Flight from Civil War: Refugees from War-Torn Aizu
Okei had come to California with a small group of samurai and farmers from the embattled domain of Aizu, in north central Japan. Aizu (now part of Fukushima prefecture) had been prominent among the Tokugawa loyalists who were defeated in the Boshin War of 1868-69, which precipitated the Meiji Restoration and the rise of Imperial Japan. Near the end of the Boshin War, Henry Schnell, a German advisor to Lord Katamori Matsudaira of Aizu, hatched a plan to relocate a group of émigrés to America. Schnell had been granted samurai status and married a Japanese woman. Okei was a girl of 17 who served in his household and relocated with the Schnells and a group of 20 or so samurai from the domain. They also brought thousands of mulberry bushes, tea plants, and other Japanese flora, as they intended to start a tea and silk plantation in America.
Wakamatsu Colony Meets the California Gold Rush
Schnell, with the help of Lord Matsudaira, had purchased a plot of land near Placerville, California above the Sacramento Valley to be the site where these first Japanese immigrants to America would attempt to start their new lives. They arrived on June 8, 1869 at what they named the Wakamatsu Colony, after the town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, castle town of Aizu domain.Unfortunately, the venture was ill-fated. Not only was there a shortage of water, but the Gold Rush area of Gold Hill was close by. Due to the scarcity of water from drought, the miners and the settlers often battled over water availability. The miners dammed a stream that fed into the Wakamatsu Colony and made water even harder to come by for the farmers. Eventually, the crops failed and the colony foundered. The original inhabitants scattered following the departure of Henry Schnell, who left with his family, promising to return with more funds and new plants from Japan. He never returned.
Remnants and Remembrances
After the Schnells left the colony, two of the original Japanese settlers remained on the site, taken in by the Veerkamp family, who purchased the land and set up their own farm. Okei became nursemaid to the Veerkamp children, while her compatriot Matsunosuke Sakurai also worked for the Veerkamp family. Okei died from a malarial illness in 1871, aged only 19. In her last days, she would venture up to a hill that reminded her of her home in Aizu. She requested that the Veerkamps bury her atop that hill, which they did. Sakurai worked to erect her marker, which remained there until the site was restored only a few years ago, when it was replaced with a new marker. Okei is considered to be the first Japanese immigrant to die on American soil.
Restoration and Historical Importance
For years, Japanese immigrated to the US, while the defunct Wakamatsu colony was mostly forgotten. The Veerkamp family continued to farm the land, while they and local Japanese-Americans faithfully preserved the site of Okei’s gravestone and the old farmhouse where many of the original Japanese immigrants had lived and worked. In 1969, on the 100th anniversary of the colony’s founding, then-governor Ronald Reagan designated Wakamatsu as a historical landmark. Ichiro Matsudaira, the grandson of the original feudal lord of Aizu who had financed the 1869 project, was present for the ceremonies. Japanese-Americans declared 1969 to be the “Japanese American Centennial.” Back in the Japanese city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, a replica of Okei’s gravestone was erected, and there are yearly festivals that include actors recreating the parts of Schnell and Okei.
In 2010, the American River Conservancy purchased the land from the Veerkamp family with the intention of restoring the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony as a historical landmark and conservation project. There are historical tours and a 150th anniversary festival planned for 2019. The Wakamatsu colony is a significant national and international landmark, and Japanese-Americans look upon it as the beginning of the Issei (first generation Japanese) in America. Doris Matsui, a US Representative from California, notes that the Wakamatsu colony represents the Japanese-American version of Plymouth Rock. The gravesite of a 19-year-old Japanese girl named Okei has come to represent what is best in the Japanese and American histories–the pioneer spirit.