, Canton, and Macau—which had first had relations with foreigners and which boasted open ports. Subtropical Kwangtung province was then the most populous and one of the poorest parts of China, plagued by years of famine, floods, drought, war, and civil unrest. The land was crowded with far more peasants than it could support, so it was natural that Kwangtung would send an army of laborers across the ocean. There was also something of a tradition of immigration in this part of southern, coastal China. Immigrants from the Pearl River delta—the so-called “overseas Chinese”—had for decades traveled to parts of Southeast Asia to work in mines or on plantations. Chroniclers of the period often report that the Chinese officially discouraged immigration, noting that the penalty for leaving China was beheading, but the punishment appears to have been little invoked, for it in no way impeded the rush to Golden Mountain or elsewhere.

With the exception of a small but dominant merchant class, the Chinese who came to the United States were peasants. They were nearly all male. They spoke dialects of Cantonese and rarely any English. They were frequently illiterate. They wore their hair in a queue down the back. This long braid, reaching past the waist of the wearer, was a sign of obeisance to the emperor and would not be discontinued until the early twentieth century. They came from small rural villages and were accustomed to doing backbreaking labor, scratching at the earth in China as they would do as miners in faraway California. They were ideal travelers into the mid-nineteenth-century American West, where there was often a great demand for cheap labor. They were traveling into a world they thought barbaric, remote, and violent. And coming as they did from the warm coastal countryside of southern China, they would arrive in a world—a place of dense forests, mountains, and bleak deserts—that bore no resemblance to the land they left behind.

The trip to Golden Mountain from a village in the Pearl River delta first involved traveling by junk or raft to Hong Kong. From there passage was arranged to California. The travelers, however poor and uneducated, were free men who often were married and were making this journey in hopes of improving their lives at home in China, notes the historian Shih-Shan Henry Tsai. Many were traveling on the “credit ticket” system—travel now, pay later. Mining in California was at first the chief draw, although railroad construction would replace it in the 1860s. Thousands of Chinese would eventually become restaurant workers, laundrymen, and domestic servants, jobs that would not have typically been done by men in China.

Crossing the Pacific was difficult and dangerous. Numerous accounts attested to the hazards of sea travel. Voyages were often made in old, battered hulks pressed into service for the Gold Rush. “Foreign shipmasters and Chinese entrepreneurs who chartered such vessels conspired to pack as many passengers as possible. Passengers in steerage were bundled together shoulder to shoulder and head to toe in poorly ventilated holds. Water was scarce, and the food prepared in ships’ galleys was poor. Fatalities were frequent,” the historian Jack Chen has pointed out. Under sail, if the weather and the winds did not cooperate, it could take as long as eighty or even 100 days to make the crossing—twice what good sailing time would have been. But with the introduction of the steamship in the 1860s, the passage from China was reduced to a matter of four or five weeks.

Steerage on the China run was damp, dark, poorly ventilated, and filthy. In a typhoon, a tropical cyclone with wind speeds of 100 miles per hour or more, Chinese passengers quartered on the “between deck,” below the ship’s waterline, occasionally drowned when these sections of the ships flooded. Ships often carried nearly twice the legal number of steerage passengers. Passengers slept on narrow bunks—some little more than a foot wide—with less than two feet of headroom. Some passengers traveled as standees and took turns sleeping in shifts. The notorious bark Libertad, which carried 560 passengers (although its legal limit was 297) lost 100 passengers on one run from China to San Francisco. Its passengers died of thirst—they had no water for the last week of the voyage—and the Libertad is frequently described by chroniclers of the passage from China as a “floating hell.” The year after Polly Bemis arrived, the American government investigated the steamship trade on the Pacific run and found conditions not much changed over the years: “thus the darkness, foul-smelling bilge water, the tainted atmosphere and kindred evils of the early sailing days were repeated.”

Government reports noted that “access to the main deck from lower ones was difficult,” and when passengers were seasick, “they were content to remain below rather than exert themselves trying to reach the pure air and light of the main deck,” as much as four to five stairways above. It was not uncommon for distressed passengers to remain below during entire voyages.”

