HomeChinese AmericanThe Forgotten Chinese Massacre at Hells Canyon

The Forgotten Chinese Massacre at Hells Canyon

Chinese miners with “rockers” on Idaho’s Salmon River, not far from the site of the Hells Canyon Massacre of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners on the nearby Snake River. The rocker was a popular and easy-to-use mining device used to separate gold nuggets and dust from rocks and sand. (File photo)

By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

From the Blue Mountains of far northeast Oregon, the serpentine Snake River cascades  into the grand Columbia River as it pours into the Pacific Ocean. The waters of the Snake River carves the deepest canyon at North America – Hells Canyon.

At Hells Canyon, along its rocky rivershore, upon a cliff, a granite memorial poignantly marks an awful atrocity: 

Chinese Cove Massacre-Site of the 1887 massacre of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners. No one was held accountable

In 1995, Charlotte McIver, Wallowa County Clerk, discovered a cache of trial records relating to the 1888 murder trial in an old safe that being donated to the County Museum. Gregory Nokes, a reporter for The Oregonian, began his own research into Chinese Cove Massacre. In 2009, he published a nonfiction book – “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,” that described Massacre details and its coverup by the White community.

Anti-Chinese Sentiment

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. The Act denied Chinese from becoming naturalized American citizens. During the zenith of the anti-Chinese sentiment at the American West, Whites chased, shot, and hung Chinese during this period. They also burned Chinatowns.

On September 2, 1885, in the Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming Territory, a riot and subsequent massacre of Chinese coals miners by White coal miners killed 28 and injured 15 Chinese. The White coal miners held racial prejudice toward the Chinese miners because they perceived them to be taking “White” jobs.

The Tacoma Riot occurred when Whites forcefully expelled the Chinese residents from Tacoma at Washington Territory, on November 3, 1885. The mob marched 200 Chinese residents to Lake View railroad station and forced them to board a train to Portland at Oregon. Afterwards, the mobs razed entire structures in the Chinese community.

The Seattle Riot occurred on February 6 to 9, 1886, at Seattle in Washington Territory.  Again, a White mob forcibly expelled Chinese from the city. They compelled 196 Chinese to pack their bags and to leave aboard the steamship Queen of the Pacific to San Francisco.

Massacre

From Lewiston at Idaho Territory, a group of Chinese gold miners, employed by Sam Yup Company at San Francisco, sailed upstream on Snake River along the steep cliffs of Hells Canyon. They camped at Deep Creek in search of flour gold. The men were sojourners were from Canton city at Kwangtung province in Cathay.

On May 27-28, 1887, a gang of seven horse thieves of White men from Wallowa County, led by Bruce Evans, ambushed the Chinese gold miners. The other six were Titus Canfield, Frank Vaughn, Robert McMillan, Hezekiah Hughes, Hiram Maynard, and Homer LaRue. They robbed gold dust from the Chinese and shot them with high-powered rifles. They mutilated their bodies and dumped them into the Snake River. They burned their camp and equipment. Soon, Chinese bodies washed ashore downstream at Lewiston.

Frank Vaughn who confessed to the Hells Canyon Massacre
Frank Vaughan, front left holding a dog, confessed to being a member of the gang of horse thieves who shot and killed as many as 34 Chinese gold miners in Oregon’s Hells Canyon in 1887. Vaughan, who denied shooting anyone, turned states’ evidence against other members of the gang, but the three who were caught were found innocent of at a murder trial in 1888. A witness said the white jury would not convict a white man for a crime against Chinese. Three other gang members fled and were never held accountable. (Photo courtesy of the family of Wynona Eleen Brown)

The Massacre was officially investigated at the behalf of Sam Yup Company in coordination with Chinese consulate in San Francisco. They identified ten Chinese who were natives of Punyu County near Canton city.

Vaughn testified as state witness. A Circuit Court grand jury indicted Evans and five other gang members (Canfield, Hughes, LaRue, Maynard, and McMillan) for the murder of ten Chinese. Evans, Canfield and LaRue fled Wallowa County and were never apprehended. McMillian, Maynard, and Hughes were arraigned. At Enterprise, a short murder trial with a White jury was held. The White jury found the three men innocent on September 1, 1888. The White community deemed it acceptable to commit violent crimes against the Chinese in the American West.

