The American River Conservancy is hosting the 150th Anniversary celebration of the first Japanese colony in America—the Wakamatsu Tea & Silk Farm Colony in Placerville, California.
Wakamatsu is the only known settlement of samurai outside Japan. The legacy of these 22 warriors lives on as descendants of Japanese settlers and in the modern cultivation of tea plants from an ancient line.
The event runs June 6-9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Wakamatsu Farm, 941 Cold Springs Road, Placerville.
Friday, June 7, the theme of the day is tea and Japanese culture.
On Saturday June 8, there will be special events from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets are $15, and discounted passes available. Click here to register.
The Wakamatsu farm sesquicentennial features dancers, taiko drummers, sushi and other Asian foods and several speakers.
The play, Gold Hill Samurai, will be a daily highlight. Tour guides and docents in costume will share stories of the early days of the settlement.
Settlers arrived at the site June 8, 1869 with 4.8 tons of tea seeds, enough to grow six million trees. They also crated for their journey across the Pacific, thousands of mulberry trees, fruit tree seedlings, plants to produce paper and oil as well as rice and bamboo.
Japan was in a state of civil war with samurai amassing armies to defeat westerners arriving at what was until then an insular and isolated archipelago. The main islands were under the control of Tokugawa shogunates that prohibited Japanese citizens from traveling abroad.
The lord of Aizu Wakamatsu Province named Matsudaira Katamori (1835-1893) opposed the Tokugawa ban. Anticipating reprisal, Matsudaira trained his samurai in the use of firearms with the help of John Henry Schnell, an early member of the Prussian embassy in Japan (who sold European weapons). Schnell was made samurai and married a Japanese woman. In 1868 his army of 4,000 was defeated by 20,000 of the emperor’s soldiers. Fearing for his safety, Matsudaira agreed to fund the colony in April 1869, booking passage on the PMSS China, a side-wheel steamer rigged for sail. He sent Schnell, his wife, their 19-year-old nursemaid and a cadre of farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and fellow samurai to San Francisco, arriving in May.
Schnell used Lord Matsudaira’s funds to purchase 200 acres of land near Placerville known as the Gold Hill Ranch. Colonists then planted 50,000 three-year-old kuwa (mulberry) and terraces of tea at what became known as the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm.
The following year at the California State Agricultural Fair in Sacramento, the colony displayed silk cocoons, tea and other foodstuffs. A similar display in 1870 in San Francisco attests to the initial success of the industrious farmers.
The following year a drought that lasted for many months forced the construction of irrigation network but tailings from gold mining operations nearby had contaminated the water with iron sulfate that killed most of the young plants. Their benefactor in Japan was captured and became a Shinto priest, surrendering his wealth. The first Japanese-American was born at the colony.
The land was largely abandoned by 1873 when it was purchased by the Francis Veerkamp family who farmed the property for 140 years. Little is known about the colonists. Some returned to Japan. Colonist Matsunosuke Sakurai, believed to be a samurai, worked for the remainder of his long life for the Veerkamp family. Those who stayed were barred by law from becoming citizens but established a generation of farmers, who by 1900 produced 10% of California’s crops.
In 1969 Ichiro Matsudaira, the grandson of the lord who initiated the daimyo, and then Gov. Ronald Regan, celebrated the farm’s centennial. In 2010 the American River Conservancy purchased the property and restored it as a working Registered Historical Landmark. The farm is open to the public several times a year and operates a native plant nursery, food gardens, a 1.5-mile wheelchair accessible trail around a lake; with dairy herds and products, lamb and wool products and eggs.
In 2010 horticulturalist Mike Fritts at Golden Feather Tea obtained some plants believed to be from the original Wakamatsu stock.
He launched a GoFundMe campaign to finance commercial plantings.
“This unique cultivar is wild in character and believed to have arrived in the U.S. with the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in 1869,” according to Fritts, who recounted the fascinating journey of the original tea that was rediscovered in 2010.
David Hammer at Purple Cloud Tea House said he sent a sample from Golden Feather to a friend and tea scholar, a professor at South China Agriculture University in Guangzhou, who said he “could taste the wild in the tea.”
“I agree,” wrote Hammer. “The terroir of Mike’s tea was present in his tea and complimented his processing techniques, resulting in a delicious cup, described as complex, juicy, spicy, and sweet with a wonderful lasting after-taste,” said Hammer. In 2015 an oolong from the garden won second place in the Tea of the United States (TOTUS) competition in Volcano, Hawaii.
In a sad post-script, most of the tea Fritts planted was burned in massive wildfires that destroyed his Concow farm and the nearby city of Paradise, California.
Fortunately, most of the tea plants are just singed and the root stock is still going strong. We just need to get back and do the work we need to do to revive the tea farm,” said Fritts.