Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bret Harte, "Good Guy".


I don't believe much of the Bible, but it has some darn fine quotes. The following is from Daniel 2:33-45.

"Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image ... his feet part of iron and part of clay. ... And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken."

The quote has come into common usage, meaning, be careful who you choose as an Idol, because he might have "Feet of Clay", or, a major flaw in his character. It would seem that most of the people, even the "Good People" on the Frontier had many flaws. Bret Harte has been presented many times as one of the good people that tried to get the killing of the Indian people stopped.

Card Sharks and Chinese People were not too popular back in the 1870's. Bret Harte wrote a poem about a confrontation between the two, and the outcome. It seems that the poor "Chinee" ended up getting the worst of the bargain.

The Heathen Chinee, By Bret Harte

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
Which the same I would rise to explain.

Ah Sin was his name;
And I shall not deny,
In regard to the same,
What that name might imply;
But his smile it was pensive and childlike,
As I frequent remarked to Bill Nye.

It was August the third,
And quite soft was the skies;
Which it might be inferred
That Ah Sin was likewise;
Yet he played it that day upon William
And me in a way I despise.

Which we had a small game,
And Ah Sin took a hand:
It was Euchre. The same
He did not understand;
But he smiled as he sat by the table,
With the smile that was childlike and bland.

Yet the cards they were stocked
In a way that I grieve,
And my feelings were shocked
At the state of Nye's sleeve,
Which was stuffed full of aces and bowers,
And the same with intent to deceive.

But the hands that were played
By that heathen Chinee,
And the points that he made,
Were quite frightful to see, --
Till at last he put down a right bower,
Which the same Nye had dealt unto me.

Then I looked up at Nye,
And he gazed upon me;
And he rose with a sigh,
And said, "Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor," --
And he went for that heathen Chinee.

In the scene that ensued
I did not take a hand,
But the floor it was strewed
Like the leaves on the strand
With the cards that Ah Sin had been hiding,
In the game "he did not understand."

In his sleeves, which were long,
He had twenty-four packs, --
Which was coming it strong,
Yet I state but the facts;
And we found on his nails, which were taper,
What is frequent in tapers, -- that's wax.

Which is why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar, --
Which the same I am free to maintain.


The "Heathen Chinee" shot Bret Harte into fame in the west, he became quite well known after publishing it.

[ The Heathen Chinee, was a satire of racial prejudice in northern California, but was embraced by the American public as a mockery of Chinese immigrants, and shaped anti-Chinese sentiment more than any other work at the time. (From Wikipedia.)]


Taken from Driven out: roundups and resistance of the Chinese in rural California
By: Jean Pfaelzer

"Early Friday evening, February 2, 1885, David Kendall, a city councilman, was caught in the cross fire as two Chinese men shot at each other in Eureka, California, a small fishing and lumber town on the foggy north coast. Kendall died instantly, and a crowd quickly gathered, chanting "Burn Chinatown." In less than twenty minutes, some six hundred white men met in Centennial Hall, a few blocks from Chinatown, and determined that all Chinese had to leave Eureka. A committee of six men was chosen to go to Chinatown and tell the Chinese they had twenty-four hours to leave. That night an effigy of a Chinese man hung from a gallows on the edge of Chinatown. Pinned to the gallows was a sign announcing "Any Chinese seen on the street after three o'clock today will be hung." Two Chinese men fled into the redwoods and were caught; the rest complied. By Saturday morning, twenty-three loads of Chinese people and their clothing and household goods were gathered on the docks. Small skiffs carried the Chinese to two steam ships that happened to be in Humboldt Bay; 135 people were loaded onto the Humboldt, 175 were loaded onto the City of Chester. By nightfall, the tide was out, and the laden ships could not set sail until early Sunday morning. With a strong wind from the north, the ships reached San Francisco early Monday. The Customs House was still closed from the weekend, and the Chinese people disembarked quickly and disappeared into the safety of Chinatown. Meanwhile, in Eureka, the citizens immediately regathered and announced that all remaining Chinese people in Humboldt County would be expelled, that no Chinese could ever again settle in Eureka, and that no one in the county could ever again rent to or hire a Chinese person. In two days the Chinese community in Eureka was erased. But on Monday afternoon, the Chinese who had been expelled from Eureka regathered in San Francisco and announced that they were going to sue Eureka for being the objects of mob violence, for the loss of their property, and for being driven out."

