Resource

Life Story: Polly Bemis (1853–1933)

Immigrant, Pioneer, and Farmer

The story of a Chinese immigrant who became a pioneer in Idaho.

Polly Bemis in Wedding Dress

Polly Bemis in wedding dress, 1894. P1975-228-43h. Idaho State Archives.

Charles and Polly Bemis

Charles and Polly Bemis. P1962-44-5. Chas. A and Polly Bemis. Idaho State Archives.

Polly Bemis was born in northern China around September 11, 1853. Historians are unable to confirm her birth name, but they do know that she was born into a poor farming family. 

As a child, her feet were bound. Footbinding was an old Chinese practice to make women’s feet smaller. Small feet were considered a sign of beauty. For Polly, it made walking painful for the rest of her life.

When Polly was a child, parents often considered daughters to be a burden. When girls reached adulthood and were old enough to earn money, they often married and became members of their husband’s families. It was not uncommon for poor Chinese families to sell their daughters into slavery when they needed money. This is what happened to Polly when she was around 16 years old. She said that her family sold her to an American woman in Hong Kong. The woman promised that Polly would work in gold-mining camps. 

It is unclear where and how Polly arrived in the United States. Historians do know that smugglers took her to Portland, Oregon. There, an older Chinese man bought Polly for $2,500 and took her to Warren, Idaho, on horseback. Around this time, she took on the American-sounding name of Polly.

The man who claimed ownership over Polly was a wealthy Chinese businessman. His name is unknown. He most likely bought Polly to be his concubine. Many Chinese immigrant men left their wives back in China while they worked in America. If they were wealthy, they often purchased a Chinese woman to be their sexual and emotional companion. These women were known as concubines. They were treated like wives and considered an official member of the man’s household. 

Warren, Idaho, was a mining town with a majority Chinese immigrant community. However, Polly probably found it difficult to fit into the immigrant community. Most Chinese immigrants spoke Cantonese, but Polly spoke Mandarin. In addition, there was only one other Chinese woman in the entire town.

In the 1870s, discrimination against Chinese immigrants grew. White Americans believed that Chinese people were too different physically and culturally to assimilate into American culture. They also feared that Chinese people would take jobs away from the white working class. 

In 1879 in Warren, two Chinese men were victims of a violent and racist attack. The two men allegedly stole from a white man. While in police custody, white residents of Warren pulled them out of jail and lynched them. 

Anti-Chinese attitudes led to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This law prohibited the entry of Chinese immigrants into the United States. 

The first government record of Polly in the United States is from an 1880 U.S. census. She was listed as living in Warren with a man named Charlie Bemis, who was white. By that time, her Chinese owner had either died or returned to China. 

Anti-Chinese attitudes led to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This law prohibited the entry of Chinese immigrants into the United States.

It is unclear how Polly and Charlie met. A sensationalized myth suggests that Charlie won Polly in a poker game. No records support this story and it was most likely made up after Polly’s death. 

Charlie Bemis was born in Connecticut. He came to Warren with his father to mine for gold. He eventually opened a saloon and several other businesses. In 1890, Charlie was shot during an argument in his saloon. Polly nursed him back to health. 

Charlie opened a boarding house by 1892, and Polly managed it. She was a humorous and assertive businesswoman. Later in her life, she recalled that when boarders complained about her coffee, she jokingly threatened them with a butcher knife.

Polly and Charlie Bemis married on August 13, 1894. Earlier that year, Charlie bought property outside of Warren on the Salmon River. This is where the couple moved after their marriage.

At their new farm, Polly and Charlie settled into a routine they followed for several decades. They grew many different kinds of fruits and vegetables and raised cattle, chickens, and ducks. They hunted for animals. Polly loved to fish. The Bemis home was remote, but they welcomed many visitors. They befriended men who owned farms nearby and invited them to come over for dinner. 

The Geary Act of 1892 required every Chinese immigrant to apply for a Certificate of Residence to stay in the country. If a Chinese immigrant failed to apply, the federal government could deport them. 

In 1896, Polly and 22 Chinese men from Warren were interviewed for a court hearing. All of them failed to apply for their Certificate of Residence. They explained that the government official who was supposed to come to Warren to help them with their applications did not show up because of poor weather conditions. Polly and the other Chinese residents of Warren received their Certificate of Residence on August 10, 1896. However, Polly never became an American citizen. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to naturalize during her lifetime under the Geary Act. 

Records indicate that Polly rarely left the Bemis family farm after moving there in 1894. Her neighbor and friend, Charlie Shepp, was her main connection to the outside world. His diary indicates that he brought newspapers and magazines to the Bemis farm. He also helped Polly send orders for new clothes and shoes from the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog.

Charlie Bemis’s health declined over several years, and he became bedridden in 1919. In 1922, the Bemis home burned down. Two months later, on October 29, Charlie died. 

After Charlie’s death, Polly moved to Warren for several years. At that time, the only school in the region was in Warren. Many families lived too far away from town for their children to attend. People in town would sometimes invite these children to stay with them so they could go to school. Polly loved children and allowed several of them to live in her home. 

In 1923, Polly traveled with friends to nearby Grangeville to buy new glasses. This was her first taste of the modern world. She rode in a car for the first time, saw her first train, and watched her first movie. When she returned home, her departure was front-page news. “I have the best time in fifty year[s],” she said.

The following year, two other friends took Polly on a trip to Boise, the state capital of Idaho. This visit was an even bigger shock to Polly. One newspaper reported, “She had seen her first street car, her first high building, her second movie show, and ridden her first elevator, all in one day.” 

Her friend, Charlie Shepp, finished rebuilding the house on the Bemis farm in 1924, and Polly moved back to her home on the Salmon River. Charlie gave Polly a very modern gift for her new home—a radio. Polly loved listening to music and lived alone on the farm for several years. She died on November 6, 1933.

Vocabulary

  • concubine: A woman who has a long-term sexual relationship, either forceful or voluntary, with a man of higher rank without being married.
  • lynched: The mob killing of a person, typically by hanging, for an alleged offense without a trial and often for racial reasons.
  • mail order: Store where a person can order something through the mail. 

Discussion Questions

  • What challenges did Polly Bemis face as a Chinese immigrant?
  • How did the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act shape Polly’s life and the lives of other Chinese immigrants around her?
  • What opportunities did pioneer life provide for Polly Bemis?
  • How did the United States change during Polly’s lifetime? How did she personally experience these changes? 
  • Many details of Polly’s life that have been lost in the historic record. Why is it still important to study the lives of women like Polly Bemis?

Suggested Activities

Themes

IMMIGRATION, MIGRATION, AND SETTLEMENT

Source Notes