For 107 years, the White community of Wallowa County covered up the Chinese Massacre. They preferred to ignore the Massacre as only a Chinese crime.

Chinese Massacre Cove. Site of Hells Canyon Massacre
Rock beach at Chinese Massacre Cove on the Oregon side of the Snake River where a gang of horsethieves shot and killed as many as 34 largely defenseless Chinese gold miners in 1887 in the Hells Canyon Massacre. It was the worst of the many crimes committed by whites against Chinese during the latter half of the 19th century. (R. Gregory Nokes photo)

Interview with Gregory Nokes

RAYMOND CHONG: Please explain your passion to pursue the truth of the Chinese Massacre.

GREGORY NOKES: I became interested in this story years ago when I took a jetboat tour of Hells Canyon along the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border. The boat guide pointed to a place where a group of Chinese gold miners were killed by a band of outlaws who stole the miners’ gold and threw their bodies into the Snake River. He said the crime was never solved. As a journalist, I had never heard of this Massacre and decided to investigate it. When I discovered it was the worst of the many crimes committed against Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, I decided people needed to know of this important but tragic event that had been covered up for more than a century. It reflected poorly on our American history, but it is our history.  

RAYMOND CHONG: During your research of the Chinese American experience, what were your important findings?

GREGORY NOKES: I did not know much about the Chinese who came to America in the 19th century. I learned there were many thousands of immigrants who were generally mistreated by the White population, especially in California. I also did not know of the Chinese’ s contributions to  the development of the American West.

RAYMOND CHONG: What were the impacts of the Chinese Americans in the Pacific Northwest?

GREGORY NOKES: They helped build the railroads, worked in the gold and silver mines, and worked at clearing land and draining swamps for farms and businesses. They also were wonderful gardeners, growing flowers and vegetables that were prized by Whites.

RAYMOND CHONG: Prior to the Massacre, what were the general views of Chinese Americans among White Americans?

GREGORY NOKES: Although Chinese workers were at first welcomed in the American West because there was a shortage of White workers, attitudes had changed by the 1870s as there were then many Whites also looking for jobs and they resented the competitions for work from Chinese.  White employers typically preferred hiring Chinese because they worked for less pay and were more dependable as workers. The growing hostility to the Chinese caused much violence against them, especially in California, where they were driven from many towns. In Washington Territory, they were forced to leave the city of Tacoma. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited more Chinese laborers from entering the country. The Chinese massacred in Hells Canyon had probably arrived in America prior to 1882.

RAYMOND CHONG: Why was justice not fairly applied to murderers of the 34 Chinese?

GREGORY NOKES: Whites typically did not care about the crimes against the Chinese, or people of color generally. I could not find a single instance where a White jury convicted a White person of a crime against the Chinese, no matter how convincing the evidence. So the jury let the men go who committed the Massacre. The same occurred after the 1885 Massacre at Rock Springs, Wyoming, where no one was found guilty.

RAYMOND CHONG: “Why did the gang kill the Chinese when they could easily have taken their gold and let them go?” Your final answer?

GREGORY NOKES:  I can only be explained as a savage act of racial hostility.

RAYMOND CHONG: Please describe your journey of the scene of “Chinese Massacre Cove” along the Snake River.

GREGORY NOKES: I hiked to the Massacre site with my friends, it was about a three-mile hike over a rugged trail in very intense heat. At one point, we lost the trail and had to hike down the steep canyon to the Snake River where the Massacre occurred. I became exhausted and during the hike back up the canyon and suffered severe cramps. It was only with the aid of my friends that I made it back to our car. But I was glad I went to see first-hand where the Massacre occurred. There is a small creek called Deep Creek that flows into the Snake River, and it was around this creek that the Chinese were killed by a band of horse thieves who fired down at them with rifles from the top of the canyon. The Chinese apparently had at least one gun, and  they fired back, wounding one of the gangsters before they were killed.

