- [Announcer 1] The following is an OPB original series.
- [Announcer 2] "Oregon Experience" is a production of OPB in partnership with the Oregon Historical Society.
(dramatic country music) - [Chuimei] 34 Chinese gold miners were killed along the Snake River.
- It is the most significant Chinese massacre in American history.
- The motivation has to be more than just greed.
- Nobody was held accountable.
It was basically hushed.
It was basically hushed.
- How many other crimes were committed in this period where there were no witnesses?
- There were shootings, there were lynchings, murders, so it's pretty much open season.
- [Jackie] This is a history people don't know about.
(dramatic country music) - [Announcer 2] Leading support for "Oregon Experience" is provided by Arlene Schnitzer and Jordan Schnitzer.
Major support provided by the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Clark Foundation, and the contributing members of OPB and viewers like you.
(bright music) - [Narrator] The Snake River cuts through Hells Canyon, dividing Oregon and Idaho.
At nearly 8,000 feet, this is the deepest river gorge in North America, surpassing even the Grand Canyon.
Jet boats take visitors to areas that are otherwise virtually inaccessible.
- Okay, folks.
At this site, about 34 Chinese gold miners were killed in a two-day period here in Hells Canyon.
All the bodies out of that camp were actually thrown in the river.
(dramatic music) - [Narrator] In 1887, Chinese miners were working this area when a band of horse thieves attacked, shooting them and stealing their gold.
It was one of the worst mass murders of Chinese in the nation, but today the event is largely forgotten.
The details remain a mystery.
- This is a story we need to tell.
This is part of a coverup that lasted for about a hundred years.
- [Narrator] Greg Nokes was a reporter for the Oregonian in 1995, when a packet of missing documents about the massacre turned up in the Wallowa County courthouse.
- They were hidden in an old safe that had been unused for many years.
They weren't supposed to be in there.
They're supposed to be on a shelf in the vault where they kept all the court records.
- [Narrator] The handwritten documents included an indictment against six Wallowa County men.
Despite a confession, no one was convicted.
There are only a few images of the accused.
Descendants know only rumors.
- And it made me wonder how many other crimes were committed in this period where there were no witnesses, nobody to to remember it in history.
(country music) - [Narrator] Wallowa County in far northeastern Oregon is home to about 7,000 residents.
- It's bordered by the Snake River on one side and then mountains on the other side, so it's geographically isolated.
So it became kind of a self-sustaining economy and community.
(country music) - [Narrator] The earliest recorded white settlers came in 1871, when James Tulley brought 300 head of livestock to the area - In the 1870s, people were always looking for land, looking for a place to farm and settle and raise their families.
- [Narrator] Most were small ranchers, just trying to get by in the harsh environment.
The remote landscape also brought its share of outlaws.
- Then you attracted the rogues and the adventures.
(gun firing) The unnamed many, probably illiterate, most of them, and so you had kind of both sorts.
(dramatic music) - [Narrator] Settlers and outlaws alike were newcomers.
This had been Nez Perce land until 1877, just 10 years before the massacre.
Rather than being forced onto a small reservation, Chief Joseph led his people on a doomed trek towards freedom in Canada, crossing from Oregon to Idaho at this spot on the Snake River.
- He led a handful of women and children, a handful of warriors, and led several livestock to this location right here, where they started building horsehide rafts.
- [Narrator] The site is known as Dug Bar.
It's about three miles from where the Chinese were killed.
According to local legend, in the 1880s, a stagecoach robber holed up here with stolen gold.
- There was a stagecoach robber named T.J. Douglas who robbed a stagecoach in Montana of several gold bars, probably valued at $50,000, maybe even at the time, and buried them there at the site of what is now Dug Bar.
- [Narrator] The story goes, two men, Titus Canfield and Bruce "Blue" Evans, were using the bar to move stolen horses across the river.
- [Greg] Canfield and Evans had found out about those gold bars and killed Douglas and took the gold bars - [Narrator] In 1887, the two men would also be accused of killing the Chinese miners.
- Blue Evans and Titus Canfield, who were regarded as the ringleaders, they all fled the county and they were never held accountable for the crime.
Of the miners who were killed, we don't know very much about them.
- In the story, there's no Chinese voice.
It's an emotional thing for me, and when I read some of these documents, it's just very hard for me to feel that, oh, that could be my uncle.
