I woke up in the back of my van in a Walmart parking lot in Boise, Idaho at around six in the morning. It was still dark. I had kept my camera battery in the sleeping bag to save it from the cold northwestern nights of early winter. The sleeping bag had kept my body warm, but my ears and the tip of my nose was freezing. Boise was my pit-stop between Salt Lake City and northern Idaho. I was headed towards a town named Pierce, the very first town to exist in the state of Idaho.
A drive that was supposed to take five hours ended up taking six after several stops to make pictures on the side of the road and a check engine light that forced me to visit an auto shop. The oxygen sensor in my engine was malfunctioning. The woman who worked at the small town auto shop told me that they did not have the parts to make the repair, but that the issue was not catastrophic. She told me that I could keep driving. “Just know that your car is gonna have a bit of a hard time accelerating or climbing hills,” she cautioned before I got back on the road.
Having turned off the music to be more attuned to the struggles of the power-train, the sound of the engine and asphalt allowed space for dwelling on thoughts of home. I often think about my father when I’m driving, imagining him sitting next to me in the passenger seat —the two of us on a trip to somewhere. Instead, the passenger seat held my camera bag.
I left my Nikon D850 attached to a fully extended tripod to save the hassle of getting ready every time I stopped. The uncertainty of the engine accompanied by a sudden change in weather and light gave the rest of the drive a subtle anxiety. Pierce was still hours away.
I had purchased the Nikon D850 months ago with a future spent living on the road in mind. The optical viewfinder allowed for a physical and tactile relationship between my eyes and the world, and a battery that could last for weeks left me confident on long trips away from cities and towns. I have yet to purchase a spare battery, and I don’t know that I will. I finally arrived near Pierce at around 2 p.m.
Pierce predates the establishment of the Idaho territory by three years. A man from Walla Walla, Washington named Elias Davidson Pierce heard murmurs of gold in the region and came searching in the fall of 1860. By October, Pierce and his men discovered gold in a creek, almost exactly 160 years ago. They might have experienced similar weather as me as I drove through the winding canyons and the dense forests through Greer, Fraser, Weippe, and eventually Pierce. Thick clouds evenly diffused the sunlight, making the time of day ambiguous and the passing of time imperceptible. The forest was damp but the dirt was not mud yet. The air was moist and cold, and the humidity penetrated the car, clothes, and skin. A few drops of rain fell onto the windshield occasionally. Clouds that could potentially bring about rainfall extended to the horizon, so I was anticipating an outpour at any moment. It never happened, but I felt the sky in tension.
By 1861, Pierce was an established gold rush town. During the peak of the gold rush, the population of Pierce exceeded 6,000. Between 1861 and 1866, an estimated 3.4 million dollars worth of gold was produced in the area. Less than two decades later, however, Pierce’s population had decreased significantly: most of the white men had moved on to more promising gold strikes to the south and the east. When they left, the Chinese moved in.
This kind of population shift was common in the mid to late eighteenth century in the Rocky Mountains. The Chinese often mined for gold at claims the whites had abandoned. Even though they were stuck mining these supposedly tapped veins, some estimates still say that the Chinese produced more gold in the Rockies during the nineteenth century than was produced by whites. At one point, Chinese people accounted for 10% of the population in the Montana territory and a third of the population in the Idaho territory was Chinese. Around the turn of the twentieth century, however, the Chinese population was systematically pushed out of the country by legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which specifically targeted Chinese laborers. Discriminatory legislation fanned the flames of bigotry and legitimized racial violence, which in turn further actualized itself in governance. That pain spirals on to this day.
I pulled over to the side of the road about two miles south of Pierce, where a little trail led into the forest. The place I stopped at had the official label of Idaho Historical Highway Marker #307. I threw on a warm layer and a rain jacket over that. I changed into hiking boots —the only pair of shoes I’d wear for the rest of the trip. I stuffed my phone into the warm breast pocket of my jacket and slung the tripod over my shoulder. I headed into the woods.
