Part 1: In the Shadow of the Mountain. One man’s journey from a WWII incarceration camp to the second highest peak in California.

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published February 2020.

This begins a multi-part series by local author Jay O’Connell. It starts with a gruesome discovery in late 2019 and ultimately will tell the story of one man’s family and their life in California leading up to and during one of history’s darkest chapters nearly 80 years ago.

The Mountain

“The bowl is no joke,” Tyler Hofer noted in an online account of his October 2019 trek to Mount Williamson. By “bowl,” he was referring to the lake-dotted stretch of tumbled, jagged rock that is actually more of a series of plateaus and depressions bridging the expanse below the summits of Mount Tyndall and Mount Williamson.

It was early autumn and scarcely any snow remained even at the near-13,000 foot altitude. Ironically, crossing snowfields would have been easier than boulder-hopping the jagged rock field. It was an area where you wouldn’t want to drop anything, lest it be lost in the myriad craggy crevices underfoot. And God forbid you make one careless misstep and crack your skull in the resulting topple.

Navigation was difficult. There was no real trail at this stage of the trek. Hiking guides recommend looking for a dark stain — wetted rocks high above the last lake — as a point to aim for that heralds the chute leading to Williamson’s summit.

For Tyler, a 33-year-old pastor at Torrey Pines Church in San Diego, and his hiking companion, 22-year-old Brandon Follin, a former student at the church who’d recently become a youth pastor himself, this stretch was just one more challenge in a hike that Tyler would later call the hardest he’d ever done. Tyler, who became an avid hiker and backpacker after his 2011 move to California from Nashville, had lately gotten into “peakbagging.” He had a few “fourteeners” — mountains 14,000 feet or higher — under his belt. He has summited Mount Langley, Split Mountain, and the highest peak in the lower 48: Mount Whitney.

But Williamson, the second highest peak in California at 14,379 feet high, has a reputation for being one of the more difficult. Not from a technical climbing standpoint — ropes and such aren’t necessary — but just reaching the summit entails an unrelenting 10,000 feet of gross elevation gain over 12-plus miles.

Merely getting to Williamson Bowl had been grueling for the pair. It was around noon on a Monday, and Tyler and Brandon still had hours to go before the summit. They’d left San Diego the day before, right after church, and it was dark by the time they made the six-hour drive to Independence, a community on the east side of the Sierra.

Once they had turned off Highway 395 and driven the last few miles to the Shepherd Pass trailhead over an unpaved and rutted road, it was 8:30 at night. Under a time crunch and wanting to gain altitude to acclimate before sleeping, they opted to hike in the dark. It wasn’t until 1:30 am that the two men finally reached Anvil Camp, situated at around 10,000 feet above sea level.

After sleeping in till 7:30 a.m., they broke camp and made the steep and gravel-laden trek up and over Shepherd Pass, finally dropping into Williamson Bowl. By the time they skirted around the fourth in the series of lakes decorating the bowl, they were still not sure they had spotted the so-called “dark stain.”

They both felt like they were a bit off track, but pressed on. Brandon was several yards ahead when Tyler happened to look down and saw something gleaming white between the gray tumble of granite.

“That’s odd,” Tyler thought. It looked like some kind of bone. But what kind of animal would be up at that altitude? Stopping to take a closer look, he realized it was a human skull.

“It didn’t really register immediately. I mean, was it real?”

Where the remains were discovered. (Submitted photo)

“Hey Brandon, come check this out,” he shouted. As Brandon doubled back and got closer, Tyler told him what he thought he’d found. 

Brandon’s initial reaction was “A skull? You mean like from a science classroom? Or a prop from a movie?” 

The skull was partially obscured, so the two men began to move rocks off of it. It quickly became clear this was indeed a real human skull and, as they continued to remove the numerous rocks stacked on top, they saw bones peeking out. Soon, an entire human skeleton was uncovered. 

“We unearthed a full-on human skeleton,” Brandon said. “Totally blew our minds. We were like, who is this guy? Why is he here? What happened?”

After taking photos and logging their coordinates so they could inform authorities, they still had a mountain to summit. With no cell reception, they would call someone later.

But the questions about what they had just discovered whirled. Theories abounded. It seemed obvious from the way the body was laid out, arms across its chest and numerous rocks covering it, that it had been buried by someone. All clothing had disintegrated, save for remnants of a leather belt and what looked to Tyler like rock climbing shoes. And it appeared to both Tyler and Brandon like the skull had been fractured on one side. Tyler surmised from some kind of force trauma, perhaps. 

All this made the mystery all the more puzzling. Sinister, even. What had happened? And who had buried this person?