Most vessels sailed from Hong Kong to San Francisco without stopping. “Fresh meat and vegetables were rarities and living accommodations dangerously inadequate,” the historian Robert J. Schwendinger points out. He adds: “Many steerages were provided with makeshift bunks and primitive kitchen facilities that were inoperable in bad weather, so that passengers went without food for days at a time, unable to cook meat or boil rice. Emigrants paid additional costs in several ways: brokers charged them a twenty-dollar fee for their services, others sold rotten beef or pork to vessels that was dumped overboard during the voyages; and some captains charged passengers for setting up bunks or water tanks in steerage. Risks of shipwreck or epidemic attended all ocean travel in wooden hunks, and hunger and thirst accompanied many.”

Still, many ships’ captains treated their passengers kindly. When the Balmoral, commanded by Captain J. B. Robertson, reached San Francisco, his Chinese passengers presented him with a gold ring and raised a silk flag on the vessel’s main mast proclaiming, “Presented to J. B. Robertson by 464 of his Chinese passengers who have experienced much kindness and attention from him during the voyage from Kwangtung to the Golden Mountain.” In 1857, the Chinese merchants of San Francisco saluted a Captain Slate, who brought 700 emigrants without a single case of sickness or death.

One week after Polly Bemis arrived in Portland en route from San Francisco to the Idaho Territory mining camp of Warrens, the bark Garibaldi, whose captain was A. Noyes, tied up at Moffett and Stephens’s wharf to discharge its cargo, after coming upriver in tow of the steam tug Ben Holladay. The Garibaldi had sailed from Hong Kong on May 13 and took sixty days to reach the mouth of the river—fair time but no record—bucking headwinds throughout the voyage, the Oregonian reported. The newspaper commented favorably on this vessel’s voyage. “She brings 270 Chinese passengers. During the voyage not a single case of sickness occurred on board, and the passengers arrived in good order.” The editor of the Oregonian was delighted with these new arrivals, telling readers, “We have not seen a more healthy or robust lot of Chinese than the Garibaldi brought. All are well-proportioned, handsome looking fellows.”

Between 1867 and 1875 (the time when Polly Bemis would have traveled to the United States from China) at least 168 round-trip voyages were undertaken, transporting some 124,800 Chinese in both directions. Steerage sales alone accounted for $5.8 million during those years. (Ships’ manifests, whether for vessels traversing the Pacific or for coastal steamers coming up from San Francisco, listed Chinese passengers only as steerage, a kind of human ballast.)

In the 1850s, the average number of Chinese immigrants making the Pacific crossing was 6,680 annually. At the rate of thirty to fifty dollars per ticket, this traffic would have produced $250,000, and it prompted much competition. Return passage to China was only ten dollars.

The historian Gunther Barth has described the resulting tensions: “During the course of the voyages, the dark, dank depths of the sailing vessels grew increasingly oppressive to men who were present under compulsion and afflicted by superstition, apprehension, and dreams of their destinations. When barrel after barrel of rotten pork had to be thrown overboard, when rough seas prevented travelers from using the badly constructed cooking places, arranged with an eye to maximum economy on the crowded lower decks, when cheaply built bunks continued to break down to the risk of heads and limbs, the strain-charged air could explode at any moment.”

San Francisco’s district attorney at that time, Henry Byrne, declared that the captains responsible for bringing the Chinese “packed their live freight like herrings in a barrel, get their fare in advance, and care not how many of the unfortunate creatures perish.” He took several of the captains of such vessels to court in the 1850s for carrying excess passengers. At worst, however, the captains might have been fined.

But there were also riots and near-mutinies on vessels, and scurvy and fever took their toll, too. Steerage accommodations were tight. The competition for travelers—and the volume of Chinese who wished to immigrate—was so high that the price of the ticket soon dropped as low as $13.

Chinese travelers often fought with the crews of vessels, sometimes because of simple misunderstandings. At other times, mutiny was a last resort. Captain Leslie Bryson, master of the American sailing ship Robert Browne, was taking 450 Chinese from Amoy to San Francisco in March 1852 when the travelers mutinied. The ship was overcrowded and the travelers had been duped into thinking they were headed for California, but they were actually going to plantations on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) as coolie labor. This would be a cruel fate that many Chinese would meet when they were shipped to the guano mines on the coast of Peru or to sugarcane plantations in Cuba. Bryson had ordered the Chinese scrubbed and their queues cut off, believing they were not clean. The Chinese mutinied, killed the captain and officers, and took command of the ship. The incident, the first case of an actual coolie uprising on an American vessel, was much publicized at the time. The mutineers—or at least some of them—were later arrested when they sailed the ship to a remote island, but the case, though highly controversial, was never resolved because the Americans and the Chinese could never agree on exactly what had happened.

