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Discovering California’s Lost Samurai

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COLOMA -- It's a piece of Northern California history you may have heard of. If not, you're not alone. Many say this story has been forgotten for more than a century.

Tucked away in the foothills of El Dorado County is the town of Coloma, the birthplace of the California Gold Rush. But this town was also once home to Japanese Samurai warriors.

They called it the Wakamatsu Silk and Tea Farm, now owned by non-profit preservation group American River Conservancy (ARC). In 1869 it was a Japanese colony, made up of 22 Samurai and their families.

Warriors on the losing end of a Civil War fled Japan in search of a new beginning.

"They came here from Aizu to better their lives. Start a new life in America," said ARC Docent, Herb Tanimoto.

"They were going to establish a colony, and then they were going to bring the rest of their village," said Wendy Guglieri, also a docent for the ARC. "It didn't work out that way.”

Lack of funding from Japan, combined with a severe drought, caused the colony to fail in just two years. Many colonists went back to Japan or moved away. Only three stayed in Coloma.

On a small hilltop of the colony site is a famous grave. It belongs to Okei Ito.

After the colony failed, the 17 year-old nursemaid stayed with the Veerkamps, the family that bought the land from the colonists. But she died just two years later. Records show her as the first person of Japanese descent to die on American soil.

The second person is Matsunosuke Sakurai, who became a trusted foreman for the Veerkamps. Docents believe he was in love with Okei, so he cared for her grave site until his death. He never married.

Lastly, there is Kuninosuke or “Kuni” Masumizu -- A Samurai-turned-carpenter.

In a Manila folder donated to the American River Conservancy were several newspaper clippings and an original photograph of Kuni from his wedding day in 1877.

He married Carrie Wilson, a daughter of a freed slave, from Coloma. Together, they had several children.

With the help of the internet, Guglieri and Tanimoto began creating Kuni's family tree.

But with limited information, the search was not easy.

"We had a hard time finding them, although they were right here in the Sacramento area," Guglieri said.

They gave FOX40 a list of possible descendants. For months, we worked with Guglieri and Tanimoto to fill in the blanks. Then this past October, we finally found a living descendant -- Gene Gibson.

Growing up, the 48 year-old Stockton man had heard of Kuni, but never really knew his story. But as we shared our research, we piqued his interest.

“As I had only considered myself a Black American, when you hear something other than that, you want to look into it," Gibson said.

Days later, we arranged another meeting with Gibson and his younger brother, Aaron. This time, we met at the Wakamatsu Colony site in Coloma.

The brothers’ eyes twinkled as the docents took them back in time.

They went on a tour of Okei Ito’s famous grave and listened to a presentation of photos and legendary stories. They experienced an entire day of soul searching.

Historians said their three times great grandfather helped build the old Hotel Coloma, moved his family to Sacramento and even ran a fish market.

"He was a young man with big dreams and he succeeded, I think," Tanimoto said. "He did what he wanted to do."

But there were difficult times too. Historians said at the turn of the century, discrimination of Japanese forced the family to change their last name from Masumizu to Massmedzu, a name with African roots.

Nearing the end of his life, Kuni moved to Colusa, where he eventually died in 1915. But his legacy lived on. Because he chose to stay in the United States, his descendants are among the very first Japanese Americans.

“We are overwhelmed by the history. This just opens up your world to your heritage...Japanese heritage," Aaron Gibson said. "He did marry a black woman in 1800s, so that probably is the first. So it just opens up a different world. You connect to the world differently.”

“We know our black side, because we live with them," Gene Gibson said. "But I would like to know: are there people back in Japan that I can connect with them?"

The Gibsons said one day they hope to meet their family on the other side of the Pacific, to share this forgotten story of a lost samurai's American dream.

The American River Conservancy is planning a 150 year anniversary celebration in Coloma in 2019.