Our 2015 reissue of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s classic, Thousand Pieces of Gold, is on sale! First published in 1981, McCunn's novel was adapted to film a decade later with actors Chris Cooper and Rosalind Chao. It's been a star of the Beacon backlist for all these years, being adopted by book groups and used in classrooms (middle school, high school, and college). For this new edition, we've reissued it with new historical material. McCunn has written a new essay, taking readers through the challenges she encountered while researching Polly Bemis’s life. Readers will note how her discoveries and the documents she found outline the hardships Polly endured as a legendary pioneer fighting for independence and dignity in Gold-Rush America.
Lalu Nathoy/Polly Bemis left no written records. Neither did the person closest to her: Charlie Bemis. So I looked for the two in pioneers’ recollections, newspapers, photographs, and documents. Sifting through my findings, examining, reexamining each fragment for value, I always feel like a miner panning for gold.
From the start, Polly’s Certificate of Residence and marriage certificate shone bright. These papers, having survived a devastating fire, must have been important to Polly and Charlie. Why?
The 1892 Geary Act required each Chinese laborer living in the United States to register and apply for a Certificate of Residence within the year. Those who did not would be presumed to be in the country unlawfully and, therefore, subject to arrest and deportation—unless a white witness swore that the failure to register had been due to illness or accident. Protests and legal challenges by Chinese failed to overturn this law but did extend the period for registration.
In The United States vs: Polly Bemiss [sic], In the Matter of the Arrest and Deportation of said defendant, a white character witness corroborated that the roads had been impassable, and the judge granted Polly a Certificate of Residence.
The headshot affixed to Polly’s certificate is from a full-length portrait she gave Gay, the little schoolgirl who boarded with her in Warrens. When Gay showed it to me, she said Polly referred to the image as her wedding photograph, thus firmly linking her 1894 marriage to the couple’s hopes it might prevent her arrest and deportation.
Idaho’s First Territorial Legislature (1863–64) had prohibited the marriage of whites and Indians, Chinese, and persons of African descent; even their cohabitation. So it should have been impossible for Polly and Charlie to marry. But A. D. Smead, the justice of the peace who had issued their certificate of marriage, was himself illegally married to Molly, a Lehmi Shoshone from the Sheepeater Band.
Similar instances of officials flouting unjust laws abound, lending credibility to the multiple written and oral sources alleging Polly gave her neighbors a deed to the Bemis Ranch despite an Alien Land Law prohibiting Chinese from owning property. Yet I could find no record of a deed.
Then, a group of pioneers gathered to reminisce about Polly digressed into talk of mining, including how a mining claim entitled the claimant to the property so long as he continued to mine it. As they spoke, I flashed on Charlie’s uncharacteristic diligence in mining Polly Place every spring, the threat of losing their home during the Buffalo Hump Rush. Charlie owned other property and could easily have purchased the land. But the U.S. government had made emphatically clear that neither marriage to a white man nor the esteem and affection in which Polly was held by so many could protect her from the long, relentless reach of anti-Chinese laws.
So I looked for a mining claim—and found gold.
For additional findings, see my webpage. For a complete analysis of all my sources, see “Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China’s Daughter, Idaho’s Legendary Pioneer,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 24, no. 1 (2003). Click here for readers' guides.
About the Author
Ruthanne Lum McCunn writes about the Chinese on both sides of the Pacific. Her award-winning books include The Moon Pearl and, most recently, Chinese Yankee. McCunn’s work has been translated into thirteen languages, published in twenty-two countries, and adapted for stage and screen. She lives in San Francisco