Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2007
Legal Heritage
The Hells Canyon Massacre of 1887
By Michael J. Nove

One hundred and twenty years ago, in May of 1887, a band of horse thieves entered Hells Canyon bent on evil. There were six men in the band, and with a lust for gold and a hatred of the Chinese, they systematically gunned down no less than 10 miners. By some accounts as many as 34 Chinese were murdered, making this crime one of the worst in Oregon’s history.

For most of the past century this tragic story lay virtually forgotten. In fact, recently discovered information strongly suggests the possibility of a conspiracy to cover up this horrible occurrence. Through the inadvertent discovery in 1995 of certain portions of the court records, and the more recent discovery of the trial records themselves, the massacre at Hells Canyon and the travesty of justice that followed have become known. Recent scholarly articles have been published detailing the events and persons involved. These allow us to now look back through the fog of time and learn of a very different era, one that is part of our Oregon legal heritage.

As for the gritty facts of the murders: the gang consisted of seven men, one of whom was actually a boy of no more than 15, perhaps younger. The evidence indicates that one of the gang did not want to kill the Chinese, so he stayed in the cabin they were using and did not accompany the killers. The gang members were Bruce Evans, J. Titus Canfield, Frank Vaughn, Robert McMillan, Hezekiah Hughes, Hiram Maynard and Homer LaRue. McMillan was the boy, and Hughes was the one who stayed behind. Several of the gang members were from prominent families in Wallowa County. Wallowa was formed out of Union County only the previous year. In addition to the court records and skimpy newspaper accounts that periodically appeared, there are two written accounts of this story put out by two men who were mere young boys in the 1880s. These accounts attempt to provide authentication of what really happened and why, but as evidence, they are hearsay history, even if well intentioned. From this collection of information and tales of the past, a fairly clear picture nonetheless emerges, with certain facts credibly established.

The murders took place at the cove on Deep Creek located just south of the confluence of the Imnaha and Snake rivers. The Snake River, running south-to-north, of course demarcates the adjoining borders of Oregon and Idaho. Steep, treeless slopes and almost vertical cliffs characterize the canyon where the Chinese had set up a makeshift camp and gold mining operation. Even today the location is quite remote and lonely. The town of Enterprise is 40 or so miles southwest of the massacre site. The miners were employees of the Sam Yup Company, one of six powerful Chinese organizations headquartered in San Francisco. The miners lived in tents and caves along Deep Creek as they worked to uncover "flour gold," tiny flakes and nuggets washed onto the riverbanks by the rapidly flowing water. The victims are believed to have entered the area in the fall of 1886, arriving from Lewiston, Idaho. How long they had been in the United States is even less clear.

However, in 1882, Congress had enacted legislation barring new immigration from China for 10 years from the law’s passage, known as the Chinese Expulsion Act. Eventually the ban became permanent. It is presumed the murder victims had been in the country since before the new federal law, and that they had possibly worked on railroad crews as the rail lines had stormed across the North American continent. Historical records confirm that 15,000 Chinese men worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad alone.

The gang members ambushed the Deep Creek miners as they worked. Armed with high-powered rifles, the killers systematically took one life after another, shooting at their targets from the surrounding cliffs. One of the Chinese men survived the initial onslaught only to be captured and stoned to death as he tried to flee. Some of the victims’ bodies were then thrown into the river, others into the boat used by the miners, which was then set adrift with holes punched through the bottom. One of the accounts published years later indicated the gang members killed another mining crew that arrived the next day at the massacre site to visit the Deep Creek crew. This, and a possible third killing spree, is why the actual number of victims is unknown.

Imagine the horror the men in Deep Creek experienced as the rifle shots rang out. It was not long before some of the corpses made their way downriver to Lewiston. On June 16th, the Lewiston Teller published the first account of the massacre, informing its readers that 10 Chinese miners had been killed. The names of the 10 known victims were subsequently given in a letter from the Chinese delegation in Washington, D.C., to the State Department. The men were: Chea-Po, Chea-Sun, Chea-Yow, Chea-Shun, Chea-Cheong, Chea-Ling, Chea-Chow, Chea Lin Chung, Kong Mun Kow and Kong Ngan.

Upon learning of the carnage, the Sam Yup Company sent its agent to investigate. He in turn hired a local justice of the peace, Joseph K. Vincent. Vincent, disguising himself as a miner, began his work in Lewiston, Idaho, where he personally examined remains of the victims whose bodies, he reported, bore evidence of bullet and ax wounds. There is no record that Vincent ever made his way to the site of the massacre itself, however. Following his report Vincent appears to have decided against working further on the case. His report did indicate "there is in the vicinity some twenty to thirty bad men and I was watched very closely." Repeated inquires to him from the Chinese went unanswered. It appears he abandoned the investigation for "health reasons."

A second investigation soon got underway, this time by Wallowa County officials. It was prompted by a rancher’s discovery of more bodies of the murdered miners at Deep Creek. Like the Sam Yup investigation, this one soon stalled with no real progress being made.

By comparison, the response of the state of Oregon made the earlier investigations appear vigorous. Gov. Sylvester Pennoyer, elected the year of the murders, had been one of the recognized leaders of the anti-Chinese movement in Portland, where the Chinese population was approaching 2,000 souls. So great was the agitation lead by gubernatorial candidate Pennoyer that Portland’s Mayor John Gates and then-Gov. Zenas Moody had organized 700 armed citizens and 200 special deputies to prevent bloodshed. The mayor and governor were wise to be concerned for, seven months earlier, at Rock Springs in the Wyoming Territory, a mob of white men had slaughtered 28 Chinese coal miners in a labor dispute. The agitation in Portland against the Chinese was by no means an isolated event, for such conflicts were occurring also in Seattle, Tacoma and other locations. The passage of the Chinese Expulsion Act is unmistakable evidence of the political climate of the time.

