California

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: ° Alameda: ° Berkeley ° Oakland
Contra Costa County: ° Crockett, ° Martinez ° Port Costa
Marin County: ° Point Reyes, ° San Rafael (China Camp), ° Sausalito, ° Tiburon
° Mendocino ° Sacramento
San Francisco (City and County)
Solano: ° Benicia (St. Paul's Church), ° VallejoMare Island
Sonoma: ° Petaluma ° Fort Ross
CENTRAL & SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: ° Long Beach ° Los Angeles ° Monterey County ° San Diego County ° Santa Barbara ° Santa Monica ° The Channel Islands

San Rafael: China Camp

China Camp on the eastern shore of San Rafael occupies an area that was inhabited for thousands of years by the Coast Miwok people. The Miwok had dozens of small villages scattered throughout Marin and southern Sonoma Counties, including several in the vicinity of China Camp. Their lifestyle was subsistence: hunting game such as deer and rabbits in the hills, harvesting acorns from the groves of oaks, fishing from the abundant sea, and gathering clams, oysters, and abalone along the shores of the Bay. The Coast Miwok population is estimated to have been several thousand at the time of the Spanish arrival in 1775 and was almost wiped out within 100 years.

Chinese Fishermen

In the mid-1860s, Chinese fishermen began fishing for shrimp in California. As the enterprise grew in the 1870s and 1880s, numerous villages or "shrimp camps" were established on the shores of both San Francisco and San Pablo bays. China Camp was one of the largest and longest-lived of these camps.

The 1870 Census Records list 77 male Chinese shrimp fishermen living there in 15 dwelling units. The population grew considerably; the 1880 Census Records list 469 inhabitants, of whom 368 were directly associated with the shrimp fishery.

Records also indicate that the village had three general stores, one marine supply store, and a barber shop; individuals included an instructor in Joss worship, a teacher, and a physician. Shrimp fishing was a long-established industry in China, and many immigrant Chinese arrived with knowledge of fishing and preservation techniques necessary to develop a shrimping enterprise in California.

Chinese fishermen used traditional boats, such as sampans and junks, for fishing. There even seems to have been a small Chinese American boat-building industry in California, for junks and sampans constructed of California redwood have been found.

Fishermen used traditional cone-shaped nets, which they periodically dried and mended on the bare hillsides surrounding the fishing village.

The nets were fastened to poles stuck in the ground beneath the water along the shore. Fishermen in boats emptied them and brought the shrimp in. The shrimp were then cooked and spread out under the sun to dry. When dried, their shells were cracked by a fisherman who tread on piles of them with special wooden clogs. The shrimp with cracked shells were tossed in a shrimp-winnowing machine, of a design invented in China before the birth of Christ. This machine separated the shrimp by size, and also separated them from their shells, which were shipped back to China for fertilizer.

The village included:

  1. A The shrimp drying shed: a long, narrow, composite building with an original brick shed (c. 1880-90), which was used for drying shrimp, and a redwood frame addition off the north end (c. 1910-20). The entire building measures 10' x 34', and has a low, gabled roof with corrugated metal covering.

  2. The shrimp shed was constructed with redwood planking on pine pilings over the tide line (c. 1870-90). Originally, the gabled roof, as with all the historic buildings, was covered with split redwood shingles. Now, corrugated metal covers the roof. Overall dimensions are 40' x 25'.

  3. The pier, 305' long, has been lengthened since the early days of the camp. The original shed located at the shore end of the pier was about 35' wider and 75' longer than the existing wood frame shed (which has a recent corrugated metal roof).

  4. The 1860s-1880 shrimp grinding shed's frame and siding remnants are attached to the existing camp store, which measures 34' x 45', and has double sash and casement windows, a pier foundation, and redwood plank frame and siding (board and batten). The power train and blower apparatus are still in the rafters of the shrimp grinding shed.

  5. Of two floating houses (1900), now beached, one building, 18' x 41', has a pier foundation, board and batten siding, and a low gable hip roof. The other, 29' x 35', has a round pile foundation, lap siding, and a mansard and gable roof combination.

  6. Several additional residences, an old shrimp drying platform, and the remains of three redwood sampans sunk in the mud in the adjoining cove are other evidence of Chinese American occupation in the China Camp area.

The Chinese immigrants and their descendants introduced the use of commercial netting to catch bay shrimp off Point San Pedro. They sailed junks (long wooden Chinese fishing boats) out into the San Francisco Bay to catch fish and shrimp.

Initially there was little demand for fresh shrimp in the United States, since it was not part of the average diet. For this reason, most shrimp caught were dried and sent back to China and to Chinese communities throughout the United States. Later, in the 1880s and 1890s, when the demand for fresh shrimp grew in California and the shrimp industry reached its zenith in production and manpower, Chinese American shrimp fishermen came under increasing pressure from other fishing groups. Discriminatory legislation was enacted that forbade traditional Chinese fishing techniques, limited the fishing season, prohibited the export of dried shrimp, and restricted the size of the catch. As the population of China Camp dwindled, only the Quan family persisted and adapted to new regulations and changing technology.

Today, Frank Quan, the descendant of an early Chinese American shrimp fisherman, continues to operate from the last pier and buildings standing at China Camp, the last operating shrimp camp in the state.

Note: During the Gold Rush years, a town called Chinese Camp was a California mining camp. Some of the first Chinese laborers arriving in California in 1849 were driven from neighboring camps and resettled here; the area started to become known as "Chinee" or "Chinese Camp" or "Chinese Diggings." At one point the town was home to an estimated 5,000 Chinese.

The Chinese Camp post office was established in the general store on April 18, 1854. An 1892 Tuolumne County history indicates that, in 1856, four of the six Chinese companies (protective associations) had agents here and that the first tong war (between the Sam Yap and Yan Woo tongs) was fought near here when the population of the area totaled several thousand.

An 1860 diary says Chinese Camp was the metropolis for the mining district, with many urban comforts. While placer mining had played out in much of the Gold Country by the early 1860s, it was still active here as late as 1870. An 1899 mining bulletin listed the total gold production of the area as near $2.5 million.

May 2, 1875, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

San Rafael Excursion.

The steamers Contra Costa and Clinton will leave to day for San Rafael and Fairfax, at 9:30 and 10:15 a. m. and at 6:30 p.m., connecting with trains for San Quentin.

April 13, 1884, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

San Rafael as a Summer Resort.

San Rafael, April 12th. The rails were connected last Thursday on the extension of the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad between San Rafael and Point Tiburbn, and a special train, with Mr. Donahue and the officers of the road aboard, passed over the road this afternoon. There is considerable ballasting to be done yet, bat it is the intention of the management to have the road open for traffic on or before the 1st of May. This will give San Rafael three routes to San Francisco, and at least ten round trips a day. Judging from the number of applications received daily by real estate agents and hotels, with a view to securing accommodations for the Summer, San Rafael is on the eve of a prosperous boom such as it never enjoyed before.

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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