PARTING SHOTS: Gold Hill Colony: Hope and betrayal for a ‘Mayflower’

OKEI’S GRAVESITE — In this photo that appeared in the June 6, 1971 edition of the Sacramento Union, Joanne Takeuchi of Sacramento offers flowers and a prayer at the grave of Okei, said to be the first Japanese woman to die in America. photo courtesy of K.W. Lee

PAGES FROM THE PAST:

In recognition of recent developments to restore the historic site of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony near Placerville, Nichi Bei Weekly columnist K.W. Lee files these two stories on the colony from the June 6, 1971 edition of the Sacramento Union.

By K.W. LEE, Sacramento Union Staff Writer

There is a lonely grave of a maiden on a meadowy hill, deep in the rolling foothills of the Sierra.

As inscription in her marble headstone reads in English and Japanese: “In Memory of Okei, died in 1871, aged 18, a Japanese girl.”

These mute objects are all that remains of a lost colony which marks the coming of the ill-fated “Mayflower” from Japan more than a century ago. The first colony of the Yamato race perished young, as did the girl without a family name — all but forgotten by posterity.

Three generations later, by chance, a recollection of aging Dutch pioneer Henry Veerkamp, who knew Okei-san as a love-smitten young man, had led local historians to her grave overgrown with wild roses and to the rediscovery of the vanished settlement.

The saga of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony at Gold Hill in El Dorado County since has grown with the passage of time — like the towering keyaki tree.

A year before Okei’s death, the 1879 census-taker counted 22 pioneers at the “Japanese colony.”

A century later, her own people would increase to 750,000.

Wakamatsu — the other Plymouth Rock — lives. So does the memory of Okei.

One hundred and two years ago this week, The Sacramento Union excitedly announced the arrival of the vanguard of the original colony: “The Japanese are among us.”

Aboard sidewheeler “China” they arrived in San Francisco on May 27, 1869. They were a small band of samurai, artisans, farmers, women and children led by a German adventurer named John Henry Schnell, who was to betray them.

By riverboat they reached Sacramento, then trekked overland by wagon to Placerville, on to nearby Gold Hill, site of a gold discovery.

With them they brought 50,000 yearling mulberry trees for lucrative silk farming, tea seeds and plants for tea culture, wax trees, bamboo trees for food and craft, keyaki tree seeds, and other plant stocks.

They had fled their Aizu-Wakamatsu home, fallen in a bloody civil war between the supporters of Emperor Meiji and the defenders of the Tokugawa shogun. In a year of the dragon (1868), their feudal lord Katsumori Matsudaira’s outnumbered warriors were crushed by thousands of charging Meiji soldiers.

The vengeful victors burned everything in their path. Wakamatsu, the last stronghold of the shogun forces, lay in rubbles. It was in this bitter battle that a remnant of 19 brave boy warriors, facing toward Lord Matsudaira’s castle in flames, committed hara-kiri.

Historical records aren’t clear, but it is believed Schnell, a gun merchant and instructor in Wakamatsu, persuaded the fallen tribe’s chief to send an advance party to California to establish a silk and tea settlement.

The colony would serve as a sanctuary should the lord, fearful for life and property in defeat, find it necessary to escape the vanquished land.

Upon arrival here, Schnell hinted three princes would follow him to share the colony’s fortunes.

The 29-year-old soldier of fortune brought his wife, daughter of a Wakamatsu samurai. Possibly one or both of their children was born at the colony. Okei — whose family line was traced to a carpenter named Ito at Wakamatsu — came as nursemaid to the Schnell household, probably in the fall of 1870.

The 100-acre settlement started out with great hope and promise — plus a flare of Schnell-inspired publicity. He spoke expansively of the eventual coming of 120 Japanese families.

At a time when Chinese immigrants were lynched for no apparent reason, the erstwhile Gold Rush country, hungry for new industry, greeted the kimono-clad Japanese with cautious welcome.

