On May 25, 1887, a group of up to 34 Chinese miners were massacred by a group of white frontiersmen in Hells Canyon in a section of the Snake River now officially known as Chinese Massacre Cove. After robbing them of every ounce of gold they had, the Chinese were hacked to pieces, and some of their mutilated bodies were found at Lewiston, Idaho, 65 miles downstream.
It is one of the worst acts of vicious hate violence against Chinese in American history. They could have stolen their gold and left the Chinese miners alive since there were few laws around to protect Chinese or their property. But they gunned them down and then mutilated their bodies on top of that. If that isn’t a hate crime, I don’t know what is.
Of course no one was punished for this atrocity, and justice was never served. The men who were responsible for the killings either got away or were brought to court and found innocent by juries.
George S. Craig, one of those who had discovered the mutilated bodies of the Chinese minors, said it plainly, “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.”
This massacre had long been forgotten but has recently been unearthed and gained momentum for being remembered as an important part of American history thanks to the efforts of writer R. Gregory Nokes, who has written articles on the Chinese Massacre Cove as well as published a full book documenting the event, Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon. Together with the Chinese in North America Research Committee and a newly formed Chinese Massacre Memorial Committee, a 4-by-5-foot granite monument is scheduled to be placed at Chinese Massacre Cove June of next year to memorialize the tragic event.
One of the few tidbits of Asian American history that I ever learned when I was in high school was that the Chinese came to America as miners and they built the railroads. I remember my initial reaction to that was “They’re not MY ancestors.” My family immigrated to America in the early 80s.
At the same time, I was so willing to accept George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as my “forefathers.”
Now I’ve come to understand how much the early Asian Pacific Americans were as much my forebearers as all the other trail-blazing Americans if not more so. I don’t know what sort of men those miners were, and no one really does because there are only a few shaky clues to only a few of their identities. Maybe they were greedy men, maybe they were womanizers, maybe they were loving husbands and fathers trying to support families with their ventures. Who will ever know? But what I do know is that they stood at the front lines of hate and racism, and whether intending to or not, made a path for the rest of us. Their skins of various shades and hues of color blazed through those new frontiers, and those skins were shot and sliced and chopped apart because they were strange and feared. I honor them for laying the foundations of my life here as an American, for they were so that we could be.