Pilgrimage remembers 150 years after Wakamatsu Colony established

PLACERVILLE, Calif. — Along a curved dirt path, sat a historical white farmhouse site surrounded by patches of green grass. The site was the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony farmhouse.

The San Francisco and San Jose buses trek from the Graner House museum to the grave site of Okei Ito, the first Japanese woman to die in America. photo by Mark Shigenaga

Inside, the historic site contained photos and informational graphics about the first Japanese colony in the United States that were on view for the more than 200 people attending the pilgrimage to the site.

The Nichi Bei Foundation brought more than 150 of the participants in busses from San Francisco, the East Bay, Sacramento and San Jose.

The event hosted on the 272-acre property of the American River Conservancy featured several speakers and activities, including a taiko performance by the University of California, Davis group, Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan, an informal talk from Daniel Métraux, author of “The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America,” Elena DeLacy, the executive director of the American River Conservancy and a recognition of the Gibson family represented by Penny Gibson, the great-great grandson of colonist Kuninosuke Masumizu.

Métraux explained the significance of the Japanese American organization’s second biennial pilgrimage.

“Every culture, every group needs a creation story, a place of origin,” Métraux explained. “It has become obvious that Wakamatsu has become the ‘Plymouth Rock,’ the place of origin. It is a metaphoric base or roots of Japanese Americans.”

In addition to the Wakamatsu colony being the first Japanese settlement in the United States, it also was the driving force of Issei coming to America.

The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony was established in 1869. Twenty-two colonists from Japan, as well as John Henry Schnell, came to Northern California seeking to better their lives.

The pilgrimage was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Wakamatsu colony and farm being established. DeLacy gave her thoughts on how significant this anniversary was to not just Japanese Americans, but the United States as well.

“I think it’s uniquely American,” DeLacy said. “It’s a very significant site just because of that. It’s the first Japanese colony site in North America,” DeLacy said of the 150th anniversary of the Wakamatsu colony.

The historic Graner House site contained photos and informational content about the settlement itself and the settlers who were on boats voyaging to America. Masumizu was one of the colonists that had informational content on because he was the husband in the first multiracial Japanese marriage to journey its way to North America. Masumizu’s great-great grandson will always have a lot of pride when it comes to his great-great grandfather’s story linking him to the first Japanese colony in the United States.

“Kuni was obviously a leader of the group that came over and created some firsts,” stated Gibson, of Stockton, Calif. “He had the first documented interracial marriage, marrying Carrie Wilson, our grandmother, black and Native American and he was also part of the first Japanese girl to die on U.S. soil, so a lot of firsts. Anytime something is a first, it takes on importance.”

Along with visitors getting to see the inside of the Wakamatsu farmhouse and taking genealogy tests to see where their ancestors came from, participants also had the privilege of visiting the grave of Okei Ito, a caretaker for Schnell’s daughters. Her grave reads, “In Memory of Okei, Died 1871, Aged 19 years, (A Japanese Girl).”

The grave site of Okei Ito, the first Japanese woman to die in America. photo by Mark Shigenaga

A memorial service at the Okei grave site was led by Rev. Joanne Tolosa of the Konko Church of San Francisco, with a blessing by Rev. Debra Low-Skinner of Christ Episcopal Church/Sei Ko Kai.
Okei Ito was the first Japanese woman to pass away on American soil.

The colony dispersed in 1871, following an extensive drought, an insufficient labor force and the lack of funding.

Despite the colony’s short duration, the colonists have left a lasting impression on visitors, one that the American River Conservancy continues to preserve.

One such person was Shin Mune, a San Jose native and first time visitor to the property.

“It was very informative to look back on your ancestry,” Mune said. “It’s important that if you are of Japanese ancestry, they came 150 years ago, so the hardships they incurred. I just think of my father coming in 1920 and what they incurred as farmers.”

Masumizu’s great-great grandson, Penny Gibson, hopes to keep the story of the Wakamatsu Tea and Farm Colony alive by telling and spreading it for many to hear.

CONNECTING TO JAPANESE PIONEERS ­— Penny Gibson (L), the great-great grandson of Wakamatsu colonist Kuninosuke Masumizu, holds up a plaque recognizing the Gibson family, the only known family of descendants of the colony in America. photo by Mark Shigenaga

“It’s up to me and groups like the American River Conservancy to continue to put the story out there so the general public understands the significance of it,” Gibson said.

The pilgrimage was presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation in partnership with the American River Conservancy and California Genealogical Society, and sponsored by a grant from the JA Community Foundation.

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