This Day In History: May 27

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The Hells Canyon Massacre begins on May 27, 1887, in Lewiston, Washington Territory, in what is now Idaho. The mass slaughter of Chinese gold miners by a gang of white horse thieves was one of many hate crimes perpetrated against Asian immigrants in the American West during this period.

Two groups of Chinese workers were employed by the Sam Yup Company of San Francisco to search for gold in the Snake River in May of 1887. As they made their camps along the Snake River around Hells Canyon, a gang of seven white men who were known as horse thieves ambushed them, shooting them until they ran out of ammunition, mutilated some of the bodies and threw them in the river, and made off with several thousand dollars’ worth of gold. Although the eventual indictment listed 10 counts of murder, other accounts hold that the seven white riders killed a total of 34 people.

The massacre was part of a broader pattern of racism and violence against Asians during the period. Anti-Chinese sentiment and the belief that Asian laborers were “stealing” white jobs led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning the immigrations of laborers from China. In 1885 and 1886, white residents of Tacoma and Seattle had rioted and forced Chinese residents to leave the country, and San Francisco experienced three days of anti-Chinese pogroms in 1877. The Hells Canyon Massacre remained a historical footnote until 1995, when a Wallowa County clerk discovered court documents pertaining to the case—despite one of the assailants giving detailed testimony against them, the three men tried for the massacre were found innocent by an all-white jury. 

In 2005, the site of the massacre was renamed Chinese Massacre Cove, and in 2012 a memorial with inscriptions in Chinese, English and Nez Perce was erected there.

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