Brandon Follin (left) and Tyler Hofer. (Submitted photo)

On the summit of Mount Williamson, they had cell reception and Tyler called the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office to report the body. They were told no one had been reported missing in the immediate area for several years. From the bleaching of the skull, Tyler and Brandon felt it had to have been there for quite some time.

But it was odd, they thought. If someone had died on the mountain, and then someone was there to bury them, wouldn’t they report it once they got off the mountain? Even a solo hiker, assuming the “burial” had somehow been natural, would leave a vehicle at the trailhead, raising alarm. Or they would eventually be reported missing by someone. But nothing.

After having summited Mount Williamson one Monday afternoon, Tyler and Brandon hiked back down and, after sleeping at Anvil Camp again that night, they returned to their vehicle late Tuesday morning. They drove to Independence and after further discussions with a Sheriff’s investigator, their discovery still seemed a mystery. It might be a long time, if ever, before this riddle was solved.

But at least the peak was bagged. Tyler could now add Mount Williamson to his list of conquered fourteeners. Brandon, newer to the peakbagging game, had notched one of the harder peaks and was now eager to conquer more. 

And so, after following up with the Sheriff’s Office and leaving Independence, the two faced the long drive back to San Diego. Heading south, they saw the sign for the Manzanar National Historic Site.

“I had driven past the site many times on the 395 and had never taken the time to stop,” Tyler explained. “I am not really sure why we decided to stop that day. Maybe there was something drawing us to that place.”

Jay O’Connell photo

The Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II, was built in the Owens Valley within view of Mount Williamson. Like the bones Tyler and Brandon had just the day before discovered, Manzanar also is in the shadow of that mountain.

The two hike-weary men strolled the grounds of the historic site, now run by the National Park Service and open to the public. Tyler had heard stories of the internment camp, but admits he never really appreciated what it meant until seeing it in person. Going into one of the restored barracks that now serves as a historical display, he was taken with the harsh reality of living in those dorms that were so small and cramped, of people being detained against their will in such a beautiful but desolated and hostile environment. Tyler and Brandon were bone-tired and only stayed a short while. 

Restored interior at Manzanar National Historic Site. (National Park Service photo)
Barracks and grounds at Manzanar National Historic Site. (Jay O’Connell photo)



Driving home, the topic of conversation repeatedly returned to the gruesome mystery they’d uncovered. What could possibly explain how and why someone ended up there, alone, decomposing under a cairn of stones until nothing but bare and bleached bones lay secreted in a high-country, lake-dotted bowl in the shadow of the mountain?More importantly, just who had they found, and what was this person’s story?

To be continued…

Read Part 2.

Read the entire series here.

Part 2: In the Shadow of the Mountain. One man’s journey from a WWII incarceration camp to the second highest peak in California.

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published February 2020.

Fukui prefecture, Japan: Where the mountains meet the sea. (Photo from

The Immigrant

In the previous installment of this series, two hikers make a gruesome discovery on Mount Williamson. After climbing the mighty peak, they make a brief stop at the Manzanar National Historic Site, oddly drawn to the former War Relocation Camp. On the long drive home that follows, they cannot help but ponder the mystery behind the skeletal remains they found. Who was this person, and what was their story?

As a child in the Fukui prefecture of Japan, a coastal region where the mountains reached down to the Sea of Japan, Giichi Matsumura longed to come to America. Giichi was born in 1898, just a couple years before his father, Katsuzo, immigrated to the United States, finding work as a fisherman in Washington’s Puget Sound region.

Japanese workers first immigrated to Hawaii in 1868. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 cut off the supply of Chinese workers, Japanese labor filled the void. Large-scale immigration to the mainland from both Hawaii and Japan began in the 1890s.

In Japan, ship owners and emigration companies recruited workers through advertisements in daily newspapers, painting a picture of America as a land of easy money. Katsuzo was part of a wave of Japanese immigration in the early 1900s, men intent on amassing a fortune before returning home to their native Japan after a few years. The labor-intensive jobs these immigrants found hardly provided the kind of rapid economic advancement they’d dreamt of, and stays in America became much longer than originally envisioned. As a child, Giichi knew his father mostly from his mother’s stories, letters sent home, and maybe, just maybe, a photograph or two. 

In 1907, immigration from Japan to the U.S. was hampered by the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement between the two countries. It ended immigration of the Japanese laboring class, but did allow for spouses and immediate family of Japanese already working in the states to immigrate. This made visits home by Katsuzo very difficult (as if the two-week voyage across Pacific Ocean wasn’t difficult enough already), but he did manage to occasionally visit his wife and family back in Japan. The 1908 birth of another son, Tadao, in Japan is clearly evidence of that.