Memorial to victims of the Hells Canyon Massacre
Master E-Man a Daoist priest from Los Angeles (left with back to the camera) presided at the 2012 dedication of a memorial to the Chinese miners in the Hells Canyon Massacre. The memorial at the now-named Chinese Massacre Cove on the Oregon side of the Snake River, is in three languages: English, Chinese and Nez Perce. The Nez Perce were a Native American tribe that once lived in the area. (Deston Nokes photo)

RAYMOND CHONG: What has been your key highlights since publication of “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon” in 2009?

GREGORY NOKES: I was pleased the U.S. Board of Geographic Names formally named the Massacre site “Chinese Massacre Cove,’’ a permanent designation that will appear on maps of the region. People who see the maps will know something terrible happened there. I was also extremely pleased that group of us succeeded in creating a memorial to the Chinese victims at the Massacre site in 2012. The group included Chinese Americans, Native Americans, and Caucasians. We raised the money for the memorial ourselves, without government help.

RAYMOND CHONG: What were your impressions when “Chinese Massacre Cove” granite memorial was dedicated on June 22, 2012?

GREGORY NOKES: My writing the book and my help to create the memorial is one of the most important and satisfying accomplishments of which I have been a part.

RAYMOND CHONG: How would you compare the racial hatred for Chinese Americans in 1887, to now, in 2020?

Book about Hells Canyon Massacre: Massacred for Gold

GREGORY NOKES: While the causes are much different, racism appears endemic among our White population against anyone who looks, speaks, believes, and behaves differently. The racism can manifest itself in different ways, through discriminatory legislation, people’s attitudes, and violence. I am pretty confident in saying that Chinese Americans are accepted into American society as well, if not better, than any other population group. I base this opinion on personal as well as academic knowledge. As to why the attitudes have changed since the widespread discrimination and mistreatment of Chinese in the 19th and the early 20th century, I have no special insight and can only guess.  I had guessed it partly results from the aftermath of World War II where Americans were passive witness to the savage destruction and death in China. Another more important reason may be that the character of the Chinese population coming to the Unites States had changed. The largely uneducated bachelor class of workers who arrived in the 19th century, who, generally speaking were not especially interested in being “Americans” were gone. They were succeeded after World War II by a new class of immigrants, who either were already well educated, or wanted an education. These were hard-working class of immigrants who wanted to become Americans and worked hard to accomplish their goals. I believe Chinese Americans are the largest of the Asian minority population in Portland, and are integrated at every level of society, in business, politics, professional groups, and sports. All the while retaining their own proud identity as Chinese’ Americans with their own fraternal institutions and other organizations.

Epilogue

Since the discovery of trial records in 1995, many milestones occurred in memory of the Chinese Massacre.

  • 2005 – The U.S. Board on Geographic Names named Chinese Massacre Cove to  first officially recognize the crime.
  • 2006  – Gregory Nokes wrote A Most Daring Outrage – Murders at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887 for Oregon Historical Quarterly.
  • 2009 – Gregory Nokes published Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon.  
  • 2012 – Chinese Massacre Cove” granite memorial was dedicated
  • 2013 – Jennifer Anderson and Vernon Lott made Massacred for Gold documentary.
  • 2016 – Peter Ludwin published his poetry collection, Gone to Gold Mountain, about the Chinese Massacre.
  • 2017 – Oregon Public Broadcasting aired OREGON EXPERIENCE – Massacre at Hells Canyon documentary.

For all Chinese Americans, Gregory Nokes nobly remembered the forgotten Chinese Massacre at Hells Canyon on Snake River.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Many thanks to Gregory Nokes for his dedication and energy in writing about
    a grave atrocity committed toward the early Chinese immigrants. The memory of this forgotten innocent group would not have been murdered in vain. Thank you for your works in exposing a dark chapter in the history of this great country.

  2. No jury in United States is ever tasked with finding criminal defendants “innocent.“ Criminal defendants are found guilty or not guilty, and there is a big difference. I’m not doubting the veracity of any of the other parts of the article. But where the author says the members of the gang that allegedly killed the Chinese folks were found “innocent” he does a big disservice to the rest of the article, and grotesquely misrepresents the task of juries.

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