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General History of Angel Island

The history of Angel Island includes much involvement in military affairs, as well as the influences of the numerous populations of diverse backgrounds that at one point or another stayed on the island. Together, the two factors create a rich and unique historical background.

The first serious contributors to the cultural history of the island were Indians. Before the arrival of Europeans, Angel Island was reached by the Coast Miwok Indians, coming from the area now known as Mann County on boats made from tule reeds. They established camps in areas that later became Ayala Cove, Fort McDowell, and the Immigration Station, feeding on ". . .duck and other sea fowl, and gathered acorns, buckeyes, and.. .leaves"(Angel island association). However, by the eighteenth century, the island was taken over by Europeans. In August 1775, Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed up to San Francisco Bay in the San Carlos and set shore on Ayala Cove, beside Angel Island (or, as he named it, Los Angeles), hoping to explore and obtain a description of the bay for further use by the Spaniards. By the nineteenth century, most of the Indian population had been destroyed or relocated to what is now Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asis in those days). Later, in 1808, Russian sea otter hunting expeditions visited the island, establishing storehouses there.

From then on, the Island was engaged in numerous war and military efforts. For example,"in March and April of 1814, the 26-gun British sloop-of-war HMS Raccoon was careened for repairs at Ayala Cove" (Angel Island Association, 13) after having been damaged. Then, in 1839, Angel Island was given to Antonio Maria Osio for use as a cattle ranch. Still, parts of the island were kept for harbor defense. After 1846 and the war between Mexico and the United States, Osio's land was taken up by squatters. During the Civil War, Camp Reynolds was established and artillery batteries were built on the island by the federal government, in case of a Confederate attack. Afterwards, Camp Reynolds was changed into an infantry camp, and by 1876, it was a busy camp with a village that included a church, a trading store, a blacksmith, and a bakery.

In 1892, the Quarantine Station was established at Ayala Cove. Ships from foreign ports were fumigated (the boilers of the warship USS Omaha - obtained from the Navy in 1893 - gave the needed superheated steam), and immigrants suspected of carrying diseases were checked by a doctor, bathed in carbolic soap, and put through a fourteen-day quarantine. Their clothing and baggage were also disinfected. The Station consisted of,"...an administration building , a detention barracks that could hold from 400 to 500 people, a hospital, a plant for disinfecting clothing and bedding , a power plant, a laboratory and quarters for housing officers and employees" (Angel Island Association, 41). The first ship to have passengers quarantined was China (April 27, 1891): the passengers were found to have smallpox. Later on, as more effective medical examinations were developed, the use of the Quarantine Station lessened. With better techniques and with Angel Island being isolated, and therefore expensive to support, the use of the Quarantine Station became unnecessary.

During the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, Angel Island was again involved in military efforts. Fort McDowell (as War Department Order 43 had renamed all of the Army facilities on the entire island in 1900), processed and received men going to and returning from the Philippines. A Detention Camp (established in 1899) housed soldiers that had been exposed to contagious diseases in the Philippines. In 1901, the Detention Camp was moved to Point Simpson, and a Discharge Camp was built in its place. In 1909, Fort McDowell expanded into a Recruit Depot with barracks, a Post Hospital, a Main Mess hall, officers_ quarters, and a guard house. During World War I, Fort McDowell_s facilities were put to heavy use. Overcrowding made it necessary to erect tent housing. In 1922, Fort McDowell became an Overseas Discharge and Replacement Depot, processing men going to the Pacific and men returning from overseas duty. By 1926 Fort McDowell was largest troop staging facility on the west coast, and handled more troop traffic than any other post in the country. Then, during World War II, Fort McDowell became part of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation. However, once the war was over, military action began to diminish, (the reorganization of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation did not include Fort McDowell). In 1946, Fort McDowell was closed. Eight years later, "In 1954.. .the army decided to return to angel to establish a Nike Missile base" (Angel Island Association, 73): twelve launchers on the southeast corner of the island, with a ready room and radar on Mount Ida (now Mt. Livermore). The missiles, however, became obsolete in 1962, and the battery was abandoned.

In 1910, an Immigration Station went into operation in China Cove. It was originally designed for European immigrants that were expected to flood into the United States with the opening of the Panama Canal. However, with the emergence of World War I and other international events after 1914, the expected European immigration did not come. Instead, there was a flood of immigrants from Asia. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, laws had restricted the immigration of certain Asian nationalities and social classes. However, the laws could be overcome by proving one's citizenship through paternal lineage. The so-called "paper sons" and "paper daughters" bought papers identifying them as sons and daughters of American citizens. Because the Chinese government oftentimes did not hold official records of its population, the immigrants did not have documents to prove their identity, and an interrogation process had to be created to determine whether or not the immigrants were truly related to American citizens, and in general, to determine their identities. The entire stay at the Immigration Station usually lasted from two weeks to six months (although some were kept for two years). The atmosphere created by the complete isolation (families were even separated from each other), the lack of knowledge for the future, and the bad conditions in which the people were kept often was that of despair. Some immigrants expressed this in poetry, either brushing or carving it onto the walls of the buildings in which they were kept. By 1940, a major fire that destroyed the administration building and the fact that China and the United States were allies in World War II lead the government to abandon the Immigration Station, and by 1943, the "Chinese Exclusion Acts were repealed.


During World War II, Angel Island was again used by the Army. In 1941, the Immigration Station property became the North Garrison of Fort McDowell ad was turned into a Prisoner of War Processing Center, in which German and Japanese prisoners were processed before being sent to camps on the mainland. Afterwards, the Immigration Station was abandoned all-together and scheduled for destruction in 1970 (Bell in front of Imigration Station: the movie). However, Park Ranger Alexander Weiss explored the detention barracks and discovered the carved and painted poetry on the walls. He and the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee managed to save the barracks from destruction and even obtained $250,000 from the government to restore them. Today, the Immigration Station is a museum and a major tourist attraction.

Click on the picture above to watch an audio slideshow on the buildings of the refurbished Immigration Station.
Click on the picture above to watch an audio slideshow on the hospitals of Angel Island.
Click on the picture above to watch an audio slideshow on Camp Reynolds.


Works Cited:

Clauss, Francis J. Angel Island: Jewel of San Frrancisco Bay. Tiburon Ca: Angel Island Association, 1999.

Angel Island Association. Tiburon CA. April 2000 <http://www.angelisland.org/index.html>.

Lum, Lydia. Angel Island: Joourneys Remembered by Chinese Houstonians. 18 May 2000 <http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/special/angelisland/index.htm.>



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