The Wild West of Yester-Year

Polly Bemis

By Rachel Kovaciny

Legend says Charlie Bemis won his Chinese wife Polly in a poker game one Idaho night. Polly denied that later in life, as did others who knew her, so we may never know just how Polly and Charlie met.


Polly was born in China in 1853, near the border with Mongolia. In her teens, her parents sold her as a slave, a sadly common practice in that time and culture. At nineteen, Polly got smuggled into California along with many other young Chinese women. Unlike most Chinese women who were victims of human trafficking across the Pacific in the 1870s, Polly did not wind up in a brothel. A wealthy older Chinese businessman bought her, presumably to be his concubine. Although not actually legal in the United States, in China it was common for a wealthy man to have one or more wives and concubines, and they had similar legal status, so Polly probably considered herself fairly lucky. This businessman gave her the American name Polly and took her with him to a remote mining town in Idaho, now called Warren.


Polly worked for him in his saloon, cooking and cleaning and tending the bar. No one knows what happened to him, but the 1880 census lists Polly as “widowed,” so he died sometime between 1872 and 1880. The word “widowed” also indicates the businessman may have called Polly his wife or even married her, though no marriage record survives. Polly remained in Warren, Idaho, where she ran a boardinghouse and restaurant, and took in laundry from miners. It’s not known when she and Charlie Bemis met, or if they were romantically involved before 1890. That year, a man he had just bested at poker shot Charlie in the face. The local doctor predicted Charlie would die, but Polly took him in and nursed him to health. Legend says she removed bullet fragments from his face and neck with her crochet hook, then used herbs and poultices to help him heal.


In 1894, Charlie and Polly Bemis got married, even though it was illegal in Idaho for a white person to marry a non-white person. They moved to a mining claim on the Salmon River, where they lived in a small cabin. Polly kept a huge vegetable garden and an orchard and sold produce to miners and rivermen. Charlie would sometimes take her produce to Warren to sell there as well. Polly rarely left their home, but she always welcomed visitors and was well-liked by the community. Some people wondered why Polly and Charlie got married, as they did not seem compatible. Polly was industrious. Charlie had a reputation for being lazy. Visitors to their cabin said they often found Polly busy tending her garden and Charlie sitting in the shade playing his fiddle. It is possible they got married because it would protect Polly. She lived with the possibility that they could deport her back to China. Marrying an American citizen enabled her to receive a “certificate of residence.”


Charlie and Polly’s cabin burned down in the early 1920s, and Charlie died that same year, possibly from injuries sustained during the fire. Polly lived in Warren until some friends rebuilt her house and then moved back to their claim. She lived there alone for another decade and continued to support herself by selling fruits and vegetables, and by catching and selling fish. The Bemis home is now on the National Register of Historic Places. You can visit Polly’s cabin and see a statue of her there, as well as visit her grave. You can also learn about Polly and Charlie’s lives through archeological finds that historians have dug up around the property. ♦