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.

This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

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.