Saturday, April 21, 2007

Gold Hill Ranch

Not far from the South Fork of the American River is the site of the first Japanese settlement in the United States, a precious bit of history the American River Conservancy and Congresswoman Doris Matsui are among those trying to preserve.

There is so much of great historic value embraced by the American River Watershed, that, in our opinion, the process of obtaining National Heritage Area status for it would be relatively straightforward, and perhaps the public leadership involved in this wonderful effort would also consider being part of the leadership of that process in the future.

Tea and history
An effort begins to preserve the land that housed America's first Japanese settlement
By M.S. Enkoji - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, April 21, 2007

Not even 20 when she died, Okei Ito embodies a spirit as intimate as her fellow Japanese pioneers settling in the green folds of El Dorado County, yet as expansive and enduring as the American Dream.

In 1869, Ito's father decided the 17-year-old should leave behind Japan's civil turmoil and a family who could offer no future. He sent her to America.

She sailed through the Golden Gate, then traveled onward into the foothills to join the new Wakamatsu Silk and Tea Colony.

Ito, a nursemaid to the colony's founder, and later, a worker on a neighboring farm, died from fever in 1871, the first Japanese woman to die in America. She is buried on a hilltop overlooking a vale where fruit trees once bloomed. She would hike the hill in the evenings, and there, standing on the crest, she would sing a lullabye as she gazed toward the setting sun -- toward home.

"She died of a broken heart. I'm sure it was a broken heart, not just fever," said Sally Takeda, the widow of Harry Takeda, a Sacramento lawyer who compiled years of research on the unusual settlement.

Ito's tale of pioneering perseverance along with her profound youthful longing for her homeland is the crowning story of the first Japanese settlement in the continental United States.

Today, she will be remembered with the launch of an effort to preserve the land where she and her fellow pioneers cultivated mulberry trees and tea along with hopes and dreams.

The American River Conservancy and supporters, including U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, the granddaughter of Japanese immigrants, will gather today next to the lone, pale marble headstone of the woman more commonly known as just Okei. The land conservancy wants to raise $4.6 million to buy the 303-acre Gold Hill Ranch, which includes the original colony.