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Polly Bemis, Chinese-American Pioneer of the American West

By Haley Stafford

Polly Bemis, 1894
Polly Bemis, 1894

This year, my class took part in National History Day, a program for middle-school students to put together a project on a historical topic of interest. I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to research. All I knew was that the theme was “Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange in History.”

My teacher noticed my struggle and recommended I read Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. This biographical novel instantly had me hooked on Polly Bemis, born Lalu Nathoy, a Chinese-American Pioneer woman who encountered great hardships, explored new ideas and roles on the American frontier, and exchanged her hardships for generosity. After reading the novel, I found McCunn’s journal article which went further in depth about Bemis’s life. The rich detail in both the article and book sparked my interest in pursuing my own research and paved the path for me to do my project on Bemis.

After gaining a better understanding of Bemis’s life journey, I realized I couldn’t fit all of it in a paper or exhibit, which is why I made a documentary about her. I often found myself going back to McCunn, who became the center point of my project. I first contacted her through email, asking her to share her expertise on Bemis. McCunn was generous enough to share her research with me through two Skype interviews. Not only did these exchanges provide excellent footage for the content of my film, they also patched many of the holes in my research. McCunn had researched Bemis for decades and clarified important events of her life. She was essential to extending my knowledge of Bemis, and also ensured that my research was historically accurate.

Polly Bemis was a remarkable woman. She overcame poverty in China and racism in Western America. Many Chinese women who were forced into prostitution killed themselves in order to escape their hardship. Bemis found a will to live on and endure adversity. After she gained her freedom, she still felt the need to help others and give back to her fellow pioneers. Bemis’s legacy of perseverance and resilience makes her an extraordinary Chinese-American pioneer and a true survivor of the American West.

Here’s the documentary I made about her for National History Day. 


About the Author 

Haley Stafford is an eighth-grade student at Mount Logan Middle School in Logan, Utah.