Looking for a Gold-Rush Town Named Chinese Camp

A stagecoach ride in California’s Columbia State Historic Park offers a glimpse of Gold Rush life. Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

Looking for a Gold-Rush Town Named Chinese Camp By Nina F. Ichikawa Published Sept. 15, 2021Updated Sept. 16, 2021, 1:22 p.m. ET

Four aging horses dragged us through the manzanita and boulders, the stagecoach swerving dangerously with each bump and wiggle. The children shrieked with excitement as we threaded our way through Columbia State Historic Park, a mining camp from the days of the Gold Rush about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Oakland, Calif.

Suddenly, a bearded white man in a red bandanna jumped out from the trees. He waved an old-timey pistol at us, and at the sight of the gun we all froze. The laughing stopped. “Gimme yer gold!” he drawled. He pointed the pistol at us and sneered. “Will he shoot us?” whispered my 5-year-old daughter.

Packed into that sweaty stagecoach, we were three couples — Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean Americans — with six children, taking our first post-pandemic road trip into the mountains. We had rented a house nearby to bathe in Pinecrest Lake and dip our toes in the Tuolumne River, to barbecue fish and prepare elaborate Filipino breakfasts for each other. I had a side interest: to find traces of Asian American history in this part of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

I was inspired by the story of Tie Sing, a Chinese American backwoods chef who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey. Hired to cook for a 1915 lobbying trip for conservationists, industrialists and senators to Yosemite, his meals were apparently so impressive that he helped convert the group to the cause of nature recreation, leading to the formation of the National Park System.

While few know Mr. Sing’s story, even fewer are aware of the span of 1849 to 1882, when thousands of Chinese immigrants descended upon the area to find their fortunes on the legendary “Gold Mountain.” I wanted our children to feel the Chinese roots of this area and perhaps put the hardships of the last year into historical context. I cooked a dinner of grilled trout, fried potatoes and green beans in memory of Mr. Sing and once we’d settled in, we decided to visit Columbia and then a tiny dot on the map called Chinese Camp, an old mining town.

The day after our stagecoach encounter, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees before noon, we blasted the air-conditioner and tried to find Chinese Camp, just a few miles away. There was little signage and no rangers in sight. Sucheng Chan, a retired historian and the author of more than 15 books on Asian American history, notes that this region, called the Southern Mines, was home to almost half of the Chinese in California in 1860, before the establishment of San Francisco’s Chinatown and other urban enclaves.

A crumbling building on the outskirts of the town of Chinese Camp, a Gold Rush settlement. Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

The town was a stagecoach stop 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 multicultural mining towns scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills. Chinese immigrants came seeking gold like so many others in the early years of the Gold Rush, and established claims along the sparkling streams that curled through the mountains.

They were almost immediately attacked. Vigilante pogroms matured into a series of punitive local, then state, laws intended to keep Chinese settlers out of lucrative gold mining and restrict them to cooking, laundering, vegetable farming and construction work. Still, they excelled, building roads through the mountains in record time and supplying provisions and comfort to the European and American migrants who were still allowed to hunt for gold. But once the Chinese workers’ abundant and grueling labor had built the railroads and laid important groundwork for California agriculture, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, barring their immigration into the country.

The town today has shrunk to almost nothing. A store and tavern on the main corner might have supplied some history lessons but the fake Chinese script decorating its facade (also known as the “won ton font”) reeked of expired stereotypes, so we decided to keep moving. About a thousand feet away, a lone plaque marks the town as California Historic Landmark #423 and the beginning of what was once a picturesque block of buildings. We got out of the car to explore.

The buildings are now overgrown with weeds and their porches sag. It’s not clear who owns them today and no one smiled as we got back in our cars and drove away. Still, walking 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.’s birthplace. Restored by the National Park Service and local activists, it is now a clapboard reminder of thriving Black family life in the early 20th century, pre-dating the fast food and freeways of the area today.

“I was born in California in the 1970s and I never went camping or on national parks tours, so when I drove through this very old town called Chinese Camp, it made no sense to me,” said Yenyen Chan (no relation to Sucheng), a ranger with the National Park Service in nearby Yosemite and an expert on early Chinese American history in the area. “Millions of people drive by on their way to Yosemite, and it reveals so much about California history that has been forgotten,” she added in a phone interview from the town of Lee Vining, on Yosemite’s eastern approach.

The town of Chinese Camp is designated as a historical landmark, though little has been done to promote it.  Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

Ms. Chan is credited with bringing the story of Mr. Sing to a larger audience, helping to lead an annual pilgrimage to the top of Sing Peak, the remote Yosemite mountain named for him. She reminds visitors that the well-maintained roads that bring them to sites like the Wawona Hotel were built mostly by Chinese workers, 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 parks system has launched a Re-examining Our Past Initiative, which so far has removed a memorial at a Northern California redwood forest that was dedicated to Madison Grant, a conservationist and racial purity theorist. And it is attempting to rename campgrounds like “Negro Bar,” a historic African American mining community northeast of Sacramento that is now part of Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.