Could, or should, Bret Harte have known that his poem would become the theme for anti-Chinese sentiment in the west? Did his poem have anything to do with the driving away of the entire Chinese population of Humboldt County in 1885? Did the fact that the Eurekans rounded them up and put them on a boat have anything to do with the fact that the world had become more civilized. Or did they ship them out of town instead of killing them because of all of the criticism of killing the Indian People on Indian Island twenty-four years earlier?

There is a character in his poem, Bill Nye. Bill was a well known humorist in the Covelo area, and was known for witty writing and playing practical jokes on people. Was it the same Bill Nye? Or just a coincidence. The following is some of Bill Nyes humor:
"Bill NYE advertises as follows: Owing to ill health I will sell at my residence in town 29, range 18 west, according to the government survey, one crushed raspberry colored cow, aged 6yrs. She is a good milkster and is not afraid of cars - or anything else. She is a cow of undaunted courage and gives milk frequently. To a man who does not fear death in any form, she would be a great boon. She is very much attached to home at present, by means of a trace-chain, but she will be sold to anyone who will agree to treat her right. She is 1/4 shorthorn and 3/4 hyena. Purchaser need not be indentified. I will also throw in a double-barrel shotgun, which goes with her. In May she generally goes away somewhere for a week or two and returns with a tall, red calf with long wobbly legs. Her name is Rose, and I would prefer to sell her to a non-resident."

17 comments:

Ben said...

In about 1928, the Chinese linguist Li Fang-Kue came to Humboldt County to record and study several Indian languages including Mattole and Wailaki.
He had to be smuggled into the County and taken to his locations in secret. Anti Chinese feeling was still so strong here that his safety was a concern. I wonder how he must have felt about the situation.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the story of Charlie Moon. He was a cook at Bair's ranch in Bald Hills. A posse from Eureka showed up to collect Charlie to expel him from the county and Mr. Bair met them on the porch with a shotgun and told them they couldn't take Charlie because he needed him. They apparently agreed and headed home without Charlie who married an Indian woman and now has many descendants in the County.

Dave said...

There's no doubt that Brett was a racist. He was a man of his time.

I've heard other interesting stories about him, often in conjunction to one of his articles.

When I was the Publisher of The Arcata Union in 1988, I use to enjoy reading the newspaper's archives that went back to when he was the editor there.

Sadly, those archives will probably never be seen by the public again because of one man...Patrick O'Dell. (Nows there's a story for you)

I enjoy your posts Ernie.

Ekovox said...

"Charlie who married an Indian woman and now has many descendants in the County."

I attended school with many of Charlie Moon's descendants.


A historical reference line from Mel Brooks' film Blazing Saddles (written most likely by Richard Pryor who was hired to help write the screenplay):

Olson Johnson: "All right... we'll give some land to the niggers and the chinks. But we don't want the Irish!"

Again, you can't judge the historical actions of the past by present standards.

My uncles used to call anyone from the island of Japan, "Dirty Japs" because they had to fight them during World War II. My nephew, their great-grandnephew, learned to speak Japanese and married a young Japanese woman.

Obviously, he didn't judge today's Japanese people based upon their past actions during his great-uncles era.

Ernie Branscomb said...

I never quite figured out why they didn't like the Irish. It must have been one of those "Haves VS have nots" things.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Man's inhumanity toward man was not based as much on racism as it was religion. The worse thing that you could call somebody back in the 1800's was "Heathen". If you didn't believe in God, your chances of being raked over the coals was very good. The black people were considered better than the Indian, because the blacks had been converted to religion. The Indians were just under the blacks, because they had a God, or Gods, but were easily converted to Christianity. The lowest of the low in the north coast pecking order was the Chinese. They had their own god and weren't willing to be converted. The whites didn't like "Heathens" The Chinese were almost universally referred to as "The Heathen Chinees (SP)".