That could be my great-grandfather's relatives.
- [Narrator] At the time of the murders, at least 10 of the Chinese victims were identified, but the names were written in English.
Chinese naming practices included a family name, the village and generation, and lastly the given name.
In America, those names were simplified and information was lost.
- We know two of them, their Chinese name.
They are Zae Bow, Zae Quo, and the rest We only know their name in English.
- [Narrator] Chuimei Ho tracked the group to a specific region in southeastern China, in today's Guangdong province.
- This group of people come from more specifically, from Panu County, that's where my father was born.
My father comes from the same county as these victims.
the Cantonese always want to explore.
They want to see more.
(country music) - [Narrator] Beginning in the 1850s, tens of thousands of Chinese followed the gold rush to the American West, an area they called Gam Saan, Gold Mountain.
- There were these distorted rumors about gold just lying in the street and that they could go and pick it up.
- [Narrator] From China, they traveled over 6,000 miles by ship, borrowing money for the journey.
- There were six Chinese companies who paid for their way across and then they owed them for that passage, in many respects.
(tense music) - [Narrator] From San Francisco, the companies sent man in groups to the gold fields, spreading first through California, then north into Oregon Territory and beyond.
In 1870, the census recorded over 3,000 Chinese In Oregon.
By 1880, the number jumped to almost 10,000.
They lived mostly in Chinatowns scattered throughout the state, separate from white communities.
- Oftentimes, they did not want to assimilate.
It was a situation where they would come to the United States for 10, 15, 20 years, make some money and go back home and do very well.
- [Narrator] Some did just that.
One of the most successful men spent decades in Jacksonville.
The region's first hydraulic mining operation was established by Chinese mining contractor Gin Lin.
He has believed to have made over a million dollars and eventually retired to China a wealthy man.
Most Chinese were not as fortunate, making little money while facing discrimination and hostility.
(tense music) - [Narrator 2] "A cabin occupied by a company of Chinese miners was set fire last evening by a party of armed men, who also began shooting at the cabin, which the Chinese were forced to abandon."
The Jacksonville Sentinel, 1877.
(bright music) - The Chinese were different.
They wore their hair differently.
Everything about 'em was different.
Spoke different language, and they didn't have families.
They didn't have women along.
- [Narrator] Restrictive culture in China, along with US laws barring Chinese women, meant wives usually stayed home.
Most men lived together in bachelor societies.
The white population viewed them with suspicion.
- There were a lot of activities associated with these men that were seen as being sinful.
There was a lot of opium smoking going on.
There was prostitution happening.
There was gambling.
- [Narrator] When Oregon became a state in 1859, its new constitution singled out Chinese residents.
- [Narrator 2] "No Chinaman, not a resident of the state at the adoption of this constitution, shall ever hold any real estate or mining claim."
- The Chinese were restricted where they could live, where they could work, where they could start businesses.
- [Narrator] But that didn't stop them.
Chinese were among the earliest non-native pioneers in Portland.
This photo of Front Street from the 1850s shows the Hop Wu Laundry already established among the very first buildings.
(bright music) The Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association was established in the late 1800s in Portland's Chinatown.
Today, its historic building houses a small museum.
- These are some of the costumes that were worn by some of the Chinese opera actors when they performed on stage down in the main hall.
- [Narrator] The building was an important community center for Portland's early Chinese residents.
- Here in Portland, They would provide many services, sometimes shelter temporary shelter, until they could find housing elsewhere within the community for those new immigrants, or until they could find work for them.
- [Narrator] Some worked as cooks or household servants.
A few opened businesses, but most did backbreaking labor that allowed communities to grow, working in canneries on the coast, clearing farmland, and building the railroads that connected the west.
- The Chinese were willing to work for whatever they could earn just to make a living.
The Chinese were being blamed for taking jobs away from white workers.
- [Ben] They weren't completely unjustified, these white laborers, in thinking that the white bosses would like to replace them with Chinese.
- [Narrator] In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese laborers from entering the country.
It was continually updated and renewed, only repealed in 1943, when the Chinese became a US ally in World War ii.
- It was the first immigration act that target only the Chinese.
No other ethnic groups are under that particular law.
- [Narrator] A few groups were exempt, such as merchants, students, and tourists, but it was almost impossible for them to become citizens.