What I hadn’t realized until I explored this area was how intertwined California’s beginnings were with American slavery. The path to statehood began with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which required the admission of one slave state alongside each new free state admitted to the Union. Without a slave state at the ready when gold was discovered, and urgency in Washington, D.C., to tap the wealth of California, Congress came up with the Compromise of 1850, a sort of package deal that granted California statehood on the condition that other pro-slavery laws went into effect. The most notorious of these was the Fugitive Slave Law, which deputized slave catchers in free states to bring African Americans back to bondage.

Some of the earliest gold rushers were in fact white slave owners who brought enslaved African Americans with them to the mines. Others were free African Americans hoping to find their fortune and avoid the slave catchers who were newly empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law. When California passed its version of that law in 1852, it targeted successful African American gold rushers who had bought their freedom or otherwise thought California was a land of freedom.

In the town of Columbia, children and parents can pan for gold and take part in other Gold Rush activities. Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times
Tourists browsing the Native Sons of the Golden West Museum in Columbia. Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

The Native Sons, with chapters throughout the state, is a historic preservation group founded in 1875 with a particular focus on the Gold Rush. Today, its website doesn’t mention its early lobbying to restrict Chinese immigration or its World War II-era lawsuit to bar Japanese Americans from voting, but it doesn’t need to. Anti-Asian sentiment is inseparable from Gold Rush lore. “Ideas of white superiority bracketed the image of white expansion, ‘free development’ and industrial inevitability in California and the West,” wrote Jean Pfaelzer, a professor of Asian Studies at Delaware University, in “Driven Out,” a 2007 book about the anti-Chinese riots that took place across this region.

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

Growing up in Northern California, I remember elementary school field trips to Sutter’s Fort, another Native Sons project in the heart of Sacramento, our teachers lecturing us to remember “our” Gold Rush pioneers. We never saw an Asian or Mexican face among the historical re-enactors, nor did we learn exactly who those pioneers were or how they came into their wealth and land holdings.

Our absence in that history told me that we belonged in the city, which is where I returned with relief after those field trips. Now I’m suddenly curious to revisit sites like Sutter’s Fort and check their story against my family’s own 124 years in California. I hope one day of the possibility to subject my children to a visit to a restored Chinese Camp so they can see a Chinese laundry, a Buddhist temple or a mining claim. Or perhaps they can cut noodles with an actor in period costume and learn how their forebears built a rural Asian American life as California began.

The Eastern Sierra foothills near Chinese Camp. Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

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Institute for the Study of Societal Issues View this email in your browser The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics — A Conversation with Mae NgaiFriday, September 17
1:00 – 2:00 pm PT

Zoom Webinar | Register here (free)

Mae Ngai
Lung Family Professor Asian American Studies, and Professor of History at Columbia University

Harvey Dong
Continuing Lecturer of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies, UCB

Christopher Tomlins
Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law, UCBModerator: Lok Siu
Associate Professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies, UCB

Sponsored by: Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies, the Asian American Research Center, the Center for Race & Gender, Eastwind Books of Berkeley, and the Institute for Governmental Studies

Asian American Research Center is part of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues.AbstractHow did Chinese migration to the goldfields of California, Australia and South Africa both upend the global economy and forge modern conceptions of race?Join us for a conversation with historian Mae Ngai (Lung Family Professor Asian American Studies, and Professor of History at Columbia University) about her remarkable new book, The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (Norton, 2021), with discussants Harvey Dong (Continuing Lecturer of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies) and Christopher Tomlins (Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law), and moderator Lok Siu (Associate Professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies).This event is free and open to the public. If you require an accommodation for effective communication (ASL interpreting/CART captioning, alternative media formats, etc.) in order to fully participate in this virtual event, please contact  Ariana Ceja at centerrg@berkeley.edu with as much advance notice as possible and at least 7-10 days in advance of the event.ShareTweetForwardShareSupport Our WorkAARC EventsTwitterFacebookYouTubeCopyright © 2021 Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, UC Berkeley, All rights reserved.

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This came from a private email. I had reviewed May Ngai’s book The Lucky Ones link

China Camp State Park, a Hidden Gem

Docent Ed Lai, FOCC Executive Director Martin Lowenstein, Frank Mah, Justine Wong, Doreen Lew, Evelyn Seto, Leona Lau, Joe Yoshino, Jeannie Young, John Lew August 2021

In mid-July, a member of the Bay Area Chinese Genealogy Group (BACGG) contacted Dr. Jason Lau to make arrangements for a docent tour of China Camp State Park.  Half of the eight were first time visitors. Martin Lowenstein, FOCC executive director, welcomed the group at the café. The slightly breezy August afternoon visit included a tour of the former Chinese fishing village by Ed Lai. His presentation included the history of Miwok, Spanish, and Chinese inhabitants. His tour began with a walk out on the pier to see the replica of a Chinese fishing junk, museum, and shrimp processing equipment. Back at the cafe, volunteer, Ernie Stanton, shared details about the Quans, the last family to run the café, and pointed out photos from when the village was used as a set for a John Wayne film, Blood Alley.

