A New Dawn for Issei Colony

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“Graner House” was built in 1854 on the Gold Hill Ranch and will restored and become a museum. The big keyaki tree at right has been growing since the time of the Japanese colonists. (RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo)

By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER
The American River Conservancy, a nonprofit land preservation organization, announced last week that it has purchased the 272-acre Gold Hill Ranch, the former site of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony. The ranch in Placerville, El Dorado County, Calif., is known for being the location of the gravesite of “Okei-san,” the first Japanese woman buried on American soil.

The land was bought for $3.3 million from the Veerkamp family, which has been taking care of the land for the past 137 years with the intent of turning it into a park and museum.
The Wakamatsu Colony is known as the site where in June 1869 the first group of Japanese immigrants settled in the continental United States. Among the colonists was a 17-year-old girl named Okei-san, whose story has become a legend that is well known among Japanese Americans living in the region and speaks to the hardships faced by the early Japanese pioneers. The site was designated a State Historical Landmark by then Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1969.

“I am glad that we can preserve our stories for the next generation. My father used to tell us that ‘There was a Japanese princess living in our ranch’ when we were young,” Philip Veerkamp, a fifth-generation resident of the property and eldest in the family, told The Rafu Shimpo.

The gravesite of Okei-san.

In April 2007, the American River Conservancy launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the property from the Veerkamp family. The campaign was supported locally by the Sacramento, Placer and Florin Chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League. In Southern California, The Rafu Shimpo also solicited a call for donations among its subscribers in Southern California including the Fukushima-kenjinkai, Japanese governors and individuals from Fukushima who donated to the American River Conservancy through the Rafu Shimpo. The total amount raised by The Rafu was approximately $4,500.

In order to close escrow, ARC secured $1.5 million in competitive grant funding from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, $504,000 in private donations and bridge loans in the amount of $1,284,000 from New Resource Bank and the Veerkamp family. American River Conservancy must pay off these two bridge loans within two years by October 2012.

“We still need more support, particularly from the Japanese American community and communities from Japan. The letter of support to Washington, D.C. will be greatly appreciated,” said American River Conservancy Director Alan Ehrgott.

The vision of American River Conservancy and its project partners is to create a public park at the Wakamatsu Colony site that protects Okei’s gravesite, establishes a memorial garden, creates trails and a house museum within the historic  farmhouse, and develops a demonstration and production farm that displays the valuable contributions that Japanese Americans have made to California agriculture.

Frederick Taihiko Kochi, chairperson of the board and co-chair of the project, said he has begun collecting materials for the museum and seeking out descendants of the samurai colonists.

“I really appreciate the Veerkamp family’s generous decision.  I feel a bit sad because we could not get more support from Japan or the Japanese American community to reach this point, (but) thanks to the efforts of American River Conservancy and the California Rice Commision, this accomplishment became real,” Kochi said.
Veerkamp shared stories of the colony an Okei-san, who he surmised knew his granduncle, Henry.
“My grandfather’s eldest brother, Henry Veerkamp had direct contact with the colony members including Okei-san. This is totally my assumption but I think that Henry was 21 and Okei-san was 19. Henry must have had some romantic feelings towards Okei-san,” said Veerkamp.

Henry received a silk banner and daggers from the Wakamatsu Colony and they are inherited as family treasure. The Veerkamp family donated the banner and the daggers to the State Archives in Sacramento to preserve them in good condition.

The colonists who numbered approximately 20 to 30 people from Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, were former

The eldest of the Veerkamp family, Phillip holds the dagger and his sister and brother made a visitation to the State Archives to browse the family treasure they had donated including the banner. (2007)

samurai, servants, and others who wished to start a new life in the United States after a devastating civil war (Boshin Sensou) during the Meiji Restoration period. Okei was a babysitter for the leader of the colony, German merchant Henry Schnell. They attempted to grow silk and tea; however, the colony failed within two years of its start. Schnell left for Japan with his Japanese wife and two daughters to seek financial support, but he never returned. Meanwhile, Okei, who began working for a neighboring ranch owned by the Veerkamp family grew sick and died shortly after Schnell left.

A marble headstone still marks the grave, inscribed in both English and Japanese, “In Memories of OKEI, Died 1871, Aged 19 years. (A Japanese Girl)” It is believed that the tombstone was set by another colonist, Matsunosuke Sakurai, who married an African American woman and their heirs are still around.

Visitations by Japanese Issei to Okei’s tombstone began in the late 1910s and continued for many decades through the courtesy of the Veerkamps, who were the landlords of the gravesite. In the 1970s,  even tourists from Japan began to come to the site after Japanese novelists such as Mitsugu Saotome wrote about the story of Okei and the story became popular in Japan.

“America derives its strength and its character from the diversity of its people,” Ehrgott said. “The Wakamatsu colonists were the first to introduce traditional Japanese horticulture to California including: silk worm farming, the cultivation of tea, rice, citrus, peaches and other stone fruit varieties, paper and oil plants and bamboo products.”

Prominent partners include:  the City of Aizu Wakamatsu, Japan; the Japanese American Citizens League; the National Japanese American Historical Society; the California Rice Commission, the Placer Land Trust, Consul General of Japan, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA); the California Cultural and Historical Endowment; the California Office of Historic Preservation; El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce; People to People International and the Gold Hill Wakamatsu Colony Foundation.

American River Conservancy is accepting donations to help pay off the bridge loan required to protect this site indefinitely. For more information, visit www.arconservancy.org.

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