As the years went by, immigration to America from Japan wouldn’t get any easier. And things got especially difficult for Japanese immigrants already in the U.S.  In 1913, the California Alien Land Act had made it impossible for aliens “ineligible to citizenship” to own land in the state. In 1920, the Japanese Exclusion League of California was organized, prompted by newspaper publisher V.S. McClatchy and State Senator J.M. Inman. A similar organization formed in the Pacific Northwest as well. And in 1922, a Supreme Court ruling clarified that because Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa was not a “free white citizen” he thus fell into that category: ineligible to citizenship. Key to this decision was a phrase dating all the way back in 1790, when Congress had decreed that “any alien, being a free white person” could become a citizen. While the statute would be altered when “persons of African nativity or descent” was added to the qualified list following the Civil War, that “free white person” language became very useful in denying citizenship to Japanese and other Asian immigrants.

Meanwhile, back home in Fukui, Giichi Matsumura was now a young adult, ostensibly the man of his family, which now comprised his mother, younger brother Tadao, and two sisters (further evidence his father made occasional visits home to Japan.) One consequence of the Gentleman’s Agreement limiting immigration to immediate family members was a proliferation of so-called picture brides. As spouses of those qualified to immigrate could also come to America, many marriages of young Japanese women were motivated by the opportunities this loophole afforded.

In 1923, Giichi married 21-year-old Ito Kaito, from a large family in Kyoto, a city some 100 miles to the south. An outgoing young woman of considerable sophistication and education, Ito graduated high school and had been schooled in chanoyu (tea ceremony) and ikebana (flower arrangement) in Japan. Her parents assumed she would someday help run the family business, a shop selling jewelry and elaborate hair ornaments for Geisha. But Ito wanted to go to America instead. How she and Giichi came to know each other, and exactly the circumstances of their wedding is unclear, but the couple’s youngest daughter, Kazue, nearly 100 years later claimed that “my mom married my dad so she could come [to America].”

Finally, as a young man in 1924, Giichi, with his new bride, Ito, and teenaged brother Tadao, came to California, where the Matsumura brothers were reunited with their father. Their mother and sisters would remain behind in Japan. It is unclear when the elder Matsumura ended up in California after his early time in the Pacific Northwest, but at some point he established himself as a gardener in Southern California, where he would eventually count film stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as clients and, adopting an American first name, came to be known as Harry Matsumura.

Shortly thereafter, immigration from Japan became all but impossible. Giichi and Ito had arrived just under the wire, so to speak. On May 26, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Johnson-Reed Act, which included the Asian Exclusion Act and the National Origins Act. Known collectively as the Immigration Act of 1924, it effectively banned all immigration from Asia and set strict quotas for other countries outside the Western Hemisphere. The Department of State freely admitted one purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” And so it is little wonder that the law, so strongly endorsed by Coolidge, is widely seen today as a symbol of bigotry with white supremacist overtones. It certainly served as a harbinger of things to come for immigrant “non-white” minorities such as the Matsumuras.

Giichi and Ito settled in Santa Monica Canyon, which in the 1920s was still a fairly undeveloped area where, not unlike Giichi’s home in Fukui, the mountains met the sea. Some of the residents of the canyon, such as the Marquez and Reyes families, had land that dated back to Mexican land grants of the 1830s. The natural beauty of the area also attracted a number of prominent residents, including Juan Carrillo, who would later become the first mayor of Santa Monica and whose son, Leo, became a film star and favorite son of Santa Monica. (Today, Leo Carrillo Beach is a popular attraction near the mouth of Santa Monica Canyon.)

When Giichi and Ito came to the canyon, they lived with Giichi’s father, renting a small house from the Marquez family on their property near an abandoned old adobe. Giichi, like his father, found work as a gardener. The young couple quickly sought to integrate into Santa Monica Canyon society. Giichi took part in that quintessentially American activity: baseball. In a photograph dated August 1924, he and his brother Tadao are in a team photo, the letters SM proudly emblazoned on their uniforms, an American and Japanese flag situated behind the team.  (Baseball had long been popular in Japan, it should be noted, as well.)

Baseball team in Santa Monica Canyon, August 1924. Giichi Matsumura is in uniform at left in the back row (next to the man in a suit). (Photo courtesy Lisa Matsumura Reilly)

Ito also wasted no time integrating into American life as much as she could, going and sitting in the classroom of the local elementary school — Canyon School — in order to learn English. (The Canyon School, founded in 1894, remains a vital part of the community today.) She also helped bring Japanese culture to the canyon, assisting in a Japanese School started in the old adobe hut on the Marquez property behind their house where she taught tea ceremony and flower arrangement.

