Hope and California: Two Minority Perspectives
The first documentation of Japanese persons on American soil dates to 1851. This is when shipwrecked Japanese sailors were taken ashore in San Francisco. One of the first groups of American settlers from Japan was the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony under the leadership of John Schnell. These first immigrants brought mulberry trees, silk cocoons, tea plants, bamboo roots and other agricultural products. They arrived at Gold Hill in El Dorado County, California in June 1869. Additional colonists arrived in the fall of that year.
Census data of 1870 showed that there were 55 Japanese in the United States. Of those, 33 were in California, with 22 living at Gold Hill. Within a few years of the colony’s founding, the colonists had dispersed — their agricultural venture a failure. Yet, they were undeterred. Twenty years later, the census reflected 590 Japanese residing in San Francisco. There was also a scattering of residents throughout the state, with the smallest number in Southern California.
As with most people of color, Japanese Americans suffered a variety of restrictions and discrimination. Perhaps this could have been expected considering the initial conditions under which Japanese were originally enticed to immigrate to the United States — as a source of labor, with no plans for them to stay and participate actively in the life of the society. Even as a source of labor, however, Japanese immigrants were criticized for being too numerous. They were seen as inassimilable and potentially capable of overrunning the state. Similar to the state legislature’s attempt to abate the influx of African Americans via the Negro Exclusion Bill of 1858, the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in San Francisco in 1905. It quickly mounted a campaign to exclude Japanese and Koreans from the United States.
President Theodore Roosevelt sought to appease those Californians who were agitating for the cessation of Japanese immigration, without offending the Japanese government. Consequently, he negotiated the 1907-08 Gentlemen’s Agreement, whereby the Japanese government agreed not to issue passports to laborers immigrating to the United States. Although the parents, wives and children of laborers already in the U.S. were permitted to immigrate.