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The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West

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When gold rush fever gripped the globe in 1849, thousands of Chinese immigrants came through San Francisco seeking fortune. In The Poker Bride , Christopher Corbett uses a little-known Idaho legend as... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

5 ratings


History is vivified when seen through the eyes of an individual, thus it is with Christopher Corbett's story of Polly Bemis, a Chinese concubine sold by her starving parents IN 1872 then smuggled to San Francisco. Next, she was brought by her owner to an Idaho mining camp where he lost her to Charlie Bemis in a poker game. She lived with Charlie for almost half a century on an isolated ranch in the canyon of the Salmon River, "known as the `River Of No Return." She nursed him back to health after he was almost fatally wounded, and he later did an amazing thing - Charlie married her. There is a picture of Polly in the book wearing her 1894 wedding dress. She's a small woman with her hair pulled back in a neat bun; the hand touching her skirt appears strong. In 1923 she will come down from the mountain on horseback and be taken by car to Orangeville, the Idaho County seat. This was an amazing journey for Polly as she had never ridden in a car. "She had never heard a radio or seen a train, an airplane, a motion picture, or electric lights. Her arrival was also amazing for the populace, receiving banner newspaper headlines and being likened to Rip Van Winkle. Polly was one of the more fortunate of the hordes of Chinese who came to California, to what they called "Golden Mountain" to search for gold. As Corbett points out the California Gold Rush was a time of madness, violence, and rabid discrimination against the Chinese. Although they worked for very low wages it was claimed that they took jobs from Americans - there were "Chinese Must Go" campaigns, and frequent brutalities inflicted upon them. Of course, crossing the Pacific to reach our shores was travail within itself. "Steerage on the China run was damp, dark, poorly ventilated, and filthy." One ship, the Libertad, carried 560 passengers although its limit was 297, and lost 100 men on that voyage. Writers described the passage from China as a "floating hell." A former editor and reporter with the Associated Press Corbett has researched extensively and enriched THE POKER BRIDE with details describing this little known portion of our history. It is, of course, Polly's story but it is also the immigrants' story - fascinating, often tragic, and true. Highly recommended. - Gail Cooke

We Need to Take Heed

The Poker Bride is a somewhat loosely based book on the life and times of Polly Bemis, a Chinese girl who arrived in Idaho during the gold rush years of the mid-19th century and lived there until her death during the first half of the 20th century. What the book really is, however, is a short history of Chinese immigration to the American West during this same period. What most people remember, if anything, about this period is the great contribution of the Chinese to the building of the transcontinental railway. That at least is my case. So far as I was aware, the huge influx of labor from Asia had been the product of the demand for it on the railroad. What I had not known was the potency of the call of the gold fields starting with the Sutter's Mill discovery in 1848. Although I found the narrative thread of the book a little convoluted and at times a little repetitive, I think Mr. Corbett's book is a remarkable compendium of information. His selection of a quotation from G. K. Chesterton--one of my favorite authors and author of one of my favorite poems--is very apt here, and explains the problem exactly. "I will not say that this story is true: because, as you will soon see, it is all truth and no story. It has no explanation and no conclusion; it is, like most of the other things we encounter in life, a fragment of something else which would be intensely exciting if it were not too large to be seen....(The Secret of the Train)." To a certain extent it is the author's responsibility to pull the story out of the morass of information so it can be viewed critically by the reader; admittedly however, doing so would have pulled it from context and skewed the meaning of the actual events. I applaud the author for not giving in to the "story" but remaining true to the "history." This has to have been difficult for him, since he obviously has a story telling predilection. There appear to be three--probably more--threads to The Poker Bride. First and foremost there is the story of the Bride herself. While there is no doubt she existed--contemporaries who knew her had been interviewed, photos exist of her, and some paperwork exists for her--there is little beyond the sketchily known events of her later life and what she said of her earlier life that goes beyond her mere existence in history. Essentially she is part reality and part myth, and the reader is allowed to decide what to believe. More than anything it is the author who, by creating an historical backdrop for Polly, gives her simple bare bones existence a significance beyond the simple documentation. The second thread of The Poker Bride is what actually does this. Mr. Corbett has drawn as much data as possible to the recreation of the Chinese experience in the American West. By gleaning information from Western newspapers, personal accounts, and oral history drawn from those who had participated in the events, the author has given as much of an account of the Chinese

