So many history books are written essentially the same way. First, the author immerses himself in research. Then, based on a preponderance of the evidence, he crafts a seamless, chronological narrative of how it all “must have” happened. If the author’s prose isn’t completely impenetrable, critics will gush how it “reads like a novel,” as if that were necessarily a good thing.
R. Gregory Nokes rises above this formula with Massacred for Gold (OSU Press, 208 pages, $18.95), his investigation of the mass murder of more than 30 Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon in 1887. I say “more than 30” because historians don’t know exactly how many Chinese were killed, although most agree it was 31 or 34 (only 11 were ever identified by name, Nokes laments).
Nokes’ book is a chronicle within a chronicle, explaining not only how and why the murders occurred but how the author had to sift through scant and often contradictory evidence to make sense of a crime that happened more than 120 years ago. The result is a challenging but refreshingly honest portrait of how history is not only made but written—a messy, non-chronological affair full of gaps and contradictions that are usually papered over in most of the informed speculation that passes for history today.
A retired reporter and editor who wrote extensively about the murders for The Oregonian beginning in 1995, Nokes begins his book viewing his subject as through a glass darkly. He first recounts the tale as told by a Snake River jetboat captain to a group of tourists: A gang of horse thieves lined up 34 Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon and shot them one by one because they wouldn’t reveal where they’d hidden their gold.
The truth, Nokes soon learns, is a lot more complicated than that, and he spends the rest of the book filling in details, discarding old assumptions, weighing new probabilities and recovering documents that Wallowa County officials concealed from public scrutiny for more than a century. Nokes’ search becomes genuinely chilling when he realizes, early in the book, the Chinese were not “massacred for gold” at all but murdered out of sheer racial hatred.
Nokes and OSU Press have ably recaptured a lost chapter in Oregon’s history, but Massacred for Gold cries out for a more expensive, color photographic treatment than it receives here. Hells Canyon and the surrounding Wallowa Mountains region of northeastern Oregon offer some of the most breathtaking vistas in the state (Hells Canyon is the deepest in North America, almost 2,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon at its deepest point). This Shangri-La setting may, in fact, have helped make the brutal murders of nearly three dozen Chinese immigrants so easy to forget.
READ:R. Gregory Nokes appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4681. 7:30 pm Friday, Oct. 23. Free.