The Lingering Injustice of Oregon’s Chinese Massacre

The Wallowa Mountains, which border Wallowa County. The mountains and Hell’s Canyon made the fertile Wallowa Valley relatively difficult to reach, so it was settled later than some other parts of Eastern Oregon. The Nez Perce resided in the valley until they were forced out and confined to reservations in Washington, Idaho, and Oklahomah following the 1877 Nez Perce War.
A view of the commemorative arch outside the Wallowa County Courthouse, visible in the background. The arch honors early settlers of the area including Bruce Evans, the leader of the gang that killed the Chinese miners. The courthouse behind the arch contained hidden documents from the trial of the gang members that remained in the county, some of which were rediscovered by Nokes during his research.

The Massacre

One of the worst crimes ever recorded against Chinese Americans happened in Eastern Oregon in the year 1887, a massacre of 34 Chinese gold miners at the hands of seven white settlers. Nobody was held accountable for the crime, and the event itself was covered up for over a century—court documents were stashed away, locked in safes or misplaced, and a silence fell over Wallowa County, a hush that is just beginning to lift.

Anti-Chinese sentiment ran deep in the late 19th century Pacific Northwest. The Chinese immigrants who had begun arriving in the 1850s were resented by white Americans for taking up jobs and resources. Most of them lived in extreme poverty, hoping to make money that they could bring back to their families in China. The mass of them labored on railroads, worked in construction projects, ran small businesses in towns, or mined for gold in the western wilderness. The immigrants were not well protected under U.S. law. Their properties were ransacked or destroyed, and in many places they were run out of town. Some Chinese were beaten or lynched. The rampant anti-Chinese movement peaked in the 1880s after the Chinese Exclusion act went into effect. In San Francisco in 1885, 13 Chinese were killed by mobs in a three month period. Deaths occured in Seattle as well, and in Tacoma, a mob led by the mayor drove about 300 Chinese immigrants out of town and destroyed their homes. In Portland in 1886, an anti-Chinese group planned to forcibly remove about four thousand Chinese residents. The movement was somewhat stopped by town authorities, but violence against the Chinese persisted. At one point, a group of around 50 masked white men terrorized a group of Chinese woodcutters working on Mt. Tabor, driving them back to Chinatown across the river. Primary accounts of what inspired the massacre vary. However, the events themselves are quite well accepted. Bruce “Blue” Evans was a local criminal who stole cattle and horses and may have had a hand in killing another outlaw prior to the massacre, from whom Evans and his partner Titus Canfield robbed a large amount of gold which they later buried. Evans assembled a gang of seven to murder the Chinese and take their gold as well. The gold was not so much a primary motive for the killing as it was recompense, a reward for their deed. The youngest of the gang was 15 at the time of the trial. The oldest was 38. Many of the murderers were students at the local Imnaha School.

The gang rode down from a cabin hideout to the cove where the Chinese were mining alongside the Snake River, at a spot then called Deep Creek. They shot most of the Chinese from above, giving them little chance to defend themselves. Once the gang’s ammunition ran out one of the Chinese remained alive, only to be beaten to death by a member of the gang wielding a large piece of wood. Some of the bodies were dumped in the river and others were left on the shore, unburied. The gang took what gold the miners had collected, probably worth only a few thousand dollars in today’s value. Days later, when ten of the bodies washed ashore upstream near Lewiston, Idaho, signs of gruesome deaths and possible torture were observed—deep cuts, many bullet wounds, and one body which was beheaded. All of the bodies had been stripped naked before being set afloat.

Little is known about the miners themselves. The identities of the bodies were not immediately known. Only ten of them were later tentatively identified by correspondence with the Chinese government. The leader of the group was Chea Po, and all ten identified were organized by the Sam Yup Company in San Francisco. The company represented workers from the Shuntak, Punyu, and Namhoi districts in China. It is possible that the Chinese miners originated from there. They may have entered the country through San Francisco, and taken a ferry up North to Portland. They had certainly been in the U.S. for at least five years, since the Chinese Exclusion Act had gone into effect in 1882, barring any more Chinese from entering the country

After the massacre, the gang returned to the hideout. One local history written by Harland Horner, a fellow settler who knew many of the gang members, states that a young white orphan boy, Tommy Harmon, was also staying at the hideout at this time, a companion of the killers. After he learned of the massacre, he allegedly ran away from the cabin, only to be tracked down and killed by Evans.

