Chinese on San Nicolas Island

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In the News~

July 23, 1878 [SBDP]: “The H. W. Almy, after an unusually long voyage of three days, arrived this morning from San Nicolas Island with a cargo of five tons of dried abalone, six tons of abalone shells, and ten Chinese passengers.”

August 8, 1878 [SBDP]: “The Chinese sloop Almy arrived in port yesterday.”

March 28, 1879 [SBPRE1906DEATHS/SBGEN]: Tai Kim. [Age] 30. Mong[olian]. M[ale]. S[ingle]. China. Fisherman. D[ied] San Nicholas [sic] Island.” NOTE: This is probably a typo for 1897.

October 8, 1883 [SBDI]: “Captain Larco sailed Sunday for San Nicolas Island to carry over a party of Chinese abalone fishers.”

October 8, 1883 [SBDI]: “The schooner Convoy has gone out to Saint Nicolas Island with a party of Chinese fishermen.”

July 31, 1884 [SBDI]: “A Chinese junk founders on a reef near San Nicolas. We learn from Captain Libbey, who arrived in the harbor this morning with his sloop, the Ocean King, with several tons of abalone shells, the miraculous escape of the crew of a Chinese junk that left San Diego a few days ago for the purpose of securing a cargo of abalone shells for the San Francisco market. While lying at anchor on the evening of the 25th inst., a westerly gale sprang up, and not withstanding the fact that the vessel had two anchors out she drifted upon a reef that at high tide is not noticeable. On board, all was still up to the time she struck the rocks, and her pounding course woke the occupants. The vessel was a total wreck… Captain Libbey, who had been aroused by the noise of the boat in going over the reef, being lifted and lowered by the action of the swells of the ocean, hove in sight and rescued the men from their perilous position and landed them safely in Santa Barbara. The crew consisted of eight men, and the only thing on board that was saved was a bag of rice and a coil of rope. The boat was of about 35-tons register and uninsured. From the description of the boat it is supposed to be the one that was launched in this city [Santa Barbara] some two years ago by the Chinamen…”

May 1, 1885 [SBDP]: “The Ocean King is provisioned, and as soon as a wind springs up will set sail for San Nicolas Island, with a number of Chinese abalone hunters.”

November 4, 1885 [SNDP]: “The Ocean King took a party of Chinese abalone hunters to San Nicolas Island yesterday.”

October 19, 1886 [SBDI]: “A crew of Chinese fishermen left for San Nicolas Island this morning.”

April 18, 1891 [SBMP]: “The Ruby arrived night before last from San Nicolas Island having on board the remains of a Chinese fisherman. They are to be shipped today to San Francisco.”

January 12, 1892 [LAT/SB]: “The schooner Santa Rosa, Captain Burtis, left for San Nicolas Island yesterday with a number of Chinamen.”

July 26, 1892 [SBMP]: “The schooner Santa Rosa will sail for San Nicolas Island for some Chinamen.”

September 28, 1899 [DN]: “…Last winter I spent in Santa Barbara, only coming to the island occasionally. One day a Chinaman came to my lodgings and asked me if I knew San Nicolas, the bleakest and windiest of all the California islands. I said I did. ‘You know Mandalin?’ he asked. Lung Kow… he go San Nicolas; allee same dead man.’ In short, the Chinaman was a representative of the Six Companies of San Francisco, and the mandarin, Lung Kow, had taken a trip for his health to the island with a party of abalone hunters and had died on the desolate spot. He was a big man, and so a delegation of Chinamen had been sent to Santa Barbara to charter a vessel to go to San Nicolas to bring him to the mainland. We soon struck a bargain and set sail… The Mandarin had simply been laid in the sand with his robes about him and his red buttoned hat on. We got him up, put him in the coffin and bolted it down. Then the Chinamen threw handfuls of papers in the air, uttering cries and bowing to the body, to the east and west… We got the coffin in the falls and landed it on deck, putting it across the house… The body was shipped to San Francisco under the same guard… The next week we saw in a San Francisco paper that a lot of smuggled opium had been captured in a coffin, and we began to think that the Mandarin was just an ordinary dummy Chinaman, packed with opium cases, which had been landed at San Nicolas and taken away with us. It looked that way!”

