Priscilla Wegars, Ph.D., of Moscow, is a historian, historical archaeologist, artifact analyst, editor, and proofreader. She founded the University of Idaho's Asian American Comparative Collection (AACC), a unique resource of artifacts, images, and documentary materials essential for understanding Asian American archaeological sites, economic contributions, and cultural history. Priscilla edited Hidden Heritage: Historical Archaeology of the Overseas Chinese (1993) and co-edited Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors (2005). She wrote Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp (2010) and As Rugged as the Terrain: CCC “Boys,” Federal Convicts, and World War II Alien Internees Wrestle with a Mountain Wilderness (2013). She is currently expanding her book for children, Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer (2003), into a biography, for adults, of Polly Bemis's life.
“As Rugged as the Terrain” explores some intriguing Idaho history that took place at Canyon Creek on the Lochsa River. First, in 1933, was the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Camp F-38; the antics of these “city slickers” provide colorful insights into the lives of young men far from home. Next, in 1935, the site became Federal Prison Camp No. 11, a road-building facility for convicts mostly from the Leavenworth, Kansas, penitentiary. The authorities stressed rehabilitation, rather than punishment, but because the camp was not fenced, a few escapes occurred, some quite thrilling. Finally, beginning in May 1943, Japanese detainees at the Kooskia Internment Camp continued the road construction for two more years. Concurrently with the prison camp and internment camp periods, Italian and German internees (not POWs) worked for the Forest Service elsewhere in the vicinity
This presentation examines the lives and occupations of Chinese women in the West. Besides Polly Bemis, other Chinese women are individually recognized for their particular contributions and accomplishments. Historical documents, such as newspapers, census records, and marriage license applications, help locate Chinese women in the West, while artifacts found on archaeological sites and in museums help us understand Chinese customs such as footbinding, and confirm the presence of Chinese women in areas for which no documentation exists.
The Kooskia (KOOS-key) Internment Camp is an obscure and virtually forgotten World War II Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facility that was located on the present Highway 12 between Lewiston, Idaho and Missoula, Montana, parallel to the wild and scenic Lochsa River. Unrelated to the War Relocation Authority’s Minidoka Concentration Camp for West Coast families in southern Idaho, near Hunt, the Kooskia Internment Camp held “enemy aliens” of Japanese ancestry from Idaho, other states and Mexico as well as Japanese kidnapped from Peru and Panama. “Digging in the documents” has yielded photographs, letters, and other records. These, combined with internee and employee interviews, illuminate the internees’ experiences.
Polly Bemis, Idaho’s most famous Chinese woman, lived here for over 60 years. Although owned at first by a Warren, Idaho, Chinese businessman, she later married Charles Bemis. Charlie died in 1922 and Polly died in 1933. Since her death, fictionalized versions of Polly’s life often state that she was a prostitute or that Charlie Bemis won her in a poker game. Primary sources provide evidence showing that both statements are myths.
The Chinese began coming to Idaho in the mid-1860s. While most were then employed as miners, they also performed a wide variety of other occupations, and made important contributions to the growth and development of Idaho as a state. This presentation provides background on Chinese immigration and focuses on the Chinese experience in Idaho, including occupations, geographical distribution, customs, anti-Chinese legislation, and other topics as requested. Excavations of Chinese archaeological sites in Idaho have shown that the Chinese here relied mostly on familiar products imported from China, but utilized American-made goods on occasion.