Hilltop grave may become a shrine

Times Staff Writer

Atop an oak-shrouded hill near the Central California Mother Lode town of Coloma, a lonely grave holds the first Japanese woman known to have died on American soil.

The 136-year-old granite headstone, inscribed in English and Japanese, reads: “In Memory of Okei, Died 1871. Aged 19 years. (A Japanese Girl).” It has been retired for safekeeping; a replica will take its place.

Okei Ito is buried at the site of the former Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, the nation’s first Japanese settlement, founded on June 7, 1869.


“To the Japanese, this farmland is our Plymouth Rock,” said Fred Kochi, a fourth-generation Japanese American living in Sunnyvale and a spokesman for several public and private groups hoping to purchase the site and restore the buildings.

“Okei-san personifies the immigrant spirit. She is a popular folk hero here and in Japan,” where a replica of her tombstone stands in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, her birthplace. A Japanese melody laments her early death, Kochi said in an interview.

The story of the Japanese in California begins with Dutchman John Henry Schnell, a weapons trader and merchant who married a Japanese woman named Jou, possibly a member of Katamori Matsudaira’s clan, a samurai family of northern Japan. Schnell trained warriors to use firearms and fought with Matsudaira on the losing side in the Boshin War, which ended in 1868.

In a hurry to get out of the country and with Matsudaira’s financial backing, Schnell organized about two dozen colonists from Aizuwakamatsu to leave on three ships over a period of a year. They intended to hunt for gold and to set up a farm to produce tea and silk in California.

This area “may have been selected for this colonization because of its scenic and topographical similarity to the Japanese homeland,” the late Sacramento historian and lawyer Henry Taketa wrote in the March 1992 journal the California Historian.

Schnell led the first group, which landed in San Francisco in May 1869. Within days, the Schnells’ daughter, Frances, was born. According to Taketa, she is believed to be the first person of Japanese ancestry born in the United States.

On June 7, 1869, Schnell and the colonists arrived in the El Dorado Hills. They had traveled by boat to Sacramento, then by wagon about 40 miles northeast to Gold Hill, between the Gold Rush towns of Placerville and Coloma. There, Schnell purchased 160 acres, a farmhouse and a barn for $5,000.

It takes a dedicated person to scour the 1870 federal census, which is not alphabetized and is handwritten in script ranging from patrician to chicken scratch. Taketa, who compiled 40 years of research on the settlement, found 55 Japanese people listed in the U.S. Thirty-three lived in California, including 22 in Gold Hill: 14 men, six housewives and two young girls. The Schnells’ daughters -- Frances and her younger sister, Mary, born in April 1870 -- were not included; the census listed them as white.

A few months after Mary’s birth, Okei Ito, better known as “Okei-san,” arrived to work as a nursemaid for the Schnells. She was 17 years old.

According to family legend, she frequently climbed the hillside to “watch the setting sun and gaze in the direction of her homeland,” Kochi said. “My grandfather always told me the story of Okei-san.” His grandfather learned about her from his mother, Hino Iseki, who immigrated to the Sacramento area in 1893.

Okei-san reportedly stood atop the hill each evening and sang a popular children’s song, “Yuyake Koyake” (“Sunset”), as tears streamed down her face.

“She was lonely and homesick,” Kochi said.

The colonists had brought silk cocoons, mulberry trees, other trees, seeds, grape seedlings and bamboo roots. They prospered the first year, participating in the San Francisco Horticultural Fair with displays of tea, paper plants and plant oils.

But soon, gold-mining claim jumpers dammed a creek on the ranch. The resulting water shortage damaged the crops.

Desperate to save his project, Schnell pawned an ancient Japanese dagger and silk banner -- believed to have been given to him by his wife’s presumed kinsman, Matsudaira, before Schnell left Japan -- to Francis Veerkamp, a German-born water and land baron whose property adjoined the colony.

“Schnell literally mortgaged his wife’s family jewels,” said Phil Veerkamp, 63, of Diamond Springs, the great-grandson of Francis Veerkamp.

In early 1871, Schnell returned to Japan with his family to seek more money and laborers. The colonists scattered.

Okei-san started working as a nanny for Veerkamp, who paid back taxes on the Japanese colony and turned it into a fruit farm.

“My family treated Okei-san like a daughter,” Phil Veerkamp said in a recent interview. His family also hired another colonist and field hand, Matsunosuke Sakurai, “who rose to a management position and marketed the fruit.”

Okei-san died from a fever, perhaps malaria, at 19. “Sakurai arranged for and purchased [Okei-san’s] headstone,” Phil Veerkamp said. Sakurai stayed with the Veerkamp family until his death in 1901.

Schnell was never heard from again.

“News arrived here that he had been killed in Japan,” historian Paolo Sioli wrote in the 1883 book “History of El Dorado County.”

The valuable artifacts Schnell pawned -- a 15th century woman’s Tanto dagger and a gold-threaded silk banner, both with the family crest used by the Tokugawa and Matsudaira families -- remained in the Veerkamp family for more than a century. In 2001, the Veerkamps donated them to the California State Archives.

Over the decades, rumors persisted in Japanese communities around the Gold Country that a Japanese girl was buried on Gold Hill. In 1924, a group of Japanese Americans went to the Veerkamp Ranch to interview descendants and document the past.

Francis Veerkamp’s son Henry, then 75, told the group about the colony and Okei-san, who had been a year younger than he. He pointed out the boundaries of the colony and her grave.

Over the years, local Japanese American groups have worked to preserve the site, making an annual trek from Sacramento to pull weeds and clean the grave site.

In 1969, at a centennial event marking the Japanese colonists’ arrival in the United States, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and a Japanese diplomat dedicated a commemorative marker to the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, California Historical Landmark No. 815.

In 2003, a local nature conservation group, the American River Conservancy, and chapters of the Japanese American Citizens’ League launched a $4.6-million fundraising campaign to buy the 303-acre Gold Hill Ranch from the Veerkamps.

The groups hope to preserve the remnants of the colony -- a farmhouse, barn, keyaki tree and Okei-san’s grave. Long-range plans call for a history center and a wildlife habitat dedicated to the first Japanese immigrants and their contributions to agriculture.

The Veerkamps are ready to sell to the preservationists and have given them until the end of the year to raise the money.

The family, too, has an investment in history.

“We want the property preserved and want to know that the story of Okei-san and the Wakamatsu colony will continue to be told,” Phil Veerkamp said.

On Wednesday, for one day only, the Japanese dagger and silk banner will go on display at the California State Archives, 1020 O St., Sacramento. For more information about the Gold Hill-Wakamatsu Project, call the nonprofit American River Conservancy at (530) 621-1224.