Now Playing:


Oregon Experience

Massacre At Hells Canyon

In 1887, a gang of horse thieves gunned down as many as 34 Chinese gold miners on the Oregon side of the Snake River near Hells Canyon. Some have called it the country’s worst massacre of Chinese by whites. Though the killers were known, and at least one confessed, no one was ever convicted.

In 1995, a Wallowa County clerk discovered hidden trial documents, uncovering the nearly forgotten incident.

Why was the story buried? What happened to the killers? Who were the victims?

“Massacre at Hells Canyon” examines not only the murders but also the hidden history of the Chinese laborers who help build the West in their search for “Gold Mountain.”

Tens of thousands of Chinese laborers came to North America in the 1850s with the Gold Rush. In addition to gold mining, they provided necessary services to newly developed communities.

They operated laundries, tended vegetable gardens, opened boarding houses and worked as cooks. By the thousands, they worked on railroad projects that connected the West. They cleared farmlands, worked in canaries and provided labor for factories. But they also faced widespread discrimination.

Chinese gold miners working a small stream

Chinese gold miners working a small stream

Haxeltine, M. M., Photographer

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from entering the country. It was almost impossible for Chinese residents to become citizens or legally own property.

Throughout the 1880s, Chinese immigrants watched their communities be burned, attacked and sometimes destroyed by racists mobs. In some places, Chinese were lynched or shot, while others were run out of town. They had almost no legal rights to defend themselves.

For decades, those incidents were excluded from many historical texts. Today that is beginning to change.

A memorial now marks the spot where the Chinese gold miners died in Hells Canyon, and groups are working to preserve the stories of the early Chinese Americans who helped settle the West.



Bennet Bronson, historian and author
Garry Bush, historical tours operator
Chuimei Ho, historian and author
Doug Kenck-Crispin, public historian   
Marcus Lee, Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association  
Bettie Luke, Luke Family Association
Patricia Hackett Nicola, Research Volunteer, National Archives  
Greg Nokes, author  
Rich Wandschneider, Josephy Library of Western History and Culture  
Lyle Wirtanen, historian  
Marie Rose Wong, Seattle University

“Massacred for Gold: the Chinese in Hells Canyon”
R. Gregory Nokes, 2009

“Coming Home in Gold Brocade: Chinese in Early Northwest America”
Bennet Bronson & Chuimei Ho, 2015  

“Dreams of the West: a History of the Chinese in Oregon 1850 – 1950”
Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 2007  

“Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: the Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon” 
Marie Rose Wong, 2004 



More Oregon Experience

More OPB

Send Oregon Experience A Message

Related Content

Portland's Chinatown

Historian Marie Rose Wong identifies Portland’s Chinatown as the geographically largest Chinatown in the country. The business district was downtown, while the agricultural community lived in and operated separate garden areas.

Oregon Experience: Portland's Chinatown

Portland’s Chinatown was once second only to San Francisco's in population. Portland Chinatown History and Museum Foundation is working to preserve the area’s rich — and little-known — history.

Oregon Experience: Early Scenes Of San Francisco's Chinatown

Here are a few rare scenes of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1912, from the Prelinger Archives.

Oregon Experience: The National Archives, Seattle

The Chinese Exclusion Act lasted from 1882 to 1943. During that time, the U.S. Government generated tens of thousands of files on Chinese-Americans. Oregonian’s records can be found in the Seattle branch of the National Archives.

Portraits of Oregon's Early Chinese Americans

Here is a sampling of some of The Oregon Historical Society’s rare portraits of local early Chinese American residents.

West Shore Magazine: A Night in Portland’s Chinatown

The October 1886 issue of West Shore Magazine featured this series of lithographs illustrating Portland’s Chinatown.

Kam Wah Chung

In the late 1800s, thousands of Chinese miners came to Eastern Oregon in search of gold. Among them were two men - Ing "Doc" Hay and Lung On - who opened a store and herbal apothecary called Kam Wah Chung. Though originally catering to their fellow Chinese, over time these two men attended to the medical needs of many, becoming highly regarded members of the community.