What Remains

A search for the site of a notorious massacre in Hells Canyon

When R. Gregory Nokes first learned that a Wallowa County clerk had discovered in an unused safe a handful of documents about the murder of more than thirty Chinese miners in Hells Canyon in 1887, he approached the incident as a news story that he could write about as a reporter for the Oregonian. But as he delved deeper, intrigued by the fact that he'd never heard about the crime, he began to realize that he'd stumbled upon an incident that residents of the area didn't want to talk about and that authorities had only half-heartedly investigated. After leaving the newspaper in 2003, he used his reporter's skills to continue searching for in-formation in order to piece together the whole story of what happened to the miners. In this excerpt from Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon, published in 2009 by Oregon State University Press, Nokes decides that he needs to see for himself the site where the Chinese miners were killed.

We erected our tent under the only decent-size tree on the Dug Bar beach. The tree was a gnarled hackberry, one of the few trees native to the canyon. With its leathery green leaves and knobby bark, it provided reliable shade. It looked old enough that I wondered whether Chief Joseph might have conferred beneath its branches with other tribal leaders before crossing the river in 1877.

We were glad for the tent. While we were grilling an evening meal, black thunder clouds suddenly appeared overhead. We had scarcely five minutes to rescue our food and retreat into the tent before rain descended in buckets, as lightning crashed around us. In twenty minutes the storm had passed and the sky was clear again. Although not normally superstitious, I found myself wondering whether one of the many ghosts inhabiting the canyon had sent us a warning. We spent a peaceful night.

Deep Creek was still three miles farther south. We faced hiking the rest of the way. While we could have reached Deep Creek along the river, the sharp lava rock, steep cliffs, and dense river willow and other brush make for treacherous footing. I was certain Blue Evans and his gang couldn't have gone that way on horseback. They would have taken the longer but easier route across the bench, the way we chose to go. Leaving before sunrise, we followed a rough Forest Service trail past the Nez Perce sign and a sagging wooden fence, and up a steep slope to the rolling grass-covered bench. My intention was to complete the round-trip by early afternoon, before the worst of the day's searing heat.

Looking back from the high point of the trail, I was awestruck by the dawn breaking around us. Behind where we stood, light from the rising sun descended toward us down the upper cliffs, transforming the pre-dawn gray of dry vegetation into a widening blaze of gold, while below, the river and Dug Bar remained obscured in purplish shadow. Gradually, the sunlight reached the bench where we stood, nearly blinding us as it moved past, finally to ignite the canyon and the river, made once again phosphorescent. Ahead, as far as I could see, stretched the undulating bench, a broad expanse of green and gold, broken by an occasional tree-filled draw. Elk grazed in the distance, while a bald eagle surveyed the river from the brilliant blue sky, its outstretched wings gliding on updrafts from the warming canyon.

As we followed the trail south, the river disappeared from our view beneath one of the lower cliffs. After an hour of hiking in the open under an ever-warming sun, we reached a fork in the trail, marked by a sign post without any signs. One fork led down into a narrow brush-filled draw toward the river, while the other continued south, winding over the bench into the distance. The trail down the draw looked uninviting. However, consulting a Forest Service map I picked up at the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center in Enterprise, I concluded it was the path we wanted. Mike hoped I was right, because if it proved a dead-end, he informed me, he was turning back. The hot sun was making Mike surly. I was glad he remained with me, because I would soon need him.

Evans must have led his gang down this same draw, the first accessible path to the river after Dug Bar. Accessible, yes; conveniently so, no. The trail was clogged with head-high thistles and sumac, thick clusters of poison ivy, fallen trees, and rope-like vines. We carried long poles, cut earlier from lodgepole pines, to batter our way through the undergrowth, although at the cost of raising clouds of dust from pollen and decayed leaves that stuck to our skin and made breathing difficult. A muddy creek, largely hidden in the dense undergrowth, trickled underfoot, sucking at our boots. The map identified the creek as Dug Creek, also named for Douglas—his body supposedly was buried nearby.

We stopped often to rest, draining our canteens and picking burrs from socks and boot tops, all the while swatting at mosquitoes, which fed at will. We also kept a keen eye for rattlesnakes, which, we had been warned, lurked in the shade. During one break, Mike, a Vietnam combat veteran, experienced anxious flashbacks from that war, feeling as if he was once again patrolling blindly through the thick Vietnam jungle, fearful of imminent ambush.

Two-thirds of the way down, we lost the trail in the thick brush, and, after futile attempts to find it, we blazed our own trail by climbing along the rocky south wall of the draw—not a particularly smart thing to do, as the loose rock easily dislodged under our feet. It took nearly two hours to reach the river, where we collapsed on the riverbank. I was soaked with perspiration, and out of breath.

When we had regained some energy—I was in worse shape than Mike—we again picked up the trail, which followed the riverbank for the final quarter-mile to Deep Creek. The river trail proved easier going, although we were once again in the open with no shade. As we clambered around basalt boulders in the oven-like heat, our sweaty handprints evaporated in seconds.

