The Immigrants Who Supplied the Smithsonian’s Fish Collection

In December 1856, Spencer Fullerton Baird cataloged the Smithsonian Institution’s very first fish specimen: a longnose sucker caught at Lake George in New York state. Less than thirty years later, the Smithsonian had over 30,000 fish entries.

While official histories of North American ichthyology and the Smithsonian’s fish collection credit men like Baird who were responsible for directing the museum and conducting the scientific expeditions that funneled specimens to the museum, there are many now-forgotten collaborators who also contributed to the collection. Working-class fishermen were among the crucial laborers who helped build the national fish collection—though they remain largely invisible in official histories.

By examining the Smithsonian fish collection through the lens of the California fish market, we can see how nineteenth-century fish science flourished thanks to collaborations with racially and ethnically diverse groups of fishermen — despite being a field led by scientific racists like Louis Agassiz and David Starr Jordan. The fishermen who sold Jordan fish for his collection, however, did not always benefit from the work of the fish survey.

The Fish Survey

When the U.S. Fish Commission was established in 1871, it arranged partnerships between local fishermen and researchers in the Northeast. Under these arrangements, fishermen looked for unique specimens, returning them to the commission once they disembarked. In 1880, this method expanded to the Pacific Coast, as the Fish Commission coordinated with the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct the first survey of the Pacific Coast fisheries.

Jordan, one of the foremost fish scientists in the United States, led the 1880 Pacific Coast survey. With a team of assistants, he travelled along the coast, creating a catalogue of local fish and marine animals. Charged with describing the “past, present, and probable future of all industries related to the sea,” Jordan also assessed the fisheries’ commercial activities, as well as who worked in them.

Chinese- American fishermen and children in Monterey, California, 1875.

Chinese-American fishermen and children in Monterey, California, 1875. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1880, over half of California’s fishermen were from China or Mediterranean Europe or were descended from immigrants from these places.1 In The Fisherman’s Problem, legal historian Arthur McEvoy chronicles the experiences and practices of some of these fishermen in his history of the California fisheries.2 Often arriving in California during the Gold Rush or the extension of the New England whaling industry into the Pacific Ocean, these fishermen introduced different fishing methods to the Pacific Coast fisheries, including “the Chinese bag net” and the Italian and southern European “parenzella.

Relationships between fishermen and government-sponsored scientists like Jordan were often tense. Jordan, like many others, was concerned with the growing problem of overfishing along the Pacific Coast. His prejudiced views about Chinese and Chinese-American fishermen led him to blame them specifically for falling catches. In California, Jordan lobbied for restrictions on these fishermen’s activities and methods, despite acknowledging their usefulness to his scientific work. A letter he wrote reveals that he even wanted the U.S. Fish Commission to force fishermen to give up the first pick of each day’s catch to the 1880 survey. Because of his affiliation with the fish patrols, Jordan became so feared in San Diego that by his own account, Chinese and Chinese-American fishermen grew reluctant to sell specimens to him.

Fishermen and fishmongers preserved unusual specimens in alcohol to sell to scientists when they came to market. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Fishermen and fishmongers preserved unusual specimens in alcohol to sell to scientists when they came to market. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Fish Market Economics

Carl Eigenmann, who would eventually follow in Jordan’s footsteps to become one of the world’s leading ichthyologists, joined Jordan on the survey. In 1880, Eigenmann, still a teenager, was responsible for visiting the local fish markets to search for valuable specimens and new species which he then recorded. Some of these specimens were mailed back to the Smithsonian. Eigenmann’s correspondence suggests that local fishermen likely supplied the 1880 survey with hundreds of individual specimens, reserving unfamiliar or undesirable fish for the ichthyologists and parting with them for the right price.

In one letter to fellow ichthyology student Rosa Smith, Eigenmann recalls finding fifteen live specimens of longjaw mudsuckers while visiting a Chinese market in downtown San Francisco.3 In later correspondence, he describes another lucky break: a fisherman saved Eigenmann a long, blueish-silvery specimen—what he thought was a Spanish mackerel but what Eigenmann identified as “a beautiful specimen of Scomberesox brevirostris,” a Pacific Coast species that had been previously documented but, until then, not yet kept for scientific study.4

Anticipating visits from scientists, fishermen preserved their rarest catches to sell to the highest bidder.

Eigenmann’s letters show that fishermen responded to the fishery’s market forces. Anticipating visits from scientists like Eigenmann, fishermen would preserve their rarest catches in alcohol to sell to the highest bidder. In fact, the Smithsonian’s first Pacific Coast specimen of the spiny boxfish, a kind of “puffer fish,” was apparently procured this way.

