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Massacred for Gold

The Chinese in Hells Canyon

R. Gregory Nokes

Publication Year: 2009

In 1887, more than 30 Chinese gold miners were massacred on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America. Massacred for Gold, the first authoritative account of the unsolved crime—one of the worst of the many crimes committed by whites against Chinese laborers in the American West—unearths the evidence that points to an improbable gang of rustlers and schoolboys, one only 15, as the killers.

The crime was discovered weeks after it happened, but no charges were brought for nearly a year, when gang member Frank Vaughan, son of a well-known settler family, confessed and turned state’s evidence. Six men and boys, all from northeastern Oregon’s remote Wallowa country, were charged—but three fled, and the others were found innocent by a jury that a witness admitted had little interest in convicting anyone. A cover-up followed, and the crime was all but forgotten for the next 100 years, until a county clerk found hidden records in an unused safe.

In bringing this story out of the shadows, Nokes examines the once-substantial presence of Chinese laborers in the interior Pacific Northwest, describing why they came, how their efforts contributed to the region’s development, and how too often mistreatment and abuse were their only reward.

Published by: Oregon State University Press

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pp. 8-10

ALL MEN, these eleven were among as many as thirty-four Chinese gold miners robbed and killed on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon in a massacre that began on May 25, 1887. We know little else about them. Of the other two dozen victims, we don’t even have their names. The miners, immigrants from China, were never part of the American...

Part One: The Dead

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p. 11-11

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Chapter One: Tales of Murder

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pp. 12-16

I LISTENED ON a hot July morning in 2003 as a Snake River jetboat captain, idling his boat in front of a cove known as Deep Creek, told two dozen tourists the story, or at least a story, of what happened there in 1887. He said a gang of horse thieves led by an outlaw named Blue Evans had lined up thirty-four Chinese gold miners and shot them one by one after...

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Chapter Two: "Adventurous Boys"

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pp. 17-25

ONE QUESTION I sought to answer at the outset was why the gang killed Chea and the other Chinese. Couldn’t they simply have taken their gold and let them be? Who would the Chinese have complained to? The nearest Oregon town, tiny Imnaha, was outside the canyon, thirty miles away over difficult terrain. A larger town, Joseph, was fifty miles distant in the Wallowa...

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Chapter Three: Miles from Punyu

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pp. 26-31

THE FIRST BODY was discovered floating in the Snake River near Lime Kiln, about thirty miles south of Lewiston. Flushed from Hells Canyon by heavy spring rains and snowmelt, the badly decomposed body had been in Washington Territory, forty miles downriver from Lewiston. A third appeared at Log Cabin Bar, also in Washington. Over the next few days...

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Chapter Four: Why They Came

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pp. 32-38

THE CHINESE LABORERS who emigrated to the American West during the latter half of the nineteenth century came for the reason other immigrants come, to find work. But there was one significant difference: most had no interest in remaining in the United States or assimilating into American culture. Mostly men, they came to earn enough money to support their...

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Chapter Five: More Tales of Murder

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pp. 39-44

EARLY ON IN my research, I was faced with sorting through a multitude of theories as to how the massacre occurred. Some, such as the scenario advanced by the jetboat captain, I dismissed out of hand. The two accounts that finally emerged as most credible were from the separate histories written The Findley account is included in a long series of newspaper articles that...

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Chapter Six: The Judge and "The Chinaman"

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pp. 45-49

AMONG THE FIRST to examine the bodies floating out of the mouth of Hells Canyon in June of 1887 was Judge Joseph K. Vincent, who held the dual positions in Lewiston of justice of the peace for Nez Perce County and U.S. commissioner. Letters written by Vincent to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco described the mutilated condition of the slain Chinese. Of the...

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Chapter Seven: A Personal Journey

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pp. 50-62

I NEEDED TO see where the Chinese died. I had been in the canyon before, the first time on a five-day, four-night whitewater trip by dory down the Snake from the base of Hells Canyon Dam to Heller Bar, near the canyon’s northernmost entrance, a distance of about eighty miles. The group I was with camped at night on the occasional...

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Chapter Eight: The Mon-Tung Camp

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pp. 63-65

I NEEDED TO see where the Chinese died. I had been in the canyon before, the first time on a five-day, four-night whitewater trip by dory down the Snake from the base of Hells Canyon Dam to Heller Bar, near the canyon’s northernmost entrance, a distance of about eighty miles. The group I was with camped at night on the occasional...

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Chapter Nine: Two Investigations

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pp. 66-70

BRUCE EVANS WAS arrested by sheriff’s deputies on May 30, 1887, five days after the massacre, but not for the massacre. According to Horner’s history, Evans thought he was being jailed for killing the Chinese. Instead, he was arrested for rustling, specifically, for altering a brand, the same charge facing Titus Canfield. The massacre hadn’t yet been discovered...

