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Hells Canyon Murders Reveal Dark, Racist Past

Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells CanyonMassacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon by R. Gregory Nokes

Reviewed by Matt Love
The Oregonian

Whenever a writer becomes obsessed with a long-lost or wrongly told story from history he usually ends up spending most of his free time (and money) researching it. At some point in the madness, he knows a book will result come hell, high water or divorce. When he writes the book, he must decide how much of his obsession to insert into the story because without it, the lost story would remain lost, or even worse, wrongly told.

R. Gregory Nokes is clearly obsessed with the 1887 murder of more than 30 Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon, one of the blackest episodes in Oregon's sordid history of race relations. Nokes spent a decade researching it and made two dozen trips to Wallowa County to discover what really happened back then and why some people apparently tried to cover it up years later.

The result of Nokes' obsession is an informative and exciting account, Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon. What elevates his book above a garden-variety academic treatment of the incident is how Nokes struck the right balance between his personal story of detective work and the need for objective and meticulous scholarship to arrive at the truth.

Never heard of the massacre? Neither had most Pacific Northwesterners until Nokes, a former reporter and editor for The Oregonian, wrote about it for the paper in 1995 after some important trial documents surfaced in an old safe in Joseph.

On May 25, 1887, a gang of rustlers and petty thieves led by Bruce Evans descended upon a group of Chinese mining for gold near Deadline (now Deep) Creek, a small tributary of the Snake River on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon. Although the exact number of murdered Chinese will never be known, Nokes suggests a final tally of 34, making the massacre "the worst crime committed by whites against the approximately 300,000 Chinese who immigrated to the United States during the latter half of the 19th century."

It took some time for news of the murder to reach officials. Various investigations ensued, six men were eventually indicted (although not the ringleader), a jury acquitted them all, and the story disappeared except in the memories of the families of the suspected murderers and a few written documents. As for the rumored $5,000 in gold the murderers stole from the Chinese, it was never found -- by the authorities at least.

In the ensuing decades, certain area boosters wanted the incident swept under the rug. In fact, a Wallowa County clerk apparently removed the trial records in the 1940s until they were discovered in 1995. Even after this important discovery, the story might have died unless Nokes dug into it like he did.

Massacred for Gold doesn't follow a conventional narrative path. Nokes jumps back and forth between his story of discovery, the massacre, the victims, perpetrators, the history of Northeastern Oregon, and the reaction by the federal government during a time when the U.S. wanted to normalize relations with China to improve trade. Nokes is particularly good at placing the massacre in the larger Western story of vicious white racism against Chinese immigrants, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

A lot of people will know about the massacre now, thanks to Nokes. Nevertheless, the book ends on an unsettling note when Nokes describes how some in Wallowa County still want the story downplayed. He comes across as a little more than angry that no memorial to the Chinese Miners has been erected. He doesn't say it directly, but you can feel on the book's last page that he wants to scream: "What's wrong with you people? Get this thing built!"

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in...
    Used Trade Paper $10.00

One Response to "Hells Canyon Murders Reveal Dark, Racist Past"

    Book Review: Massacred for Gold by R. Gregory Nokes « East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines October 10th, 2009 at 5:42 pm

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