“If the introduction of new branches of culture and industry and the utilization of lands hitherto neglected as of little value are beneficial to California, we may welcome this first colony from Japan,” wrote The Union’s Placerville correspondent, with this apprehensive footnote:

“But in time, we suppose, the envious and idle will raise the same complaint against them that they already have against the Chinese.”

In time, his foreboding would turn true.

Soon reports of failures in the tea-silk experiment began to circulate. The Union expressed fear the colony’s venture might “fizzle.”

But as late as in the 1870 winter, the U.S. surveyor general who had personally inspected the ranch reported in The Union that the tea-growing project wasn’t “a failure” although many tea plants had perished under prolonged drought. “I look upon these seedlings as the basis of a most important export for this state.”

Of the 175,000 mulberry plants, the surveyor observed, the colony was already raising cocoons and silk worm eggs. Upland rice, he added, had “a good crop this year … really a most valuable addition to our stock of grains.”

He continued, “His efforts merit encouragement and protection from the government.”

During the crucial second year, a series of disasters struck. By trade a merchant, Schnell knew very little of farming, much less of local climate, terrains and soil.

The local miners turned hostile and deprived the colonists of water supply to irrigate their plants. The scorching dry spell continued. Funds dwindled radically. And the creditors were knocking on the door.

Schnell left for Japan with his family, and promised he would return with funds to sustain the colony. He never did.

Desperate and destitute, the remaining settlers abandoned the colony in search of food, shelter and work. Okei and samurai Matsunosuke Sakurai stayed, hoping for Schnell’s return.

They found shelter and security in the family of kindly Dutch neighbor Francis Veerkamp who had acquired the foreclosed ranch. A son of his, Henry, outlived his family members and at the age of 75 disclosed the location of Okei-san’s grave and the colony site.

A third colonist, 20-year-old carpenter Kuninosuke Masumizu, married an 18-year-old Negro girl from Missouri and settled in a two-room log cabin at nearby Coloma.

In the summer of 1871, Okei succumbed to a fever. She was buried on the hill she had often climbed to look homeward at sunset.

Years later, Masumizu collected money from friends and bought a marble headstone. Sakurai wrote the inscription.

It is a mystery why Sakurai stayed behind. Most local historians believe the grieving samurai, to whom Okei was entrusted by her parents, couldn’t return to face her family after her death.

In self-exile, Sakurai served the Veerkamp family faithfully for 30 years until his death. Masumizu led a nomadic life in later years as a farmer, a cook and a fisherman and died in Colusa alone in 1915 at the age of 65.

Masumizu’s offspring — all Sacramentans — are the only known descendants of the hallowed colony.

The Wakamatsu lore inevitably has yielded a maze of puzzles and speculations. At best, the historical records are scarce and sketchy. Virtually no record of the exodus from Japan exists.

To compound the myth, early Japanese works on the colony were largely a mixture of fact and fancy, thus spawning a flood of novels, songs, plays and movies.

And the man with the most secrets — the shadowy John Henry Schnell — disappeared from the scene.

But a careful research of all available records indicates the integrity of the colony history appears intact.

Main credit must go to three dedicated and conscientious Sacramento historians: Soichi Nakatani, Mrs. Fern Sayre and attorney Henry Taketa. Their search into Wakamatsu’s shrouded past paved the way for the official recognition of the Gold Hill site as a hallowed historical landmark.

Unfortunately, early Wakamatsu historian Ki Kimura and Dr. Kart Meisner mistook Eduardo Schnell, elder brother of John Henry, as the colony’s founder. Their works focusing on Eduardo Schnell are fatally flawed with false assumptions.

Was John Henry Schnell a desperate profiteer out to turn his losses in the Meiji Restoration into profits by promoting his ill-conceived California venture?

Or was he a gallant loyal friend of Lord Matsudaira risking everything to rescue the endangered lord and his fallen tribe?

Henry Taketa — a sober legal mind — believes the answer may lie somewhere in between. “Schnell’s motive may have been one of self-interest, but his sincerity can’t be doubted.”

