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MailTribune.com
  • Massacre of Chinese haunts author

    He explores roots in racism and greed of 1887 Hells Canyon murders of miners
  • As a youngster growing up in Oregon, R. Gregory Nokes never read anything in history books about the mass murder of Chinese miners in the state.
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    • If you go
      What: Book-signing of "Massacred For Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon," written by R. Gregory Nokes
      When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 6
      Where: Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., Ashland
      Nokes al...
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      If you go
      What: Book-signing of "Massacred For Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon," written by R. Gregory Nokes

      When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 6

      Where: Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., Ashland

      Nokes also will give a presentation from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, May 8, at Oregon Books, 937 N.E. D St., Grants Pass

      Where the book is sold: Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Village Books in Medford and at Oregon State University Press by calling 1-800-426-3797
  • As a youngster growing up in Oregon, R. Gregory Nokes never read anything in history books about the mass murder of Chinese miners in the state.
    There was no footnote about a massacre in his textbooks, no mention of one by his history teachers.
    "I first learned of it while working at The Oregonian when I was a roving correspondent," said the retired journalist. "I read in the Wallowa County Chieftain (newspaper) records about an old murder trial of a group of horse thieves and schoolboys accused of murdering Chinese miners in 1887. I had never heard about this story before.
    "Yet as many as three dozen people were murdered," he added.
    "It was a crime that was largely covered up for more than a century."
    Upon discovering the long-buried crime, he wrote an article about the massacre for The Oregonian in 1995. But he couldn't get it out of his mind.
    After retiring in 2003, Nokes, 72, whose long resume includes years of traveling the world as an Associated Press correspondent covering the State Department, began working on a book about the massacre.
    "Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon" was published last fall by Oregon State University Press.
    The 208-page paperback, priced at $18.95, documents how more than 30 Chinese miners — Nokes believes there were 34 — were killed along the Snake River on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon for several thousand dollars' worth of gold.
    Born and reared in Portland, Nokes graduated from Willamette University, then began writing for the Mail Tribune in the early 1960s before joining The Associated Press and becoming a correspondent in Latin America. From there he attended Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow, then returned to The AP to cover economics and become its chief State Department reporter based in Washington, D.C.
    During a career that covered more than four decades, he traveled the world, including going to China to report on President Ronald Reagan's trip to that country.
    But he found the massacre of the Chinese miners back in his native state one of the most intriguing stories he uncovered over the years.
    His careful research shows they were murdered by a gang of seven horse thieves and schoolboys, one as young as 15. The killers were driven by racism and greed for the gold the Chinese had mined near the mouth of Deep Creek where it flows into the Snake, he reported.
    The miners were shot multiple times. Several of them were mutilated with heads and limbs hacked off.
    If there is a hero in the book, it would be Joseph Vincent, special deputy U.S. marshal who investigated the murders. Hailing from Boston, Vincent had been a gold miner in Josephine County and fought in the Rogue River Indian Wars in the mid-1850s before heading to the Snake River country.
    "It was the most cold-blooded cowardly treachery I have ever heard tell of on this coast," Vincent wrote in a report. " ... Every one was shot, cut up and stripped and thrown in the river."
    Yet the mass slaying received scant press when it occurred, and none of the murderers was ever punished for what Nokes said was the largest killing of Chinese by whites in the United States.
    There was no need in the commission of the crime to kill anyone, he noted.
    "They could have easily just taken their gold and left," he said. "The Chinese really had no one they could report the crime to. They could have grabbed the gold and rode away."
    He believes the murders were committed out of ignorance of another culture, fed by a rising xenophobia across the country.
    "They had no familiarity with Chinese," he said. "They must have brought their hatred from somewhere else. But it was a sign of the times. There was a great deal of abuse of Chinese going on, part of a national movement to drive the Chinese out of the country."
    In fact, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring additional laborers from immigrating from China, he said. In the 1870 census, there were 3,330 Chinese living in Oregon, including 634 in Jackson County.
    "One reason I wanted to do the book was that I had not realized until I started doing my research that Chinese played such an important role in the history of the Northwest," he said, citing the construction of the railroad as well as mining activity. "But I was amazed by how little credit they received."
    While Nokes observed that he enjoyed working as a journalist, the book exposing the death of the miners represents the highlight of his career, he said.
    "The fact this book will be on shelves after I've gone gives me a lot of satisfaction," he said.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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