150 years later, Wakamatsu colony comes back to life


PLACERVILLE, Calif. ? The sun-burnt foothills of Gold Hill outside Placerville came alive June 8 with silk spinners, tea makers, flute players, priests and even a prince from Aizu Wakamatsu. They joined hundreds of history buffs from Japan, California and beyond to celebrate the 150th anniversary of America’s first Japanese outpost, the short-lived but much-revered Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony.

San Francisco’s Alta Daily News heralded the May 20, 1869 arrival in San Francisco of 22 Japanese colonists with 50,000 silk-producing Mulberry trees and six million tea seeds along with fruit trees and bamboo. The first Japanese American was born on Wakamatsu farm, and colonist Okei Ito, 19, was the first Japanese to die on American soil. The colony triggered a wave of Japanese immigrants who by 1900 produced more than 10 percent of California’s famous farm products. Two Japanese colonialists returned home and introduced wine making, California fruits and canning techniques to Japan.

“To many Japanese Americans, the Wakamatsu Colony is as symbolic as Plymouth Rock was for American colonists,”? declared Japanese American Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.

The colony, led by Prussian diplomat and firearms dealer John Henry Schnell and his Japanese bride Jou, was intended to be much more than a 272-acre farm in the gold country. The colonists’ patron, daimyo or domain lord Katamori Matsudaira of Aizu Wakamatsu province ? in Fukushima Prefecture ? was at war with the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and its isolationist policy.

Katamori envisioned the Wakamatsu colony as the first outpost of his international Japanese empire, and entertained thoughts of building a castle for himself there. He gave Schnell samurai status and hired him to train Katamori’s samurai warriors how to use guns and canons Schnell had obtained after the U.S. Civil War. But in 1868, more than 20,000 imperial soldiers crushed Katamori’s 4,000 samurai at the Battle of Aizu, paving the way for the Meiji Restoration and the return of imperial rule.

Schnell now had a price on his head, so Katamori bankrolled his escape, along with several samurai, on the SS China, a mail steamer bound for California. In San Francisco, Schnell met hotelier Charles Graner, a merchant who had made a fortune in the Gold Country selling wine and brandy to the miners. Graner sold the farm and farm house to Schnell for $5,000. Schnell led his party to Sacramento by steamer, then deep into the foothills in horse-drawn wagons, according to Daniel A. M’traux, author of “The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America,”? and one of several historians and authors who came to the 150th anniversary celebration.

The colony got off to a good start, and their tea won a prize at the California State Fair in Sacramento and was praised at the 1870 horticultural fair in San Francisco, M’traux said. But by 1871, a severe drought had killed off all farming at Wakamatsu, and the colony soon disbanded. Schnell sold the farm to the Veerkamp family, who grew fruit, nuts, grain, cattle, pigs and poultry. Two colony workers, including the Schnell’s nursemaid, Okei Ito, stayed on with the Veerkamps. Okei-san died of a fever in 1871 at the age of 19.

An exact replica of Okei-san’s white gravestone ? “In Memory of Okei, Died 1891, Aged 19 years (A Japanese Girl)”? still stands on the farm, where it attracted several hundred visitors June 8 for a religious ceremony honoring her spirit. She was buried here on a knoll north of the farmhouse where she would often walk to watch the sun setting, facing Japan, the country she loved dearly but would never see again, M’traux said. By the 1920s, Japanese immigrants and visitors trying to piece together the history of the colony “turned Okei-san into a Joan of Arc, a patron saint of Japanese immigrants,”? M’traux said. “Several thousand Japanese come here every year.” They cleared her grave site and turned it into a shrine.

GIFT FROM FUKUSHIMA ? A delegation from Fukushima, Japan, where the Wakamatsu colonists originated from, erected a memorial to the left of the Okei grave that was unveiled June 8. photo by Terry Pon

Japanese and Japanese Americans alike were moved to tears June 8 by the story of the teenage girl who left everything behind to care for the Schnell’s two small daughters. “I was looking at her grave, in a way I can relate to her, I am first generation myself,”? said Ritsuko Heath, 65, a retired Japanese language teacher at the University of California, Davis. “I imagine how Okei-san felt when she came here, how brave she was to come so far away from her homeland. I was 28 when I came from Japan.”

As the smell of incense wafted from a brass bowl near the gravesite and Japanese priests prayed and chanted, Hideko Omari ? one of 50 visitors from Aizu International Ladies Association sitting under a white tent ? couldn’t stop crying. “It really touches me that we have come here 150 years after we arrived,”? said Omari, a veteran of Japan’s defense forces. She and the other visitors were proud that a young man in a red samurai uniform, Chikamori Matsudaira ? a descendant of the warlord who funded the colony ? was here to address the crowd.

Chikamori Matsudaira of Japan, a descendant of the warlord who funded the colony, examines photos of the pioneers who established the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony 150 years ago on June 8 in present-day Placerville, Calif. photo by Lei Robinson

“We sent our prince as we promised to 150 years ago when we said after we found this land we will make a dynasty,”? Omari said.

“Even though we lost our battle again Meiji restoration, we still keep our samurai spirit,”? added Noriko B. Mitha, executive director of the Aizu International Ladies Association.

The young prince, a Japanese college student, said Okei-san represents “a sad history, but her dust led to the friendship between Japan and the United States, and she and the other colonists fostered a spirit of friendship and solidarity, creating a society that lives together.

“Her legacy will continue to live on,”? Matsudaira said in perfect English. “She left a large footprint. The spirit of Okei-san is deeply engraved in my heart despite the hardships. May Miss O’s soul rest in peace.”

Not much is known about other members of the colony ? the Schnells vanished ? but two were remembered by their descendants June 8: Ofuji Matsugoro and Kuninosuke “Kuni”? Masumizu.

Matsugoro’s great-great-great granddaughter, Naori Shiraishi, 19, came from Kyoto University to be part of the four-day festival, which was held June 6-9. Shiraishi learned about Matsugoro in middle school and with the help of the American River Conservancy, which bought the farm in 2010, made the family connection.

After the colony collapsed, Matsugoro worked for the Fountain Grove Winery in Santa Rosa headed by Issei pioneer Kanaye Nagasawa, who became known as the “Wine King of California.”?

Matsugoro took his wine making and tomato canning skills back to Japan, and taught Japanese how to make wine, Shiraishi said. “He was kind of a pioneer for Japanese wine.”

Also in attendance were three descendants of Kuninosuke “Kuni” Masumizu, his great-granddaughter Barbara Johnson, 74, of San Bernardino, and her two sons, Penny and Aaron Gibson.

“Kuni,”? a samurai in Japan, was a multi-talented man who entered into one of California’s first interracial marriages when in 1877 he married Coloma resident Carrie Wilson, who was of African American and Cherokee descent, Johnson said.

When he left Wakamatsu, Kuni became a farmer, then opened a fish market in Sacramento and also served as a Japanese interpreter in the courts and for doctors treating Japanese patients, Johnson said. Her son Aaron Gibson, 51, of Garden Valley, Calif., said their story exemplifies the American melting pot. “We love the energy that everyone brings to it. It’s amazing how much interest there is in the story and of course our background being multicultural.”

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