The First Japanese Immigrants to America


The First Japanese Immigrants to America: A Story of the Lost Samurais in California

by Sean Yoshikawa, January 2016

The early history of Japanese immigrants in the United States is above all, a history of a racial minority struggling to survive in a hostile land prevailed with white supremacy concept.  (Ichioka 1) However, the account of the first official Japanese immigration to the U.S. is quite unique compared to the standard immigration patterns from Europe or from any other parts of Asia, which were dominated by common people (Daniel 12). In fact, those first Japanese immigrants to America were ex-Samurai warriors who were equivalent to the knights of medieval Europe (Reischaur 129). In 1869, they came to the American mainland and established a short-lived agricultural colony in California (Daniels 250). Considering their short stay compared to the massive amount of Chinese mining laborers in the same area, their existence and its details have been unrecognized and hidden in the shadow of American immigration history today.  By tracing some of the valuable information preserved in both English and Japanese texts, this research paper explores and discusses the details of this first immigration event in Japanese and American immigration histories. Additionally, this essay shares a story of a young Japanese woman named Ito, Okei , who came along with this historical immigration, eventually became the first Japanese individual to die and to be buried in this foreign land (See appendix).

The main motive for their emigration starts and goes back to 1853 when an American Navy Commodore, Mathew Calbraith Perry and his fleets of steam-warships came to Japan, forced the Japanese government to open up its ports to Western nations, and demanded to enter into trade agreements called the “Treaty of Kanagawa” in the following year. This unexpected sudden event marked the end of the isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate, and resulted in the emergence of the Meiji Restoration that allowed a Japanese emperor to regain absolute power. (Reischauer 228-230)  At the same time, this political transition caused sporadic civil war between the ruling emperor and the various samurai lords along with the uncountable numbers of samurai warriors all over Japan. Consequently, samurai warriors and their families of Aizu Wakamatsu who devotedly served the Lord of Aizu were forced to leave their homeland and became political refugees. In the middle of turmoil, there was John Henry Schnell of Dutch extraction and German arm-dealer who supplied fire arms and also was a military advisor to the Lord of Aizu during the revolution: Japanese name; Buhyoue Hiramatsu (O’Brien & Fujita 10).

After Aizu’s defeat, Schnell came up with a plan for relocation of those refugees to the New World called America. His initial plan was first to bring three disgruntled samurais and their families, along with himself, a doctor, his Japanese wife, their two daughters, and a nursemaid, which made up a total of twenty one people. Afterwards, he planned to bring forty families, and lastly eighty families. This would total four hundred colonial members, who would produce high quality silk products and tea. Schnell named the place “Wakamatu Tea and Silk Farm Colony,” and what is nowadays called Gold Hill, California (Herman 2) (Japan-US Encounters Website 1) (Takaki 43)

Gold Hill where they established their colony is located at an elevation of 1621 feet, in El Dorado County, California. From San Francisco, it is about on hundred fifty miles away and takes about three hours to get there by car today. Gold Hill is historically well-famous for the site of the first discoveries of quartz gold by James Marshal in 1848 that led to the Gold Rush. By March 1851, there were one hundred fifty buildings in the area, including hotels, saloons, stores, and even the first school.  However, it “pinched out” by 1864 and mines were closed, thousands of people had moved to Grass Valley and neighboring area, and only farmers and a small Chinese settlement remained in the area. (El Dorado 8-9)

On the 30th of April, 1869, the first batch of Japanese immigrants left Yokohama, Japan for the New World by an American Oceanic mail steamer called “China.”  After twenty-two days at sea, they arrived in San Francisco on the 20th of May. Following a search within the central Sierra Nevada foothills by placing an advertisement on the newspaper Daily Alta California, they purchased the one hundred sixty acre of vineyard for five thousand dollars, which included orchard trees, more than thirty thousand grape vines, vast grain field, brick houses with furniture, barns, wine cellars, agricultural equipment, horse-drawn buggies, cattle such as horses, cows, pigs, and chickens. They settled in. (Herman 2) After all, they spent over two weeks in San Francisco before moving into the farm. By encountering diversity of ethnicity and the Western culture shocks, their temporal stay in San Francisco must have been the most exciting moments with full of prospective and hopes then. (Daily Alta California)

