Updated: Aug. 22, 2023

Book “Kaisho Schnell” by Takahashi Yoshio.

On Feb. 18, 2012 in Yamagata city, we had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Takahashi Yoshio (高橋義夫), a prominent, Naoki Prize-winning novelist whose favorite story themes include samurai history and rural life.

In 1983, he wrote a book titled, “Kaisho Schnell” (怪商スネル) about John Henry Schnell and Edward Schnell who were German brothers working at the Prussian and Swiss consulates in Yokohama in the 1860s. They later imported and sold firearms and ammunition to samurai clans in Tohoku fighting the Imperial forces during the Boshin War in 1868-69.

What’s interesting is that, John Henry Schnell led a group of Japanese to settle in California in 1869. In effect, they became the first Japanese immigrants to the mainland US. (But not the first Japanese to live in the US since there had been shipwrecked Japanese sailors who were rescued and taken to the US. Hawaii also saw its first Japanese immigrants in 1868.)

Schnell had a grand plan to have numerous Japanese immigrate to California including the Lord of Aizu-Wakamatsu. His plan was likely influenced by Eugene Van Reed, a fellow merchant in Yokohama who had arranged the first immigrants (Gannen-mono) to Hawaii in 1868. However, Schnell’s group did not total more than 30 or so.

Since John Henry was closely aligned with the Aizu-Wakamatsu clan (in Fukushima), the new Japanese colony near Sacramento was called “Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony.” It was assumed that Schnell took people from Aizu-Wakamatsu to America, but Takahashi sensei believes that the settlers were mostly farmers from the Kanto area.

The colony was near Coloma (Gold Hill) where the California Gold Rush started in 1849. Within two years though, the colony disbanded as they couldn’t grow the silk and tea due to the lack of water. Schnell also ran out of money and disappeared with his Japanese wife and two daughters without a trace. Some of the colonists had their portraits taken at a studio in nearby Placerville. The colony site, about 40 miles from Sacramento, opened to the public in May 2011.

Takahashi sensei was very nice and answered all our questions as he treated my Japanese-American friend (film director Brian Maeda) from Los Angeles and I to a superb kaiseki lunch. His book is one of the rare and definitive works on the largely-forgotten Schnells. He still writes using pencil/paper.

Colony photos: https://www.arconservancy.org/wakamatsu/

Background story: https://cdn.arconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Wakamatsu_PastPresent_Spring2021.pdf