Aside from rubbery legs, I felt no worse for wear when we reached Deep Creek, although considerably behind my schedule. Warned in advance about the intense mid-day heat in Hells Canyon, I had planned the hike so we would reach the camp by 8 a.m., giving us several hours to look around before we started back at 11 a.m., arriving back at Dug Bar no later than 1 p.m. However, because of the difficult hike down the draw, and frequent stops to rest, we were already more than an hour behind schedule. Mike wisely chose to cool off in the river, while I explored.

I am not sure what I expected to find. A bowl-shaped configuration of cliffs, less steep than I had imagined, formed a half-circle around the cove, which opened onto a wide gravel and sand bar, and the river beyond. At the back of the cove, Deep Creek emerged from the cliffs and meandered across the terrain to almost disappear into the gravel bar, before draining into the river. The stream was scarcely more than a yard wide and a foot deep, although it was no doubt much larger during the spring runoff. At the time of the massacre, the creek was also known as Dead Line Creek, a name given by Douglas, the rancher-outlaw, who years earlier had run a herd of cattle on the bench above the river cliffs. Douglas had warned the Nez Perce to keep their cattle south of the stream, ignoring their treaty rights to the land. The name he picked, Dead Line Creek, left no doubt about his intended consequence for anyone failing to heed his warning. At the rear of the cove, a cluster of hackberry trees and mountain mahogany, another tree native to the canyon, provided some shade.

Given the horrible crime committed here, I had anticipated a gloomy, haunting place. But the sunlight filtering onto the stream through the trees made it appear almost pretty. It was as pleasant a place to camp as anyone could hope to find along this section of the Snake.

Not surprisingly, little remained to suggest a Chinese presence. I had been told the only visible sign of habitation was fragments of two rock walls, set against a cliff near the rear of the cove, which the Chinese used for a dwelling or for storage, according to a 1960 U.S. Forest Service inventory of the site. At the time, I was unable to find the walls—a major disappointment—probably because I was nervous about the heat and searched less thoroughly than I would have otherwise. My disappointment was later partly eased when the reader of an article I wrote about the trip kindly sent me photographs from his own visit years earlier.

On a later occasion, I would find the structure: two crumbling rock walls extending out from a slanted shelf of rock, creating an enclosure roughly ten feet by ten feet. The Forest Service determined the rock shelf once served as a shelter for Native Americans and was used by the Chinese. The agency's inventory said the Chinese miners, after building the rock walls, may have covered the enclosure with a log and sod roof, long since gone. The remains of the rock walls are four feet tall at the highest point, and quite possibly were never much higher.

There are several unusual pictographs on the rock shelf that defy definition. The Forest Service experts thought they were of Native American origin. But later visitors must have altered the pictographs, possibly in a lame attempt to make them appear to be Chinese writing.

The Forest Service found evidence of diversion ditches along Deep Creek “where water was run for placer mining.” The ditches were not in evidence forty years later, or at least, I did not find them.

Much more remained of the Chinese camp in the early twentieth century when a young boy, James Brewrink, visited Deep Creek, according to a copy of a scrapbook entry found at a riverside lodge. It was sent to me by Priscilla Wegars, the volunteer curator of the Asian American Comparative Collection at the University of Idaho. Brewrink said he was six years old when he visited the Deep Creek site about 1910 with his father and mother and a mining crew. Neither Wegars nor I can attest to the accuracy of the account, but Brewrink's description of the sleeping structure roughly corresponds to the rock shelter.

It was my first introduction to human remains and is clearly remembered. The camp area was clearly evident with broken iron pots and tools scattered at a cooking area. The location of a living area was evident. The sleeping shelter was the most interesting. A recess dug into the bank had clear remains of double decks on both sides of the recess providing eight bunk spaces. Shelf parts of the bunks were mostly fallen probably by reason of failure of leather like bindings which had rotted away or been attacked by rodents. The bands holding end post frames may have been bark or vines and were in condition to show the original intent of the structure.

Dad and his crew collected five skulls and other bones and buried them as best they could with the tools available. I was at the site again in my high school days and felt confident of the recollection I have as a six year old.

The gravel bar where the Chinese mined may have been significantly altered by the river over the years, and I can only describe it as it appeared on my visits. The bar is about fifty yards long, half the length of a football field, extending from a jumble of man-sized boulders upstream to a narrow sandy beach downstream. The beach ends at a fifteen-foot-high basalt outcropping that juts into the river like a retaining wall. The river in front of the cove is nearly a hundred feet wide, well over a man's head in depth, and too fast and treacherous for anyone to swim across without being swept a good distance downstream—Mike's plunge into the river worried me, even though he stayed close to shore. Across the river are the steep, treeless cliffs of the Idaho shore. The location seems a near-perfect place for an ambush, and proved so in 1887. The tranquility of Deep Creek may have lured the Chinese into a false sense of security.

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