Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer, by Priscilla Wegars, Ph.D., is a hardcover, full color, biography for children published by Backeddy Books (Cambridge, ID) in 2003 to honor the sesquicentennial (150-year-anniversary) of Polly's birth in 1853. Polly Bemis, the Pacific Northwest's most famous Chinese woman, lived in Idaho for over 60 years. After her parents in China sold her, she was smuggled into this country, purchased by a Chinese man, and brought to Warren, Idaho. Polly married Charlie Bemis in 1894 and they settled on the remote Salmon River. Charlie died in 1922 and Polly died in 1933. The book is illustrated with 29 historic black and white photographs, 4 modern color ones, and a number of period background images.
Polly Bemis, the West's most remarkable pioneer Chinese woman immigrant, was born in northern China on September 11, 1853. During a famine year, her parents sold her, and in 1872, still a teenager, she was smuggled into Portland, Oregon. A Chinese man paid $2500 for her, to be his slave and concubine in the boisterous mining town of Warrens, Idaho Territory; there, she became known as Polly. By 1880, she was free of her Chinese owner and had become companion and housekeeper to Charlie Bemis, a Caucasian saloonkeeper. In 1890, following a poker game, a disgruntled player shot Charlie, wounding him severely. Polly nursed him back to health. They married in 1894 and settled on the remote Salmon River, Idaho's "River of No Return." Charlie died in 1922, and Polly died in 1933. In the years since Polly's death, numerous magazine articles, several book chapters, three individual books, and even a movie have presented versions of her life. Today, the best known of these is Ruthanne Lum McCunn's novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold, first published in 1981, together with a film of the same name that was loosely based on the book. A dramatic highlight of both the book and the movie occurs when Charlie Bemis and a Chinese man called "Hong King" play poker for very high stakes - ownership of Polly herself. Most other retellings of Polly's life history also state that Charlie Bemis "won her in a poker game," and some even insist that she was once a prostitute. Research into Polly Bemis's supposedly "lurid life" reveals that she was, instead, a "literary legend." No factual information supports the "won in a poker game" story, the name "Hong King" for Polly's Chinese owner, and even the name "Lalu" that writers have often used for Polly.