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Chapter Ten: "With Great Regret"

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pp. 71-75

IT WASN’T UNTIL February of 1888, nine months after the slayings, that the Chinese legation in Washington, D.C., informed Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard of the massacre. It may have been the first Bayard heard of it. Curiously, although Vincent had official status as a U.S. commissioner, there is no record of his reporting the crime to Washington any earlier...

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Chapter Eleven: Rock Springs and More

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pp. 76-81

THE HISTORIAN Shih-shan Henry Tsai wrote that, “For Chinese- Americans, the Exclusion Act of 1882 has become their ethnic Pearl Harbor.”1 Subsequent legislation would impose even more onerous restrictions. The act succeeded in its goal of shutting down Chinese immigration. In 1882, the last year of unrestricted immigration, 39,579 Chinese crossed the Pacific to American shores, the most for any year. By 1883, with the ban...

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Chapter Twelve: "Deplorable in the Extreme"

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pp. 82-86

THE HEAD OF China’s legation in Washington, D.C., Cheng Tsao Ju, complained to Secretary of State Bayard in a letter dated February 25, 1886 of “a concerted and widespread movement to deprive the Chinese residents Cheng enclosed a copy of a letter from the Chinese Merchants Exchange in San Francisco, dated February 1, 1886, in which the merchants complained...

Part Two: The "Innocent"

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p. 87-87

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Chapter Thirteen: Vaughan Confesses

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pp. 88-97

FRANK VAUGHAN MAY, or may not, have been one of the killers. But there is no longer any doubt that he witnessed the events at Deep Creek. At some point, probably early in 1888, he confessed to what he knew. He agreed to turn state’s evidence and appeared before a Circuit Court grand Based on Vaughan’s testimony, the grand jury on March 23, 1888...

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Chapter Fourteen: "Don't Ask ... Don't Tell"

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pp. 98-102

BUILT IN 1909, the Wallowa County Courthouse in Enterprise is a squat and, to me at least, architecturally uninteresting building, with walls of thick blocks of grey volcanic tuff. The tuff is a soft but durable rock known locally as Bowlby stone, cut from a nearby quarry. Other buildings around the courthouse square—housing a bookstore, an antique shop, a bar...

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Chapter Fifteen: A Story Changes

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pp. 103-107

YOUNG FRANK VAUGHAN, once so trusted he was deputized to serve a subpoena on Bruce Evans, proved to be the key to sorting through the confusing twists and turns of the massacre story. Less than a month after his grand jury testimony brought indictments for murder against the six other gang members, he changed his testimony...

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Chapter Sixteen: Behind the News

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pp. 108-112

FOLLOWING THE INITIAL newspaper accounts in the Lewiston Teller of bodies being pulled from the Snake River, the massacre soon dropped from sight as a news story until the indictments and arrests were disclosed, nearly The Wallowa County Chieftain, a weekly newspaper initially published in Joseph—and still published today in Enterprise—didn’t run its first story...

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Chapter Seventeen: On a Merry-Go-Round

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pp. 113-116

James Slater, a former U.S. Senator, voiced his concern in a letter to the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, L. L. McArthur, on April 24, 1888. Slater sought federal assistance to help investigate “a most daring outrage on a camp of unoffending Chinamen who were mining on Snake River.” Slater served in the U.S. Senate from Oregon from 1879 to 1885 and, according to one...

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Chapter Eighteen: Claims for Corpses

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pp. 117-120

CHINA’S GOVERNMENT, recognizing the unlikely prospect that anyone would be punished for crimes against the Chinese, including murder, pressed Prior to departing Washington for health reasons, the head of the Chinese legation, Cheng Tsao Ju, sent Secretary of State Bayard a new list of claims for crimes, including the twenty-eight Chinese murdered at Rock Springs...

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Chapter Nineteen: A Kind of Trial

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pp. 121-128

THERE IS NOTHING to indicate that the one-story stucco and brick building at the corner of West Main and First streets in Enterprise once housed a courtroom where, in the closing days of August, 1888, a murder trial was held for Hiram Maynard, Robert McMillan, and Hezekiah The courtroom is gone. Indeed, the building’s entire second story...

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Chapter Twenty: Wanted: Horse Thieves

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pp. 129-133

THERE WAS STILL the matter of the whereabouts of Evans, Canfield, and LaRue, who had fled Wallowa County. The only indication anyone so much as thought about pursuing them was the written appeal from the former U.S. senator, James Slater, seeking federal help to track them down. But when the government brushed off the appeal, Slater apparently dropped the...

