Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: Massacred for Gold

The Snake River divides the northeast corner of Oregon from Idaho and carved Hell’s Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America. In 1887, Chinese immigrants followed a trail of gold dust into the canyon to Dead Line Creek, a stream flowing over a large gravel bar to the Snake River. There, while mining for gold, as many as 34 of them were shot, axed, and beaten to death by a gang of horse-thieving outlaws from nearby Wallowa County.

This mass slaughter – undetected until bodies started floating into Lewiston, Idaho – went virtually uninvestigated and unavenged for over a century, until newspaperman Gregory Nokes covered a story about trial documents “discovered” in an unused safe in the county courthouse in Enterprise, Oregon. Nokes turned amateur historian, spending over ten years wringing every clue and theory out of the scant evidence he could dig up. The result is Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon.

The book covers the history of this long-forgotten incident, describing the varied contemporaneous accounts, the lackluster investigation, the escape of the three main culprits, and the halfhearted trial and foreseeable acquittal of three others. But he goes beyond the dry facts to question why no one at the time showed great concern for the victims – never bothering to learn or record more than eleven names of the people killed – and why even now the story tends to be hushed up and the victims forgotten without any lasting monument.

Nokes’s personal involvement and first person narration may be a little off-putting for those looking for a straight-forward historical account. But his approach is an effective way of presenting his opinions and highlighting questions raised by the skimpy facts without muddying the story. The reader knows what the evidence is, and what Nokes argues the evidence shows, and can make his own conclusions.

While Massacred for Gold has regional ties, Nokes puts the tragedy in national context. Any reader interested in the experience of 19th Century Chinese immigrants or the development of the American West will find this story fascinating.

A slightly shorter version of this review was first published in the Internet Review of Books in December.

(If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


  1. How tragic is this story! Reminds me of the harrowing circumstances of other Chinese workers in California during the same period. One of the books I read is Map of Paradise by Linda Ching Sledge, a novel based on the history of Chinese workers in the Sacramento area and in Hawaii.
    Book Dilettante

  2. BD -- The story is tragic. Nokes does a really good job of providing context to it -- including some of the history of the Chinese immigrants in CA too.

    I'll keep an eye out for the Map of Paradise book. It sounds good.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...