Their arrival in California was sensational. Daily Alta California had newspaper coverage for the arrival of a new industry as a brand-new business opportunity from the Far East, which attracted American businessmen who were eager to invest in a pioneering industry.  According to the article from the newspaper, their arrival was, in a way, considered to be more a “delegation” than an “immigration.” Obviously, the details of their arrival and intention suggest that Schell was interviewed by journalists and Schell fairly represented their project well. The newspaper correspondent wrote: “They were not slaves but are free-men, and are sophisticated people. They shall respect and accept our laws and regulations. Therefore, we shall not treat them as Chinese.”  As a matter of fact, there already were more than 100,000 Chinese on American soil at that time which caused racial hysteria all over California. However, most importantly, unlike Chinese immigrants, Schell and his entourage came with their families, brought their fund to make investment, and had definitive purpose and plan to establish their self-sustainable community. These facts made a distinctive difference from Chinese sojourners and immigrants. Moreover, after their arrival, the newspaper Daily Alta California continued scooping their progress for their articles, which still provides us the details of Wakamatsu colony today (Daily Alta California).

As soon as they settled in Gold Hill, they wasted no time in establishing their colony. They brought with them thousands of tea plants, mulberry trees, silk worms and other traditional crops to start a tea and silk operation. The Wakamatsu colonists successfully displayed silk cocoons, tea and oil plants at the 1869 California State Agricultural Fair in Sacrament and at the 1870 Horticultural Fair in San Francisco. For their future expansion, Schnell also purchased an additional farm in the town of Auburn for one thousand and eight hundred dollars (El Dorado 7).

However, one and a half years later, in the summer of 1870, they suffered from a drought problem, and to make it worse, their misjudgment led them to use irrigation water containing iron and sulfurs from the old gold mines critically damaging most of their plants and crops. It was devastating. In the beginning they experienced much success but this drought, irrigation problems, and disinvestment led to the colony’s collapse.  Consequently, the Wakamatsu colony was not economically viable, mainly because the samurai lacked the necessary skills as well as social skills to work the foreign land. Crucially, due to “the prohibition orders of embarkation” for samurai refugees by the imperial government in Japan, the initial planned colonial members who were supposed to chain-migrate did not come to reinforce them. The final blow came when their Lord Matsudaira in Japan was released from captivity by the Japanese government, under the terms that he gives up his wealth and power, which meant the termination of further financial support from Japan. As a result, the colony miserably bankrupted.  Two articles from two newspapers report the details of their predicaments and their final phase of this historical event. (Daily Alta California 1) (Pacific Rural Press 1). 

After two short years of settlement, the colony had disbanded. One by one, colonial members started to leave the colony in search of better pay elsewhere in California.  Evidently, at least three of them found agricultural job opportunities and remained in the area. One of them was Masumizu Kuninosuke; “Kuni” who spoke five languages moved to Coloma and became a farmer and miner. In 1877, He married Carrie Wilson, a woman of African and Native American descent and moved to Sacramento to raise a family. Kuni died at the age of sixty-six in 1915 and was buried in the Colusa cemetery. Notably, his children were interrogated by American officials after the Pearl Harbor incident in 1941. Matsunosuke Sakurai and Keiko Ito were employed by a neighboring farmer of German descent named the Veerkamp family. Matsunosuke’s tomb stone can be found near the Veerkamp family cemetery plot in the pioneer cemetery of Coloma and Okei’s tomb stone still sits within the property of the Wakamatsu colony.  The rest of colonial members went back to Japan and one of them became very successful in the dried fruits business there, which was totally brand new venture business then. Later, the Japanese government ironically sponsored this individual to come back to California to learn further industrial techniques and advanced knowledge of the dried fruits business. Moreover, this person also operated a restaurant business in San Francisco that made him a fortune.  As a consequence, he sent his daughter to the University in California and she became the first female doctor in the Wild West. However, due to gender and racial discriminations, she never found opportunities for her medical practice in America.

Finally, John Henry Schnell with his wife and their daughters were the last people to leave the colony in the summer of 1871. They claimed to return to Japan with the intention of securing funds. But nobody ever heard from them again. As a matter of fact, there are no evidences for their return to Japan at all and no one really knows where they left for. Schnell completely disappeared without further trace, which still remains as the biggest mystery of the Wakamatsu colony even today (Guglieri, Wendy Personal interview. 28 Nov. 2015).

