The Poker Bride by Christopher Corbett


The subheading, "The First Chinese in the Wild West" better describes the subject of the book than the main part of the title.  The story of Polly Bemis was the impetus for the author to investigate the immigration and exodus of Chinese in the West a few years after the Gold Rush began.  Chinese, especially from the Pearl River Delta, came to "Gold Mountain" to make their fortune, planning to return home as soon as they were rich.  Because there were so few women in the West, the work available for the Chinese included laundry work and similar occupations.  The few Chinese women who came were often ones sold by their parents as young girls to be prostitutes for the prosperous Chinese.  Most ended their shortlives in unspeakable situations.  As the gold petered out, the locals, though they always recognized the Chinese as hard working and fastidious, made them increasingly unwelcome. 

Polly Bemis' story is a rare one; she was sold by her family so the others could survive.  Her route was through San Francisco and eventually to Idaho, where gold had little booms and busts for decades.  It was said by some that Charlie Bemis, a gambler, won Polly in a poker game, but the author is far from certain of that.  It is clear that they were married, and bought a homestead in 1872 in Salmon River countryside in Idaho.  Polly was brought down from the mountains in 1923 by two neighboring prospectors.  This and a few subsequent trips gave her her first sight of a train, cars, and when she went to Boise, tall buildings.  

There are numerous conflicting stories, in newspapers, and accounts written well after the fact, of how she came to escape her fate as a prostitute and how it happened that she was one of the very few to have married an American.  It does seem clear she was clever, hardworking and a tough cookie.

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