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At this historic farm in the Sierra foothills, first Japanese settlement in U.S. turns 150

Here, on these grassy slopes, in this tiny town in the Sierra foothills, the first Japanese settlement in the United States was born, and the first Japanese immigrant was buried.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in the summer of 1869, a group of Japanese farmers, carpenters and samurai fled the aftermath of a bloody civil war to build a new life growing silk and tea in El Dorado County. It’s the kind of tale of ambition and sacrifice that local historians and docents say embodies a classic California pioneer spirit.

But despite its historical significance marking the beginning of Japanese Americans’ agricultural and social influence in the United States, the Wakamatsu colony in Gold Hill remains relatively unknown.

A sesquicentennial celebration of the farm’s founding aims to change that.

“People need to know that these colonists came from Japan over 150 years ago and see what they tried to do. ... To recognize those people,” said Thaya Mune Craig, a board member of the Placer County Japanese American Citizens League.

For decades, Wakamatsu Farm has been a pilgrimage site for Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans, said Melissa Lobach, a spokeswoman for American River Conservancy, which has owned the property since 2010.

In particular, the gravestone of Okei Ito, a nanny for one of the colony’s founders who died at 19 a few years after settling, has served as one of the last reminders of these California pioneers’ tale. She’s buried on a small knoll, where she would sing songs and lullabies, “just very homesick like a 16-year-old girl would be for her family,” said Herb Tanimoto, a local historian.

“Every time I’m at Okei’s grave, she kind of talks to me,” he said.

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A Jan. 19, 1969 Sacramento Bee article on the centennial celebration of Wakamatsu Farm. The Sacramento Bee

Alison Clement understands the draw. She’s been struck by the story of the Wakamatsu colonists since she was a little girl, when she read “Samurai of Gold Hill” by Yoshiko Uchida, a book fictionalizing events at the farm. “I loved the story,” she said, “and afterward I found out it was right in our backyard!”

Now, a few times a month – or a few times a week during tour season – Clement and her mother pick flowers from their family garden and hike up the farm’s bucolic hills to bring fresh arrangements to the grave.

“It needed caring for,” said Clement. “It’s an honor to do that.”

On a recent Monday, Tanimoto, a docent with the conservancy, made the trek up to Okei’s gravestone to place some flowers and pay his respects.

“They say this was her favorite place, from here she could look back towards the west, back to the far east, towards Japan,” Tanimoto said.

‘Duty and loyalty’

Okei’s time at the colony, and the efforts of the two dozen or so other Japanese immigrants to Gold Hill, represents a story of “duty and loyalty,” Clement said.

Aizu Wakamatsu was one of the last strongholds of the losing side of the Boshin War, and during the political upheaval in Japan, several families with the help of a Prussian merchant fled to California’s Gold Country in the hopes of establishing a tea and silk farm.

They came prepared, bringing 50,000 mulberry trees to feed silkworms, and 6 million tea seeds, according to a May 27, 1869 article in The Daily Alta California reporting their arrival in San Francisco.

“The tea seeds, although planted at the most unseasonable part of the year, gave evidence of a thrifty growth,” The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported Nov. 20, 1869.

While initially successful, the farm’s growth was choked by a drought that killed most of the crops, Tanimoto said. After just two years, the colony collapsed and its inhabitants dispersed, he said.

But some remained in the United States, helping carry on Wakamatsu’s legacy of ambition and multicultural roots. Among them was Kuninosuke Masumizu, a carpenter, fisherman and translator who served as one of the colony’s leaders.

He would later marry Carrie Wilson, the daughter of a Native American and African American freed slave – the first documented marriage between a Japanese national and an African American in the United States, according to their great-great-great grandson, Penny Gibson.

Even today, “it’s a fascinating fluid story that keeps developing,” said Gibson, who lives in Stockton.

The Wakamatsu colony still operates through the American River Conservancy, though the farmers that lease the 272-acre property now operate dairy and produce farms as opposed to silk and tea.

But Tanimoto said some reminders of Wakamatsu’s past are still living today: A Keyaki, a Japanese elm tree, planted as a sapling by colonists, has grown into the largest of its kind in California. And he likes to imagine there could be old tea plants still growing on the land.

“Tea plants can grow for several hundred years,” he said. “So somewhere out in the field it’s possible one of the old tea plants might still be growing.”

How to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wakamatsu Farm

The WakamatsuFest150, run by the American River Conservancy, will celebrate Japanese American heritage, culture, art and food over four days.

  • When: Thursday-Sunday, June 6-9.
  • Where: Wakamatsu Farm, 941 Cold Springs Road, Placerville, CA
  • Events: The festival will include the premiere of a play based on the events of the Wakamatsu colony, taiko drum performances, wood block printing and sumi-e ink painting, history lectures, a tea ceremony and VIP events.
  • Cost: Day passes range from $7 for children and $15 for adults on the weekdays, to $10 and $20 respectively on the weekends.
  • Tickets: They can be purchased through the American River Conservancy website at https://www.arconservancy.org/wakafest150

“There are not very many places in America where you can meet the descendents of samurai rulers,” said conservancy spokeswoman Melissa Lobach. “We’re hoping to bring something to our little county the likes of which they’ve never seen before.”

Wakamatsu Farm is privately owned by the American River Conservancy and is only open to the public during tours in the spring and fall, and during special events.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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