Only a few weeks after Polly Bemis arrived in Portland, the bark Manila tied up there. The Manila drew much comment in the Oregonian after the Chinese passengers mutinied during a quarantine stop in Astoria on the Oregon coast to ensure that the vessel would not bring any diseases into the country. After a few days of being detained, the Chinese—419 men by the best count—attempted to seize the vessel and be allowed ashore. The captain and the ship’s officers had to quell the rebellion with force, the Oregonian reported:

Finding gentle means ineffectual, the captain and the first and second mates descended to the cabin and procured their pistols and knives. They returned with the weapons drawn and cocked, and drove the mutineers from the forecastle, threatening instant death to any one who refused to obey orders. This effectually cowed them. They soon went below, and gave no more trouble during the remainder of the voyage up the river. At one time bloodshed appeared imminent and unavoidable. But for the coolness, bravery and resolution of the ship’s officers, serious difficulty would without doubt have resulted.

It was unclear whether the Chinese aboard understood why they were being detained, or whether the tension and confinement of being at sea for many weeks had finally triggered the revolt. On many ships there was no translator on board; typically, some of the officers who had been long in the China trade spoke a gibberish of Cantonese they had picked up in Hong Kong and Canton. The water cannon or a marlinspike was the preferred means of communication. On particularly rough passages, the Chinese were kept belowdecks under conditions that commentators compared to the Middle Passage, the voyage of slave ships coming from Africa.

Typical of travelers on the China run was Fatt Hing, a nineteen-year-old fish peddler who heeded the call of the Golden Mountain, which he heard about while buying fish on the South China coast. Fatt Hing’s family raised the money for his passage by selling the water buffalo and pawning his mother’s jewelry, according to the historian Betty Lee Sung. He was smuggled on board a Spanish ship bound for California. Fatt Hing’s passage was brutal and terrifying. With dozens of other young Chinese like himself, he slept, sat, ate, and waited on a straw mat in a ship’s hold that was “stifling and foul, putrid from the vomiting of those who had yet to acquire their sea legs,” Sung writes. It was too cold for the Chinese to go on deck, as they were wearing thin cotton and flax clothes that were common in the Pearl River delta. Most of the time the Chinese would not have been allowed on deck in any case.

It took ninety-five days for the Spanish vessel to reach San Francisco—more than twice the normal sailing time. The passengers were terrified, believing they had been sold into slavery, but Fatt Hing eventually arrived.

Recollections such as Fatt Hing’s are unusual. Even the Library of Congress, in compiling “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900, lamented the absence of Chinese records, noting in 1997 that “no first-person memoirs of the Chinese experience in nineteenth-century California are known to survive.”

The explanation for this lack of first-person accounts of the trip to Golden Mountain had much to do with who was making that trip. Peasants did not write books. Most of the Chinese travelers were illiterate, and they left no trace of their voyage. A modern Chinese scholar, Li-hua Yu, believes it is likely that the few existing materials were lost during the anti-Chinese movement. The Chinese collection of the Idaho State Historical Society, she notes, largely contains records and documents belonging to the Boise Chinese organizations after the mid-twentieth century.

“It must be remembered, however, that any possibility for a thorough understanding of the Chinese and their activities has always been over-shadowed by the fact that all the records and writers were external observers of early Chinese communities,” Li-hua Yu observes. “There was hardly any bilingual person nor any Chinese who wrote about the Chinese experience in Idaho.” Many older Chinese found the memories of discrimination and abuse in the early days too painful to recall or discuss, she adds.

Most pioneers like Fatt Hing and Huie Kin, another rare Chinese memorist, were typical of the travelers who first sailed to Golden Mountain. They knew almost nothing about America. And America knew almost nothing about them.

