In front of an elementary school in an unincorporated community near Stockton; there is a California State Historic Marker, placed by the California State Parks Commission, partially in cooperation with the Native Daughters of the Golden West. It recognizes the community of French Camp as a historic place as the terminus of the Oregon-California Trail and as a camp used by traders and trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, at one time one of, if not the largest fur trading corporation in the world.
The text of the plaque reads:
“Here was the terminus of the Oregon-California Trail used from about 1832 to 1845 by the French-Canadian trappers employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Every year Michel La Framboise, among others, met fur hunters camped with their families here. In 1844 Charles M. Weber and William Gulnac promoted the first white settlers’ colony on Rancho del Campo de los Franceses, which included French Camp and the site of Stockton.”
As early as 1493, Spain laid claim to all the lands 100 leagues west of the Azores based on the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” issued by Pope Alexander IV. This bull gave Spain a monopoly to colonize the lands west of the 100 league line. In the next year, Pope Alexander VI mediated the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal which moved the demarcation line between the two countries’ respective spheres of colonization to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, granting Brazil to Portugal and the rest of the “New World” to Spain. With Balboa’s sighting of the Pacific Ocean in 1513, Spain had a solid claim to the west coasts of North and South America. It wasn’t until Cabrillo and Bartolome Ferrelo’s voyages in 1542-43 that Spain made any attempt to see how far their claim actually went and what it might contain. Later voyages in the 1700’s by Juan Perez and Bruno de Hecta kept Spain’s claims viable.
Spain was not alone in laying claim to the Pacific Coast. England based it’s claims to parts of the Pacific Coast on the voyages of Sir Francis Drake and George Vancouver. Russia claimed parts of the Pacific Coast too, based on the 1728 and 1741 voyages of Vitus Bering. The United States also claimed parts of the area based on the 1792 voyage of Robert Grey and the overland expedition of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery as well as John Jacob Astor’s establishment of Fort Astoria in 1811. With all these competing claims, conflict was inevitable. When the Spanish captured four British ships in 1789 in Nooka Sound near Vancouver Island, Great Britain threatened war, leading to what what was called the “Nootka Crisis”. Spain quickly negotiated a settlement and relinquished its exclusive claims to the Pacific Coast. By 1824, both Russia and Spain had given up their claims to the Pacific Northwest.
Why did these counties all want a piece of the Pacific Coast? Well, for trade with the native tribes, for a harbor on the Pacific to facilitate trade with China and the rest of Asia, and most importantly, for the vast natural resources of the region one of the most valuable of which were the pelts of fur bearing animals. Before the Gold Rush, the main impetus for coming to California was trade. The Russian American Company established Fort Ross as both a trading and agricultural supply post for its outposts in Alaska. John Jacob Astor established Fort Astoria and an outpost for his Pacific Fur Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver on the north bank of the Columbia River. American, British, and French-Canadian trappers and mountain men combed the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, Coast Ranges, Willamette, and Central Valleys for otter and beaver which were becoming scarce further east. Meanwhile, at sea, seals and sea otters were hunted from the Aleutian Islands to Baja California.
With the absorption of the North West Company in 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a monopoly on the fur trade in British North America. Its agents roamed from the Rockies to the Pacific, from the Arctic Ocean to California’s San Joaquin Valley searching for beaver and otter and trading with the Native tribes. Fort Umpqua was established in Southern Oregon in 1836 and, in 1841, the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a store in Yerba Buena. French Camp arguably was the southernmost extent of the Company’s activities in California. Beginning in about 1832, Michel La Framboise, a French-Canadian “voyageur” hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company made annual visits to French Camp as the leader of several fur hunting expeditions. In fact La Framboise had been warned against taking beaver in California in 1834 and in 1835; General Mariano Vallejo warned him to leave and stay out of California altogether. Eventually, the activities of the “Spanish Brigade” as the company of Hudson’s Bay men were called, became bothersome not only to Vallejo, but to John A. Sutter and Dr. John Marsh, both of whom complained to the government and demanded that something be done. As a result, the governor placed a duty on furs taken in California and by 1842, the HBC trappers withdrew.
The fur trade was one of the major impetuses for the westward expansion of the United States and the early exploration as settlement of the Pacific Coast. However, it was not to last. By 1846, the Hudson’s Bay Company withdrew from California and the Oregon Treaty was signed ending the dispute between Great Britain and the United States over their competing claims. In the treaty, the HBC was allowed to continue operating Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia, but the Company abandoned the fort in 1860. By the late 1800’s many of the fur bearing animals had been hunted to near extinction. Due to the decline of fur bearing mammals, the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan signed the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911, which was the first international treaty concerned with wildlife conservation. This led to the Fur Seal Act of 1966 which extended protection to sea otters and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibits the taking of any marine mammal in United States waters and by any US citizen on the high seas, with a very few permitted exemptions.
Today, the Hudson’s Bay Company continues as a retail company in Canada and in 1943, the HBC renamed its fur trading division as the “Northern Stores Division”, and in 1987 the “Northern Stores Division” was sold and became a new “North West Company” and operates stores in northwest Canada and Alaska. The “California Fur Rush” only lasted a few short years, but it is remembered in a few places, like French Camp, and it’s legacy are some of the first wildlife protection laws in history.
GETTING THERE: From 414 Mason Street: Get on I-80 East. Take exit 8B onto I-580 East. After 45 miles stay left onto I-205 toward Tracy and Stockton. Merge onto I-5 N. Take exit 467A onto Eldorado Street. Turn right onto East Mathews Road, continue onto Ash Street. Turn left onto French Camp Road and then right onto Elm Street. The marker will be on your right. It is about a two hour drive from San Francisco.