Ten stars Wonderful well written book

My family has been in the mother lode area of California since the 1800 gold rush when a woman in the family ran a bakery and a brothel. And because Jackson CA in the mother lode has a Chinese graveyard, this books title caught my attention from the get go. Very well written and researched. Charlie and Polly Bemis are two people I would have loved to know. Reading of their journey from San Francisco up to Idaho and the people and places they encountered reminded me of visiting many of the same places. The author does an excellent job of describing how the Chinese were treated when they arrived in San Francisco and how they were treated in the gold country. Something the many small towns here in the Sierras are honest about when you visit their small town museums. Reading in the book and especially chapter 10 of Charles Shepp and Peter Klinkhammer who lived near Charlie and Polly, and helped them out, and spent the holiday with them, and would care for Polly after Charlie died, was one of my favorite chapters, as it shows how people here help each other out. Loved reading of how Polly was such a great fisherman, and how she grew a big vegetable garden and orchard which she would harvest and preserve also reminded me of how we live today. Love reading the no nonsense diaries these folks kept, which noted the weather, what they ate, how the bears ate all the berries or the horses got into the orchard, again reminded me of how they lived and the connection to how many live today. The book notes that without the help of Charles and Peter, Polly wouldn't have been able to remain on the ranch after Charlie died. And that the men were not looking for new neighbors, which is why they agreed to care for Polly and get the land after her death. Gotta love these folks. Loved reading of Polly visiting the outside world for the first time and how when she first heard a radio she wanted to run away because she thought it was a ghost speaking. Although she was overjoyed when the men strung a phone line to her home so they could stay in touch with her, since the river could be harsh and prevent easy access to her place. Or how happy a person she was and how she loved being asked to hold babies, or getting to ride in a car, rain etc. Things many people today simply take for granted. On page 183, we read that she fell ill in 1933, at the age of eighty-one she was taken on horseback over narrow and winding trails to the War Eagle Mine where they had arranged to have an ambulance waiting for her. And that she showed herself very grateful for all that was done for her. Thus she wrote out of the area on a horse, just as she had ridden in. She would die on November 6, a Monday, with a brief notation that it was a warm and cloudy day and she would be buried at 10 am the next morning. Peter has always planned on getting her a simple headstone. He died in 1970 at the age of eighty-nine and the heirs to his estate carried out his wishes and she has a simple hea

A Saga of America

Corbett, Christopher. "The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the West", Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. A Saga of America Amos Lassen Here is an aspect of the old West that many of us know nothing about. We know that there were Chinese there during the gold rush but we do not know about the Chinese women who came over to work as concubines. One of these was Polly Bemis who was won in a poker game by Charlie Bemis and he married her. This kind of marriage was unheard of at the time and Charlie and Polly lived isolated lives in central Idaho. After her husband's death, Polly came to town and told of her experiences. Here is her story as well as the larger story of Chinese mass immigration and a picture of life in California and the Pacific Northwest. In the nineteenth century it was taboo for a white man to marry an Asian woman but here is that story. This is one of the most curious of stories and at first, we learn that Americans welcomed the Chinese and thought them to be "exotic curiosities". But as more and more came here, public sentiment went against them. The Chinese were accused of stealing American jobs and they were portrayed in the press as "thieving, shifty, and untrustworthy". There was a "Chinese Must Go" campaign in the 1880's and all was not good. This is quite a story and we get to learn about an unheard chapter in our history. This is a look at an invisible chapter in American history and it is a wonderful and vivid reconstruction of a lost period. Corbett's narrative is intriguing and he has done his research well--he gives us an extensive bibliography. We get not only the story of the poker bride but also the story of the gold rush. It's a happy story but not all of the Chinese were as happy as Polly. There is a great deal to be learned here and Corbett's writing style makes that leaning effortless.

The Gold Rush Immigration from China

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 transformed America. Some of the transformations, like the impetus to populate the empty western lands and the increase in individual fortunes, were good, at least for some. The ecological effects were often disastrous. The social effects, besides the population shift, were most significant for the interaction of Chinese immigrants with American citizens, and these were often disastrous as well. In _The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the West_ (Atlantic Monthly Press), Christopher Corbett has told the story, as much as it can be known, of one Chinese girl who came to California and was indeed won in a poker game. There is not much that can be said about Polly Bemis for certain, but Corbett's book (similar to his previous book _Orphans Preferred_, about the Pony Express) is not only about the specific case but also about the larger picture and the folklore and traditions that were made around it. Polly's story is relatively happy-ever-after; for most of her fellow Chinese, however, the land of the "Golden Mountain" proved to be one of violence and exploitation. The news about the gold rush came to Hong Kong before it reached Boston and Washington. The result was that tens of thousands of Chinese came to seek their fortunes in the gold fields, and old, battered ships that were good for nothing else were pressed into transporting them. The Chinese came for the express purpose of making money; expecting to return with a relative fortune, the Chinese simply worked hard and kept to themselves without an attempt to learn the culture of the new land. They were easy targets for exploitation, especially the women who came and almost always became prostitutes. It's a grim story, made a little lighter by the specific tale of the main character in Corbett's work. Polly Bemis didn't leave many traces; one of the lessons in this book is that the history of these Chinese in America was always written by others, since the Chinese themselves were almost universally illiterate. Probably (and according to what she supposedly said of her own background) she was one of the girls who was a financial resource to her family when they sold her into concubinage. She arrived by boat in San Francisco and then by horseback up to the mining camp of Warrens, Idaho, in 1872. It was not the cribs for her; she was to be the concubine of a wealthy Chinese master, although she may have traded hands before coming to him. She was indeed won in a poker game, or so the story goes. Her master, an enthusiastic gambler, lost one round of gold dust stakes after another, and finally had only one possession to put up, his 18-year-old Chinese slave girl. The winner was Charlie Bemis, a Connecticut Yankee who was there for the remnants of the gold rush, keeping a saloon and gambling house. He wasn't cut out for the hard work of mining, and was by most accounts an idler, but he could keep a good saloon. One account by a man who k
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