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French Camp once bigger than Stockton
This photo shows the student body of the French Camp School in 1919. French Camp boasted of the first school in the South County. The initial school was built in 1850 at a cost of $491. - photo by Photo Contributed

The biggest community for 13 years in what was to become San Joaquin County wasn’t Stockton. 

Instead it was the southern terminus of the Oregon-California trail that brought French-Canadian trappers with the Hudson Bay Company into the Central Valley to hunt beaver, mink, and bear along what is today known as the French Camp Slough.

French Camp proper was founded in the 1832 with a camp that grew in size in each passing year until it reached its zenith with nearly 400 men, women and children that had opted to stay year-round near the slough. It was the first settlement in what was to become San Joaquin County.

Four years before Stockton was founded by Charles Weber through the acquisition of the Mexican land grant Rancho Campo de los Franceses that included French Camp, the original trapping colony met its demise due to the depletion of game by over-hunting and the reoccurring threat of small pox.

It was Weber’s associate known as William Gulnac who managed to secure the first settler in French Camp in 1844. He did do by promising David Kelsey one square mile of land if he would reside on it for a year. Kelsey brought his wife and two children to French Camp where he built his family a home fashioned from tule brush.

After several months he went to San Jose for a visit where he contracted small pox from an Indian. When he returned to French Camp he was suffering a fever. At his wife’s insistence they decided to travel to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento in a bid to obtain medical assistance. He died en route.

During the Gold Rush in 1849 the old campground was taken over by P.W. Noble and A. Stevenson who opened a public house and a store in a two-store adobe structure. Within months two more stores had opened to take advantage of the lucrative trade of gold seekers going to and from the Southern Mines.

One of those businesses was owned by E.W. Atwood who started a freight yawl on the French Camp Slough.

French Camp prospered during the Gold Rush since French Camp Road was built on quick draining spoil that made it the only passable route for most for the year to reach the Southern Mines. The alignment of the road follows the edge of less suitable soil for drainage just to the north. Aerial photographs today allow one to easily distinguish between the two soil types.

In the fall of 1850 there were as many as 70 wagons would transverse French Camp Road each day from modern-day French Camp to where it joins the present-day alignment of East Highway 120 midway between Escalon and Manteca.

By 1853 French Camp boasted five stage lines serving it and the community’s two hotels, four stores, five restaurants, and two hay yards. A post office was established in French Camp on May 3, 1854.

The first French Camp School was built in 1850 at a cost of $491.  It also served as a town house and public gathering place.

A second story was added by the “Sons of Temperance”. At that point it was also used as a church.

French Camp School was only open three months for its initial year. The teacher was paid $30 a month.

Fire destroyed the original school in the 1890s. It was replaced with a Victorian-style school until such time the third campus was built in 1927. Part of the 1927 school is still standing but isn’t used to house students.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail