At the end of May 1887, around 30 Chinese laborers were mining for gold in a remote part of northeastern Oregon, when the entire group was gunned down by a white band of horse thieves. Originally referred to as the “Hells Canyon Massacre” or “Snake River Massacre,” and more recently “Massacre of the Chinese at Deep Creek,” the event is considered one of the deadliest attacks on Chinese Americans in the history of the United States.
Like previous acts of violence against Asian immigrants in the late 19th century, the identities of the six murderers were known, but none were convicted or punished. The event was largely forgotten for over a century. Then, in 1995, a Wallowa County employee discovered details of the massacre in files that had been locked in a safe, long hidden from the public eye.
Gold Rush Holdouts
Many Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the mid-1800s for jobs in the construction of the transcontinental railroad or mining for gold in the American West. In the second half of the 19th century, these types of jobs, which were once easy to find, became scarce, leaving many workers, white and colored, unemployed and looking for work.
Chinese immigrants at the time generally accepted lower wages than white men to do the same job, which led to the mining and rail companies hiring them rather than their white counterparts. This made the prejudices against the Chinese workers even stronger, as they were seen as “taking away jobs” from white men. Sometimes resentment turned into violence, such as the Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming Territory in 1885, which left 28 people dead. Two years later, another massacre of Chinese miners occurred in Oregon with even more deaths.
Hells Canyon Mining
Despite growing hostility towards them, many Chinese immigrants remained in the western territories of the United States and continued to mine. One group worked for the Sam Yup Company: a caring organization run by established members of the Chinese community in San Francisco.
The miners were based in Lewiston, Idaho Territory. In May 1887, they sailed about 65 miles upstream on the Snake River, through the dramatic rocky cliffs of Hells Canyon, and set up camp on the shores of Deep Creek in the Oregon Territory. Their goal was to find gold flour: a fine, powdery form of gold that can be found floating in bodies of water near gold mines.
The Chinese miners’ campsite was in an incredibly remote area, accessible only by boat, followed by a strenuous hike. Its location in Hells Canyon – the deepest canyon in North America (over 2,000 feet taller than the Grand Canyon) – made it even harder to reach, thanks to the sheer, plunging cliffs and deep river and fast. Cut off from the rest of society, the workers hoped not only to make money by mining for gold flour, but also to escape anti-Chinese sentiment.
The Deep Creek Massacre
While the exact number of Chinese immigrants living and mining in Deep Creek is unknown, the group is believed to be between 31 and 34 men. And while they were in a remote location, mining for gold on the banks of the river meant they would have been easily seen from one of the higher vantage points around the creek.
On May 27-28, 1887, a gang of seven horse thieves (all white men) from neighboring Wallowa County ambushed Chinese gold miners in their camp for two days. The gang was led by Bruce Evans and also included Titus Canfield, Frank Vaughn, Robert McMillan, Hezekiah Hughes, Hiram Maynard, and Homer LaRue.
Using powerful guns, the gang shot each of the Chinese workers in Deep Creek. One of the miners was able to escape the initial attack, but the horse thieves quickly chased him down and clubbed him to death with a stone. After murdering the entire group of 31 to 34 Chinese miners, the horse thieves mutilated their bodies and threw them into the Snake River. Then they stole the gold from the flour that the Chinese workers had mined and burned their camp and equipment.
About two weeks later, some of the bodies of the miners washed up in Lewiston. The following month, another group of Chinese miners discovered the site of the massacre – with even more evidence of the bloodshed – and reported their findings to local authorities in Lewiston.
While local Lewiston officials conducted some sort of investigation, minimal time and resources were spent in the process. The employer of the miners, the Sam Yup Company, therefore asked Lewiston miner Lee Loi to investigate the incident. Law hired local judge Joseph K. Vincent to conduct an investigation.
No one really knew who to blame for the murders, as a July 1, 1887 article in Lebanon Express suggests. “Opinions are divided as to the authorship of the act of blood, but whites, reds and yellows are suspected. More than likely, it is the whites who view with a negative eye the Chinese intrusion into the American mines, ”the newspaper read. “American miner kicks Chinese miner.”
Some media coverage has attempted to lay the blame on other Chinese immigrants, including an article from July 17, 1887 in the San Bernardino Daily Mail who claimed that the public “had every reason to believe” that the minors had been murdered “by their own countrymen, and not by whites or Indians, as was initially assumed”. Vincent’s investigation, however, concluded that a gang of local horse thieves were responsible for the massacre. He also found that 10 of the Chinese miners were from Punyu County, near the city of Canton.
Confession leads to arraignment
Although Vincent largely identified the perpetrators of the massacre as white horse thieves, it was not until March 1888 that there was a major break in the affair. It was then that Frank Vaughn, one of the thieves responsible for the massacre, confessed his involvement in the crime and agreed to testify as a state witness.
Later that year, a grand jury indicted the other six Wallowa County men (although it turned out that McMillan was only 15 at the time) with murder. After that, three of them fled the area and were never seen again. Some accounts from other Wallowa County settlers suggest these men went missing with some of the gold they stole from Chinese miners and buried the rest, but this has not been confirmed.
A jury in Enterprise, Oregon found the three remaining horse thieves and murderers not guilty – despite Vaughn’s testimony – in a two-day trial that ended on September 1, 1888. A local rancher who attended the trial commented, “I guess if they had killed 31 white men something would have been done about it, but none of the jurors knew or cared much about the Chinese, so they released the men.”
None of the men have ever been punished for these crimes.
The massacre is forgotten
Aside from an 1891 confession from McMillan’s father written on his son’s behalf, the 1887 massacre of Chinese miners in Hells Canyon has been largely forgotten. Then, in 1995, Wallowa County Clerk Charlotte McIver found a set of files in a safe that had been donated to the County Museum. The documents in these files revealed detailed information about the 1887 massacre.
In an interview with The Associated Press in August 1995, Ben Boswell, a Wallowa County Court judge, said: “The documents were more than just lost, they appear to have been withheld. Someone intentionally attempted to ‘prevent this thing from happening. Someone is intentionally making people forget. ”
The crime story came to light in more detail thanks to the efforts of Gregory Nokes, now a former reporter for The Oregonian. Nokes has spent years conducting his own research on the massacre of Chinese miners, and in 2009 published a non-fiction book on the subject.
In 2012, a granite memorial was installed along the banks of the Snake River at the site of the massacre, finally marking the atrocities. The names of 10 miners identified when they were stranded in Lewiston in 1887 are inscribed on the memorial. Although it is still difficult to reach this secluded part of Hells Canyon, several local tour operators take visitors to the memorial by jet boat.
The forgotten Chinese massacre in Hells Canyon. September 14, 2020. AsAmNews.
Chinese massacre at Deep Creek. Encyclopedia of Oregon.
Chinese Massacre Cove. The No Place project.
Slaughtered for Gold: the Chinese in Hells Canyon. Nokes, R. Gregory. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009.