And if they left the country, they had to get certificates to reenter.
- [Patricia] If they left four or five times in 20 years, there was a photo for each time they left and each time they arrived.
- [Narrator] The National Archives in Seattle holds the Chinese Exclusion Act case files from the Pacific Northwest.
(bright music) - I feel like a detective.
I love the photos, especially the photos of the kids.
(bright music) Merchants were allowed to bring their wives in.
They had to prove that they were married so sometimes they had fake weddings in China and got the paperwork.
- [Narrator] These documents provide clues to early Chinese immigrants and their lives.
- This box has an early file.
Although the Act started in 1882, there really aren't that many files for the 1880s.
- [Narrator] So far, no one has found any record of the Hells Canyon victims among these files.
The victims of the Chinese massacre likely came before the 1882 Act, but some laborers managed to get into the country illegally, fueling even more anti-Chinese sentiment.
- Labor unions had sold senators and politicians on the idea that if Chinese exclusion were passed, then incidences of violence that were taking place on the West Coast would stop.
And if you look at the incidences of violence post-exclusion, it didn't stop, and in some ways it was even worse.
So Chinatowns were burned out.
Chinese were shot, they were chased, they were hung.
- '85 and '86 were really the the horror years for Chinese in America.
(dramatic music) - [Narrator] In 1885, tensions exploded all over the west.
In February, mobs in Eureka and Canyon City storm Chinatowns, burning buildings and forcing residents to leave.
In August, coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming attacked Chinese workers in a labor dispute, killing 28 Chinese and chasing hundreds out of town.
In October, a mob in Tacoma, Washington rounded up Chinese residents.
They were backed by anti-Chinese mayor Jacob Weisbach, a German immigrant who was not an American citizen.
- Tacoma was so horrendous.
It also was joined by the mayor and the fire chief.
They helped rounding up the Chinese, take 'em down to the railroad in the rain, and a couple of them died overnight.
- [Narrator] Just beyond what was then the city limits of Portland, 50 masked men beat Chinese woodcutters and tore apart their camp.
In Oregon City, more than 150 workers at the woolen mill were driven out.
The attacks were instigated by future Oregon Governor Sylvester Pennoyer, but Portland's mayor spoke out against the anti-Chinese mobs, and Judge Matthew Deady's public statement calling for order was widely credited with stemming the violence.
- [Narrator 2] "An evil spirit as abroad in this land.
It tramples down the law of this country and fosters riot and anarchy."
Judge Matthew Deady, 1886.
- The atmosphere in Portland and in Astoria is that no, we want them.
We want them to be part of the growing economy.
And so Portland was a haven.
- [Narrator] Sometimes the Chinese demanded their rights, filing lawsuits with the help of white residents.
In Silverton and Astoria, parents sent their children to integrated schools.
In Lewiston, Idaho, Chinese laundry workers went on strike, refusing to to pay discriminatory taxes.
- And they said, "If the white man doesn't want a clean shirt, then we won't do it anymore and they can throw us in jail.
At least we get fed."
(country music) - [Narrator] At almost 500 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Lewiston is the furthest inland seaport on the West Coast.
Chinese arrived in the 1860s and for decades, it remained an important supply base for the region's miners and railroad workers.
- The Chinese called this 1500 Mile, which is 1500 miles approximately away from San Francisco.
- [Narrator] In the fall of 1886, a group of Chinese set out from Lewiston up the Snake River.
- They would've had to pull their boats with ropes, push them with poles, 65 miles from Lewiston against the current of a fast flowing river.
In areas where the cliffs are precipitous, they would've had to climb along these cliffs to pull their rafts and boats.
I can't imagine how they did that.
- [Narrator] Following the river, they traveled into Hells Canyon, setting up camp along a small stream known as Deep Creek.
- There's the wall the Chinese built, there's the hole that they dug.
This is what they were looking at every day.
You're looking across where they built pathways.
You can see it, you can see their work and impact.
- [Narrator] For months, they mined this area, probably finding mostly fine powder, maybe a few thousand dollars worth.
- And a group of thugs on horseback came over the hills and proceeded to kill every single Chinese there and to rob them of their gold.
(gun firing) - When that massacre happened, then those bodies floated down the river and they floated by Lewiston.
They were seen and were reported.
- [Ben] Nobody knows quite how many were floating down, but certainly quite a number floated all the way down from Deep Creek where the massacre took place.
