Hells Canyon Massacre

The date was May 27, 1887 when 34 Chinese miners were murdered, stripped naked, hacked to pieces and then thrown into the Snake River in Oregon. It was the worst massacre of Chinese in the history of the American West and the murderers got off unpunished. Today, 133 years later, we remember this atrocity.

This article is entirely based on the research done by R. Gregory Nokes for his book Massacred for Gold: the Chinese in Hells Canyon, whose dogged research brought to light an episode of history that was largely forgotten, ignored and covered up. The structure of my article shall also vaguely mimic the structure of Nokes’ book. All credits of the research go to him alone.

Brief Context

Chinese labourers began were initially welcomed in the United States due to a labour shortage. They were received with open arms as gold miners, farmhands, common labourers and domestic workers. When the labour shortage ended, the people wanted them gone. The Chinese contribution, specifically to the American West, was great. But it has largely gone underappreciated and unnoticed. One of the largest projects the Chinese worked were the Central Pacific Railroad. During the first two years of construction, white labourers had completed about 50 miles of track. The owners of the project were frustrated at the lack of progress and hired as many as eleven thousand Chinese labourers for the construction of the railway. Indeed, “Chinese workers heroically built a key section of track through California’s rugged Sierra Nevada range, working in tunnels under mountain snowdrifts, risking being buried alive, as some were. Others hung from baskets over sheer granite cliffs to drill holes for dynamite, with an occasional luckless man blasted from his perch” (Nokes 35). The Chinese also worked in large numbers on the Northern Pacific Railroad, Oregon and California Railroad, the Canadian Pacific and the Portland line that connected to the Northern Pacific.

During the 1870’s and the 1880’s there were some three hundred thousand Chinese present in the US. Violence against them was widespread. After the railroads had been built there was a violent scramble for jobs between all labourerers. The whites resented the Chinese for their willingness to work for lower wages, they also resented the Chinese for refusing to joing in strikes for higher wages and their role as strikebreakers. The whites were angry that the Chinese took jobs that they felt rightfully belonged to whites. Ultimately, in 1882, the American Congress pandered to the anti-Chinese sentiment which was gripping the nation and enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; an act that attempted to solve the Chinese problem by barring any Chinese from emigrating to the US for a decade, which was later extended well into the twentieth century.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was ineffective. The worst violence occured after the act was passed – and arguably, the Hells Canyon Massacre of 1887 was the worst of these events.

The Victims

Eleven names are know of the 34 murdered victims:

Chea Po
Chea Sun
Chea Yow
Chea Shun
Chea Cheong
Chea Ling
Chea Chow
Chea Lin-chung
Kong Mun-kow
Kong Nhan
Ah Yow

The exact history of each of the victims is unknown. However, Nokes suggests that the most of the victims came to America by Portland (in 1882, 5000 Chinese arrived in Portland via Hongkong). He further suggests that they were then recruited to lay rails, clear land and grade track beds for the new railroads across the Pacific Northwest. If this was the case for Chea Po and his crew, then they would have also been laid off after the completion of the railway. It is probably that they then sought new opportunities to work as miners.

The miners were natives of Punyu in the city of Guangfu (present day Guangzhou, a.k.a. Canton). Chea Po and his crew were employed by the Sam Yup Company, one of the San Francisco based Chinese Six Companies, which were officially called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. The Sam Yup Company represented labourers from Shuntak 顺德, Punyu 番禺 and Namhoi 南海, all areas in and around Guangzhou.

Chinese miners were active since the 1860’s in the US. Lewiston experiences a gold rush in the 1860’s, but after most of the easy gold was mined out, it experienced a bust. The town began to grow only by the 1880’s. The main way of sustaining themselves by this point was through growing wheat. Of the 782 inhabitants, 60 were Chinese. Regrettably, but not unexpectedly, the white miners viewed the Chinese as intruders and established white-only mining districts. Nokes gives the example of the Oro Fino mining district edict of April 14 which proclaimed “the complete exclusion of the Chinese and Asiatic races and the South Pacific Ocean Islanders from the mines” (31). However, the whites who settled Lewiston in the 1860’s had a get-rich-quick mentality, after mining the easily accessible gold, they would be happy to sell their claims to the Chinese. It is then that the Chinese moved in in greater numbers, Oro Fino counted 550 Chinese miners as opposed to 120 whites in 1866. In fact, there were many Chinese miners: in 1870, in Idaho Territory, 4000 out of 6500 miners were Chinese. In Oregon, 2500 out of 4000 miners were Chinese.

