American samurai colony

In 1869, some samurai and their families set up a colony in California. Although it only lasted two years, it was the first permanent Japanese settlement in the United States.

Samurai colony
NoeHill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century saw a major conflict between the court of the emperor and the Tokugawa shogun: early modern Japan’s civil war. A Prussian officer named John Henry Schnell had been training local samurai in modern weaponry. He became a samurai himself (one of the few Westerners to be conferred that title), and even married into a samurai family. After their daimyō suffered a major defeat in the Battle of Aizu, Schnell and other samurai appealed to their disgraced lord for funds to flee the country. Their destination: the United States.

John Henry Schnell
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This was, to put it mildly, an unusual step. No samurai families had ever settled outside of Japan. Almost no Japanese people had ever even seen the United States, let alone settled there. Nevertheless, the twenty-two settlers arrived in San Francisco in 1869. They purchased a farm east of Sacramento and began cultivation of tea and bamboo. The immigrants also brought a bunch of mulberry bush seeds and silkworm cocoons, with the intent of setting up a silk farm.

This was the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, the very first permanent Japanese settlement in the country. It did not last long: the samurai’s cultivation efforts were undone by drought and a loss of funding from their daimyō, and the colony went bankrupt in 1871. After the failure of the colony, some of the families returned to Japan. Some stayed; one young woman named Okei Ito died and was buried there. She is believed to be the first Japanese woman buried on American soil.

As for Schnell, he said that he would return to Japan to seek more financial backing, but he never returned to rescue the other samurai. (In fact, he disappeared from history; we don’t know if he actually went back to Japan at all.)

[Thanks to Sunny Aggarwal]

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