Protecting the Site of the First Japanese Colony in the U.S.
Americans are rarely presented with an opportunity to learn about the earliest Asian immigrants to the United States. In 2007, the staff at the American River Conservancy (ARC) in Coloma, California, was given that chance when three members of the Veerkamp family approached the group with a proposition. These siblings were the heirs to property that included the location of the first Japanese colony in the United States, the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm. They had decided that it was time to protect the natural and cultural heritage of the site by selling it to an organization that would be able to provide permanent guardianship of the land.
The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm’s historical significance:
- The first settlement of Japanese colonists in the United States,established in 1869
- The only known settlement established by samurai outside of Japan
- Holds the gravesite of the first Japanese woman buried on American soil
- The birthplace of the first naturalized Japanese-American citizen
- Eastern farming techniques and practices were introduced in North America here
- Registered as a national historic site
Many Partners Come Together
Gold Hill Ranch, the site of the colony, was appraised by a third party and valued at $3.2 million. By the date of the sale, ARC was able to raise $2 million, but a bridge loan for the outstanding $1.2 million was needed to cover the rest of the cost. The multi-faceted nature of the project allowed ARC to reach out to various funding partners, some nontraditional, at different stages of the process:
- Placer Land Trust
- Sierra Nevada Conservancy
- Natural Resources Conservation Service
- Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program
- State-level mitigation programs
- California Cultural and Historical Endowment Grant Program
- California Department of Transportation
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Individuals around the world and a wide range of other partners
Multiple overlapping goals for the site have created both challenges and
opportunities. All stakeholders are concerned with protecting the cultural heritage of the area, and there are plans to restore a standing ranch house into an interpretive center to tell the story of these Japanese colonists.
The 272 acres of land are also home to important wetland, pond and riparian habitat, which are part of the local watershed and broader ecological region that ARC works to protect. Old ranch roads are currently being repurposed as trails for outdoor recreation, and ARC has signed a lease to allow organic farming on 10 acres of the property. Farming will ultimately supply a community supported agriculture initiative to provide local food to the Placerville and Coloma region.
Many good things have come from opening up these doors. A recent
fundraiser brought Japanese Americans from around California out to
appreciate and support the conservation of the site. The multi-faceted nature of the project has allowed ARC to reach a wider and more diverse audience.
Also critical to the perpetual protection of the land is the cultivation of young people. Not only are families able to come out for periodic educational programs, but a partnership between ARC and the local school system brings students to the site. The PEER program (Protection, Education, Ecological Restoration) introduces around 10 classes of high school students to land management practices through field trips to protected sites and classroom learning. Staffed largely by volunteers, this program strives to instill a land ethic in the next generation of conservation leaders.
As the new organic farm gets up and running, the community anticipates a more vibrant enthusiasm for local and organic food through the CSA program. It is also hoped that habitat restoration across the ranch will encourage broader native plant diversity. Elena DeLacy, conservation and stewardship project manager at ARC, believes that one of the greatest benefits of this project will be its role as a model to other public and private entities in the region based on the success of the project’s ecological restoration, cultural heritage protection and partnership building.
A New Level of Importance
The history of the region surrounding Coloma informs not only the collective identity of its residents, but also drives a large segment of the local economy.
In addition to being the first Japanese colony in the United States, it is also where the first yellow nugget catalyzed the California Gold Rush in 1848. DeLacy predicts that as people throughout the Sierra Nevada valley move away from livelihoods dependent upon resource extraction, geo- and eco-tourism will take on a new level of importance. Telling the compelling story of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm will draw visitors to the area. Thanks to the American River Conservancy, this part of history will be protected forever.
Writer: Joan Campau
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photo by Elena DeLacy; courtesy of American River Conservancy