Robin Shelley said...

Bret Harte claimed to regret writing "The Heathen Chinee" (not the original title, by the way) & said it was the worst poem he had ever written. He wrote "Wan Lee" to express his true opinion on the subject.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Okay, if Robin is going to insist on fairness, here is a link to Wan Lee. by Bret Harte.

Brett Harte was a much more educated man than his contemporaries in Eureka. He was also a dandy by frontier standards. My implied point was "shouldn't he have known better". He made a racist poem in racist times, why did he think that people would simply see the humor in it, and not see it as a tool to further their racist goals.

I've told blonde jokes, and I've told bald jokes. Granted, it's probably in poor taste to do so, but the world today is not looking for an excuse to wipe blondes and bald people off the face of the Earth. I tell people, from time to time, that we can't judge what people did back then by today's standards. This is just another fine example of what I'm talking about. That same poem today would not incite hatred against the Chinese. We would likely see it as a conflict between two cheating rogues.

But, in all fairness, I've heard some stories that Bret Harte was willing to say many things to further his career. Read what Dave had to say, then read between the lines. Harte was somewhat duplicitous.

Sophie Annan Jensen said...

Please consider posting a link to Lake County News, an online only publication.
http://lakeconews.com

More than average tribal news.

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I believe Mr. Bair also has many descendants in this area.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thank-you Sophie. I'm ashamed that I hadn't already done it.

You will now find the "Lake County News" in the "Local and Regional News" section over there on the left.

Robin Shelley said...

"The Heathen Chinee" makes funs of Bill Nye & all the other white racists who thought it was their American right to rip-off the Chinese & other immigrants... not the other way around. The poem was misinterpreted... blah, blah, blah.

As for Harte, he managed to tick off Mark Twain (after Twain had spoken so highly of him!) & Twain's opinion of Harte is good enough for me!

Anonymous said...

"I never quite figured out why they didn't like the Irish."

Every wave of immigration brought competition for jobs, lowered wages, and unemployment.

spyrock said...

the unions in san francisco and elsewhere in california trace their beginnings to the gold rush when everyone went looking for gold and there was no one to do the work anywhere else. the irish came from the east coast to do these vacated jobs as well as look for gold themselves. when they were building the railroads, irish would work a week a go east to the silver mines in nevada, so charles crocker and leland stanford owners of the railroad started hiring the chinese. the people crying the loudest were the irish who wound up losing their jobs. almost every race in california has been brought here by corporations seeking cheaper labor up until the present day. the fact that immigration laws are rarely enforced has provided a cheap labor market with no benefits with no end in sight. the corporations are raking in the profits and the tax payer is footing the bill unless hes one of the increasing unemployed.

spyrock said...

bill nye is a character brett harte invented for this poem. either a cowboy or a miner. he is not from covelo. another nye, edgar from laramie. wyoming and maine, used this harte character as his pen name. he was a famous humourist in the last half of the 19th century. bill nye from covelo was my grandfather who never talked. he was the first person to use irrigation in spyrock and marin county. he tapped into shell rock creek and the creeks on mount tamalpias and the pipes fed water tanks that supplied irrigated pasture down below. it was all gravity fed. looked like the pot growers were still using his methods the last time i was there.

Robin Shelley said...

I didn't mean to give the impression that I was talking about your Bill Nye, Spy... although I do think a lot of fictional characters come from Covelo - LOL!
Happy birthday!

Jan said...

I just came across these comments. Tom Bair was my great, great grandfather. I have researched my family history since 1972, and of course, the Charlie Moon story is one of my favorites. I would be very interested in further history on Charlie Moon, if anyone has any. You can reach me at: janplusten@yahoo.com Thank you, Jan Carr