Relying upon the local fish market for specimens meant that Jordan and Eigenmann’s scientific research was heavily shaped by the economics of the fishery and fish market, dynamics Jordan sought to influence in turn. He extolled the value of the fish market to the scientific “collector,” an argument which historian Phillip Thurtle cites when exploring the relationship between “market avenues of exchange” and nineteenth-century American science. In an essay titled “How to Collect Fishes,” Jordan recommended increasing the supply of available specimens by driving up demand for them, while Eigenmann’s accounts of the California fish market show the ways in which fishermen contended with the scientists’ purchasing power.

Fishermen drawing nets on the Santa Monica Beach c. 1900. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Fishermen drawing nets on Santa Monica Beach c. 1900. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Coastal Contests

In The Fishes of San Diego (1892), Eigenmann explicitly acknowledged the role of local fishermen in his research. Remembering one instance when he was befuddled by an apparent discrepancy of color in a species of rockfish, Eigenmann notes, “A local fisherman explains the color of this fish by the fact that fishes in shallow water are likely to be blacker, those in deep water lighter, and those on hard, rocky bottom of moderate depth bright red.” And in a separate 1892 publication detailing other studies from this period, Eigenmann clarified that not only did fishermen provide him with fish specimens, they also delivered fish eggs and larvae. These were items he had initially presumed would be difficult to procure, but after some cajoling of “the Italian, Greek, and Portuguese fishermen,” he wrote, “there were no lack of specimens.”

Fierce xenophobia played out in a contest over the ecological fate of California’s coast.

Eigenmann’s 1892 reference to “the Italian, Greek, and Portuguese fishermen” and simultaneous omission of the Chinese fishermen (who were present in his letters at the beginning of the previous decade) is possibly a result of changing power dynamics within the fishery during a time when fierce xenophobia played out in a contest over the ecological fate of California’s coast. From the 1860s through the early 1900s, fishing regulations implemented under the pretense of conservation were heavily motivated by the rampant anti-Chinese sentiment buoying other forms of discriminatory legislation at the local, state, and federal level. By the turn of the twentieth century, government efforts severely limited the fishing activities of Chinese and Chinese-Americans, including shrimp fishermen who had reigned over the industry for decades. The enforcement of fishing regulations turned violent at times, events which Jack London—a student of Jordan who also worked for the California Fish Commission as a teenager—described in mostly unsympathetic terms in his Tales of the Fish Patrol (1905).5

Today, the Smithsonian Institution’s ichthyology collection totals roughly four million specimens, preserving not just specimens but also the labor and knowledge of diverse groups of immigrant fishermen. Just as centuries-old natural history collections have proven endlessly valuable to contemporary scientific research, we must also look to them to learn more about the political and cultural contests underpinning American science in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

A fishmonger waits for customers at the Chinatown Fish Market in San Francisco co. 1900. Image from Flickr.

A fishmonger waits for customers at the Chinatown Fish Market in San Francisco c. 1900. Image from Flickr.

Featured image: A fishmonger at the Chinatown Fish Market in San Francisco c. 1900. Image from Flickr.

Jessica George is a doctoral candidate in English at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research interests include American studies, ecocriticism, and environmental history. Jessica’s dissertation examines the ways early American and antebellum writers used the discourses of geography, medicine, and natural history to map the ecology of the nineteenth-century U.S. South. TwitterContact.

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  1. It is hard to establish with certainty which “non-white” fishermen—including, at the time, people of southern European descent—were actually recent immigrants. Even non-whites born in the United States were marked on the Census as belonging to categories of “foreign nativity.” 

  2. This essay heavily draws on McEvoy’s The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980 (Cambridge UP, 1986). 

  3. Carl Eigenmann, Letter to Rosa Smith, 7 October 1880, Rosa Eigenmann papers, Collection C59, Office of University Archives and Records Management, Indiana University, Bloomington. 

  4. Carl Eigenmann, Letter to Rosa Smith, 14 October 1880, Rosa Eigenmann papers, Collection C59, Office of University Archives and Records Management, Indiana University, Bloomington. 

  5. Information in this paragraph is drawn from McEvoy’s The Fisherman’s Problem. Specific page citations are available upon request. Readers may also be interested in Connie Y. Chiang’s Shaping the Shoreline: Fisheries and Tourism on the Monterey Coast (University of Washington Press, 2008), which discusses the relationship between scientists and Chinese fishermen in California during the 1890s. 

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