Unlike the many times I’d stopped along the road to make pictures on that day, this stop near Pierce had been planned days earlier. Something happened near Marker #307 in the summer of 1885, right around the time the Chinese moved into town, and I was here to see the place.
Seven Chinese men were suspects in the murder of Pierce merchant David M. Fraser. There was no evidence linking the Chinese men to the murder, and despite attempts to entice them or intimidate them into confessing to the crime, none of the them ever made any such confession. The court was unable to determine guilt. The two oldest men were released and the other five were turned over to the deputy sheriff, who was tasked with transporting the men to Murray, 240 miles away, for further trial. Three miles into their trip, at a place called Hangman’s Creek, the deputy sheriff and the guards and the wagon in which they traveled were surrounded by a band of armed and masked men who demanded possession of the accused. The deputy sheriff complied. Without hesitation (and encountering no resistance from the guards), the band of vigilantes slung a pole between two black pine trees and hanged the five men. A small rock monument, tomb like, marks the spot.
I was alone in the woods. The beauty and tranquility of the woods juxtaposed against the eerie history created mixed feelings which I tried to work through by way of making pictures. I’ve developed a slow process with the D850, often treating it like a large format camera. A tripod, an L-bracket, and a 35mm PC-Nikkor almost constantly accompany the camera. Lately I find myself returning home after a day of making pictures only to realize that I’ve unintentionally ended up with just 30 or 60 photos. I’ll shoot 90 on rare and particularly generative days. When I used to shoot more film (before I bought the D850 and before the pandemic), I’d normally throw two rolls of film in my bag along with the roll already in the camera. It’s hard to make digital feel like working with film, but it seems like I’ve somehow managed it.
This way of working gives space and time for ponderance. I wondered who put the stone monument to the dead there. It did not seem like the work of some historical society, but rather that of an artist. Who labored over this history before me? Who carried this memorial into the woods?
I wondered if the forest has memories; if any of these trees bore witness. I photographed and touched the trees, hoping they would whisper something to me. I moved as quietly as possible and listened to the sounds of the forest. It was almost silent, but I felt like I could hear the humid air weaving through the trees. The camera shutter clicking interrupted the silence, but the noise was absorbed by the woods. Ears cannot gauge space and distance without reverberation, so I felt claustrophobic when I looked into the viewfinder. In the distance, I heard faint sounds of a lumber mill.
The five hanged men were buried in the Chinese cemetery on the corner of Moscrip and Stover on the outskirts of Pierce. I decided to drive into Pierce in search of the cemetery. I found it, but it was empty of graves. The remains of the Chinese who died in Pierce were later returned to their homeland in Southern China. Today, only the land remains. This was the custom then. The Chinese who came to America looking for work and opportunity knew that their lives would be dangerous and uncertain and that death was a possibility. They believed that if their remains were left overseas, their spirit would be imprisoned there, too.
I did not linger in Pierce. The history of intense racial violence, the eerie stare of an old lady at the gas station, the Trump 2020 flags on virtually every porch, and the lack of cell service all left me feeling uneasy. As the night neared, I decided to get back on the road quickly. I did not realize that the road I was on led me into the dirt roads of the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest. Driving deeper into the woods at night was not particularly desirable. I oscillated between enjoying the beauty of the Clearwater river and fearing my car breaking down in these woods where the five nameless men lost their lives 135 years ago.
The story of the five Chinese men murdered outside of Pierce was not just a footnote of history, but rather a part of the broader condition of migrant laborers of color throughout the nineteenth century. Racial violence against Chinese migrants was commonplace from the coast of California to the forests of the Rockies. A newspaper clipping in the shape of an axe found in the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives tells a similar story of Silver Bow County’s first hanging victim, a man known as “Chinese John.” Chinese John was innocent.
I can’t be certain if the five men who lost their lives in Hangman’s Creek were innocent, too. I am willing to believe that they were. Their spirits are home now. They rest.
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A story of earthly beauty and human ugliness.