A Woman to Know: Polly Bemis

Polly Bemis was always lucky, as someone who was won in a poker game ought to be. —Christopher Corbett

(image via Washington State University)


For the first 30 years of her life, Lalu Nathoy was sold. From her father in China to a brothel owner; from him to a merchant trader bound for America; from him to a saloon owner in newly-settled Oregon.

When Charlie Bemis won her in a poker game in 1880, she had a new Americanized name: Polly. He fell in love with her Wild West spirit and liberated her from the life-long enslavement. The two got married in town, then settled far out in the Idaho wilderness along the Salmon River. There, Polly's Chinese heritage and checkered past wouldn't draw so many stares.

But Polly's enterprising spirit wouldn't quit; she set up a boarding house along the river for settlers traveling further and further out. Boaters stopped to talk with her, visit with her pet cougar, shop at her store and observe her legendary fishing (she did all the hunting, Charlie did all the gathering). After Charlie died, she went into town more often. Her visits were exciting events; once a Polly visit even made the front page of the local paper.

Today she's remembered as "Idaho's most romantic character," a key figure who dismantled numerous stereotypes: about women settlers, Chinese immigrants and even sex workers. In 1987, Idaho historians renovated her ranch, and now the land is a perfectly-preserved stop beloved by hikers and history nuts. She and Charlie are buried beside the house, their plots looking across the Salmon River.

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