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.
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.
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.
The elaborate way in which Columbia celebrated its version of the Gold Rush story contrasted sharply with the neglect of Chinese Camp. In addition to the bandit re-enactment that greeted our wagon, our crew had a great time on Columbia’s main street, being serenaded by street performers and taking part in candle-making and panning for gold. While the kids clapped along with the banjo, those of them who could read wandered into a mini museum honoring the Native Sons of the Golden West, a San Francisco-based group founded in 1849 by Gen. Albert Maver Winn, a militia leader from Virginia by way of Mississippi.
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.