Naturalist, Jerry Coe, led the group on a nature hike on the Turtle Back Loop. He discussed the history of the pre-colonial Miwok who lived in harmony with the land. Jerry patiently helped members of the group learn to identify different flora. They all tasted pickle weed, a source of salt, from the marshland.

Members of the group joined FOCC and also made donations. An article about China Camp State Park will be posted on the BACGG website later this month.

“China Camp State Park is a 1,514-acre park nestled along the shoreline of San Pablo Bay in San Rafael, California. The park boasts panoramic views, lush oak woodlands, and over 100 acres of protected tidal salt marsh. Whether you’re a hiker or mountain biker, a history buff, or a beach lover, you’ll have an unforgettable day at China Camp.

Visit China Camp’s historic shrimping village and beach area. The village is the perfect place to bring friends and family for a fun day trip. Visit the museum to learn more about China Camp’s fascinating history. Stop by the historic cafe on weekends for snacks and cold drinks. The site features first-come, first-served picnic areas with tables, drinking water, bathrooms, and an outdoor shower.

Learn more about the Chinese shrimp fishing in San Francisco Bay: watch a video by Chinese Whispers: Bay Chronicles.


Friends of China Camp (FOCC) is the community-based nonprofit organization that keeps China Camp State Park open. Since 2012, FOCC has been the sole operator and manager of the park. The organization, largely run by volunteers, is responsible for covering all expenses related to keeping the park open. Find out how you can become a member, and help keep China Camp open and thriving for all.

Friends of China Camp (FOCC) is committed to keeping China Camp State Park open and thriving for our community. To learn more about China Camp, plan a day trip, or camping trip visit the FOCC website at https://friendsofchinacamp.org

China Camp State Park Chinese Fishing Camp

National Archives Operations

As local public health metrics allow, research rooms will open on a limited basis and by appointment only. You must have a virtual consultation before the on-site visit. Staff at all locations will continue to respond to emailed requests for records. Further information is in this press release

The Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and some Presidential Library museums are open with limited capacity.

Reopenings and operations will rely on local public health metrics. Check the specific facility page for updates. More information about the National Archives’ response to coronavirus can be found at archives.gov/coronavirus.

Print allIn new window[chineseamericanfamilyhistory] National Archives Announces Limited Reopening of Research RoomsInbox

Marisa Louie Lee
6:37 AM (3 hours ago)to chineseamericanfamilyhistory

Hi everyone: Sharing the news about NARA reopening most research rooms starting August 2! I don’t yet have an appointment on the books for our local facility in San Bruno (the National Archives at San Francisco) but I’m looking forward to returning after so many months away. 

———- Forwarded message ———
From: National Archives <public.affairs@nara.gov>
Date: Fri, Jul 16, 2021 at 11:21 AM
Subject: National Archives Announces Limited Reopening of Research Rooms

Media Advisory graphic banner with the National Archives Logo

National Archives Announces Limited Reopening of Research Rooms WASHINGTON, July 16, 2021–The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is starting to resume research room operations. Several locations have already begun pilots to test research room policies and procedures that promote social distancing, while otherwise allowing us to serve records in a secure manner, and starting Monday, August 2, most National Archives research rooms will reopen for research on a limited basis. NARA services will look very different from the services provided prior to COVID-19. Research visits will be by appointment only and will require a virtual consultation prior to the onsite visit. Boxes of records will be pulled in advance and will be waiting at an assigned table. Research appointments will initially be for 4-5 hours total, depending on the location. In addition, we have implemented a number of measures to ensure the safety of our researchers and staff: Requiring that unvaccinated visitors wear face coverings during their visit.

Limiting the number of people in each research room.
Requiring that those who are sick or do not feel well stay home.
Implementing safe social distancing through stanchions, physical barriers, floor markings, one-way paths, and directional guidance. Chairs will be removed and workspaces will be blocked to promote physical distancing between researchers. Following CDC cleaning guidance. In addition, researchers will contribute to sanitizing procedures by cleaning their assigned tables and equipment before and after their research.
Researchers should wash their hands thoroughly before entering and after exiting research rooms and regularly throughout their visit to the facility. Hand sanitizer will be readily available outside of the research rooms. Records quarantine: All record material accessed by a researcher will be quarantined after use for three full days, and the records will not be available to other researchers during the quarantine period.
Contact tracing: If a researcher or NARA employee experiences COVID-19 symptoms while in a NARA research room or later reports symptoms, a diagnosis, or a close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19, NARA will use contact information collected during the researcher registration process to notify other researchers of a potential exposure.Please email the relevant facility using the contact information on their facility page to request an appointment. Researchers should check the specific facility page for details and updates, as the situation can change quickly. Thank you for your patience and understanding as we work to reopen our facilities in a careful and deliberate manner that prioritizes the safety of staff and the public. We look forward to welcoming you back to our research facilities.#  #  # For press information, contact the National Archives Public and Media Communications staff at public.affairs@nara.gov21-50NARA locations nationwide
Our mailing address is:
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington DC, 20408

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