Celebrating Asian-Pacific Heritage Month

Celebrating Asian-Pacific Heritage Month

Chinese Sites in Warren Mining District - Archeological dig at Mining Site Excavations of Chinese Mining Camp, Warren, Idaho
Courtesy of Asian American Comparative Collection, Laboratory of Anthropology, University of Idaho, Moscow
In the late 19th century, thousands of Chinese immigrants flocked to the western United States to make their fortunes in the gold rush and in the railroad and fishing industries associated with the expansion of the American frontier. Many of these immigrants came at first to California, but by the 1860s, they had begun to move to other western states. In 1862, the Warren Mining District--located on the South Fork of the Salmon River in north central Idaho--was organized when gold was discovered near Warrens Creek. Due to the mining union's exclusionary policies, Chinese immigrants were initially prevented from participating in mining operations. However, in 1869 the union miners voted to open the camp to Chinese miners since they were willing to mine placer gold (extraction of mineral deposits from excavations of sand, gravel, clay, or silt by washing or dredging), which many American miners were unwilling to do because of the labor intensive process.

The Chinese immigrants–-like other sojourners in the United States-–placed a high value on maintaining a traditional diet and lifestyle, which significantly impacted the social and cultural composition of the Warren area. Contemporary records indicate that during the summer mining season, there may have been between 800 and 1200 Chinese miners in the area. The population was mostly male, though some women were among their numbers. Between 1870 and 1900, the growing immigrant community at Warren included numerous Chinese-owned businesses including shops, a laundry, a saloon, a gambling house, a pharmacy and mining companies. Chinese were also employed as cooks, handymen, farmers, barbers, blacksmiths, fishermen and shoemakers; a majority of the women, as recorded in census statistics, worked as prostitutes.

The Chinese Mining Camp Archaeological Site
Some of the mining operations took place at a site north of the town of Warren, known today as the Chinese Mining Camp. While Chinese miners were unable to purchase land, they were permitted to buy claims or lease the rights to mining operations. This must have been the case here, where a Chinese mining company selected a strategic position--a promontory overlooking the Warren Creek drainage--with proximity to the placer gravels below. The site was probably occupied seasonally from about 1880 to 1910. The structures and artifacts uncovered here indicate that it served as a seasonal mining camp where numbers of men worked, cooked, ate and slept. There were terraced gardens for the cultivation of vegetables, and an earthen ditch that would have provided the water supply. The presence of canvas and repair tools are indicative of tents, a common feature of all mining camps. Also found was an outdoor chimney, next to a large building that served as a communal kitchen where many animal bones, food containers and utensils were discovered. A blacksmith shop served not so much for production as for repair.

Sketch of terraced gardens Sketch of Celadon Slope Garden, illustrating terracing and topography

Terraced Gardens of the Warren
Mining District

Located in an isolated region of Idaho, and within the Payette National Forest, the Warren District preserves the remains of traditional field systems known as terraced gardens. Produce from these gardens sustained the mining community. Terracing, and sophisticated irrigation systems, were common landscape adaptations in the mountainous Kwangtung province in China, from which many of the immigrants originated. Since fertile farming land was limited in the mountainous area (and had already been homesteaded by Euro-American farmers), the Chinese farmers were compelled to develop the steep slopes to make them suitable for farming. The terraced gardens illustrate the maintenance of a traditional diet based on fresh produce, as well as the impact of 19th-century Chinese agricultural technology on the American landscape.

Terracing is preserved in a number of locations on the southeast facing ridge of China Mountain above the South Fork of the Salmon River, in the vicinity of the town of Warren. At the Celadon Slope Garden, the remains of over 30 terraces are visible. They vary in size and shape, and are cut into the slopes at a slight incline, conforming to the local topography. Selection of the location was critical for productivity. Influencing factors include a level ground surface, soil conditions, southeastern exposure and the presence of permanent water sources nearby.

The presence of nails and scatters of Chinese artifacts, including ceramics, indicates that there was probably some kind of habitation at the site. Evidence of regular work and maintenance of the gardens can also be seen in the irrigation ditches, a root cellar, rock cairns (probably from clearing activities during terrace construction), and a woven willow and brush fence that enclosed the entire garden area. Many of the terraces have slumped or eroded in the intervening years, and although vegetation has obscured the terraces, it also contributed to the preservation of these features.

Census records from 1870 indicate that there were four farmers and three gardeners counted among the Chinese residents of the

Ah Toy Dwelling
Photograph by Tom Dureka
area. These numbers--and the size of the gardens--support claims that the gardens were a commercial venture, supplying the town of Warren with the bulk of its produce.

The Ah Toy Garden is located down slope from the other gardens and covers an area of about 3 acres. Historic sources indicate that its main products included vegetables, strawberries, grapes, and rhubarb for commercial sale. At least one of the farmers must have lived, or camped, in the semi-subterranean earthen and rock dwelling discovered here. The range of artifacts from the dugout show the kinds of activities that farmers working in isolation engaged in; apart from typical agricultural implements and cooking utensils, an opium pipe and an opium tin were also discovered.


Polly Bemis with her horses, Nellie and Julie, Feb. 6, 1910
Courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society, Neg. No. 62-44.7, Photograph by Charles Shepp

Most of the Chinese who immigrated to Warren, Idaho were male. Of the few women who arrived in the area, most were prostitutes, but Polly Bemis stands out as a woman who gained a certain respectability over time. She was born in China in 1853, came to Idaho about 1871, and spent her early years in Warren as an indentured dance hostess (later engaging in a wide range of occupations including cook, gardener, boarding house operator, goldsmith and nurse). A poker game led to her freedom from servitude--Charlie Bemis "won" her in a game, they soon became business associates, and eventually married in 1894.

Polly Bemis House in July 1994
Courtesy of Asian American Comparative Collection, Laboratory of Anthropology, University of Idaho, Moscow, Photograph by Priscilla Wegars
The Polly Bemis House is a fine example of the single-pen log construction on a stone foundation that is typical of construction methods used on the ranches and in the mining country of the central Idaho mountains. Located along the Salmon River, and accessible only by boat, the cabin measures about 15 by 20 ft. and has a floor plan of two rooms on the first story with a half-story sleeping loft, and a gable front with an overhanging roof. It the only inventoried example of this kind that is made of whipsawn lumber. Polly and Charlie had lived together in another house that had burned--the building featured here replaced the earlier one, and it was here that Polly lived alone after the death of her husband. Built for her by two neighboring prospectors turned ranchers, Charlie Shepp and Peter Klinkhammer, the house shows a number of finely crafted details, including a splined floor, and survives intact with most of its original materials.

Castroville Japanese Language School
Photograph by Kunio A. Sumida

Located in Castroville, California, this school served as a center for the local Japanese population for classes in their native language, for Buddhist religious services, and for other important Japanese community social events and activities from 1936 to 1942. Established in reaction to escalating racial discrimination and segregation, the modest wood frame school building represents a well-preserved example of the hard-fought struggles of California's Japanese-Americans to develop cultural and educational amenities in their communities during the early part of the 20th century.

The building also represents the dramatic local impact of President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which forced the evacuation of significant numbers of Japanese-Americans from their homes and communities during World War II. In Castroville, the Order resulted in the abandonment of the Japanese Language School building and the dissolution of the local Japanese ethnic community. The school building stands as a reflection of the local effects of a controversial national wartime policy and a significant episode in American social and political history. Following World War II, the school served as temporary housing for Japanese-Americans returning from the internment camps and from military service.

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