March 27, 1900 [SBMP]: “A tale of suffering and death from San Nicolas Island. Piratical crawfish catchers appropriate the only provisions in an abalone hunter's camp. On bleak San Nicolas Island, the most distant and desolate of the Santa Barbara group of islands, three Chinamen were for the past three months forced sufferers from hunger, and one is dead from the results of prolonged fast-diet from starvation, from the lack of sufficient and proper food. The two were rescued just in time to save their lives for they were weak and failing rapidly when discovered. Two weeks delay, at least, would have meant their death. Somewhere up or down the coast is an unknown sloop that was three months ago manned by unknown sailors, and to them is chargeable this suffering and death. While the three Chinamen were absent, hunting abalones on the opposite side of the island, these sailors, who had been catching crawfish on San Nicolas, raided the Chinamens’ camp, stole their rice and 1500 pounds of abalone meat, and put out to sea. When the Chinamen returned, they found their provisions gone, but they were helpless, having no boat large enough to brave the sea that rages between them and the mainland nearly 100 miles away. Their only hope was in the old Frenchman who is the sole permanent inhabitant of San Nicolas, and who lives at a sheep camp at the eastern end of the island. But his provisions, too, were getting low. He divided his little store with the Chinamen, however, when they called, but he is too old to move about the island, and as they grew weaker they could not travel the ten miles separating Corral Harbor, where they camped from the Frenchman’s. Each day, of course, there was a hope that some vessel would pass or call, but the ships all passed in the night, and they starved and hoped and waited on. During this time, Ah Jim, their employer at Santa Barbara, knew nothing of the robbery or of their suffering, but it was time for a cargo of abalones to come from the island, and for several weeks he had been looking for a schooner to make the trip. But all vessels were busy. The Santa Rosa, which landed the Chinamen on the island nine months ago, had been wrecked shortly afterwards [November 24, 1899], and other local craft were engaged. Ah Jim says his agents endeavored to find an available vessel at San Pedro, San Diego and San Francisco, but could not, and finally he chartered the Dawn, Captain Pierson, for the trip. When the Dawn arrived off Corral Harbor there was no sign of life at the camp. The captain sent a skiff ashore, and in the old adobe house that the late Captain Kimberly built many years ago when he owned the island, were found two Chinamen, lying in their bunks, too weak to walk, and almost too exhausted to speak. But they weakly told of the theft of their provisions, how they had lived three months on abalone meat and what fish they could get, and how they had all sickened through lack of proper nourishment and one of them had already died. A meal that they could eat in their weakened condition was soon prepared from the stores of the Dawn, and the Chinamen’s spirits began to improve and the thought that rescue was at hand. They could not help with the loading of the vessel, but this was finally accomplished by the Dawn’s crew, and the Chinamen took passage on the vessel for Santa Barbara. The Dawn stopped at the Frenchman’s long enough to leave provisions, however, arriving here on Sunday morning. The dead Chinaman’s name was Ah King, a cousin of Ah Jim. The latter does not know what steps will be taken to prosecute the crawfish catchers who robbed the camp. It is thought they belong to San Pedro. San Nicolas Island is within the jurisdiction of Ventura County, and any steps taken must be by officers of that county. The remains of Ah King were left on the island, but will be removed later. The occurrence recalls the death of another Chinaman at the same place about eight years ago. It was necessary to get the Coroner’s consent to the removal of the body, but neither of the three counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura or Los Angeles would claim the island. This difficulty was finally overcome, however, and an undertaker, with several Chinamen, went to the island to get the remains. It was during stormy weather, and it took the boat eight days to make the trip owing to rough seas it was necessary to land at the opposite end of San Nicolas and to carry the casket some twelve miles. This gives an idea of the desolate situation on the island.”

March 27, 1900 [LAT/SB]: “The schooner Dawn, which makes trips between here and the Channel Islands, arrived last evening from San Nicolas Island, bringing two Chinese who had been rescued from starvation. They were in a miserable condition and mourned the death of a companion, who perished on the island three weeks ago from lack of proper food. The Chinese, who were employed by an abalone firm here, went to the island about five months ago. They were after abalones, the dried meat of which is a Chinese delicacy, and abalone shells, for which there is a good market. As was the custom, the schooner in which they were transported to the island left as soon as the Chinese were set ashore. It was the understanding that the men should be called for about this time. After being on the island for about a month, the Chinese returned one day from a fishing trip and found that their camp had been robbed and that a large part of their supply of rice, almost their only food, had been stolen. They suspect fishermen from Santa Catalina Island or San Pedro of the crime. Starvation seemed in store. What rice was left was used in soup, but this diet could not keep up with the men's strength. Shellfish were of course used as food, but so weakened did all become that one of the three died about three weeks ago. His death was absolutely a result of the theft of the rice. The others were found in such a piteous condition that it was at first feared that they would not recover, but they are all right today.”

