Samurai of Gold Hill

Brian Tadashi Maeda

Program description:

The Samurai of Gold Hill tells the story of the first Japanese Colony that settled in America. They came to Gold Hill in El Dorado County; California. Gold had been discovered only 20 years before and California was now known as a new frontier of opportunity for those who wanted a new life of prosperity. This colony of some 25 farmers, craftsmen and Samurai came from Aizu- Wakamatsu. They were lead by a German Samurai named Henry Schnell. Schnell had worked for The Lord Matsudaira of Aizu, as an expert in gunnery and munitions and in fact was a given the title of Samurai, a Japanese wife and considerable property.However, as the Civil War in America came to a close, the Civil War in Japan called he Boshin War was to escalate in 1869. Schnell had already been in Japan for ten years working for the side of the Shogun but now saw that they were going to go down in defeat to the new Meiji Government that extolled, “Expel the barbarians, restore the Emperor.” At the time Japan’s greatest export was tea and silk. Schell’s plan was to start an agricultural colony in California. He gathered 1,000’s of tea trees, mulberry trees to feed the silk worms and with farmers, craftsmen and Samurai, escaped the war in Japan, and sailed to San Francisco.

They unloaded their freight in San Francisco and journey down the Sacramento Delta to Placerville. From there they wagon trained to Gold Hill where Schnell bought 160 acres of land. They set up the first agricultural farm called the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony. They planted trees and found great success in the first year of harvest. They even displayed their trees and silk worms at the San Francisco Horticultural Fair. But, alas this was not to last for in the next year a drought and sabotage by rogue miners ended the colonies farm and all hope of a future. Schnell and the colony faced starvation and extinction. Schnell told his Japanese colony that he would go to Japan and return with more funds to save the colony. He took with him his Japanese wife and 2 small daughters. The colonist waited and waited for his return but no word was heard from him. He seemed to have disappeared into history.

The colonist neighbors, the Veerkamps from Hanover; Germany were very concerned about the remaining colonist. They took in Sakurai the Samurai and Okei, the Japanese girl who was the nursemaid to the Schnells children. She endeared herself to Francis Veerkamp, the mother, who treated her like a daughter. Okei took ill within the year with fever and died. It is her gravestone that today sits on the knoll that reads; “Okei, A Japanese Girl. Age 19. 1871.” Many Japanese American’s consider this colony to be our Plymouth Rock.

Today, there are significant photos and deeds that record this event in California history. The Veerkamp family subsequently bought the land the colony forfeited because of Schnell’s abandonment. Photos of the Japanese colonist were recently found that include Sakurai the Samurai who stayed on with the Veerkamps as foreman until his death in 1906.

Of all the farmers and craftsmen who sought work elsewhere after the demise of the colony we know of only one of them. Masamizu was a talented fisherman who set up a shop in Sacramento. He met a woman named Carrie Wilson, who was the daughter of a freed slave, who they say was 6’ tall and smoked a corncob pipe. She was a foot taller than Masamizu, but they fell in love and married. He is buried in Colusa. In 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Carrie Wilson was visited by the F.B.I. because she was once married to a Japanese man! She was 86 years old at the time. Her descendants still live in the Sacramento area. Her children would be the first Japanese-Americans.

The topics, issues and themes will be woven into a story that is all encompassing, starting from a tumultuous civil war in Japan that was really about the freedom for all people who are at the end of an oppressive feudal age into the modern world of democracy. The parallels with our own civil war are poignant. Agriculture in California and the development of it is certainly to be explored in this story that deals with the first colonist from Japan who planted trees and rice. Thematically, there is the transition from coming from a feudal era to the freedon of California, yet we are removed only a few years from slavery. The farmers in Japan were treated as slaves! Now, these colonist move from kimonos to dresses and the Samurai must cut their topknots and become American.

