Trap­ping in 1828 led to SJ County’s old­est com­mu­nity

Escalon Times - - MARKETPLACE 209 - STAFF RE­PORTS 209 Liv­ing

With ex­pan­sion comes the or­di­nary ci­ti­zen, search­ing for a bet­ter place to set­tle and to raise a fam­ily. When gold was dis­cov­ered in Cal­i­for­nia in 1848 and the great mi­gra­tion headed this way, early vis­i­tors were search­ing for gold. A few found the pre­cious metal but many oth­ers found an area rich in farm­land and mild tem­per­a­tures.

That lat­ter group soon dis­cov­ered the San Joaquin val­ley and its riches. As they worked their way out of the Foothills or in­land from San Fran­cisco they dis­cov­ered French Camp.

But they cer­tainly were not the first to find this tiny ham­let. Ear­lier in 1828 trap­pers from the Hud­son Bay Com­pany — a Cana­dian group of in­vestors — had al­ready found French Camp. And it was men’s hats which led the trap­pers to French Camp.

In the early 1800s Euro­pean elite be­gan wear­ing beaver hats. They dis­cov­ered the an­i­mal pelts were nearly wa­ter­proof, keep­ing their heads dry dur­ing win­ter rains. But beaver skins were dif­fi­cult to find. Trap­pers were rapidly de­plet­ing beaver in many areas so they turned their at­ten­tion to the great San Joaquin Val­ley where they ended up launch­ing French Camp that is now the old­est com­mu­nity in San Joaquin County.

Once here they dis­cov­ered an abun­dance of an­i­mals in­clud­ing the pre­vi­ous beaver. They also found the Yachekumna and Siykumna In­dian tribes roam­ing the area for fish and roots.

Trap­ping was done through­out the area and soon flat­boats filled with pelts were be­ing shipped to Yerba Buena (now San Fran­cisco). Ships wait­ing at the Golden Gate would then haul the ex­pen­sive cargo back to Euro­pean mar­kets for the mak­ing of hats. Early records don’t tell us much about this time be­cause Cal­i­for­nia was owned by Spain and the re­moval of pelts from its ter­ri­tory was il­le­gal.

But we do know the French trap­pers were here and that beaver pelts in Europe were highly prized.

Trap­pers dis­cov­ered the French Camp Slough a per­fect lo­ca­tion for pre­par­ing the pelts and also for ship­ping. Just west of the McKin­ley Av­enue Bridge that crosses French Camp Slough to­day is where the orig­i­nal trap­per’s load­ing dock once stood. Trap­pers con­structed houses built of tules, which lined the slough, and set­tled in for sev­eral years’ work.

Their slaugh­ter house – just a flat area where they could skin an­i­mals – was lo­cated on the back of the French Camp School grounds. Gen­er­a­tions of students have found thou­sands of an­i­mal bones buried on the grounds.

By the early 1840s the mar­ket for beaver hats was di­min­ish­ing and trap­pers were no longer mak­ing any money. They aban­doned French Camp and headed to Canada.

For sev­eral years French Camp sat nearly va­cant, the tule houses fall­ing into the adobe soil. When Cap­tain Charles We­ber first set­tled in what is now Stock­ton, he hoped to ex­pand the com­mu­nity around him and of­fered por­tions of his 48,747 acre land grant to new ar­rivals.

David Kelsey, his wife and two chil­dren were the first Amer­i­can fam­ily to set­tle in French Camp. This was early 1844 and his tim­ing was bad. While vis­it­ing San Jose Kelsey was ex­posed to small pox. Re­turn­ing to French Camp, Kelsey, his wife and son soon died of the dis­ease. His 11-year-old daugh­ter, Amer­ica, was left alone to bury her fam­ily. Herders ar­rived and helped the young girl. One, Ge­orge Wyman, later be­came her hus­band and the fam­ily moved to the San Jose area.

French Camp be­came a lively place dur­ing the Gold Rush. The Brighton House, a large ho­tel con­structed about 1853, of­ten had more than 100 trav­el­ers din­ing dur­ing the noon hour. The com­mu­nity also had four stores, two hay sta­tions, a black­smith shop, five res­tau­rants, a school and ceme­tery.

As with many val­ley and Mother Lode towns, once gold min­ing dwin­dled, so did the vil­lages. French Camp is still a ter­mi­nus for trav­els, but to­day it serves as a con­nec­tion route be­tween I-5 and High­way 99. The school still stands on the orig­i­nal site and a few older struc­tures hint at French Camp’s early life.

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