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Angel IslandIf Islands Could Talk, This One Would Have a Lot to Say

Looking at the serene, bountiful Angel Island, one may admire its beauty but perhaps not think about its past. Located in San Francisco Bay just a mile from the Marin County mainland, the island is fraught with historical significance for many cultures.

Coast Miwoks
For approximately five thousand years, the Coast Miwoks, Native Americans who primarily inhabited what is now Marin and southern Sonoma County, would travel to Angel Island in boats to hunt and fish, and camped there for many days at a time. By the end of the nineteenth century, the entire full-blooded Miwok population was killed off, victims of diseases unknown to their culture and immune systems (smallpox, measles, syphilis and others), Spanish and American attempts to force them into European and American cultures and religions, and armed attacks when the Miwoks resisted these changes.

Barry Spitz related in his book, Mill Valley: The Early Years, that one of the Miwok Chiefs who organized an uprising "was dubbed Chief Marin ('el marinero', the mariner in Spanish) because of his skill on the local waterways. He was captured [in 1832], escaped, recaptured, converted to Christianity, then died at Mission San Rafael in 1834. But his name lives on, attached to the County." Today, descendants of the Coast Miwoks have joined together to form the Federated Coast Miwok Tribe, to foster ethnic pride, renew its culture and work toward official recognition by the United States.

Angel Island also played an important role in the American military's past. As the Civil War approached, the United States Government, fearing attacks by Confederate ships, established artillery batteries on Angel Island. No attacks materialized though, and after the war the island housed military camps, staging areas for troops who were trained to fight Native American tribes throughout the country.

During World War I a complete army depot was developed to temporarily house and train recruits destined for Pacific campaigns. After the war, this use of Angel Island continued and at one point more troops were passing through this depot than any other facility on the west coast.

In the mid-twentieth century, troops again traveled through Angel Island, this time in both directions. Soldiers departed here for operations in the Pacific during World War II, and then returned via Angel Island as the war came to a close. In addition, during the war Japanese and German prisoners of war were processed on the island before being sent to permanent camps throughout the United States.

During the height of the Cold War - from 1954 to 1962 - Nike anti-aircraft missile launchers dotted the southeast corner of the island, intended for defending against possible air attacks from the Pacific.

Angel Island went through two distinct periods of receiving immigrants to the United States. During the latter part of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth, a Quarantine Station operated at Angel Island. Ships from foreign ports, mostly from Asia, docked here to be fumigated, and their passengers detained and isolated, to be inspected and treated for diseases.

Immigration Station
 Photo © National Park Service

Immigration Station

In 1910, Angel Island became an Immigration Station, a counterpart to Ellis Island on the east coast. Again, immigrants from Asia greatly outnumbered all others. Seventy percent of the people who passed through the Immigration Station were Chinese, and most of the remaining were from Japan, Korea and the Philippines. It was not unusual for immigrants to have to spend weeks or even months on the island. During their stay, many Chinese expressed their emotions by carving poems into the walls of the buildings, and some of this poetry remains today. The Immigration Station was closed in 1940. In 1980, it was estimated that seventy-five percent of the Japanese and Chinese people living in California had roots that could be traced through Angel Island.

Angel Island today is often called the Jewel of the Bay. It contains a rich mix of native flora and fauna. In addition, many seals and sea lions visit the island, thousands of birds rest here during their treks north and south, and fish migrate through Raccoon Strait, the channel of water between Tiburon and Angel Island. Aside from park vehicles and touring trams, no motor vehicles can be found on the island. Hiking trails circle Angel Island and climb to the peak of 781-foot Mt Livermore, which affords a breathtaking 360-degree view of the Bay and the surrounding area.

Beaches, picnicking, tram and walking tours, camp sites and bicycle trails round out the recreation on the island. Several of the original buildings from various eras in the island's history remain, and some are open to the public. A museum established in the old barracks building contains memorabilia from the past, including some of the poetry that was carved into the Immigration Station's walls. The island is peaceful now but, like the descendants of many of its former inhabitants, retains the memories of poignant times past.

The above descriptions are brief summaries of the events that transpired, culled from several sources. Refer to these sources for more thorough information:

Angel Island - Web site of the California Department of Parks & Recreation
Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation - Web site of the non-profit Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
Angel Island Association - Web site of the non-profit Angel Island Association
Mill Valley: The Early Years by Barry Spitz

To see Angel Island firsthand, take the Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry from Tiburon.

Written by Alan Nayer. Text and Photos (except where noted) are © Alan Nayer.

Last updated: 12/5/2007 3:16:05 PM