The documentary will be developed along the lines of interviews with the living descendents of the colony, the Veerkamp family who are the repository of not only the colonies farm that still stands today, but also much of the historical information, deeds and vintage photos of Veerkamps and colonist in 1869. An inter weaving of the past history and present time should prove to be an engaging film.

The 3 humanities experts will bring their knowledge and expertise on the subject:

  1. Wayne Maeda – (no relation) is a professor at Cal State Sacramento where his field of study is Ethnic Studies with an emphasize on Japanese-American history and immigration.
  2. Joan Barsotti – is an author of many published books. The most current one is on “Okei – A Japanese Girl”. Her research into the subject of the Aizu-Wakamatsu colony is very extensive along with her contacts in Gold Hill.
  3. George Nakano – former Assemblymen from Torrance and former teacher has extensive knowledge of Japanese history in American, is a Kendo black belt with a has working knowledge of the Samurai. He brings structure and Japanese tradition to the cultural transition the colonist had to face.


Have done a lot of research in books and traveled to Aizu in Japan. Need to do more R & D work to develop the story before going into production.



Brian T. Maeda – Director
Ph. # (310) 826-0994
1912 Armacost Ave. L.A. Ca. 90025
Most currently his documentary titled “Music Man of Manzanar” submitted for Academy Awards. A sample DVD was sent to San Francisco CCH office. Mr. Maeda has been in the motion picture industry since 1971. He was one of the very first Asian Americans accepted into the International Cinematographer’s Guild in Hollywood. He has worked on a number of films as a Cinematographer. He has directed the critically acclaimed feature film, “Buddha Heads.” Also directed 3 documentaries.


  1. Wayne Maeda (no relation) - Professor
    Ph.# 916 8341692
    Email: waymad@saclink.csusedu
    2420 36th Ave. Sacramento; Ca. 95822
    Wayne Maeda is an expert teacher and lecturer on Japanese-American history. He is very knowledgeable about immigration and especially the First colonists from Japan.

  2. Joan Barsotti – writer
    Ph.#530 6224629
    2239 Hidden Valley Lane, Camino; Calif. 95709
    Joan is an accomplished writer who’s latest book “Okei of Gold Hill” is about this Wakamatsu Colony. She has research this subject, been to Aizu Wakamatsu and is an encyclopedia of knowledge on the story.

  3. George Nakano – former Calif. Assemblyman from Torrance; CA.
    ph.# 310 3252473
    22710 Elm Ave. Torrance, CA. 90505
    George has been an avid teacher then Principal in the public education system before becoming a State Assemblyman. He has championed education and has been a bridge between Japan and California in fostering a better understanding of the Japanese in America. He is team player and a wealth of information on culture and tradition and the law in California.


I would say anyone who is interested in this period of history. It certainly has a bit of romance with the coming of the Samurai into a California where pioneers were just settling after the gold rush of 1849. Young and old alike will find a fascination with a group of Samurai, lead by a German soldier of fortune, who come to seek their place in the new land.. It was a cultural melting pot of Indian, Chinese, Mexican and German and Black and everyone else who sought out a new life.


I hope this little known slice of history will shed light on the struggles and hardships faced by the first colony from Japan to America. Many do not know of the overlapping civil wars that was going on in America and Japan. Many of the same issues were at stake in both countries. In America it was slavery. In Japan it was being slaves to a feudal system.


International Documentary Association (I. D. A.) is the fiscal sponsor for this “Samurai of Gold Hill..” They are a well known documentary non-profit who supports filmmakers who make documentary films. They have seminars, screenings, festivals, a magazine, they even help films qualify for the Academy Awards. IDA’s role will be take in all moneys from non-profits and to monitor the Project Directors film.


