Myth and mystery surround the life of Polly Bemis, a Chinese immigrant woman who lived in the United States from 1872 until her death in 1933. Born in China in 1853, Polly was sold by her parents and smuggled into Oregon, where she was purchased as a concubine for a Chinese man who was most likely a wealthy merchant. He had her brought to Warren, Idaho, in 1872, but by 1880 she had somehow become disassociated from her Chinese "husband" and was living with Caucasian Charlie Bemis. Legend says that Charlie won Polly from her owner in a poker game, but there is no authoritative historical record to corroborate this fact.
It is most likely that she was widowed and, for the purposes of economic survival, took up with Bemis following her husband’s death. Charlie and Polly lived together unmarried until 1894. During the intervening years, Polly ran the boarding house that Charlie owned, and helped nurse him back to health after he was shot in 1890. After their marriage they went to placer mine along the main Salmon River.
Polly contributed by growing produce and raising animals. She enjoyed sewing crafts and was legendary as a fisherwoman. Their place became a regular stop for boat captains, whose passengers enjoyed speaking with Polly and sometimes photographing her. These encounters helped spread her fame and celebrity to the world beyond Salmon River and Warren, Idaho.
Charlie became bedridden in the early 20th century, and died in 1922 partly because of complications that resulted when the couple’s house burned to the ground earlier that year. Afterwards Polly lived in Warren for two years before moving back to the Salmon River, into a new house built for her by her good friend and neighbor Charlie Shepp. She died in Grangeville, Idaho, in 1933 after suffering what was most likely a stroke.
She was remembered for her “kindness, friendliness, and neighborly qualities,” and her reputation helped overcome racial stereotypes that portrayed Chinese immigrants negatively. She continues to be venerated in Idaho, where in 1987 her old log cabin was restored and turned into a museum. Her exhumed remains are buried beside it overlooking the Salmon River. Her memory and her legend also live on in popular culture: Ruthanne Lum McCunn wrote a biographical novel based on Polly’s life called Thousand Pieces of Gold, which became a movie in 1991. 21