Finding a Gold Rush Town Named Chinese Camp


Four aging horses dragged us across the manzanita and rocks, the stagecoach lurching dangerously with every bump and movement. The kids screamed in excitement as we made our way through Columbia State Historic Park, a Gold Rush-era mining camp about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Oakland, Calif.

Suddenly a bearded white man in a red bandana jumped from the trees. He held up an old-fashioned pistol in our direction, and at the sight of the gun, we all froze. The laughter stopped. “Give me your gold!” He drawled. He pointed the gun at us and sneered. “Will he shoot us?” Whispered my 5 year old daughter.

Wrapped up in this sweaty stagecoach, we were three couples – Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean Americans – with six children, making our first post-pandemic road trip in the mountains. We had rented a house nearby to bathe in Pinecrest Lake and dip our toes in the Tuolumne River, to grill fish and make elaborate Filipino breakfasts for each other. I had a secondary interest: finding traces of Asian American history in this part of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

I was inspired by the story of Sing Tie, a Chinese-American leader from the hinterland who worked for the US Geological Survey. Hired to cook for a 1915 lobbying trip for environmentalists, industrialists, and senators in Yosemite, his meals were apparently so impressive that he helped convert the group to the cause of nature recreation, leading to training. of the National Park System.

While few know the story of Mr. Sing, even fewer are aware of the period 1849 to 1882, when thousands of Chinese immigrants descended on the region to make their fortunes on the legendary ‘Golden Mountain. “. I wanted our children to feel the Chinese roots of this region and maybe put the hardships of last year into historical context. I prepared a dinner of grilled trout, sautéed potatoes and green beans in memory of Mr. Sing and once settled in we decided to visit Columbia then a little point on the map called Chinese Camp, a former mining town.

The day after we met the stagecoach, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees before noon, we blew up the air conditioner and tried to find the Chinese camp a few miles away. There was little signage and no ranger in sight. Sucheng Chan, a retired historian and author of more than 15 books on the history of Asian America, notes that this region, called the Mines of the South, was home to nearly half of the Chinese in California in 1860, before the establishment from San Francisco’s Chinatown and other urban enclaves.

The city was a stagecoach stopover that housed more than 5,000 residents and was an important center of early Chinese-American life, helping to link small Chinatowns as well as the multicultural mining towns scattered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Chinese immigrants came to seek gold like so many in the early years of the Gold Rush and established concessions along the sparkling streams that meandered through the mountains.

They were almost immediately attacked. Vigilance pogroms evolved into a series of punitive local, then state, laws intended to keep Chinese settlers away from lucrative gold mining and restrict them to cooking, laundering, vegetable growing, and labor. construction. Yet they excelled, building roads through the mountains in record time and providing provisions and comfort to European and American migrants who were still allowed to hunt for gold. But after the abundant and exhausting labor of Chinese workers built the railways and laid the important foundation for California agriculture, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, banning their immigration to the country.

Today, the city has shrunk to almost nothing. A shop and tavern at the main corner could have provided history lessons, but the false Chinese writing decorating its facade (also known as’ won ton Character font”) Reeked of outdated stereotypes, so we decided to continue. About a thousand feet away, a secluded plaque marks the town as California Historic Landmark # 423 and the start of what was once a quaint block of buildings. We got out of the car to explore.

The buildings are now overgrown with weeds and their porches are sagging. It is not known who owns them today and no one smiled when we got back into our cars and drove away. Still, as I walked the block, I had visions of their restoration, a rural Chinese version of Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, the neighborhood surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Place of birth. Restored by the National Park Service and local activists, it’s now a reminder of thriving black family life in the early 20th century, before the fast food restaurants and highways in the area today.

“I was born in California in the 1970s and never went camping or visiting national parks, so when I was driving in this very old town called Chinese Camp, it didn’t make sense to me,” he said. said Yenyen Chan (no connection to Sucheng), a nearby National Park Service ranger Yosemite and an expert on early Sino-American history in the region. “Millions of people drive by on the way to Yosemite, and it reveals so much about the history of California that has been forgotten,” she added in a telephone interview from Lee Town. Vining, on the eastern approach to Yosemite.