- [Narrator] Over the next few weeks, more bodies turned up.
They were buried in unmarked graves.
Other Chinese in the area were able to identify some as employees of the Sam Yup Company from San Francisco.
The company offered a reward and hired a local investigator.
The Chinese consulate officially complained to the US government, without much result.
Then Wallowa County rancher Frank Vaughan turned state's evidence against six others.
- [Narrator 2] We entered into an agreement nearly a year ago to murder these Chinese miners for their gold dust.
The men went down to the camp and opened fire on the Chinamen, killing them all, ten in number, and then put the bodies of all except two into a boat."
Frank Vaughan, 1888.
- We don't know what happened, how he confessed, but he did confess and a grand jury was held in which he implicated the other six members of the group.
- [Narrator] The men were accused of killing the Chinese miners.
Some were known horse thieves.
One was just a teenager.
Without standing trial, three of them escaped and apparently disappeared.
- The others stayed on, are found innocent at the trial, and became "respectable," quote unquote, in the county.
Frank Vaughan served on the school board and the road commission and all those things, and they were never held accountable for the crime.
- [Narrator] Today, B.E.
Evans, one of the accused killers, is listed on a monument outside the Wallowa County courthouse as one of the region's early pioneers.
Census records show he left the area after the murders, living his life in Tyler, Texas - 1887, the year of the massacre, is also the year that this becomes a county.
So whatever government there is are governments of people.
There are little library societies that form.
There are school subscriptions deals, and then finally they get around to, "Well, we gotta have a town."
- [Narrator] It was the county's first murder trial, but the local newspapers didn't appear to cover it.
- There were a few paragraphs on the crime at the time, but no real explanation of it.
- It was basically hushed.
It was basically hushed.
- [Narrator] Over the years, a few written accounts and apparent confessions to the killings have emerged.
- In the course of doing the research, I learned there were quite a few more than 10, didn't know how many and eventually settled on the figure between 31 and 34.
(bright music) - [Narrator] To further the research, Chuimei Ho and Bennett Bronson tried to track down the victim's descendants.
- We went to China and looked for it, looked for the village, and with a very, very small hope that we could find out which families that might still be around to tell us more about them.
It was a very moving experience to me, because we just walk into the village without knowing anyone.
(bright music) - [Narrator] They didn't find any direct family of the men who died at Hells Canyon, but they did meet clan members, people with the same family name that share a common ancestor.
- And so we have a group of elders listening to the stories that we told them what happened along the Snake River, and they listen with such a kind of intense feeling.
We should take advantage of history, what we have learned, and can we use some of the lessons that we learned to make things better today?
- A group of us from Lewiston decided to have an annual conference called Chinese Remembering, and we had that conference for five years.
And one of the purposes of that conference was so little of the history of the Chinese in that region is known, 'cause they're all gone, was to keep alive that history.
- [Narrator] The group worked to get the site officially named Chinese Massacre Cove.
- We wanted to put a permanent memorial to those 34 Chinese men who died.
(helicopter whirring) - Of all the many things I'm proud of in my professional career, my involvement with that monument makes me proudest.
- [Narrator] They held the ceremony to dedicate a granite monument at the site.
- [Bettie] The wording on the stone is in English, Chinese, and Nez Perce.
(chime ringing) (elder speaking in Nez Perce language) - [Narrator] A Nez Perce elder and a Daoist priest blessed the event.
- I know the priest was there to perform a very important ritual.
- By the spirits of water and fire, to release all those people who are suffering and to be born again.
- [Chueimei] We have one particular ceremony that is for the dead and especially the wrongful dead.
- Once the blessing had taken place, there was this strong gust of wind that swept over the hillside.
And you ask one guy, and he'll say, "Geez man, it's just the wind," and then another guy will say, "No, it's those restless spirits who are departing this place, who perhaps are showing their gratitude for telling their story and for honoring their presence there."
(water flowing) - [Announcer] There's more about Massacre at Hell's Canyon on Oregon Experience Online.
To learn more or to order a DVD of the show, visit opb.org.
(serious music) (serious music continues) (serious music continues) Leading support for "Oregon Experience" is provided by Arlene Schnitzer and Jordan Schnitzer.
Major support provided by the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Clark Foundation and the contributing members of OPB and viewers like you.