Polly Bemis, the mistakenly named “Lalu Nathoy” of books and film, was forcibly brought to the United States, and to Idaho Territory, in 1872 when she was just eighteen. In 1894 she married a Euroamerican man, Charlie Bemis, and they moved to a mining claim on the remote Salmon River; Charlie died in 1922 and Polly died in 1933. Since her death, Polly Bemis’s life has been greatly romanticized. Supposedly, she was a prostitute, “Hong King” was her Chinese owner, and Charlie Bemis “won her in a poker game.” Not one of these statements is true. Polly’s life was genuinely fascinating, and it is time to both celebrate the known facts about her and allow the stereotypical, undocumented legends to die out.
“Imagine a child—feet permanently deformed by a cultural fetish—raised in destitution; a teenager discarded by her parents, sold to a slaver, pressed into a trans-ocean voyage to a country and language entirely foreign, enduring a horseback journey for hundreds of miles through a wilderness to an isolated mining camp, consigned a new name, never to see or communicate with friends or family again, yet somehow still composing a vigorous life that endeared her to all: this is her story, definitively and meticulously captured by astute historian Dr. Wegars. More than that, it’s the story of an era on a river where people sustained each other with shared work and food, words and kind considerations.” — CORT CONLEY, author of River of No Return and Idaho for the Curious