Eight days on the Main Salmon river in Idaho provided the rejuvenation I look forward to at this time of year. Eight days of total trip immersion, focusing on the moment and not thinking of the real world stuff that occupies normal everyday thoughts. We got lucky with the weather and had no rain. Our group numbered 11, a larger number than previous years which presents challenges, but the group worked beautifully. Another great trip in the books.
First, I’ll post some trip pictures, mostly people.
Now to focus on some history. People who lived on the river had to be tough to survive. I will share two stories of unique Salmon residents of the past: Buckskin Bill and Polly Bemis.
Sylvan Ambrose “Buckskin Bill” Hart (1906 – 1980) was among the last of the mountain men in the western USA. From 1932 until his death, he lived on the Five Mile Bar of the Salmon River in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
He purchased fifty acres of land for one dollar where he built a compound that included a two-story house, blacksmith shop, a blockhouse with a stone turret, and a bomb shelter. The defensive structures reflected his sense of continual threat from the federal government, which peaked in 1956 when the Wilderness Act threatened to designate the Five Mile Bar as a non-habitable Primitive Area and he was in danger of being evicted.
Hart volunteered to serve in World War II, and was assigned to a Boeing plant in Kansas. Following the war, he returned to his compound and was employed by the National Forest Service. He farmed, hunted and fished for survival, and made his own guns, weapons, clothing and tools.
A lifelong bachelor, Hart died of natural causes at age 73 at his home in 1980. His compound is preserved as The Buckskin Bill Museum.
Polly Bemis (1853) was born in rural northern China. At the age of 18, she was sold by her father for two much needed bags of seed. She was smuggled into the United States in 1872 and sold again, most likely as a concubine, for $2,500. She was taken to Idaho Territory, where her buyer, a wealthy Chinese man, ran a saloon in a mining camp. Polly was a feisty 53 inches tall.
How she gained her freedom from her Chinese owner is uncertain. According to academic Priscilla Wegars, her Chinese owner helped her. In mid-1880, the census listed her as living with saloon owner and fiddler Charlie Bemis (1848-1922), who befriended her when she first arrived in Idaho. Bemis served as his housekeeper and ran his popular boarding house in Warren. Charlie was almost killed during a gambling dispute when he was shot in the face. Polly cleaned out the wound with her crochet hook and nursed him back to health.
In 1894, she married Charlie Bemis, and the couple moved from Warren to a site 17 miles north by trail at a spot that came to be called both Bemis Point and Polly Place. Polly’s struggle for legal permanent residency went to the courts and her residency was finally granted on 1896. Together, Charlie and Polly Bemis filed a mining claim, becoming among the first pioneers to settle along the Salmon River. Even today this house is not accessible by road. Although the couple had no children, Polly was 40 when they married, she was noted for her concern for children. They gardened and cared for many animals, including horses and a cougar. Polly was known for her nursing skills, fishing, friendliness, and sense of humor.
Polly saved Charlie’s life twice. In 1922, a fire gutted their home on the Salmon River, possibly caused by an untended or overheated wood stove. Charlie Bemis died soon afterwards. Neighbors rebuilt a new home for Polly in the same spot as the one that burned down, with the understanding that they would inherit this from her in exchange for their labor and for looking after her in her old age. She died on November 6 of myocarditis at the age of 80.
The cabin, known as Polly Bemis House, became a museum and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.