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Porcelain tea cups and opium

Posted on April 22, 2010 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Last week I was examining pieces of Chinese porcelain collected from the Casteñada Adobe on West Spain Street, just west of the El Dorado Hotel. The adobe was constructed between 1842 and 1848. The fragments are beautifully designed and their presence in early Sonoma not easily explained.

Chinese heritage in Sonoma is difficult to piece together. We believe the Chinese were here around 1850; a mere 15 years after Mariano founded the military garrison, layed out our town, and oversaw the secularization of our mission. Chinese immigration coincides with the gold rush, where many were used to work in the mines and sought the prized nuggets independently as well. In the 1860’s, Chinese immigrants were hired to construct the railroad and assist in various industries related to railroad and mining activities.

My interest in Chinese immigration to California began twenty years ago while conducting an analysis of shellfish recovered from Mitom Pomo archaeological sites along the Mendocino Coast. The collections included typical quantities of mussel, chiton, abalone, and clam. What was unusual about the collection were the broken pieces of Chinese porcelain. Some were even ground and transformed into beads, perforated bi-conically as was the custom with clam shells collected from the region.

The ceramics found along the Mendocino coast were collected by the Indians after the Frolic, a Baltimore clipper, hit a rock off the Mendocino coast at 9:30 p.m. on July 25, 1850. The captain of the boat was none other than Edward Horatio Faucon, a heroic character in Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 classic, “Two Years Before the Mast.” The Frolic was making its way from Hong Kong, filled to the brim with treasure bound for San Francisco.

The treasure included ornately decorated camphor trunks, fine-colored silks, shiny lacquered ware, tables with inset marble tops, gold filigree jewelry, 21,000 porcelain bowls, candied fruits, silver tinderboxes, a prefabricated two-room house with oyster shell windows, toothbrushes, mother-of-pearl gaming pieces, ivory napkin rings, horn checkers, tortoise shell combs, silk fans, and scores of nested brass weights used by San Francisco merchants to measure their goods. The loss was estimated at $150,000.

Baltimore clippers were vessels designed for speed and, just a few years prior, notorious for delivering opium to the Chinese. While many of the mainland Chinese and immigrants to California were addicted to the sensual pleasures of the drug, it did not come from China. It was brought to them by drug dealers, British merchants who picked up the opium in British governed India, and sold it to the Chinese, later opening up business in American markets. In 1820, British merchants delivered 9,708 150 lb chests of the narcotic to China. The addictive nature of the drug had taken its toll as British merchants delivered 35,445 150-pound chests in 1835.

An expedition the following spring headed up to the Mendocino coast in hopes of salvaging material from the shipwreck. They reported finding Indian women wearing elegant silk shawls, but found no other evidence of the sunken treasure. Dr. Thomas Layton, professor at San Jose State University, led the archaeological investigations that presented a story of connections between Boston capitalists, Baltimore shipbuilders, Bombay opium brokers, businessmen in Gold Rush San Francisco, Cantonese artisans, and the Mitom Pomo.

As for the Chinese ceramic fragments found at the Mexican era Casteñada Adobe, their origins may have come prior to the Chinese inhabiting Sonoma. According to Mariano’s sister Rosalia, her house was never to be furnished with American or European furniture or fancies. Her house was decorated with lamps, tables, pictures, and boxes made in China. Rosalia was somewhat outspoken about her disdain with Americans, stemming in part from the Bear Flag Revolt which imprisoned both her brothers Mariano and Salvador, as well as her American born husband Jacob Leese. Purchasing household items made in China may have been her way of boycotting goods of American and European construction. The point – it is amazing how one little ceramic fragment picked from the garden dirt has so much to say – if you let it.




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