Ms. Chan is credited with bringing Mr. Sing’s story to a wider audience, helping to lead a annual pilgrimage atop Sing Peak, the secluded Yosemite mountain that bears his name. She reminds visitors that the well-maintained roads that take them to sites like the Wawona Hotel were built mostly by Chinese laborers, often by hand.

Like the rest of the country, California is now grappling with its complicated history, which includes the conscription and genocide of Native American, Mexican and Asian residents. The state park system launched a Review our past initiative, who has so far removed a memorial in a northern California redwood forest dedicated to Madison Grant, an environmentalist and theorist of racial purity. And he’s trying to rename campgrounds like “Negro Bar,” a historic African-American mining community northeast of Sacramento that is now part of the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.

What I hadn’t realized until I explored this region was how much early California was tied to American slavery. The path to the state began with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which required the admission of a slave state alongside every new free state admitted into the Union. Without a slave state ready when the gold was discovered, and without an emergency for Washington, DC, to mine California’s wealth, Congress proposed the Compromise of 1850, a sort of comprehensive deal that granted California statehood on condition that other pro-slavery laws come into effect. The most notorious of these was the Fugitive Slave Act, which delegated slave hunters to the Free States to bring African Americans back into bondage.

Some of the early gold diggers were actually white slave owners who brought enslaved African Americans with them to the mines. Others were free African Americans hoping to find their fortunes and avoid the slave hunters newly empowered by the Fugitive Slave Act. When California passed its version of this law in 1852, it was targeting African-American gold rushes who either bought their freedom or thought California was a land of the free.

The elaborate manner in which Columbia celebrated its version of the Gold Rush story contrasted starkly with the neglect of the Chinese camp. In addition to the re-enactment of bandits that greeted our wagon, our team had a blast on Main Street in Columbia, being rocked by street performers and participating in candle-making and digging for gold. While the children clapped with the banjo, those of them who could read strolled through a mini museum honoring the Native sons of the Golden West, a San Francisco-based group founded by General Albert Maver Winn, a militia leader from Virginia via the Mississippi.

The Native Sons, with chapters statewide, is a historic preservation group founded in 1875 with a particular focus on the Gold Rush. Today, his website does not mention his first lobbying to restrict Chinese immigration or his WWII era. lawsuit to ban Japanese Americans from voting, but it is not necessary. Anti-Asian sentiment is inseparable from the gold rush tradition. “Ideas of white superiority have bracketed the image of white expansion, ‘free development’ and industrial inevitability in California and the West,” wrote Jean Pfaelzer, professor of Asian studies at the University of Delaware, in “Driven Out”, a 2007 book on the anti-Chinese riots that took place in this region.

David Kelley is a member of Native Sons and a volunteer guide in Columbia whose family roots in the area date back to 1866, when his great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland. Asked about the group’s previous anti-Asian efforts, he said “everyone is welcome to Columbia today,” noting that in recent years the Native Sons have admitted women as members.

Growing up in Northern California, I remember school trips to Sutter’s Fort, another Native Sons project in the heart of Sacramento, where our teachers taught us to remember “our” rush pioneers. gold. We have never seen an Asian or Mexican face among the historical reenactments, and we have never learned exactly who these pioneers were or how they entered their riches and their lands.

Our absence in this story taught me that we belong to the city, where I returned with relief after these field trips. Now, I’m suddenly curious to review sites like Sutter’s Fort and compare their history with my family’s 124 years in California. I hope one day I will have the opportunity to subject my children to a visit to a restored Chinese camp so that they can see a Chinese laundry, a Buddhist temple or a mining concession. Or maybe they can cut noodles with a costumed actor and learn how their ancestors built an Asian American rural life in early California.


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