In late-May 1887, around 30 Chinese laborers were mining gold in an isolated part of northeast Oregon, when the entire group was gunned down by a white gang of horse thieves. Initially referred to as the “Hells Canyon Massacre” or “Snake River Massacre,” and more recently as the “Chinese Massacre at Deep Creek,” the event is considered one of the deadliest attacks against Chinese-Americans in U.S. history.

Like previous acts of violence against Asian immigrants at the end of the 19th century, the identity of the seven murderers was known, but none were convicted or punished. The event was largely forgotten for more than a century. Then, in 1995, a Wallowa County clerk discovered details about the massacre in files that had been locked away 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 building the transcontinental railroad or mining gold in the American West. By the second half of the 19th century, these types of jobs, which were once easy to come by, became scarce, leaving many laborers, both white and those of color, unemployed and searching for work.

Chinese immigrants at the time commonly accepted lower wages than white men for doing the same jobs, leading mining and railroad companies to hire them over their white counterparts. This made existing prejudice against the Chinese laborers even stronger, as they were perceived as “taking jobs away” from white men. At times, resentment turned to violence, such as in the Rock Springs massacre in the Wyoming Territory in 1885, which left 28 Chinese people dead. Two years later, another massacre of Chinese miners occurred in Oregon with even more fatalities.

Mining Hells Canyon

Despite rising hostility toward them, many Chinese immigrants stayed in the western territories of the United States and continued to mine. One group worked for the Sam Yup Company: a benevolent organization operated by well-established members of the Chinese community in San Francisco.

The miners were based in Lewiston in the Idaho Territory. In May 1887, they sailed approximately 65 miles upstream on the Snake River, through the dramatic, rocky cliffs of Hells Canyon, and set up camp on the banks of Deep Creek in the Oregon Territory. Their goal was to find flour gold: 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 (more than 2,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon)—made it even more difficult to reach, thanks to the sheer, plunging cliffs and deep, fast-flowing river. Cut off from the rest of society, the laborers not only hoped to earn money mining flour gold, but also escape anti-Chinese sentiment.

A large group of the Workingmen's Party rally outside San Francisco City Hall expressing their anger felt towards Chinese immigrants on the West Coast, c. 1880.

A large group of the Workingmen's Party rally outside San Francisco City Hall expressing their anger felt towards Chinese immigrants on the West Coast, c. 1880.

The Massacre at Deep Creek

Though the exact number of Chinese immigrants living and mining in Deep Creek is unknown, the group is thought to have been made up of between 31 and 34 men. And while they were in a remote location, mining gold on the banks of the river meant that they would have been easily visible from any of the higher vantage points around the cove.

On May 27 and 28, 1887, a gang of seven horse thieves (all white men) from nearby Wallowa County ambushed the Chinese gold miners at their camp over the course of 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 high-powered rifles, the gang shot every one of the Chinese laborers at Deep Creek. One of the miners was able to escape the initial attack, but the horse thieves quickly chased him down and bludgeoned him to death with a rock. After murdering the entire group of between 31 and 34 Chinese miners, the horse thieves mutilated their bodies and dumped them into the Snake River. Next, they stole the flour gold that the Chinese laborers had mined and burned their camp and equipment.

About two weeks later, a few of the bodies of the miners washed ashore at 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.

Investigation Into the Murders

While the local officials in Lewiston conducted some type of investigation, minimal time and resources were spent on the process. So the miners’ employer, the Sam Yup Company, tapped Lewiston miner Lee Loi to look into the incident. Loi hired local judge Joseph K. Vincent to conduct an investigation.

No one was sure who to blame for the murders, as a July 1, 1887 article in The Lebanon Express suggests. “Opinion is divided as to the authorship of the blood deed, but the whites, the reds, and the yellows are suspected. More than likely it was the whites who look with an evil eye upon Chinese intrusion in American mines,” the newspaper read. “The American miner kicks hard at the Chinese miner.”

Some media coverage tried to cast blame on other Chinese immigrants, including a July 17, 1887 article in the San Bernardino Daily Courier that claimed the public “had every reason to believe” the miners had been murdered “by their own countrymen, not by whites or Indians, as was at first supposed.” Vincent’s investigation, however, concluded that a band of local horse thieves was responsible for the massacre. He also found that 10 of the Chinese miners were originally from Punyu County near Canton city.

A Confession Leads to Indictment

Although Vincent had broadly identified the perpetrators of the massacre as white male horse thieves, it wasn’t until March of 1888 that there was a major break in the case. That’s when Frank Vaughn, one of the thieves responsible for the massacre, confessed to his involvement in the crime and agreed to testify as a witness for the state.

Later that year, a grand jury indicted the six other Wallowa County men (though it turned out that McMillan was only 15 years old at the time) for murder. After that, three of them fled the area and were never seen again. Some accounts from other Wallowa County settlers suggested that these men disappeared with some of the gold they had stolen from the Chinese miners and buried the rest, but this was not confirmed.

An Enterprise, Oregon jury declared the three remaining horse thieves and murderers not guilty—despite Vaughn's testimony—in a two-day trial that concluded 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 jury knew the Chinamen or cared much about it, so they turned the men loose."

None of the men were ever punished for the crimes.

HISTORY: Hell's Canyon Massacre

A man sits on horseback looking at the Snake River, at Suicide Point trails, Hells Canyon, Oregon, c. 1955. 

The Massacre Is Forgotten

Other than an 1891 confession from McMillan’s father written on behalf of his son, the 1887 massacre of the Chinese miners in Hells Canyon was largely forgotten. Then, in 1995, the Wallowa County clerk, Charlotte McIver found a set of files in a safe that had been donated to the county museum. Documents in these files revealed detailed information on the 1887 massacre.

In an interview with the Associated Press in August 1995, Ben Boswell, a Wallowa County court judge, said, "The records were more than just lost, they seem to have been hidden. Somebody intentionally tried to keep this story from happening. Somebody intentionally caused people to forget."

The story of the crime came into fuller view, thanks to the efforts of Gregory Nokes, a now-former reporter for The Oregonian. Nokes spent years conducting his own research into the massacre of the Chinese miners and published a 2009 nonfiction 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 who were identified when they washed up in Lewiston in 1887 are inscribed on the memorial. Though it’s still difficult to reach this isolated part of Hells Canyon, several local tour operators bring visitors to the memorial by jet boat.

Sources:

The Forgotten Chinese Massacre at Hells Canyon. September 14, 2020. AsAmNews.

Chinese Massacre at Deep Creek. Oregon Encyclopedia.

Chinese Massacre Cove. The No Place Project.

Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon. Nokes, R. Gregory. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009.

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