Although most immigrants coming to the American West from China in the 19th century were male, some women came as well. Many, however, were unwilling immigrants, brought by force and compelled to work as prostitutes. While we know very little about the stories of these individuals, we do know about Polly Bemis, a unique Chinese immigrant who left an indelible impression on her community.
Born in Northern China, Polly Bemis came to the United States as a young woman. The details surrounding her arrival are unclear, but it appears as if Polly’s impoverished family sold her to bandits. These bandits shipped her to the United States and where she was eventually sold to Hong King, an older man running a salon in mining town of Warrens, Idaho.
Polly worked for Hong King for several years and many friends while there. Often described as young and beautiful with many charms, Polly was well liked by both the locals and people passing through the town. Polly’s neighbor, saloon owner Charlie Bemis, became one of her closest friends—and then lover—and he would often protect her from unwanted advances in Hong King’s saloon. Although it was rumored that Charlie Bemis “won” Polly in a poker game with Hong King, it would be many years after this legendary game that Charlie and Polly married.
In 1892, the Geary Act was passed, which required all Chinese immigrants to have legal residence in the United States. Polly, however, like many other Chinese female prostitutes, had entered the United States illegally. Perhaps in response to this, Charlie Bemis married Polly in 1896 and she was able to obtain an official certificate of residence, despite laws prohibiting interracial marriages.
In her later years, and after the death of her husband, Polly continued living on their small farm. Close friends with her neighbors, Polly called them every day on the telephone and they would check on her and chop her wood. Other friends took her to Montana and Boise, where she was amazed to see the railroad for the first time.
Polly’s bright and mischievous personality won her many friends and today, her house stands as a monument to her resilient life. Many of her possessions can be found in nearby St. Gertrude’s museum. Despite facing many challenges as a Chinese female in the American West, Polly’s irrepressible spirit continues to echo across rural Idaho.