The Evans gang laid low until five days later when Evans himself was arrested, not for murder, but for stealing cattle. While awaiting trial, Evans escaped the county jail by holding a deputy at gunpoint and fl ed the territory within a few days, leaving behind a wife and two children, probably never to return. After allegedly burying what remained of the gold from the massacre, possibly along with the other gold they had accumulated, Canfield also fled. A third member of the party left shortly after.

The members of the gang that remained in the county were prosecuted, but all were acquitted. They were tried for the murder of ten Chinese miners, an initially mistaken figure, based only on the number of bodies that washed ashore near Lewiston. Frank Vaughan, the only gang member to turn state’s evidence and testify against the others, shifted much of the blame for the killings toward those who had already left the county. Two investigations followed, one based out of Lewiston and one out of Wallowa County. Both half-hearted attempts to fi nd the missing fugitives failed. Evans’ fate is unknown, but Canfi eld may have returned to Wallowa County years later, likely to retrieve some of the buried gold. He later ran a profi table blacksmith’s shop in nearby Idaho, possibly using some of the gold from the Chinese as starter money.

The old Chinese section of the cemetery in Lewiston, Idaho. After being initially buried in unmarked graves in a nearby park, some of the bodies were likely moved to this section of the graveyard. Lewiston had a sizeable Chinese population at the time of the massacre, with a small section of the town reserved for Chinese residents. The Chinese miners may have departed from Lewiston on their journey to Deep Creek.

The Cover-up

Right away, the crime didn’t spark the media coverage that might have been expected. Even though it was the first murder trial in the newly-founded county, most surrounding newspapers reported very little, if at all, on the events surrounding the massacre. Some of the gang members who were tried came from well-known and respected families, and the community may have rallied around their own, attempting to prevent unwanted scrutiny.

Additionally, negative sentiment surrounding the Chinese probably contributed to the lack of coverage. One local historian who attended the trial stated decades later, “I guess if they had killed 31 white men, something would have been done about it, but none of the jury knew the Chinamen or cared much about it, so they turned the men loose.”

Even in the two main primary historical accounts, one by Horner and one by a different settler, Ross Findley, the hesitancy to depict the massacre is evident. Findley avoided using the names of the gang members, some of whom he himself knew well. Both accounts showed little sympathy toward the murdered Chinese. Months after Evans escaped Wallowa County, a prominent local fiddler composed a song called “Old Blue,” which romanticized the exploits of Evans and his gang, and found humor at the fact that when Evans thought he was being arrested for killing the Chinese, it was actually for stealing cattle. The song, documented fully in the Horner history, is addressed as a warning to Tommy, the orphan boy Evans murdered. The song mentions only names of those gang members who had fled the county, attempting to preserve the reputations of the ones that remained in town.

It was not until 1995 that some of the court documents were rediscovered by a county clerk, having been hidden or misplaced in an old safe. Following a local news article on the documents, R. Gregory Nokes, a correspondent for the Oregonian, began an investigation into the crime. Ten years later, Nokes located the full trial record. “The records of the trial were hidden away, I finally found them in the planning commission vault in the county courthouse in enterprise… It’s clear that people had hidden everything away and they didn’t want people to know about it—they didn’t want history to know about it,” he said. Nokes wrote a book on his findings entitled Massacred for Gold, the most comprehensive account of the massacre yet. Nokes relied on primary historical accounts, legal documents, newspaper records, national archive materials, interviews, and other resources to complete his research.