My Beloved Wife:

It has been several autumns now since 
your dull husband left you for a far remote alien land. 
Thanks to my hearty body I am all right. 
Therefore stop embroidering worries about me.

Yesterday I received another of your letters. 
I could not keep the tears from running down my cheeks when thinking 
about the miserable and needy circumstances of our home, 
and thinking back to the time of our separation.

Because of our destitution I went out, trying to make a living. 
Who could know that the fate is always opposite to a man's design? 
Because I can get no gold, I am detained in this secluded corner of a strange land.
Furthermore, my beauty, you are implicated in an endless misfortune. 

I wish this paper would console you a little. 
That is all that I can do for now...

An unsigned and undated letter found in the Kam Wah Chung store in John Day, Oregon. Translated in 1975 by Chia-lin Chen. This letter reflected the loneliness and destitution many of the Chinese labourers felt during their time in the US.

Chinese gold miners, Photograph by Haxeltine, M. M.

The leaders of the Chinese mining party were Chea Po and Lee She and were possibly veteran miners with decades of experience. In the Autumn of 1886, a party of miners led by Chea and Lee embarked on boats at Lewiston to travel down the Snake River to head south into Hells Canyon. They travelled upstream by dragging their boats with ropes and poles along the shoreline. On their voyage they would likely have stopped frequently to pan for gold. Such a voyage would have taken them weeks. The last leg of their journey would have been the most exhausting. Once they entered the Hells Canyon, the deepest Canyon in North America, the steep cliffsides would make it nearly impossible for them to pull their boats along with the ropes and poles.

Chea Po and Lee She moved seperately after Chea decided to set up camp at Deep Creek. Lee She continued twenty miles upsteam. Chea, however, appeared to have struck gold, literally. Chea’s crew remained in the area for the following eight months, extracting a considerable amount of wealth from that area.

The Murdering Bandits

Bruce “Blue” Evans was a murderer (he killed Thomas J. Douglas in 1883) and a rustler who operated on the Oregon side of the Snake River. He lived an outwardly honest life as a horse herder with his young wife. His crew consisted of schoolboys and small-time ranchers, some of whom were J. Titus Canfield, Hezekiah “Carl” Hughes, Hiram Maynard, Omar LaRue, Robert McMillan and Frank Vaughan. The area was newly settled by the white colonists, as the area, inhabited by the native Wallowa band of Nez Perce, were forced to leave in 1877 under the premise of a false treaty. The isolated fertile and newly conquered region was ideal for criminal pursuits.

Another important actor in the massacre was Frank Vaughan. He managed to convince everyone to believe he was a responsible, upstanding member of the community and was therefore appointed as a special constable while he was part of Evans’ gang.

This cattle-rustling gang remained undetected for over a year. However, by May 1887, the rancher Fred Nodine caught Canfield selling six of his horses with altered brands. Canfield was arrested on the 10th of May but was bailed out by his mother. Shortly after, Vaughan appeared in the Evans hideout with a subpoena ordering him to court hearing for Canfield. At this point, Evans must have known his horse rustling days were numbered. Nokes speculates that Evans “may have seen the Chinese gold as his ticket out of the county” (Nokes 23).

Canfield was studying at a one-room school at the time. He proposed to his classmates for them to do their country a favour by killing the Chinese miners and get their gold for their trouble. Nokes notes that killing the Chinese was the primary motivation for these schoolboys while the gold came only second (24). Ultimately, it was Canfield who came up with the idea to murder the Chinese and he was the one who convinced Evans to go along with the plan.

The Massacre

According to Findley (a friend of Vaughan and a contemporary who grew up with many of the gang members), the gang rode down to the Snake River on the 25th of May. They watched the Chinese miners from a hillside but did not commence the shooting. They retired to their hideout for the night, a cabin which belonged to the rancher George Craig.

The following day they some went down to murder the Chinese, others were position on the hillside with high-powered rifles so they could pick off the Chinese from a distance. The gang opened fire on the miners. The miners, according to most accounts, did not resist. After the Chinese were shot to death, the gang hacked the bodies to pieces. They put the bodies into the boat and then scuttled the boat. Some of the corpses that surfaced days later were half decapitated and had severed limbs. The bodies were also stripped naked.

