Lecture Note: The true story of the last samurai who were the first to colonize America – Filmmaker Brian T. Maeda – Jan 19, 2010

Maeda Samurai of Gold Hills

Nibei Foundation Japan Study Club

“The true story of the last samurai who were the first to colonize America”

Presenter: Mr. Brain T. Maeda, Film Director of “Samurai of Gold Hill”

January 19, 2010 at Terasaki Foundation Laboratory Building

Japan Study Club Lecture Note is compiled by Cultural News

Mr. Maeda is a film director and producer.  Some of his projects include Pete’s Sake; Uncommon Valor; Buddhaheads; Shotokan Karate of America Dojo; and The Music Man of Manzana – a documentary.

His current project is directing and producing Samurai of Gold Hill. It is with this present endeavor that has brought him to lecture at Nibei.  Mr. Maeda presented a 5-minute trailer of this film, followed by slides giving the audience a most informative insight into the saga that took place during the Meiji Restoration to attempt to establish a settlement in the New World.  Mr. Maeda is presently researching the story behind the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony.

Mr. Maeda gave some historical background that gave birth to this migration.  The Matsudaira clan was a Japanese samurai clan that later became the clan of Tokugawa Ieyasu who became the first Tokugawa shogun.  The Matsudaira clan was therefore of the prestigious daimyo status as Lord Matsudaira was a direct descendant of the Tokugawa family.

Mr. Maeda also related the story of military fighting and weaponry.  The naginata, or long samurai sword was used  by women Samurai of Aizu against invading forces coming from the North.  Mr. Maeda showed some slides of the picturesque Aizu castle which had been rebuilt three times in it’s history.

The first time after the bombardment by the attacking forces in the Bosin War (Civil War of 1868). The castle was surrounded by mountains.  The young 24-year-old Lord Matsudaira was pushed by the Tokugawa shogunate to lead a campaign against the Satsuma, which is today’s Kagoshima.

The Imperial Army, which consisted of soldiers from Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa, wanted the shogunate and daimyo out as they felt this 300-year old rule system was too weak to deal with foreigner like America, who wanted Japan to open her doors to trade or else.

Hence, the Battle for Aizu took place. Aizu-han was the last han to stand in the way of the Meiji Restoration. A battle took place where there were 30,000 Satsuma against a mere 3,000 Aizu samurai that were now hold up in Aizu castle.

Hundred of women and children had already committed Seppuku so as not be a bother nor taken prisoner. As the elder samurai were slaughtered, the White Tiger, or Byakkotai, were called into action.. The Byakkotai was a clan of teenage samurai of Aizu.  They were mostly only 14-17 years old who were sent out to engage the enemy in the mountains.

They engaged them in the mountains but being outmanned they escaped through the mountains of Iimori. Nineteen of these Byakkotai samurai managed to make their way through the forest and came upon a high clearing overlooking Aizu Village. All they saw was that their Aizu castle was engulfed in flames.

Distraught that they could not be down there to fight and die for their Lord and families they decided to commit Seppuku.

The Satsuma mayor has, since on numerous occasions, asked the mayor of Aizu for forgiveness for having caused so much death and destruction, but the mayor of Aizu declared that they would never forgive Satsuma for the brutal way they destroyed Aizu and its people.

As for John Henry Schnell, who was from Prussia, today’s Germany, he came to Japan and was employed by Lord Matsudaira. He was an arms dealer for first cannons and Gatling guns.  As the Japanese government did not have any diplomatic treaties or relationships with Germany, Schnell dealt with the Japanese under the disguise of the Dutch, who did have diplomatic and trade ties with Japan.

He had an older brother that the Japanese referred as General Schnell. His name was Edward Schnell and an adventurer and supporter of the Shogun.. General Schnell’s brother also came to Japan at this time, but he was more genuinely interested in the Japanese people and their culture.

In 1869, John Henry Schnell approached his Lord Matsudaira and requested to establish the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in California.  He, his then pregnant wife Oyo, her nursemaid Okei and a group of 20 Japanese from Aizu-Wakamatsu, which is today’s Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, sailed on the China Clipper ship for the New World.

The purpose of this group coming to California was to establish an agricultural settlement and so they brought with them 10,000 mulberry trees, silkworms and tea plants. They came to Sacramento and later settled in the Gold Hills near Sutter’s Mill, which is located in today’s El Dorado County.

The group settled on a 160-acre plot.  This attempt at colonization is very historically significant as this group from Japan is believed to be the first group from Japan to reach and settle in the United States.

The colony struggled to survive for a few years, but was doomed to failure brought on by the drought of 1871 which the led to many other economic and social problems. Failing in agricultural and silk worm endeavors, this group as a colony was then abandoned by John Henry Schnell. He told the colonist that he would return to Japan to get funds and return to Gold Hill. He left with his wife and daughters leaving the colonist to fend for themselves. Not a word was heard from him.

What actually happened to the Schnell brothers is not yet even certain today. Rumors abound like he did return to Japan but was executed. Edward was supposedly seen in Switzerland in the 1880s is a historical possibility. Nothing is completely known for sure or documented. The next wave from Japan came in the 1880s when many from Kumamoto and Wakayama came to the United States.

This is the historical background around which Mr. Maeda’s current project centers upon.  He has added a more personal touch as he talks about Okei, the Japanese maid-servant to the John Henry Schnell family.  She was a mere 16 years old when she came over from Japan with the Schnell family and died in 1871 at the tender age of 19. She died of fever and homesickness.

Slides of the Okei grave in the Gold Hill were shown to the audience.  Engraved into the tombstone is

In Memory of Okei;” the front side is in English and the back side is in Japanese.  In the past a certain caretaker named Tom Fujimoto used to look after the gravesite and before him, a lawyer named Henry Takeda.

Today, college students from the University of California, Davis, go to the gravesite to clean it up and protect it from the wild animals in the area.  Also, there is presently an attempt to acquire this 160-acre site at Gold Hill and establish it as a historical and national landmark.

Congresswoman Barbara Boxer is trying to push through such legislation by requesting private funds be matched by the federal government.  In 1969, President Reagan visited this site to pay respect to the Japanese-American contribution to California. The purpose of establishing a memorial to Okei would also be to commemorate the first migration of the Japanese to the New World in this area.

Mr. Maeda closed with a question by the audience concerning the present effort to make this most historical site a national monument.  This was definitely a historically fascinating and intriguing story of a group of first Japanese immigrants.

** Since this presentation Mr. Maeda has been translating a book titled, The Schnells: The Mysterious Merchants by Yoshio Takahashi. In this in depth historical book the author details the Schnell’s involvement in the Boshin War (Civil War of 1868). He gave first hand accounts from diaries and news articles of the period written by Japanese hanshi.