Dug Bar, the spot on the Snake River where about a decade before the massacre, the Nez Perce had been driven out of their territory by white settlers. Deep Creek is only a few miles upstream. The bodies of some of the miners drifted past this spot as they floated northward toward Lewiston. Today, river boat tours are offered on the Snake River, which allow visitors to stop at Chinese Massacre Cove.

Remembrance

Nokes’ work drew attention to the massacre. Marcus Lee was involved with the Oregon Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association (CCBA) at the time Nokes’ initial article was published, and was asked to investigate the Chinese Massacre. Lee visited the site of the massacre, explored Wallowa County, and contacted Nokes to learn more. Through Nokes, Lee learned of an effort to create a memorial at the site of the massacre, which would soon be officially renamed Chinese Massacre Cove. Lee encouraged the CCBA and the Lee Family Association to help fund the memorial. Both organizations contributed generous amounts of money, and soon a memorial was installed at the site. Both Lee and Nokes were there when it was dedicated. “It was an amazing event, just fantastic. Personally as we were going down the river, it was more of a pilgrimage,” said Lee. The dedication included ceremonies by Daoist, Buddhist, and Nez Perce leaders, since the site is on Nez Perce land. Nokes, whose book led to the creation of the memorial, appreciated the event’s significance. “That was a very important step in helping the healing process,” he said.

Nokes continues to speak on the massacre, and his book will continue to raise awareness of the event. The renaming of the cove was also a significant step toward greater historical recognition. However, both Nokes and Lee believe there is more to be done.

Outside the Wallowa County courthouse there stands a commemorative stone arch, built in 1936 to honor the county’s first white settlers. The list of early settlers was provided by the historian Horner, who served as county historian. Included in that list is the name “B. E. Evans,” which stands for Bruce Evans, the leader of the gang that killed the Chinese. “What I want to see is for them to eliminate the Bruce Evans name from that memorial arch at the county courthouse. To honor him with other early pioneers there I just think is just egregious… It seems almost scandalous,” said Nokes. Lee is less concerned about the arch. “I think that’s best left to the people that live there,” he said. “If they want to leave that on the plaque, you go right ahead. You’re not fooling anybody and you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot there, but it’s your choice.”

It is particularly important to Lee that the massacre be represented truthfully in exhibits, textbooks, museums, and other sources. Few if any museums have displays on the massacre, including the Wallowa County Historical Museum. “It’s like a puzzle with a piece missing,” said Lee. “None of the contributions of the Chinese, who helped build the Pacific Northwest—like so many other immigrant groups, none of that was ever told.”

When considering further ways the Massacre could be commemorated, Nokes brought up the possibility of a formal apology from Wallowa County. “I suppose there could be a formal county apology for the fact that this occurred, and that it was unrecognized and covered up for more than a century,” he said. Lee was intrigued by this idea. “I could see a positive outcome [of that] being that it would hopefully lead to a place of healing. I think the longer you just keep a scab over that it’ll just continue to fester. Something like that would just break down some of the barriers,” he said. “A formal apology but a heartfelt one too, not just a political move.” \

Such an apology is not unheard of. The city of Tacoma, Washington, which ran its Chinese citizens out of town in 1885, erected a park in remembrance of the tragedy, specifically noting the city’s regret and attempt at reconciliation. In 2018, Monterey County, California issued a formal apology to its citizens for its actions of Japanese internment during WWII. Also last year, the city of Annapolis, Maryland passed a resolution that issued a formal apology for lynchings that occurred in the county during the 19th century.

Whatever steps are taken, it is clear that the community is on an irreversible path toward reconciliation. Nokes’ speaking events draw large crowds in the area; many Oregonians want to hear the full, unaltered tale of what happened at Deep Creek. Why? It is a new story but one which was never forgotten, freed from the safes and vaults where it was hidden for so long. It is astonishingly horrid, tragic, and vile, casting a shadow over the county and the nation. And it is a debt that we are still learning how to pay.

A view descending into Hell’s Canyon, where Chinese Massacre Cove is located. The east side of the canyon is in Idaho, while the west is in Oregon. The Snake River winds through the canyon, separating the two states.

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