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Genealogy of Communities: Fishing Camps

Researching individuals who lived and worked in fishing camps is possible through traditional censuses and other documents. Fishing camps were communities of residential employees. Fishermen who lived primarily in a fishing camp were counted in the census enumeration for that location regardless of the style of accommodations.


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There are trends among fishing camps that vary somewhat from residents who were also fishermen. Fishing camp residents tended to be single men.

The camps would have been a haven for new immigrants. There was ready work for skilled fishermen. Remote fishing camps were self-sufficient by necessity. There were few, if any, stores or restaurants. Boarding with someone or living in a camp where someone did the cooking would have been a significant convenience as opposed to shopping or going to a restaurant and reading in a second language.

Stockton, California - District 95

In 1880, enumeration District 95 in Stockton, California, was home to a large community of immigrant fishermen from China. It was a large community within a city. The census lists some 300 residents below the 200 block of Washington Street, without identifying individual house numbers, dwellings, or designating the residents within a given household. Individuals are listed across several pages with almost no family relationships. In many cases, the enumerator failed to identify marital status. Yet there is useful data.

This is a Chinese community, whether by occupation or randomness. Almost everyone on this section of Washington Street, in 1880, was Chinese and employed in connection with the fishing community.

It appears that perhaps they migrated in groups. Lists of a dozen or so individuals from Canton are followed by a list of a dozen or so immigrants from Kwontung or Mikoo. If the individual you are looking for appears elusive, try researching someone who came from the same location and might have arrived on the same ship. That might lead to their place of birth.

Men were primarily fishermen. However, the half-dozen owners of opium dens were listed as legally employed and natives of either Canton or Mikoo. A few men in this area were employed in other occupations such as a barber or shoemaker. It would be reasonable to assume that the fishermen might have been born in fishing communities and learned their skill before migrating. A laborer in a fishing community is more likely to be someone who does not know how to fish or handle fishing nets, sail the fishing boat, and so on.

Very few of the residents were women. Page twelve of District 95 lists only men. The few women residents were prostitutes, cooks, washerwomen, and one merchant. The prostitutes were natives of Mikoo and Canton. There were no other jobs for women in this community. No doubt, they chose to remain near other immigrants from their native country rather than venture out into the larger community to seek other types of work.

Two female tailors were from Canon and Wong Pao. Again, it is likely they arrived with skills. They might have even learned these skills from their families. Look first at tailors in their place of birth for possible family members.

Two male Chinese interpreters were neighbors to Mikoo prostitutes on one side and prostitutes from Canton on the other side. Altogether, there were a dozen prostitutes living in this two-block stretch of Washington Street. While the enumerator failed to identify which languages they could interpret, we can assume that non-Chinese came into the community in need of interpreters. Their location between the Mikoo and Canton prostitutes would be convenient.

It does, however, raise the question of how the interpreters learned the languages. Those individuals probably lived or worked outside the immediate Chinese community at some earlier point. It would be wise to cast a wider net in researching the interpreters' backgrounds. They come to the table with unique skills they probably did not learn on Washington Street in Stockton.

Within this one community we see individuals who would have immigration papers on file. There should be a ship manifest from when they arrived. The manifest should also show the port where they boarded the ship, along with personal information such as age. A logical search would begin with an attempt to match up that information with the census data collected.

Eventually, everyone dies. A death certificate would be on file. It is likely that most of the fishermen remained in the community or nearby. Begin a search for a death certificate in the county where they lived. An obituary may also exist.

Most people marry. Look for a marriage certificate. It may provide additional family information. Since this community is urban, the marriage probably appeared in a local newspaper.

Such a tight-knit Chinese community might have had a Chinese newspaper. Search it for marriages and obituaries.

Tongue Point and Knappa, Oregon

The 1880 U.S. Census enumerated a more traditional fishing camp in Tongue Point in Clatsop County, Oregon. The entire district consisted of only 85 residents, all of whom were a part of the fishing community.

The only women on the island were the wife of the man in charge of the buoy station, and their daughter, and the wife of the man in charge of the mess house; and the wife of another man in charge of a fishing station.

Everyone else is identified as a "boarder" and employed as a fisherman. The one exception is a man in charge of the nets. Every fisherman had been unemployed for at least four months during the previous year. Most of these individuals were immigrants and many of them reportedly could not read.

They were born in ten different states or one of thirteen different foreign countries. The average age of the fishermen was 31, and the youngest was 22. The largest group of fishermen were ages 28, ages 30, and ages 40. Presumably, they came to Tongue Point with previous experience, implying that searching for them in among the fishing industry at other ages of their life might be productive.

Elsewhere in Clatsop County, we find an enumeration district of less than 300 individuals. In 1880, District 22 of Knappa, Oregon, was home to a few farmers. But more than half the people living in the district were lumbermen and fishermen. These fishermen were similar to those in Tongue Point. They were single, over the age of 20, primarily immigrants, and living as boarders, implying someone cooked and cleaned for them and might have even done their laundry.