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Chapter Twenty-One: Tightening the Screws

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pp. 134-136

ON SEPTEMBER 1, 1888, the same day the jury in Enterprise returned its not guilty verdict for Hughes, Maynard, and McMillan, the U.S. Senate ratified a new immigration treaty with China, known as the Bayard-Chang As written, the new treaty extended the immigration ban against Chinese laborers for another twenty years. It also made it more difficult for Chinese...

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Chapter Twenty-Two: A Second Confession

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pp. 137-139

IF THE CITIZENS of Wallowa County hoped the trial would close the book on the massacre, they were sorely disappointed a few years later. On September 30, 1891, the Walla Walla Statesman in Walla Walla, Washington, published a confession attributed to Robert McMillan by his father, Hugh McMillan, then working as a local blacksmith. The article ran under the...

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Chapter Twenty-Three: Blooming Flour

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pp. 140-143

FIVE WEEKS BEFORE the murder trial, a newspaper in nearby Union County reported that Canfield had returned to his old haunts. It was just a J. T. Canfield was seen a few days ago on the Imnaha. He is one of the Chinese murderers. He was armed with two six shooters and a Winchester rifle. He is one of the horse thieves that Nodine caught and...

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Chapter Twenty-Four: Flight

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pp. 144-152

FINDLEY’S HISTORY, printed in local newspapers, includes a grainy photograph of a family gathering of eight adults and a child on a cabin front porch. The men are seated on the front step; the women are standing A group of pioneer settlers taken at the Frank Vaughan cabin in the Imnaha River valley. From left to right their names are as follows. Top...

Part Three: P.S. Keeping Secrets

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p. 153-153

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Chapter Twenty-Five: The Secret Keepers

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pp. 154-166

Snow, crusted and grey with age, covers the sidewalk and steps leading to the front door of Marjorie Martin’s pleasant white bungalow in Enterprise. Since the front steps aren’t shoveled, I presume Martin uses the screened side porch, where the snow is cleared. But I hesitate to bang on the porch door. For my meeting with Martin, I want to do things right. I want to know...

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Chapter Twenty-Six: And Now, the Journal

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pp. 167-172

THE TRIAL JOURNAL was never far from my mind. But I would have to I had taken my son, Jeffrey, to a doctor’s appointment in Salem, the state capital, forty miles south of Portland. As the appointment would take several hours, leaving me time to kill, I decided to visit the nearby building housing the state archives. I wanted to see what, if anything, was in their...

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Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Coffin Maker

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pp. 173-177

HERMAN WEBB MADE the boxes out of galvanized sheet-metal. He remembered them as eight inches deep, ten inches wide, and twenty inches long. Webb, then employed by the Cook and Emele Sheet Metal Works of Baker City, made as many as forty boxes on special order from Gray’s Western Funeral Parlor during the mid or late 1930s. Then in his thirties, Webb didn’t think much about the...

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Chapter Twenty-Eight: Memorial Not

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pp. 178-181

THERE IS NO satisfactory way to end an account of the massacre. Closure is impossible when there has been no manifestation of guilt, no expression of sorrow, no regret, no price paid, no consequences. All this was true when The Nez Perce have received some acknowledgement of the crimes against them. While only a handful of Nez Perce live in Wallowa County today, the...

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Chapter Twenty-Nine: Horner's Epilogue

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p. 182-182

HARLAND HORNER’S HISTORY of Wallowa County ends with a kind of epilogue, taken from a 1925 article in the Chieftain, then known as the Enterprise Record Chieftain. Sheepherders Sugar Bowl Recalls Tragedy of Canyon The new hand in the lambing camp on Deep Creek reached for the...

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pp. 183-184

IN THE PROLOGUE to this book, I listed the names of eleven victims of the massacre at what is now officially known as Chinese Massacre Cove. I wanted to at least give these eleven some identity in the remembered history of the American West. It’s not much. But it’s something. However, I’ve also wondered about the missing names, not just the names...


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pp. 185-187

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p. 188-188

IN ADDITION TO Priscilla Wegars and David Stratton, both mentioned in the prologue, I am indebted to many others for their help and encouragement in writing this book. They include my wife, Candise; my late father and mentor, J. Richard Nokes; my son, Deston Nokes; my good friend and fellow explorer Mike Shanahan of Washington, D.C.; another good friend...


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pp. 189-200


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pp. 201-203


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pp. 204-208

E-ISBN-13: 9780870716362
E-ISBN-10: 0870716360
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870715709
Print-ISBN-10: 0870715704

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: B&W photos, maps
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • Snake River Massacre, 1887.
  • Chinese Americans -- Crimes against -- Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Gold miners -- Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Murder -- Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Massacres -- Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Immigrants -- Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Snake River Valley (Wyo.-Wash.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Racism -- Hells Canyon (Idaho and Or.) -- History -- 19th century.
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