The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
The Asian Reporter's
HISTORIC HATE CRIME. Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon, by author R. Gregory Nokes, is the culmination of six years of research and effort to track down what little evidence remains of one of the most heinous crimes in Oregon history.
From The Asian Reporter, V19, #44 (November 10, 2009), page 13 & 16.
Reporter unearths one of Oregon’s worst hate crimes
Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon
By R. Gregory Nokes
Oregon State University Press, 2009
Paperback, 208 pages, $18.95
By Allison Voigts
In 1887, more than 30 Chinese gold miners were murdered on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon in one of the most heinous crimes in state history. Yet for more than a century the massacre was covered up and forgotten — until seasoned reporter and amateur detective R. Gregory Nokes took on the case.
Nokes’ new book, Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon, is the culmination of six years of research and effort to track down what little evidence remains of the crime. Looking at the thin binding, it may come as a surprise to learn the book took so long to create, but as the story unfolds, the reader begins to understand the role of lucky breaks and patience in its reporting.
Nokes first researched and wrote about the massacre in 1995 when he was working as a reporter at The Oregonian. Rumors and conflicting accounts of the murders made it difficult to sort out the truth. Some said a gang of horse thieves killed the miners when they refused to reveal the location of their hidden gold. Other accounts suggested the killers were motivated by racial hatred. Some said only 10 Chinese had been killed; others gave a number as high as 34.
"I decided that my responsibility — or my challenge — would be to do a book on it," Nokes said during a reading at Powell’s City of Books.
Tension indeed ran high between Chinese immigrants and white settlers during the Gold Rush. As railroad-building work ended and 100,000 Chinese immigrated to the American West (with nearly 10,000 in Oregon), the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned further immigration in 1882. But many of the worst crimes against the Chinese took place after 1882, as many settlers grew angry that the remaining Chinese were willing to work for lower wages, taking jobs away from white laborers.
Contrary to popular accounts of the Hells Canyon story, Nokes discovered that the perpetrators in this case were not a gang of hardened criminals but a group of Wallowa County schoolboys and cattle rustlers, one of them only 15 years old. In the journal of one early settler, Nokes found this description: "[Canfield] proposed to his classmates that they do their country a favor and go down and kill off this band of Chinese miners and get their gold for their trouble ... Four of the boys being of an adventurous type agreed to go in with him."
Not only did racial hatred seem to be the primary motive in the killings, but local residents who learned of the crime viewed the killers as adventurous boys rather than criminals. A jury declared four of them not guilty of the crime in Wallowa County Circuit Court the following year. The other three fled the area and were never heard from again.
After the trial the defendants settled down to work and raise families in the area, where many of their descendants live to this day. The community all but forgot about the massacre, and some actively tried to cover up the incident lest their friends and neighbors receive any bad publicity.
"It’s a crime on top of a crime that this was not in the state’s history books," said Nokes, who was educated in Oregon schools.
But with Nokes’ help, history is not forgotten. With years of hard work and dedication, he tracked down every piece of evidence available about the crime, including a missing court record intentionally hidden by a court clerk. And the Oregon Geographic Names Board has since designated the site of the murders "Chinese Massacre Cove," an official recognition of the tragedy that took place there.
The author is holding several book events in the next month. In Portland, he will visit Annie Bloom’s Books (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway) on Tuesday, November 10 and the Northwest China Council (127 N.W. Third Avenue) on Wednesday, December 2. During Thanksgiving weekend, Nokes will be at Paulina Springs Books (422 S.W. Sixth Street, Redmond, Oregon) from 6:30 to 8:00pm on Friday, November 27 and at Sunriver Books & Music (Sunriver Village Building 25, Suite C, Bend, Ore.) on November 28 at 5:00pm.
For more information, or to view a list of author appearances, visit <www.rgregorynokes.com>.