The German gun merchant, Taketa reasons, could have remained in Yokohama to continue his import business or could have returned to his homeland. “If you say he was an opportunist, then he was utilizing the predicament of Lord Matsudaira to promote the idea of setting up a colony in America.”

Taketa wonders wistfully that the Wakamatsu colonists might have made a fortune, had they settled in the San Joaquin Valley to grow corn, potatoes and garden vegetables.

He reminds Wakamatsu must be treated as a simple episode without any illusions. “The colony simply was ahead of its time and didn’t last.”

The tragedy of Gold Hill, he says, wasn’t Okei. “She was a simple girl who came here to do a job as a nursemaid. When Schnell left, she was entrusted in the hands of the Veerkamps who loved her as if one of their own.”

The real tragedy, he says, was the one which befell the other colonists who had nobody to turn to for help and vanished into nowhere.

Yet, come spring, the lone keyaki tree upon the hill unveils their undying dream in its shy blossoms.

K.W. (Kyung Won) Lee worked for 40 years as a reporter, editor and publisher in both mainstream and ethnic journalism. He is best known for authoring an investigative series on the 1974 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder conviction of immigrant Chol Soo Lee. In 1979, Lee founded the first national English-language Korean American newspaper, the Koreatown Weekly.

Comments

  1. Thank you for your article. I am a California nise. I lived in the foot hills of California for over 40 years.
    I have read so many articles about “Okei”, “Gold Hill”, “Veerkamp”, “Samurai of Gold Hill”, etc…
    Surprisingly, I have never heard or seen my mother’s name mentioned. My mother is Kiyoko Fukumoto Hainsworth. She is the one who re-discovered Okei’s grave in the 60’s. She initially contacted the Veerkamps and wrote to Mitsugi Saotome with NHK and told him about the grave, the Veerkamps, Gold Hill. She made my father drive her to Gold Hill School monthly to visit the gravesite. Until, Mitsugi Saotome-san showed up at our home in Placerville. My mother, single handedly opened the door to an incredible part of Japanese/American History! She used to tell stories about Okei to Henry Taketa, the attorney, in Sacramento. My mothers curiosity drove her to find out about this Japanese girl – Okei.
    My mother had purchased a very old Chinese vase in an antique store in Pleasant Vly. It reminded her
    of the pair of vases, the Chinese had given the Japanese emporer. The vases were Chinese, however,
    the writing was in Japanese – “right” and “left”. To sit on the castle mantle….
    My mother knew Japanese had to have lived in the area for such an old find! Low and behold…
    the Veerkamp’s took a liking to my mother because she reminded them of stories about Okei.
    To this day, not one person has interviewed her. She & my father had many occassions to speak
    to the old Veerkamps. Due to my mothers part in making known the location of the headstone/grave,
    Mitsugi Saotome, dedicated his book to her. Unfortunately, the American version left the dedication out…which was very disappointing me- as I wanted to share my mothers’ legacy with her grandchildren.
    We are very happy for the Coloma/Aizu Wakamatsu museum. And the yearly celebrations!

  2. Taro Yodokawa says

    Upon reading about possibility of finding OKEI’s grave marker on Gold Hill, I and relative of mine drove to the Gold Trail elementary school on Jan. 16, 2012 and found OKEI’s marker on top of the hill. I was so happy that I was able to give my prayer to OKEI, whom I knew nothing about but felt sorry for the young girl. This Union article by Mr. Lee is so full of info on the Wakamatsu Colony, I am so grateful for his research effort and the Union that published it. One thing I noted on this recent trip, some picture of the marker I found in the Internet had a very vivid crack running at an angle but on this trip, I found no crack or not even any evidence of crack. The marker appears to be the original based on the writings but someone apparently repaired it so excellently that you cannot see any crack at all. Does anyone know who repaired the marker??? or is it a replica???

  3. Wendy Guglieri says

    You are correct. The current headstone at Okei san’s gravesite is indeed a replica. The original did have a large crack which was becoming worse with each season, so it was replaced with an exact replica. The original headstone has been packed safely away.

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