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Gold Hill Tea & Silk Farm

Jan 29, 2010 05:16AM ● By Wendy Sipple

In June of 1869, a group of Japanese immigrants journeyed to California – a far off place they might have heard of but knew nothing about.

Fleeing their war-torn city of Wakamatsu, they came to America with dreams of prosperity. Though their organized venture to colonize a tea and silk farm in Gold Hill lasted only two years, their efforts marked the beginning of Japanese influence on California’s agricultural industry.

Their leader, John Henry Schnell, had served as a trusted confidant and advisor to Lord Katamori Matsudaira, Japan’s last feudal emperor. The German “soldier of fortune” had come to Japan with his brother in 1859, and together they sold imported guns and munitions to combatants in the Boshin War. Apparently, Schnell courted favor with Matsudaira who gave a house, command of an important fighting unit, and permission to marry a Japanese woman. Schnell, realizing that he was fighting on the losing side of the bloody civil war, plotted his escape from the country. Ultimately, he convinced Matsudaira that profits could be made in America producing tea and silk. In 1869, he, his wife, their two children and six others sailed for San Francisco.

Sixteen others followed, including a young woman named Okei, former nursemaid to the Schnell children. They brought with them 50,000 mulberry trees for silk farming, tea plants and seeds, bamboo roots, wax tree seeds, grape cuttings, rice plants and pepper trees. Upon their arrival at Gold Hill, they went to work clearing and cultivating the 160 acres that Schnell had purchased from a local settler.

The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm prospered at first and it appeared that the patience and perseverance of its colonists would reap abundant rewards. However, the pioneering enterprise soon ended in disappointment. Sadly, the dry climate, scarcity of irrigation water, and the failure of promised funds to arrive from their homeland defeated them.

Because of the colony’s inability to produce enough goods for market, along with his own financial mismanagement, Schnell fled with his family in May 1871. Although he left the Matsudaira banner and daggers behind with his promise to return, he never did come back to Gold Hill. Evidently, he sold the land just before he left and told no one of his plans.

The abandoned members of the Wakamatsu colony began to drift away. Only two remained. A former Samurai named Matsunosuke Sakurai, and young Okei went to live with the Francis Veerkamp family. Tragically, at age 19, Okei died in 1871 – possibly from malaria contracted on the journey up the Sacramento River. Sakurai remained with the Veerkamps until his death in 1901.

A dedication ceremony on June 7, 1969 marked the centennial of the Japanese settlement at Gold Hill. That day, Governor and Nancy Reagan along with several Japanese dignitaries gathered at Gold Trail School to unveil California Registered Landmark Number 815. The plaque at the spot behind the school honors the Wakamatsu colony as “the site of the only tea and silk farm established in California.”