Huie Kin remembered how his ship finally reached San Francisco “on a clear, crisp September morning.” This sojourner’s heart soared as he described his elation:

To be actually at the “Golden Gate” of the land of our dreams! The feeling that welled up in us was indescribable. I wonder whether the ecstasy before the Pearly Gates of the Celestial City above could surpass what we felt at the moment we realized that we had reached out destination. We rolled up our bedding, packed our baskets, straightened our clothes and waited. In those days there were no immigration laws or tedious examinations; people came and went freely. Somebody had brought to the pier large wagons for us. Out of the general babble someone called out in our local dialect, and like sheep recognizing the voice only, we blindly followed, and soon were piling into one of the waiting wagons. Everything was so strange and so exciting that my memory of the landing is just a big blur. The wagon made its way heavily over the cobblestones, turned some corners, ascended a steep climb, and stopped at a kind of clubhouse, where we spent the night. Later, I learned that the people from various districts had their own benevolent societies, with headquarters in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As there were six of them, they were known as the “Six Companies.” Newcomers were taken care of until relatives came to claim them and pay the bill. The next day our relatives from Oakland took us across the bay to the little Chinese settlement there, and kept us until we found work.

In those days, the so-called Six Companies, often referred to as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association—mutual-aid societies made up of people from particular districts in China—largely spoke for the Chinese in the American West, acting as protectors, arbitrators, and to some extent labor brokers. Before China formalized its diplomatic relations with the United States in the late 1860s, the Six Companies acted as a virtual government agency. For all practical purposes during the nineteenth century, the government of Chinatown in San Francisco—and by extension the life of the Chinese in the American West—was a combination of the Chinese consulate general and the Six Companies.

The risk that Huie Kin and Fatt Hing undertook was worthwhile, for historians note that a peasant in rural China then might earn between three and five dollars per month, whereas the wages in California for performing even the most menial and brutish tasks would amount to one dollar per day on average. In the 1860s, railway workers—and China provided thousands of these for the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad—earned on average thirty to thirty-five dollars a month, lived on half of that, and could easily send home thirty dollars a year, a fortune in the poverty-stricken Pearl River delta. By living frugally and by pooling their resources, Chinese workers often saved significant amounts of money.

The Chinese would have an almost immediate impact on California, for not only did they immigrate in significant numbers, but they would soon corner the labor market in jobs no one else wished to do, ranging from running laundries and restaurants to gardening and rolling cigars. The Chinese would do any work and they would do it cheaply, too.

Whites traditionally called immigrants from China “sojourners,” the literal translation of a term for Chinese who had gone abroad as temporary visitors. They expected to be only briefly in the United States. Whites also frequently referred to the Chinese as “celestials,” a reference to the “Celestial Empire,” a common Western term for the Manchu dynasty that ruled China at the time and a name that emphasized how exotic the Chinese were.

The intention of nearly all Chinese to return home with a bit of a grubstake may explain why many of them did not assimilate. The Chinese simply saw no point in putting down roots.

“The majority of Chinese came here intending to stay only a few years until they accumulated enough money to return to their homeland and live out the remainder of their lives in comfort. They did not try to assimilate into American life because they did not intend to make a permanent home here, and their efforts to earn as much money as possible left little extra energy or time to devote to learning new ways of life in a strange country,” the historian Robert McClellan has pointed out.

In the American West, the notion that the Chinese were not planning to stay was received as good news. However useful they might have seemed at first, the Chinese were largely not wanted as permanent residents. The Chinese themselves were fiercely ethnocentric, too; even the peasants of the Pearl River delta believed that there was no place like home and they would return there as soon as they had acquired a little money in the goldfields of California.

The New England journalist Samuel Bowles, who toured the West at this time, assured his readers that because the Chinese had not come to stay, their expenses were different from those of immigrants who came as extended family groups in which a man might be supporting a wife, several children, and even parents.

“They do not come to stay or become citizens, but simply to make their fortunes and go back home and enjoy them,” Bowles told readers of the Springfield Republican, a widely read newspaper with a national audience. “Neither their families nor their priests follow them; they show no desire to domesticate themselves here; they dread nothing more than to die and be buried here, and nearly every China-bound steamer or ship carries back home the bodies of ‘Chinamen,’ overtaken, as death overtakes us all, in the struggles of their labor and ambition.”