California Historical Landmark at Gold Trail School

Our Japanese Connection

Japanese Monument Placque

 

We have all driven past it several times. Right there on the south side of the Gold Trail School parking lot is this neatly maintained niche that houses a large rock, wooden bench and pagoda-style arbor. What a quirky tribute to find in the middle of the Gold Rush area! And how many times have we heard reference to Okei-san and wondered just who is Okei-san and why do we care?

 

In the late 1860s residents of Aizu Wakamatsu, Japan were forced to leave their homeland due to an ongoing civil war between the ruling emperor and the various samurai lords. They were led by John Henry Schnell, a Dutchman married to a Japanese woman, who purchased 160 acres of California land to establish an agricultural settlement. (Reprinted with permission from www.pacificcitizen.org, Caroline Aoyagi-Stom, Executive Editor, Published April 6, 2007) Schnell, along with [the] 21 [other] Japanese colonists, established a tea and silk farm colony at Gold Hill. At first they experienced much success but several factors would lead to the colony's ultimate demise a few years later. Soon after their arrival, vandalism from some local miners, a drought that soon followed, and little monetary support from Japan led to the colony's collapse. (Reprinted with permission from www.pacificcitizen.org, Caroline Aoyagi-Stom, Executive Editor, Published April 6, 2007) The Veerkamp family purchased the farm following the withdrawal of financial support from financier Matsudaira Katamori (1835–93).  Though the Veerkamp family changed the purpose of the farm and for 125 years grazed cattle and operated a dairy farm, they worked to preserve remnants of the Japanese Colony.[The family preserved Okei's grave until the American River Conservancy purchased the land on November 1, 2010, and the National Park Service has placed the Wakamatsu Colony site on the National Register of Historic Places at a level of "national significance".

 

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. (Reprinted with permission from www.NichiBeiTimes.com, Where It All Began, April 26, 2007) Although very little is known about what eventually happened to the Japanese colonists, Okei-san's gravesite 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. (Reprinted with permission from www.pacificcitizen.org, Caroline Aoyagi-Stom, Executive Editor, Published April 6, 2007)

 

In 1957, a memorial was established on a mountain plateau overlooking the city of Aizu Wakamatsu and was dedicated to Okei by a group of people in Fukushima, who were moved by her story in Gold Hill. (Reprinted with permission from www.rafu.com, Ryoko Ohnishi, March 24, 2007) On June 7, 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 plaque and memorial garden at the site of the former Wakamatsu Colony. (Reprinted with permission from www.rafu.com, Ryoko Ohnishi, March 24, 2007)  The plaque designates the site of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony as California Historical Landmark No. 815. (Reprinted with permission from www.rafu.com, Ryoko Ohnishi, March 24, 2007)

 

Today, Gold Trail Union Elementary School is located next to Okei’s grave and has maintained a sister school friendship with Higashiyama Elementary School in Aizu Wakamatsu.  Students of the schools write letters and visit. (Reprinted with permission from www.rafu.com, Ryoko Ohnishi, March 24, 2007) Gold Trail School staff have gone to Japan to Aizu Wakamatsu to visit the Higashiyama Elementary School. They served as our ambassadors; to strengthen our connection and understanding and to demonstrate our sincere appreciation for Japan’s gift to Gold Hill. Take a good look at the mural on the side of the Gold Trail School Gym.  There is a picture of Okei-san up in the sky, looking toward the west to her ancestors in Japan.  Next time you drive past the big rock in the parking lot, you will now be aware that you are passing an area that has a rich history and is tremendously important to us all.

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