By JUNKO YOSHIDA, Rafu Staff Writer
Gold Hill is normally a quiet, unincorporated community, tucked into the cradle of the California Gold Rush. Over the first weekend of June, the somewhat remote area of El Do¬rado County was transformed into a bustling center of celebration.
June 8 marked 150 years to the day that the first Japanese settlers arrived on the American mainland, establishing a colony in California they called the Wakamatsu Silk and Tea Farm. The settlement failed within two years, but its impact has been long-lasting and far-reaching.
To commemorate the sesquicentennial, the American River Conservancy held the four-day WakamatsuFest 150 on the site of what later came to be known as the Wakamatsu Colony.
The priceless highlight of this year’s festival was the participation by descendants of some the original colonists, from both the U.S. and Japan.
Among those who traveled from Japan was Chikamori Matsudaira, a 15th-generation member of one of Japan’s most historic ruling families. His great-great grandfather, Katamori Matsudaira, was Lord of the Aizu Domain, the region of northern Japan from where those early settlers traveled to California.
Following the defeat of the Aizu clan in the Boshin War, Prince Matsudaira assured the travelers depart-ing from what is now the city of Aizu Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture that he would soon join them on the American frontier. He appointed one of his military advisors, Henry Schnell, a man of Prussian heritage, to guide the group on their travels to the U.S. They arrived in Gold Hill on June 8, 1869.
In spite of his promise, Prince Matsudaira was never able to join the settlers of the Wakamatsu Colony.
After a lapse of 150 years, Chikamori Matsudaira fulfilled the promise of his ancestor.
Hundreds of visitors from across the U.S. and Japan attended WakamatsuFest 150, which featured not only ceremonies and historic exhibits, but was augmented by dramatic re-enactments, taiko performances, tea ceremonies, art and bonsai displays and food trucks. Making the trip from Fukushima Prefecture were members of the Wakamatsu Colony 150th Anniversary Aizu Mission, a group from Aizu Wakamatsu dedicated to preserving the history and memory of the Wakamatsu colonists.
However short-lived their success, the Wakamatsu colonists are believed to be the first group of Japanese immigrants to establish a permanent settlement in North America. Their aim was to set up a farming community and cultivate tea and silk.
However, soil contamination, from sources such as iron and sulfur from the nearby gold mining sites, polluted the tea and the mulberry trees and their plants died. To make matters worse, factors such as drought and financial difficulties hastened the collapse of the Wakamatsu Colony after just two years.
Their dreams shattered, the colonists dispersed, some deciding to return to Japan, while others chose to stay in California.
Following the failure of the Wakamatsu Colony, the site was taken over by the Veerkamp family, local farmers who held the property for some 125 years. In 2010, the 272-acre site was purchased by the American River Conservancy, a local nonprofit preservation group that now owns and manages the original settlement site under the name Wakamatsu Farm.
In addition to being the location of the first Japanese settlement in North America, the Wakamatsu Colony was also the birthplace of first Japanese American – and the final resting place of the first Japanese immigrant to be buried on the U.S. mainland.
At the age of 17, a woman named Okei – her family name is unclear in historical records – was one of the settlers who worked to build a new American life. Within two years, after a brief illness, she died at age 19.
A memorial service was held during WakamatsuFest 150, at Okei’s grave, marked with a recently restored headstone. Buddhist chants were led by Rev. Iwasawa Kyokan of the Northern California Koyasan Temple and Rev. Mikami Koraku of Daikokuji, and attendees offered silent prayers and flowers at the burial site.
Local students from Gold Trail School and members of the Aizu Wakamatsu Chorus from Japan joined in singing the Japanese song “Spring Has Come (Haru ga Kita).”
A pair of monuments were un¬veiled to mark the occasion, including a memorial obelisk to the anniversary of the colonists’ immigration, provided by the Wakamatsu Colony 150th Anniversary Aizu Mission.
The ARC also donated a plaque stone in memory of Matsunosuke Sakurai, a member of the Wakamatsu Colony who chose to stay and live out his life in California.
Naori Shiraishi, a 19-year-old college student from Kyoto, learned of her connection to the Wakamatsu party while compiling an ancestry project when she was a junior high school student. She discovered that she is a direct descendant of Oto Matsugoro, believed to be a member of the original Wakamatsu Colony.
Matsugoro was a carpenter with the colony and returned to Japan after the breakup of the farming settlement. He is believed to have learned wine-making techniques in California, and brought those skills back to Japan.
“I’m 19 years old now, same age as Okei-san,” Shiraishi said during the gravesite ceremony. “I want to go through my life with vision towards the world, like my ancestors.”
California residents Barbara Johnson and her sons, Penny Eugene Gibson and Aaron Gibson, are descendants of Kuninosuke Masumizu, also a carpenter with the colony. He remained in the town of Coloma and married a local woman of African and Native American descent.
“We are glad that many people try to know about my ancestors and the history of the Wakamatsu Colony. We are overwhelmed and very moved,” Johnson said.
Tomochika Uyama, the current consul general of Japan in San Francisco, was born in Yamaguchi, located in the former Choshu Domain, whose rulers battled the Aizu leadership during Boshin Civil War.
“We have a history in the past, but it is my honor to be a part of the 150th anniversary of the Wakamatsu Colony,” Uyama said. “For them, at that time, America was the unknown land located beyond the Pacific Ocean. Under such a situation, they decided to emigrate to the United States and started cultivating tea and silk. I would like to show my respect for their courage.”
Iehiro Tokugawa, a descendant of the Tokugawa shogunate and great- grandson of Katamori Matsudaira, said, “The history of Aizu tends to be thought of as a tragedy, but some of members were active after returning to Japan. It would be nice for people in Aizu to think of their history positively.”
Shinkichi Koyama, former president of Southern California Fuku-shima Kenjinkai, attended the ceremony from Los Angeles. He previously visited the gravesite to mourn Okei in the 1970s and again in 1995.
“I’m so glad that the history of Japanese Americans has been inherited like this,” Koyama explained. “People in Aizu deeply love their home. ‘Prince,’ descendant of Katamori Matsudaira, is here today so I think Okei-san and other colonists feel so happy.”
A May 27, 1869 article in the Daily Alta California described the San Francisco arrival of Schnell and the Japanese immigrants. The piece was titled “The Defeated Princes Will Follow ― Japan No Home for Them Since the Civil War.”
It read, “The defeat of the North has obliged him (Schnell) to seek elsewhere for peace and occupation. It is not improbable that three Princes will follow him and share his fortunes.”
The article indicated that Katamori Matsudaira would eventually come to the colony, a plan that was never realized.
Now, 150 years later, Chikamori Matsudaira, descendant of Katamori Matsudaira and the Aizu Matsudaira family, stood on the site, the exact place where the Wakamatsu Colony once flourished, attending the me-morial ceremony clad in a historical samurai outfit called jinbaori.
He engraved the kanji 義 (gi) on the memorial stone monument donated by the Wakamatsu Colony 150th Anniversary Aizu Mission.
“I chose the word ‘gi’ because this word represents the spirit of the Aizu people, and it means keeping the promise,” Chikamori Matsudaira said. “Henry Schnell made a promise to the colonists, that the Prince of Aizu would come to this place. At that time, the plan was not realized, but 150 years later, I think I might have fulfilled the promise by coming to this site today as his descendant.”
The pledge of more than a century ago, to bring the Prince of Aizu to California, remained unkept until last month. With descendants and friends coming together in a breeze-swept hill in Northern California, the promise between prince and colonists is finally fulfilled in 2019.
Rafu staff writer Mikey Hirano Culross contributed to this report.
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo (except as noted)