April 12, 1900 [LAT/SCat]: “The Avalon returned from San Nicolas Island last night with E. L. Doran, F. W. Clark and Al Holbrook, the curio hunters who were left there ten days previously. They came back laden with all sorts of spoils, which the island sands were made to yield up. When asked about the stories of the Chinaman starving to death on the island, Mr. Clark replied that the Chinaman was certainly dead, but that it was not from actual starvation. Their supplies were stolen, but they were then in as good condition to live as were the former natives of the island, who had no base of supplies except the food they found in the waters. The sheepherder who lives on the island did all he could to alleviate their condition, dividing his supplies with them. One of the Chinamen was taken sick, however, and died. It is rarely that bonita touch at San Nicolas, and it was many months before the two survivors found opportunity to leave the island. The sheep herder has not been off the island in more than two years, and much of the time he is the only human being on that desert spot, which does not now produce a stick or a shrub on its entire area.”

October 7, 1900 [LAT/SCat]: “Three of the five young men who went over to San Nicolas Island a month ago, abalone fishing… returned because shell hunting did not prove satisfactory, as the island rocks have been almost denuded of abalones by Chinamen…”

November 16, 1900 [SBMP]: “The schooner Restless left yesterday morning for San Nicolas Island with a number of Chinamen, who will remain there for several months gathering abalones and shells.”

March 20, 1901 [SBDI]: “The gasoline schooner Francis of San Diego arrived in port this morning with 295 sacks of abalone shells and meat from San Nicolas Island, consigned to local Chinese merchants.”

March 26, 1901 [SBDI]: “The sloop Olita, Captain Joe Arabas, left this morning for San Nicolas Island. The Olita will bring over a cargo of abalone meat and shells for local Chinese.”

July 27, 1901 [SBDI]: “The schooner Restless, Captain Burtis, sailed this morning for San Nicolas Island for the purpose of bringing to Santa Barbara a large gang of Chinamen who have been engaged in abalone fishing.”

November 30, 1904 [SBMP]: “Captain R. Vasquez has returned from San Nicolas Island with the remains of Tie Kee, the Chinaman who died from starvation on that island about five years ago. San Nicolas is a low, barren island that lies about seventy-five miles south of this city. It has a rough shore and no good harbors for landing. Its shores produce large quantities of abalone shells, which were much sought after by the Chinese residents of the coast. The dead Chinaman was one of a party of three who left this city about five years ago, prepared to live on San Nicolas for six months while hunting abalone shells and meat. They fitted a fine camp there, which was looted a few days later by some passing fishermen while the owners were on the other side of the island. The thief took everything they possessed in the way of camp equipment and provisions, and the unfortunate Chinamen were left without means of subsistence. For several months they lived upon abalone meat, and having no means of leaving the island, they were soon too weak to gather sufficient food. One of them died and was buried by his companions. The other two then became so weak that they lost their senses and wandered about the island in an aimless manner, at last falling prostrate. A few hours afterward they were discovered by Captain Clarence Libbey of the Reliance, who thought they were already dead. He took them to his boat and succeeded in bringing them to the city. During the last few days a purse has been made up by the Chinese for the purpose of exhuming the body of the dead Chinaman and shipping the remains to his home in China. Captain Vasquez was accompanied on the trip by Mr. E. A. Sanders of the Ricketts Undertaking Company, where the remains of the Chinaman will be prepared for shipment to the Orient.”

December 1, 1904 [LAT/SB]: “The remains of Tie Kee, the unfortunate Chinaman who died of starvation on San Nicolas Island five years ago, have just been brought to this city by Captain Vasquez of the Peerless. A purse was made up by the Chinese residents for the purpose of exhuming the remains and shipping then to China. Tie Kee’s death was caused by the robbery of his camp on the island, which was shared by two other Chinamen. The robbers took all their catch, camp equipment and provisions, while the fishermen were on the other shore of the island after abalone shells. They managed to live for some days without other provisions than abalone meat, but at last Tie Kee died and was buried by his companions. The other two were rescued by Captain Libbey of the Reliance and brought to this city.”