The fact that the U.S. government was signatory to two treaties with the Chinese government, which included provisions for the protection of Chinese immigrants lawfully in our country, clearly had no real meaning to government officials. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 set in motion the exchange of diplomats between the two countries. It was expected by our government to open markets in China for U.S. goods as well as to attract Chinese to the U.S., to help construct the network of railroads. The Burlingame Treaty was followed by the Immigration Treaty of 1880, which included a specific pledge of protection for the Chinese while on American soil. Once the railroad lines had been constructed, and the Chinese were competing with American workers for gold, however, the protections were not enforced.

The shameful indifference of the U.S. government was coupled with (if not the result of) the real absence of political and economic impetus to pursue justice in the Hells Canyon murder case. In February 1888, nine months after the massacre, the Chinese government’s minister in Washington, D.C., officially notified Secretary of State Thomas Bayard of the murders. All available information and documents were included with the official communiqué. Bayard responded promptly but without any teeth, claiming the information was "confusing and even contradictory," without providing a basis for legal action. He did promise to send the information to the governors of Oregon and the Idaho Territory. Former Sen. James Slater, who lived in Joseph, Ore., also applied additional pressure. He corresponded with Oregon’s U.S. attorney seeking federal intervention in the case. His letter was subsequently directed to Secretary of State Bayard, who, in keeping form with his earlier official posture, sent Slater’s letter to the Chinese government with the statement that the federal government was powerless to intervene in a state law matter (the U.S.-Chinese treaty provisions notwithstanding).

With all the political, diplomatic and law enforcement efforts stalled, it appeared the pursuit of justice for the victims and their families had reached a true dead end. Then, a major break occurred. Frank Vaughn, whether motivated by guilt or self-interest is not clear, came forward and confessed to having participated in the foul event at Deep Creek. In consideration for his grand jury testimony Vaughn was given immunity from prosecution. A record of his testimony has never been found, but the grand jury indictment determined that Vaughn and the six other men charged had acted together in the killing of the 10 known murder victims.

Evans, Canfield and LaRue fled the area and, in fact, were never apprehended. Evans was a prominent member of the county and left behind a wife and two children, doubtless support for the implication he was guilty. In the summer of 1888, the Oregon Scout, a newspaper published in Union, reported that Canfield had returned to Wallowa County looking for the gold that he and others had murdered the Chinese miners for. No reports exist as to what may have happened to Evans or LaRue. In a bizarre irony, however, Evans’s name is among those included on a memorial arch at the courthouse square in Enterprise, a tribute to the early pioneers there, despite his being the acknowledged leader of the gang.

As for the other gang members, McMillan, Maynard and Hughes, they were arrested and jailed but the key was hardly thrown away. To the contrary, county judge Peter O’Sullivan took depositions, and these were exceedingly brief with virtually no questions about how the gang operated, why the Chinese were gunned down or where the gold was located. It has been opined that the depositions were essentially for the purpose of securing the release of McMillan, Maynard and Hughes. The transcripts were among the "lost records" found a century later in the old safe at the courthouse. The questions posed by Judge O’Sullivan were perfunctory; the claims of innocence were not challenged to any degree, and O’Sullivan was content to accept the uniform statements of the three defendants that it was Evans, Canfield, LaRue and Frank Vaughn (since he could not be charged) who had committed the murders. Once the word got out about the deposition testimony, 34 leading citizens, including some who had served on the grand jury, petitioned the court for the release of the defendants. On May 15, 1888, Judge Luther Isom set bond and released the three men pending trial.

The trial of McMillan, Maynard and Hughes began on Aug. 30, 1888, and finished up September 1. It was a speedy trial to be sure. The record of it was found in 2005, underneath volumes of old tax assessor records in a basement storage vault used by the county planning department. Lost, misplaced or hidden? You be the judge. There is no record of the testimony itself however. It is reasonable to assume that Vaughn’s testimony simply restated what he said in his deposition (which he claimed was the same as his confession but Judge O’Sullivan did manage to inquire about certain discrepancies). It was the three gang members who could not be found, and them alone, Vaughn no doubt swore, who were guilty. As to the three men charged and on trial, they were innocent. The trial testimony of McMillan, Maynard and Hughes underscored these points, leaving the jury comfortable with finding all three defendants not guilty.

With the exception of knowing that at least 10 Chinese miners were killed, and that Frank Vaughn and Robert McMillan were present because Vaughn said so (which would make them guilty of certain lesser offenses if not murder itself), we can never know the full, true story of the Hells Canyon massacre, including what happened to the gold — or about the very curious travels of the trial documents themselves. These secrets are lost to history. However, we also know there was a period in our state’s history when racial intolerance allowed this massacre to occur and for justice to be denied the victims because of their race. Therefore, in our own time as we debate a new policy on immigration and the treatment of temporary workers within our borders, let us remember the past and firmly resolve to learn from history rather than repeat it.

R. Gregory Nokes, "A Most Daring Outrage," Oregon Historical Quarterly vol. 107, no. 3; and Mark Highberger, "Snake River Massacre," Bear Creek Press, 2000.

Michael Nove is an Oregon attorney in sole practice, as well as a writer. He wishes to dedicate this article to his late father-in-law, Omar W. Halvorson, Esq., who brought the Hells Canyon story to the writer’s attention and felt it should be made known. He lives in Salem with his wife and two sons.

© 2007 Michael Nove

return to top
return to Table of Contents