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Wakamatsu: A Rich, Diverse History

Above the fog and below the snow, the Gold Hill region is 1,200 feet above the Sacramento Valley. The area is a gently rolling plain of grassland, oak savannah and seasonal streams. The soils are fertile and water is available from two creeks running through it.The area is warmer in winter than the deep river canyons around it, allowing for a long growing season. Summers are hot and dry and, though the region is subject to periodic droughts, careful water use can make the land perfect for human habitation.

Our efforts at Wakamatsu focus on preserving the history and culture of the various human inhabitants of the site - all of which tended to the land for their livelihood and had a deep connection to it. Dating back several thousand years, the Nisenan tribe gathered acorns, hazelnuts, buckeyes, dug roots out of the ground, gathered blackberries and wild plums, grapes and Manzanita berries, and hunted a wide variety of wild game. The gold miners that followed had a connection to the land, but in a much more destructive way. Mining tailings still line a few of the creeks on the property, but little remains from the Gold Rush era. Charles Graner planted over 10,000 Zinfadel grapevines in 1852 and operated Chateau Graner for a number of years.

Despite the area being inhabitated for thousands of years, it's a two-year period between 1869 and 1871 that made a huge impact on California's demographics and agriculture. Shortly after the American Civil War, Japan had their own, The Boshin War. In 1869, a group of 22 samurai and their families came to San Francisco and eventually found their way to the Gold Hill region. There, with the help of a benefactor, John Henry Schnell, the Japanese purchased the land from Graner and established the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony.

The Conservancy's executive director, Alan Ehrgott, has compiled a short synopsis on the first Japanese Colony in North America.

You can also discover newspaper articles from the time of the Japanese colonization in our Document Archive.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, their agricultural experiment ultimately failed. By 1871, most of the Japanese settlers dispersed but two remained on with the new landowners, the Veerkamp family. A young Japanese woman named Okei remained as a caretaker for the Veerkamps, but her stay would be short-lived. At the age of 17, Okei succombed to an illness and died on the property. Today, her gravesite sits atop a hill that now overlooks the neighboring Gold Trail School. School children and Japanese tourists have been visiting Okei's gravesite for years, paying their respects to a young woman who left her family and home to start a new life in California.

For over 125 years the Veerkamps farmed the land, grazed cattle and operated a family dairy. From the beginning, they worked to preserve the remnants of the Japanese Colony, looking after Okei's gravesite and living in the farmhouse which was built in 1854 and housed many of the Japanese immigrants.  In 2010, the Veerkamp family sold the 272-acre ranch to the American River Conservancy.

The American River Conservancy continues to preserve this unique historic site, with a number of partners. The Wakamatsu Community Farm has the honor of being on the National Register of Historic Places at a level of 'national significance'. For more details on the current state of projects at the site, take a look at our Restoration page.  

The Conservancy has a visitor's guide available for purchase. The Wakamatsu Visitor's Guide can be purchased for $2 at our Nature Center in Coloma or during one of our monthly private tours on the historic Wakamatsu Farm site.

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