In last week’s Inside Idaho, we uncovered the history of the Chinese immigrants who came to Idaho to mine for gold but gardened and lived off the land known as Garden City.
This week, we take a look at Chinese pioneer Polly Bemis. Born in 1853, her family sold her into slavery as a teenager. She was brought to the United States, where she eventually made her way to Idaho.
“The history of Polly Bemis is a great part of the legacy of central Idaho. She is the foremost pioneer on the rugged Salmon River,” Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus said in 1987.
Bemis, who is also mistakingly named Lalu Nathoy in several books, married Charlie Bemis in the mining town of Warren in 1894. Bemis was a mining camp gambler from Connecticut.
Living off the land
Popular folklore claims that Charlie won Polly in a poker game. However, other accounts claim that he proposed marriage to Polly after she spent two weeks nursing him back to health from a bullet wound he received in a robbery attempt at his home.
Eventually, the couple moved to a small, remote ranch in the Salmon River Canyon, north of Warren. On the ranch, Polly sewed, crocheted, gardened, and fished the river. It’s said that one day she caught 27 fish with the worms from her garden.
In the early 1920s, life became more challenging for the couple when Charlie became sick, and their house burned down. While both survived the fire, Charlie still died from his illness later that year. She then moved to Warren while some of her friends rebuilt her house.
Once her new house was rebuilt, she moved back to the ranch and lived off the land by herself for over a decade.
The ranch today
Today, Polly’s house is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also a member-owned ranch with cabins that sit on a 26-acre piece of land.
It’s also a popular stop for people fishing or rafting the river.
Polly Bemis Day
Polly is an icon and a staple in Idaho’s history. So much that last summer, August 10th was proclaimed Polly Bemis Day.
During the celebration, a life-size bronze statue of Polly Bemis stood on the steps of the Idaho State Capitol. It was built by sculptor Irene Deely, owner of Woman of Steel Gallery.
“Today, you will observe that Polly is back, 97 years later,” David Leroy said at the event, according to the Idaho Press. “Polly is back.”
The statue is now standing at the ranch outside of Polly’s cabin.
Paperback and the big screen
Bemis is also the main character in several books.
One of them: “Thousand Pieces of Gold” by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, was eventually made into a movie in 1990.
Dr. Priscilla Wegars published the most recent book in October 2020. It gives a more in-depth look at her life.