When gold rush fever gripped the globe in 1849, thousands of Chinese immigrants came through San Francisco on their way to seek their fortunes. They were called sojourners, for they never intended to stay. In The Poker Bride, Christopher Corbett uses a little-known legend from Idaho lore as a lens into this Chinese experience.Before 1849, the Chinese in the United States were little more than curiosities. But as word spread of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, they soon became a regular sight in the American West.
In San Francisco, a labyrinthine Chinatown soon sprang up, a clamorous city within a city full of exotic foods and strange smells, where Chinese women were smuggled into the country, and where the laws were made by “hatchet men.” At this time, Polly, a young Chinese concubine, was brought by her owner by steamboat and pack train to a remote mining camp in the highlands of Idaho. There he lost her in a poker game, having wagered his last ounce of gold dust. Polly found her way with her new owner to an isolated ranch on the banks of the Salmon River in central Idaho.
As the gold rush receded, it took with it the Chinese miners—or their bones, which were disinterred and shipped back to their homeland in accordance with Chinese custom. But it left behind Polly, who would make headlines when she emerged from the Idaho hills nearly half a century later to visit a modern city and tell her story.
Peppered with characters such as Mark Twain and the legendary newswoman Cissy Patterson, The Poker Bride vividly reconstructs a lost period of history when the first Chinese sojourners flooded into the country, and left only glimmering traces of their presence scattered across the American West.