  • January 1, 2009
    Meet with ‘Humanities team members.’ Go over the structure and outline of the material we have at this time concerning the ‘Samurai of Gold Hill.’ Start to call all of the people to be Interviewed for the story. Include the Veerkamps. Cindy Aikins, Mrs. Burgis, Jean Yego, Sally Taketa. Etc.
  • February 2009
    Visit Gold Hill in El Dorado County and start preliminary interview. Shooting with Veerkamps. Cindy Aikins about the history of the Aizu-Wakamatsu Colony. Film their archival photos of the colony and the Veerkamp family from the 1870’s. Go to Columa and visit the cemetery of Kuni Masamizu, the farmer who is buried there. Interview Ms. Burgis – the descendent of Masamisu who lives in Sacramento.
  • March 2009
    Interview Sally Taketa about her husband and her life long Pilgrimage to the Okei Grave site in Gold Hill and their interpretation of the voyage from Japan to Gold Hill by the Wakamatsu Colony. Interview Jean Yego and seek translation of her book that give the earliest rendition of the colony by Waseda historian.
  • April 2009
    Video the trip from San Francisco through the Sacramento Delta to Placerville where the oolony came to before wagon training to Gold Hill. Use vintage maps of what the land looked back in 1869. Go to Belvadere Tiburon where the cabin of the China Clipper has been restored and is used today for rentals of weddings and concerts. The
    China Clipper being the vary ship they sailed on from Yokohama to San Francisco.
  • May 2009
    Start the editing rough cut to see what we have got so far. This would get us up to speed on the spine of the film. Show to ‘Humanities team and get their input and comments on what we have and what we need.
  • June 2009
    Do the pick up shots that are needed to add to the storyline. This would involve a trip back to the Gold Hill area. Farming and agricultural tools of the period to be sought out. Go to the Gold Hill museum and shoot the sword and dagger of the Lord of Aizu that was is now held by the museum. They also have the gold inlaid banner of the Aizu clan that bears the crest of the Lord of Aizu. This was given to the Veerkamp family by Herr Schnell as payment for goods that he supposedly owed them.
  • July 2009
    Film the annual ‘Pilgrimage to the Grave of Okei.’ Everyyear, there are volunteers primarily from the Japanese American community who come to the monument that commemorates the Wakamatsu Colony. They clean up the site, by cutting back the trees and polishing the plaque that states who these early pioneers were. Then they go thru the gate and the large field that was once the farmland of the Wakamatsu colony to the grave site of ‘Okei, A Japanese Girl Age 19 died 1871.’ This is what is written on her tombstone. She is honored on this day in July. Interview the people who have come on this Pilgrimage. The Gold Hill School, that is situated next door, is the sister school to the Higashi-Yama elementary school. They have student exchanges that honor these first immigrants to America. Interview Janet Cohen and some of her students who made the visit to Aizu school.
  • August 2009
    Go to the recreation of the Gold Rush in Sacramento. Every year in August they turn Old Town Sacramento into the Gold Rush era by laying down dirt on the main street and having Cowboys, Miners, stage coach, Calvary parade down the street. They have costumed Indian, miners and settlers who tell about the history of the 1849 era. This is good footage to get to flavor the period we are doing.
  • September 2009
    Every year in Aizu-Wakamatsu they have the‘Samurai Parade and Festival’ They come in Samurai costumes to honor the Edo to Meiji period. (1500 to 1871). Most especially they focus on the Boshin War where the Lord of Aizu was defeated after a month long siege of his castle where 3,000 of his men held off 30,000 Imperial forces. This is when the Schnell group escaped and voyaged to Callifornia. Meet and interview the Mayor of Aizu who rides atop a horse in this Parade. The Mayor Kanda is a big supporter of the Gold Hill Colony. Aizu has infact made a replica grave stone of Okei in the mountains of Aizu to remember the first colony Also featured are local actors who portray Henry Schnell and Okei. They will be interviewed and asked about the historical character they portray.
  • October 2009
    Editing of all material. Graphic design of artwork to go along with poster, DVD and promotional material.
  • November 2009
    Editing, fine tuning. Music and Affects added to work.
  • December 2009
    Have finished DVD of 10-15 mins to use as promotional trailer. Press 100 DVD for initial distribution.
    Merry Christmas!