According to Dr. David Stratton, the gang once again returned to the cabin and returned the following day when they shot dead another eight Chinese. They then got onto a boat to a river bar a few miles away, where they killed thirteen more Chinese. After satisfying their bloodlust, they disposed of the bodies by throwing them into the river.

Aftermath

The remains of the Cantonese miners started surfacing in June 1887. The two corpses that were found were horribly mutilated and stripped partially or fully and in terrible condition. Judge Joseph K. Vincent, one of the first to examine these bodies described the massacre as “the most cold-blooded cowardly treachery I have ever heard tell of on this coast” (Nokes 45). Other bodies fell deep into the canyon. George Craig, the owner of the hideout cabin, and his son later found skeletons which had been picked clean by scavenger animals washed up on gravel bars.

News had begun to spread of the massacre. A representative from the Sam Yup Company approached Judge Vincent and offered him a thousand dollars to find the culprits.

Two investigations were launched: one from Lewiston and the other from Wallowa County. Judge Vincent conducted his investigation from Lewiston on behest of the Sam Yup Company. The Wallowa County investigation started after George Craig discovered the washed up remains on the gravel banks near his cabin. Nokes further explains that the two cases were paid little attention. The inaction of the local authorities spurred the Chinese to seek aid from the federal government. Nothing much happened afterwards either. There simply wasn’t much interest in seeking justice for Chinese.

In February of 1888, the Chinese legation in Washington D.C. told the Secretary of State about the massacre, and it came as news. Judge Vincent, an official U.S. Commissioner, who had been investigating this case since the beginning, apparently hadn’t reported the crime to Washington. Congress was now under some pressure and subsequently approved an indemnity for the Chinese of approximately 150,000 dollars on February 24, 1887. The Chinese legation was dissatisfied with this resolution. They wanted to ensure the protection of Chinese in America, as the Hells Canyon Massacre was far from the only case of violence perpetrated against the Chinese during this period – what comes to mind are the Chinese Massacre of 1871, the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 and the many inequities and violent pogroms that transpired during the the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act a few years prior. It was clear, however, that the United States authorities, whether they were national, state or territorial, had no intention to do anything at all (Nokes 85).

Consequences?

As for the investigation of the murder, Vaughan was arrested. He spilled the beans and confessed. He implicated Canfield, Hughes, LaRue, Maynard and MacMillan. Due to his confession, he was let off without a charge. The implicated gang members were arrested by the authorities. Some locals were much dismayed and attempted free these murderers from jail. A petition was signed by, ironically, thirty four prominent county members who claimed the gang members were being detained illegally. The petition was granted. Maynard, Hughes and MacMillan were released once their bonds were paid.

Contrarily, other locals could not abide by this injustice, such as the former U.S. Senator named James Slater. He wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney for Oregan, L.L. McArthur, in which he explained the case of the massacred Chinese. He requested that the state send men and resources to track down Evans, Canfield and LaRue. Sadly, his correspondence bore no fruit.

By this time, Vincent had ceased to investigate. The Chinese had given up on him as well, since he seemed less interested in achieving results than to receive payment from the Chinese. Like so, the any hope that the gang would be punished for the murdering and looting of the 34 Cantonese miners was extinguished. Due to these developments, the Chinese authorities attempted to gain financial compensation in lieu of justice, but that is a story for another time.

Conclusion

Racism, xenophobia, greed. These are all powerful motivators that lurk beneath the veneer of civility. History tells us time and again that this veneer is ever so thin. Once scratched, it reveals the base nature of many a noble Anglo-Saxon or any other people that claim civilisational or racial superiority over others. Learning of such history forces one to pose the question whether the driving factors of the Hells Canyon Massacre are truly gone or not. The answer, sadly, is a resounding not. Recently, the COVID-19 induced panic has certainly scratched the civil veneers off of many previously civil or tolerant people. We see a rise in violence against Asian-Americans (and indeed Asian-Europeans as well as Asian-Australians) simply because they look Chinese. The anti-Chinese sentiment that is doing the rounds these days reminds of the grim days of the 1870’s. What must we, as reasonable people, do to prevent history from repeating itself? I think we can start by remembering the Hells Canyon Massacre. It should not be forgotten, just as the Rock Springs Massacre, the Chinese Massacre and many other similar violent episodes must not be forgotten – they must all serve as grim reminders of what happens when ignorance and greed are allowed to triumph over reason and principle.

References

Nokes, R. Gregory. Massacred for Gold: the Chinese in Hells Canyon. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009.

Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

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