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.