What is left now?  In 1969, as a focal event in the celebration of the centennial year of Japanese immigration to America, Japanese Consul General Seiichi Shima and then Governor Ronald Reagan dedicated a commemorative plaque and memorial garden as the National Register of Historic Landmark No. 815 at the site of the former Wakamatsu Colony, where Gold Trail Union Elementary School is currently located. This school has maintained a 27year sister school friendship with Higashiyama Elementary School in Aizu Wakamatsu. In 2010, the American River Conservancy purchased the land in order to protect the Colony’s extensive natural and cultural history. Today, they lead “Wakamatsu Farm Restoration” that also offers “Volunteer Opportunity for Restoration” and monthly public tours. For more information: (A.R.C.10)

Last but not least, the story of the first Japanese immigration to America was a story of broken hearts and faded dreams. However, the most remarkable facts are that they were well assimilated to American culture by speaking English, wearing Western clothes instead of Kimonos, and adopting local culture and traditions, which made a clear distinction from other Asian immigrants at that time, the Chinese. As a result, they were respectably accepted by local community. Extraordinarily, some Wakamatsu colonists utilized their severe American immigration experience to create the dried fruits industry in Japan, which has proved the resilience and diligence of Japanese immigrants for ever after.


A Story of Okei  Ito:

No Wakamatsu-related story, perhaps, captures the imagination and spirit of the immigrant dream than that of Okei, who embarked from her home country at age 17 and became a nursemaid to Mrs. Schnell and the two Schnell children, Frances and Mary.  She died in 1871 at the age of 19, and is believed to be the first Japanese to die on American soil.  Although very little is known about what eventually happened to the Japanese colonists, Okei-san’s grave site with the marker – “In Memory of Okei, Died 1871, Age 19 Years, a Japanese Girl” – still sits on top of Gold Hill. It is rumored that Okei-san would often go to this area to watch the setting sun and look towards her homeland.   Although Okei-san’s story had long been lost until after World War I, details have slowly emerged about her life. During this time, the grave of Okei-san was quietly maintained by the Veerkamp family and Veerkamp elders told their grandchildren about a “Japanese princess” who had died on the ranch. We now know she was a part of a group of 22 colonists who made the long journey from their home in Aizu Wakamatsu, Japan in the late 1860s to become the first Japanese colonists to settle in America ( Aoyagi-Stom, Caroline 6).


                           Picture of Okei            


The National Register of Historic Landmark No. 815              


The Hallmarks of Japanese Immigrants:

  • Men and women are equally educated at the higher levels compared to other immigrants. This contributed to keep their higher standard of living even under the harsh condition and environment.
  • Especially good at mathematics: which allowed them wisely manage their financial / economic aspects and succeed them in investment. (O’Brien and Fugita 19)
  • They were individually well-disciplined and well organized as a group, which benefitted to manage mutual aid systems.
  • The Japanese Government encouraged them assimilation by speaking English, wearing western attire instead of traditional Kimono, and acculturation by acquiring American education for their new born generation in America.
  • Traditionally, Japanese people were well skilled in agriculture, fishery, and carpentries with long history of development, which are well planned and managed. For example, Japanese farmers carefully chose what kind of crops to grow and sell among other ethnic groups who were already in America. They chose specific varieties of crops that would not compete with others. As a result, it contributed to reduce not only the competition but racial antagonism as well.
  • Social niche: agricultural industry in California; During the rapid expansion of industrial capitalism after the Civil War, non-English speaking immigrants from eastern and southern-European origin, filled the ranks of the unskilled labor force required by American industry and society. (Ichioka2) As a result, what is left is a “social niche,” which implied an opportunity for Japanese immigrants.  In case of western states, it meant the urban service trades, railroad, mining, lumber, and most of all, agriculture and fishing industries.    
  • Technological aspect: irrigation system. Invention of new agricultural tools for efficient productions. As a result, Japanese immigrants advanced the whole agricultural technology in America, and they eventually dominated the agriculture market in California.
  • Intelligence, resilience, and diligence; all of these factors contributed Japanese immigrants to achieve relatively rapid success in America.


Daily Alta California


Sacramento Daily Union


Pacific Rural Press


Image credit: © Courtesy of CDNC, hosted in the University of California Riverside.

Work Cited

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Daily Alta California: California: Digital Newspaper Collection Volume 21, Number

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