(G)Old Rush — Tracing My Great-Grandparents to The Land of the Mother Lode

Green = Grass Valley, Red = Jackson

Green = Grass Valley, Red = Jackson

a short (family) history lesson

for the longest time i remember my maternal grandfather saying his parents lived in Grass Valley (aka Glass Valley as he said it with his accent), California in the early part of the twentieth century (first wave of Chinese immigrants). as a young kid i had it in my mind they owned a gold mine, but later i learned they (much more realistically, lol) had a restaurant and did fairly well for themselves serving the people working in the large mines near the city.

cut to about a year ago when i gave ancestry.com a whirl (i signed up for their free trial, did all my research, then canceled; no shame in my game). i found a record of them in the 1920 census! i don’t know the full details of how they got these particular names (mom explained it to me once), but even though they were really Chans, they used the last name “Moon” when they emigrated from Hong Kong (or China, mom’s not sure), coming over as a so-called “paper son” (and wife?).

The Moons (1)

if i’m reading this census form correctly, it says that as of January 1, 1920:

  • “Henry Moon” (my great-grandfather) and his wife “Fong” (my great-grandmother) were living in a rented place at 4 Main Street, Jackson City, Amador County, California
  • he was 27, she was 24
  • he came to the United States in 1908, she came in 1906 (mom says he came over before she did, so either the dates got mixed up or they were flat-out lies)
  • they were “aliens” — not naturalized citizens
  • they were not attending school
  • they could read and write (unspecified language, though)
  • they were both born in China and both spoke Chinese as their mother tongue, as did their parents
  • they were both able to speak English (though either my great-grandmother forgot a lot by the time i was born 57 years later or enumerator Mrs. Catherine M. Garbarini* was very lenient with her standards)
  • he was a cook at a restaurant, she was a helper at a restaurant (i would assume the same one)
  • he was “working on own account”, which i gather is old-timey speak for self-employed, she was a “wage worker”

* the Garbarinis seem to be quite the prominent Jackson family. i found out a Virgilio Garbarini was the town’s first mayor. without going too far off track, though, i can’t be 100% sure Catherine was related to Virgilio (who was married to a Katherine), but what are the chances — sounds like a dynasty to me.

Simplified family tree (siblings not shown)

Simplified family tree (siblings not shown)

while we are sure they lived in Grass Valley (some 80 miles to the north via current roads) at some point, their being in Jackson at this time jives with my mom remembering hearing stories about a big fire, which would be the 1922 Argonaut Mine fire, the worst gold-mining disaster in US history, according to some accounts. in addition to this whole restauranting thing, my great-grandmother once told me she worked for Pacific Gas & Electric, the Northern California utility company that still exists to this day. i’m sure there was more to this story, but my Cantonese was (is) really bad and she spoke Toisanese, which made it even worse. (i remember mostly just nodding along.)

mom tells me they returned soon after the fire and in short time adopted who would turn out to be my grandfather (as curious as i am, as someone once said, ‘you dig up the past, all you get is dirty’).

this is a picture of my great-grandparents (and other relatives). given the age of my aunt, i can surmise this picture was taken in the late 1940s in Hong Kong. i never met great-grandfather; my mom and her sisters (no brothers, just 6 girls!) and my grandparents came over in 1966; my great-grandmother came over after her husband passed away.


Trying not to be too confusing/confused; relationships are relative to me. (bold indicates people i’ve met):
First group of three: grandmother Lucille (mom’s mom), great-grandmother (“Fong Moon”, seated), aunt Diana (mom’s older sister).
Second group of three: Great-aunt(?) and two of her children
Third group of three: Great-grandfather’s stepmom, daughter of previously-mentioned great-aunt (only met once or twice; she ran a market in Oakland Chinatown), grandfather William (mom’s dad, the son of “Henry and Fong Moon”)
Fourth group of three: great-uncle, great-grandfather (“Henry Moon”, in chair), great-uncle Ben (and his dog, which my mom remembers as being big and scary)

jackson city

the great thing about gold rush/wild west towns in this neck of the woods is that for some reason, whether for tourism or posterity or both or neither, they are well-preserved. what i wasn’t expecting, though, was a full-on historic district!



while we knew the address, we didn’t really know exactly where it was (mapping fail on my part). we just parked towards the end of Main hoping to find some sort of indication when i stepped out the door and what did i see?



as it turns out, as i’m looking now at a walking tour pamphlet i got down the street at the National Hotel, the “No. 4” is NOT the house number, but the plaque number (*eyeroll*). so nope, that wasn’t it (even though we thought it was the entire time, misreading the plaque as indicating a historic street numbering! lol).

Looking south on Main Street from Number 4,

Looking south on Main Street from the impostor “Number 4”.

according to the pamphlet, now that i’m looking at it carefully, the real number 4 was actually right across the street — and i’m glad i have  pictures of it!

The real Number 4 from the National Hotel

The real Number 4, taken from the National Hotel

the pamphlet states that the Union House Hotel occupied numbers 4-14 Main (with an IOOF lodge being the top story, added in 1904). so, i guess they were long-term residents at the hotel? or maybe short-term? was it an SRO? (the census page indicates quite a number of families living in 4-14.) currently #4 is “Fat Freddy’s Hot Dogs and Polish Sausages”, heh.

Man, am I glad I was playing tourist and snapped a whole bunch of photos!

Man, am I glad I was playing tourist and snapped a whole bunch of photos! We weren’t really interested in this building since we didn’t think it was the one we wanted, but I took this just because of the historical significance. (The Wells Fargo moved out of this building in 1919, says the pamphlet.)

From a different pamphlet available online (click image for PDF).

From a different pamphlet available online (click image for PDF).

you can see remnants of the mines that were the town’s livelihood as you drive in on Highway 49 (of course it’s called 49), and we came across a park that has some of the old water wheels from the Kennedy mine. really cool stuff.

What's left of the Argonaut Mine

What’s left of the Argonaut Mine

Overlooking the ruins of the Kennedy Mine

Overlooking the ruins of the Kennedy Mine

View of the Kennedy Mine through Wheel #4

View of the Kennedy Mine through Wheel #4

this is a new building (from June of this year) encasing Tailing Wheel #4 — and who was listed as one of the major forces behind Saving the Wheel? none other than an “Evelyn Garbarini” — i guess that family still has some influence a hundred years later! (by the way, these wheels were used to lift mine waste over the hills to a dumping site.)

in closing

My grandparents and great-grandmother ("Fong Moon") some time in the '80s. I miss them.

My grandparents and great-grandmother (“Fong Moon”) some time in the ’80s. I miss them.

i grew up with my great-grandmother as a regular presence (we’d see each other weekly when the entire extended family throughout Los Angeles County would gather for Sunday dinners), but i never knew much about her, and much less about my great-grandfather. being able to actually see and touch where they lived nearly a century ago, though, was amazing. it’s not often that i feel a connection to my past, so i treasure them as they come.

speaking of, in about four weeks i’ll be in Penang, Malaysia, where my dad’s dad is from. i just learned this guy is a distant great-times-many-grandfather. riots, opium, and coolie trading, you say? muahaha. such intrigue!

Be the first to comment on "(G)Old Rush — Tracing My Great-Grandparents to The Land of the Mother Lode"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.