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Japan’s first USA foothold: Wakamatsu tea and silk farm

It was a beautiful late spring day in 2016 when I arrived in the small historic town of Coloma California. Gold was first discovered here at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, but I was here on a different mission of discovery. I had my trusty little fishing rod to seek out yet another trout from the fast-flowing nearby American River, but my main goal was to find the site of the ill-fated Wakamatsu Tea & Silk Company Farm. It was here that the first organized settlement of Japanese immigrants to North America tried to stablish a colony for refugees from Japan trying to escape the devastation of the domestic Boshin War of 1868-1869. The first Japanese-American was born here and the first native Japanese died and is buried here.

Following a crude map on my cell phone, I drove west out of Coloma and then two miles up a long hill on Cold Springs Road. After several inquiries I found the remaining barn and house that had housed the Japanese who had lived there from 1869 to 1870. Just beyond the Gold Trail Elementary School I also found a large stone historical marker “Celebrating the Wakamatsu Tea & Silk Company,” a wholly Japanese-run enterprise that marked the start of Japanese immigration to the United States.

Wakamatsu farmstead

Wakamatsu farmstead

A few hundred yards up Cold Springs Road stands the main barn used by the Wakamatsu group as well as the now beautifully restored farm house where all the original colonists lived. The house, barn, and adjoining 160+ acres of farm land have found a new patron, the American River Conservancy, which restored the house and is working to recover the barn and the farm land as a working agricultural enterprise.

The Coloma region had been the home of the Nisenan tribal people for several thousand years. They flourished in the region’s mild climate, lived in small communities, and fished what is now the American river, hunted a wide range of game, and gathered acorns, hazelnuts and wild berries. The area around their main village, Kulloma, attracted only a scattering of European and American settlers until the discovery of gold.

The surge of miners to Coloma in 1848-1849 devastated the Nisenan people, though they still survive as a tribe to this day. Other settlers came to the region in the early 1850s including a group of four German families. They included Charles Graner, Francis Veerkamp, his wife Louisa and Louisa’s sister Anna Fredricka Tobener. Charles and Anna married and both the Graner and Veerkamp families bought land up on Gold Hill. Graner’s farm consisted of 160 acres including a large barn and a good-sized farm house for his expanding family. By 1868, however, they gold frenzy had faded so much that Graner and his family decided to sell their land and move to San Francisco.

Turmoil in Japan

By the late 1860s Japan experienced a major conflict, the Boshin Civil War, between the long-lived but now weakening Tokugawa shogunate and pro-imperial forces led by the Chōshū, Satsuma and Tosa domains who wished to create a new and stronger government that could better stand up to the growing imperialism of Western countries. By early 1868 Satsuma and Chōshū had decided to overthrow the shogunate by force. On 3 January 1868 their troops seized the imperial palace in Kyoto and proclaimed an “imperial restoration.” Imperial troops marched north and took the main city of Edo (now Tokyo) with relative ease, but pro-shogunal domains in northern Honshu formed a league under the leadership of the collateral (shimpan) Aizu-Wakamatsu domain to fight for the Shogun and his allies. The imperial army attacked the forces of the league in August of 1868 in what was later called the Battle of Aizu and forced their surrender on 6 November 1868. The entire city and castle were burned and decimated by the imperial troops The Boshin war ended with the defeat of pro-shogunal forces on Hokkaido in June 1869.

The feudal lord of the Aizu-Wakamatsu domain, Katamori Matsudaira, had received military advice and possibly some modern military equipment including guns from a young Prussian arms-dealer, John Henry Schnell (c. 1830–?). John Henry and his younger brother Edward had arrived in Japan around 1860 and worked as merchants and for a period for the German legation in Edo. They later arrived in Aizu-Wakamatsu and developed a working relationship with Matsudaira. When John Henry showed a deep interest in the old tradition of Bushido, Matsudaira allowed him to wear a set of samurai swords and attire. John Henry married the daughter of a samurai retainer, was given a house and a monthly stipend in exchange for the weapons and military expertise he and Edward gave to the retainers of Matsudaira. John Henry and his wife had a baby girl, Francis.

The destruction of Aizu-Wakamatsu convinced John Henry Schnell that he and his family had no future in Japan. He developed the idea that instead there was a chance for a peaceful and prosperous future in northern California and he persuaded three other Japanese families to accompany him. Knowing full well that there was potentially a market for Japanese silk and tea in the United States, it might be a good plan to build a farm complex in California that could produce these very goods. If successful, other Japanese workers from Aizu-Wakamatsu who had been devastated by the war might be persuaded to join them. Matsudaira apparently liked the idea and provided some seed money to get the project going.

Early in the spring of 1869 John Henry Schnell, his wife and daughter together with twenty or more Japanese boarded the large steamship China. The party included a young Japanese woman, Okei Ito, aged seventeen or eighteen, who was to be a nanny for Francis Schnell. John Henry Schnell had also acquired a large cargo of agricultural goods that included 50,000 three-year old mulberry trees, a big supply of silk worms, bamboo, wax trees, 6 million tea plant seeds, rice, citrus and other Japanese crops. All these goods were to be used to start their Japanese tea and silk farm.

