One of my favorite aspects of PBS’ “Genealogy Roadshow” is the mention of historical people and events that have become fuzzy memories for folks who once learned about them in a history class. The show elaborates on some of these people and places, and others have me googling on my phone.
Last night, Genealogy Roadshow was set in San Fransisco’s US Mint building, with stories ranging from the 1860 Wiyot Massacre to the 1906 earthquake and fire. The California Gold Rush came up when a guest wasn’t related to James Marshall, whose gold discovery in the American River started the rush.
San Francisco’s Chinese community was highlighted when a young Asian-American woman wanted to know about her family and its fabled connection to gangster Big Jim Chen. Researchers weren’t able to prove the story because Chen apparently hid his tracks well.
A history segment focused on Chinese immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Here’s a little more about Chinese immigration through San Francisco:
Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was the immigration point for many Asians entering the United States between 1910 and 1930 (along with Australians, Candians, Central and South Americans, Russians and others).
The immigration station there served mainly as a place to to detain and interrogate immigrants, mostly Asian, who were trying to enter the country. When the 1906 earthquake destroyed San Francisco birth records, it presented an opportunity to get around the Exclusion Act, which made an exception for the children of US citizens: Chinese who’d naturalized could claim to have had additional children during a visit to China, then sell the “slots” to those wanting to immigrate.
Immigration officials tried to identify these “paper sons” through lengthy interrogations about the immigrant’s home, family and village in China. Visitors to Angel Island still can see some of the poetry detainees carved into the walls as they passed the time.
Nearly 250,000 case files were produced for Angel Island immigrants; they’re at the National Archives at San Francisco. UC Berkeley has a database with 90,000 of these immigrants’ names and case file numbers.
You can watch the San Francisco “Genealogy Roadshow” online. Next week’s episode takes place in Austin, Texas. That’s where my grandfather went to college in the 1920s and ’30s, so I’m hoping to pick up some local history.