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.

ON THIS DAY IN OREGON HISTORY

RESOURCES AND INFORMATION

Interviews
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

Books
“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 

Websites