About half of the Knappa fishermen were boarders with local families in what must have been a sort of bunkhouse. More than 15 of these fishermen lived with one family, along with their servant.

The rest of the Knappa fishermen lived in cabins, as opposed to being boarders. The difference is not spelled out in the census, but the enumerator clearly saw a difference between "boarder" and "cabin." A number of cabins were identified, indicating a camp-style environment.

There were no women living in the cabins. Most of the cabin residents could read and write English and they were in their late twenties or older. It would probably be safe to assume that the cabin residents had been in the country longer and were a lot more self-sufficient. They could procure food and cook it. They knew how to care for themselves and keep their cabin livable enough for the three or four fishermen they shared it with to tolerate.

Wahkiakum, Washington

The Brooks Field Cannery was a residential fishing community in Wahkiakum, Washington, and was a separate census enumeration district. Unfortunately, the first twenty-two residential employees listed were only identified only by first name and place of birth: China. What the list does show is a group of single Chinese women who were all unemployed for three months during the previous year. All could apparently read and write English.

Sixty-six Chinese men are listed as a group, and some of them are identified as being married. But, their spouses are not listed. The men are identified by first and last name, unlike the Chinese women. The men had been unemployed for four months during the previous year, one month longer than the women. Another group of 27 Chinese men were unemployed for only three months.

It is interesting to consider such large groups of individuals all unemployed for the same length of time. Researching this community begs the question as to how they spent those months of unemployment in a foreign country where they lived at the cannery. Perhaps a local history or newspaper would clarify that.

The cannery fishermen were all men and a mix of natives and immigrants. The cannery employed a steamboat man from Washington Territory whose parents migrated there from New York and Pennsylvania. There was a steamboat engineer from Massachusetts and a cannery fireman from New York. A steamboat captain or engineer would probably only be offered the job if they arrived with the ability to do the job. Expect to find them in other seacoast communities, either in the United States, or in their native country, before they were employed at the cannery.

The community was more than fish canning. There were a couple of farmers and a cooper, and their families, living nearby. A first generation American, whose parents had been born in Ireland, migrated from Illinois to operate a boot and shoe business at the cannery. Good boots and fresh grown farm food were essential to the cannery employees.

Gloucester, Massachusetts

On the other side of the country, we find thirteen fishermen living together in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Almost all of them are from Nova Scotia. All are men and none appear to be related. It is possible they all migrated together. If it is difficult to locate one, try locating the others and search for your subject in that location.

Fishing Lessons Learned

From the information we do find in the census, we can develop a plan for researching fishing camps. In many cases, the fishermen are identified by full name. The most common exception seems to be Chinese residents who were sometimes listed only by either first or last name.

The birthplace of residents and their parents are usually listed on the census returns. There were enumerators who identified birthplaces of Chinese in more detail, such as Canton.

In most cases, except for Chinese immigrants, there is enough information to guide researchers. The only individuals listed on the census returns were American citizens who had lived in this United States during the previous twelve months. There should be citizenship papers on file for those individuals prior to that time.

Immigrants had to immigrate. They should be recorded at some port of entry in the United States. With the possible exception of Canadian and Mexican immigrants, most of these fishermen arrived by ship. Their names should be on a ship's manifest.

Ships depart from specific ports. The ship's manifest will show which port from which immigrants boarded. The manifest will also show if the ship picked up additional passengers from other ports between leaving its original destination and arriving at its final destination.

It's important to know if passengers boarded from more than one port. If a passenger arrived on a ship from England, they may have actually boarded from a stop in Canada after sailing there earlier from Sweden. In such a case, their ancestors will not be found in England. They would be found in Sweden.

Searching for a last known home address for immigrants can be a bit easier among the fishermen in the examples above. These fishermen are older and presumably emigrated with skills. Search first among fishing communities in their birthplace, especially for the fishermen who handled nets. That is a more advanced skill that employers would seek out rather than training someone to handle nets. Handling nets requires training: fishermen rely on good nets. A trainee might ruin a net and cause downtime for all the fishermen which the net is repaired. Hiring a skilled net-handler would be the first choice of any employer.

The same is true for fishing boat engineers. Before migrating, the engineers were probably familiar with boats. Farmland and coal mine country are not logical places to search for the family of a 40 year -old migrant fishing boat engineer from Ireland.

Fishermen are less likely to relocate. Fish are a quickly renewable resource, unlike trees or gold that require decades to replenish. Search for the death certificates for fishermen in the communities where they are found fishing, before casting a wider search net.

There may also be marriage certificates since most of the fishermen in the 1880 U.S. Census were single. If they did marry, they probably did so in the county where they fished.

Develop a plan. Use logic. Understand the fishermen's life. It is possible to research residents of fishing camps. Don't hesitate to view several pages of census information as you research. You'll see the camp come to life, if you do.

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Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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