The Japanese arrival in San Francisco in late May, 1869, attracted the attention of local newspapers. One of the leading newspapers, the Daily Alta California, in an article “Arrival of Japanese Immigrants,” on 27 May, 1869, tells of the arrival of “Herr Schnell” and the first Japanese colonists. It reports that Schnell first arrived with three families, the precursors of forty families to come; later 80 more families are reported to be coming. The group brings with them “50,000 trees of the Morus alba, three years old,” “a great number of bamboo plants of the large variety,” “500 vegetable wax trees, four feet high, and three years old,” and “6,000,000 tea nuts.” The article gives Schell’s position as “Interpreting Secretary to the Prussian Legation, and latterly Minister of Finance to the Northern Principalities at war with the Mikado.” The paper reports that “Herr Schnell means to buy Government land, not in the valleys, which are unsuited, but in the cheaper hill or mountain lands.”

Following a search for cheaper quality land to start their enterprise John Henry Schnell found that the Graner farm was for sale. He reached an agreement and signed documents to purchase the farm and land for $5,000. Schnell then accompanied his family and Japanese comrades on a steamer up the river to Sacramento where after a short stay they hired a wagon train to accompany them and their goods to Coloma and then up what is now Cold Springs Road to the Garner Farm. They unloaded their goods, moved into the large farmhouse, and set up business as the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm.

Early Success and then Complete Failure

The venture was doomed to failure. The tea plants and mulberry trees were planted as planned and local newspapers reported some initial success. Some tea and silk were taken to various markets and won praise, but a devastating drought, so common in that part of California, in the winter and early spring of 1871 killed many of the crops. I got a sense of the difficulty of farming the area when I walked across the property several times in 2016. Although there had been a lot of rain during the winter and early spring of 2016, by late May and early June the ground was very hard and dry. A small pond near the barn was all dried out and the grass was quite brown. It’s hard to see how tea plants or mulberry trees could possibly survive in such an environment.

Speaking of water, the American River Conservancy writes:
While the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony thrived, the land around the colony was still being ravaged by gold seekers. There was ongoing contention between miners and the growing number of farmers and ranchers. While Schnell initially resisted irrigating crops, drought finally pushed him to purchase water from a local mining ditch. This water contained the contaminant iron sulfate which coated and ultimately killed the young plants.

Wakamatsu barn

Wakamatsu barn

The other major problem was financial. When one actually begins an enterprise like this, it takes a while, several years in fact, to generate enough income to begin making enough profit to survive. It took a major investment to bring two dozen Japanese all the way to California as well as all of the produce they carried with them. The drought and fetid water killed the crops and they had to start all over again. And then there was the question of salaries to pay the workers who had come all the way from Japan.

Again, according to the American River Conservancy:
In addition to environmental challenges, the Colony’s workforce was under a labor contract made in Japan, which paid the Japanese low wages. Schnell was running out of money and could not renegotiate with his Japanese workers who had begun to leave in search of better pay elsewhere in California. The final blow came when Matsudaira was released from captivity by the Japanese government, under the terms that he give up his wealth. The colony, desperately strapped for cash, could not hope for aid from Matsudaira…

By the early part of summer of 1871, Schnell left the Gold Hill property with his wife and daughters saying that he would go to Japan to seek additional funds and supplies—and that we would return soon. That was a complete lie. He and his family left the farm and were never heard from again. They simply disappeared and to this day nobody knows what became of him or his family.

The Sad Stories of Okei-San and Matsunosuke Sakurai

Most of the Japanese workers found steady employment elsewhere as carpenters and as farm workers. They worked hard and provided excellent service, so their finding new employment was never a problem. Most of them disappeared into the mists of history, but modern research indicates that in due course all but three of them returned to Japan. But the saddest story is that of Okei Ito, popularly referred to as Okei-san.

As noted earlier, Okei-san accompanied the Wakamatsu group as a nanny for the Schnell’s young daughter Francis and their second daughter who was born at the Wakamatsu farm. According to popular legend, Okei-san, often pictured as a beautiful and demure young woman, was very homesick and when she was not caring for the young Schnell girls, she would walk up to a knoll north of the house to watch the sun setting in the direction of her homeland.

When the Schnell family left in May, 1871, they left Okei-san behind with a fellow colonist Matsunosuke Sakurai. All the other Japanese workers by then had left the farm in search of work elsewhere. The neighboring large Veerkamp family took them in and welcomed them as members of their family. Sadly, by August, 1871, Okei-san had developed a fever which weakened her until she died. She was only nineteen years old. The family buried her on the knoll she loved to visit.

Matsunosuke Sakurai had a headstone made and placed on the knoll. The original stone began to crack so today an exact replica stone stands in its place. Okei-san’s gravesite is considered to be the first burial site of a Japanese woman on American soil. The grave has become a shrine for the many Japanese visitors who come there every year.

The Veerkamp family acquired the Wakamatsu farm land in 1873 and their descendants farmed it until 2008. Matsunosuke Sakurai stayed with the family as a highly skilled gardener until his death in 1901. The Veerkamp farm was put up for sale in 2008 and the American River Conservancy bought it to enhance and preserve the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm’s extensive natural and cultural history.

080716wakamatsu memorialA Living Legacy

Today the Conservancy has beautifully restored the old farm house that welcomes visitors. Volunteers are slowly developing a working organic farm that will raise and sell produce, fruit, and other farm products. The hope is that this farm will be a kind of school where people will share and compare different farming practices.

The farm is a beautiful open and partially wooded area. During my last visit I followed a long path from the farm house up to the knoll where Okei-san is buried. It truly marks the spot where Japanese immigration started in the United States. The Wakamatsu venture failed, but a decade or so later a stream of Japanese immigrants came to California and by the 1920s at least a quarter of California’s farmers were ethnic Japanese.

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