Before retiring, R. Gregory Nokes, of West Linn, planned carefully: After working for more than 40 years as a journalist at The Associated Press and The Oregonian, he knew he’d want to keep busy and be productive.
What he needed was a project, and did he ever have one: In 1995, while still at The Oregonian, he first reported on the all-but-forgotten 1887 massacre of 30-some Chinese gold miners on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon.
The article was precipitated by a clerk’s discovery of hidden documents in a Wallowa County safe, and Nokes continued his research after retiring in 2003. The fruit of his labor is the 208-page book “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,” recently published by Oregon State University Press, which he’ll read from next week at events in Redmond and Sunriver (see “If you go”).
As many as 34 miners were murdered at Deep Creek; only 11 of their names are known.
As for their likely killers — a gang of rustlers and school boys, one of whom was only 15 — those few who were tried were deemed innocent.
“Even though the killers were known, and one confessed, no one was ever convicted of the crime,” writes Nokes, 72. “A cover-up followed and the crime was all but forgotten for the next 100 years, until a county clerk found hidden records in an unused safe.”
A slow reaction
There was little reader reaction to his initial article, “even though the story was prominently played on the front page,” Nokes told The Bulletin by e-mail from his vacation at Waikiki.
Readers may not have responded, but the incident — and its obscurity — affected Nokes. He writes in the book’s prologue, “as someone educated in Oregon schools, I wondered why I had never heard of the massacre, certainly one of the worst crimes in the state’s history.”
“In lives lost,” he writes in the book, “the Hells Canyon massacre was the worst crime committed by whites against the approximately 300,000 Chinese who immigrated to the United States” in the second half of the 19th century.
However, he adds, it was by no means unique. Discrimination and violence against Chinese workers was rampant in the West at the time, “stemming partly from complaints they took jobs from white workers, and partly from blatant racism, fueled by demagogues.”
When he came upon the story, “I knew early on there was the potential for a book,” he told The Bulletin. “While still at The Oregonian, I started on a novel, choosing this approach because so little was known about what actually happened.”
That completed novel is sitting in a drawer at home. Seven years ago, at the urging of a literary agent, he turned his attention to writing the nonfiction “Massacred for Gold.”
Reporting on a century-old crime wasn’t easy. For one thing, “I was actively discouraged by a number of people in Wallowa County from pursuing the story at all, which I attributed in part to the fact it had been covered up for nearly a century,” says Nokes. “There is a chapter in the book called ‘The Secret Keepers,’ which is about two elderly ladies who didn’t want the story told.”
In 1995, Nokes interviewed the clerk who found the documents in an old safe she was preparing to discard. She wouldn’t speculate as to why the documents had been moved from a walk-in vault adjacent to her office. However, a Wallowa County judge told him in 1995 that “somebody intentionally caused people to forget.”
Nokes believes that any cover-up stems from two factors in Wallowa County: “The first was a desire to protect the reputations of the families of the accused killers. The second was that few cared about the murder of the Chinese. As the years went by, the cover-up was continued by people ... who sought to protect the reputations of Wallowa County, as well wanting to avoid embarrassing the killers’ descendants, some of whom still live in the county.”
Manifest Destiny’s cost
Such a mindset may not be limited to one county in Eastern Oregon.
“I think people in Oregon, and throughout the American West, are caught up in myths that glorify the early pioneers and settlers as almost god-like, overlooking they were flawed human beings like the rest of us. We too often ignore that white settlement came at great cost to the Native American tribes who didn’t invite us and who populated this land before us,” Nokes says.
“Manifest Destiny became a cover for all sorts of cruel abuses, robbing others of their destiny. The Chinese were also victims of these myths. Their significant contribution to developing the American West by building the railroads, clearing the land, working the mines, have been ignored and largely forgotten in our history books.”
That said, “since the book has come out, the response has been wholly positive in the sense that readers say they are glad the massacre story is finally being told,” Nokes says.
One friend in Wallowa County recently told him, “I think the people of Wallowa County are now ready to hear what happened.”
Nevertheless, he was nervous when he traveled there for a recent reading.
“I didn’t know how I would be received,” he says, “especially since I’d been discouraged years earlier from pursuing the story. I joked to my wife that I might be tarred and feathered. As it turned out, however, I was extremely well-received. About 60 people turned out for the reading, and there wasn’t a hint of criticism, except for one — that I’d misspelled a place name.”
In 2005, the Hells Canyon cove where the men were slain was officially named Chinese Massacre Cove.
Nokes says he “felt some satisfaction that my reporting helped bring this about. I believe any reporter wants to feel his work has had an impact on the world around him or her. I can’t say this is the only story I’ve been involved in that has had a positive impact, but this is the most meaningful to me.”
Nokes has ambitions to write more books.
“I would advise anyone approaching retirement to develop a plan to keep busy, so they won’t find themselves constantly at loose ends wondering how to pass the time,” he says.