Canyon Elementary School, where the schoolhouse from the early 1920s is still in use today as the school library. (Photo by Jay O’Connell)

In 1925, Giichi and Ito had their first child, a son they named Masura. One can imagine Giichi was perhaps grateful that his boy was something Giichi could never be: a citizen of the United States of America. His son would be afforded all the protections that came with that privilege. Giichi would teach his son to cherish this, and perhaps someday show him the Bill of Rights, which guaranteed those inalienable rights.

So while Giichi Matsumura could never become a citizen and couldn’t even own land in California, he could raise an American family, and that is exactly what he and Ito set out to do.

* * *

On October 16, 2019, more than a week after Tyler Hofer and Brandon Follin (see Part One) made their startling discovery of a skeleton on Mount Williamson, CHP Inland Division Air Operations was able to assist the Inyo County Sheriff’s Investigators and the anonymous remains were successfully transported from Williamson Bowl to the Lone Pine Airport where custody was transferred to the Inyo County Coroner.

News of the hikers’ gruesome discovery ran in newspapers throughout the country that very day. The story was first reported by Brian Melley of the Associated Press. The report echoed the sense of utter mystery Tyler had noted in a California Mountaineering Group Facebook post he made a couple days before Melley’s story broke.

“Had something truly unique happen to me on my recent summit of Mt. Williamson,” Tyler wrote, and concluded his account of the discovery by asking the mountaineering group if “anybody has a theory as to what could have happened.”

California Highway Patrol helicopter assisting in recovering skeletal remains in Williamson Bowl in October 2019. (CHP photo/AP)

Melley’s thorough reporting included Tyler’s story and thoughts, along with comments from the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office that, while downplaying any hint of foul play pondered by Tyler, claimed nonetheless that “this is a huge mystery for us.” They noted they had ruled out recent missing persons such as trans-Sierra skier Lt. Matthew Kraft (missing since February 2019) or Matthew Greene (missing since July 2013), a climber who was camped in the Mammoth area.

But neither Tyler Hofer nor Brian Melley had any idea that authorities already thought they knew the answer to the mystery. Only two days after the remains were discovered, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office informed park rangers at the Manzanar National Historic Site about the discovery and told them just who they thought it was. Their theory made perfect sense to the staff at Manzanar. But until identification of the remains could be confirmed, both the Sheriff’s Department and Manzanar were keeping quiet about just whose bones might have been discovered high up on Mount Williamson.

In the next installment, life in Santa Monica Canyon is disrupted for the Matsumura family by world events, and they suddenly find themselves experiencing life behind barbed wire in a remote area of eastern California.

Read Part 3.

Read the entire series here.

Part 3: In the Shadow of the Mountain. One man’s journey from a WWII incarceration camp to the second highest peak in California.

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published February 2020.

One suitcase. (Library of Congress photo)

The Order

In the previous installment, Giichi Matsumura had immigrated to California from Fukui, Japan, along with his new bride, Ito, just before President Coolidge signs the Immigration Act of 1924 into law, effectively ending Japanese immigration. The young couple settled in Santa Monica Canyon, where Giichi and Ito started a new life and a new American family.

According to the 1930 U.S. Census, Giichi Matsumura lived with his wife, Ito; their three young children; Giichi’s younger brother, Tadao; and their 60-year old father in a small house they rented for $20 a month. Situated on land owned by the Marquez family that dated back as far as anyone could remember, the Matsumuras became close friends with their landlords, who were original settlers of Santa Monica Canyon.

Life in Santa Monica Canyon

Although the house had no electricity and was undoubtedly crowded with three generations living there, life was pleasant in the idyllic seaside canyon. After Masaru was born in 1925, the young couple was blessed with a second son, Tsutomu, late in 1926. A third son, Uwao, was listed as an infant on that 1930 census report. Giichi, a quiet, hardworking man, was a gardener who worked for private employers, just like his father.

By the time of the next census in 1940, Giichi was listed as the head of a household that comprised just him and Ito and their (now) four children, adding daughter, Kazue, in 1935. Giichi’s brother and dad were apparently now living in different housing. It is unclear if Giichi’s family still lived in that same house near the old Marquez adobe, but daughter Kazue would later recall their house lacked electricity, so that would seem to be the case.

Another thing the Matsumura children remembered was the rustic, country feel of the canyon. Masaru remembers walking to school.

“There were no houses, no nothing around here,” he said. “I used to run through the cornfields.”

Kazue remembers sliding down the steep banks of the canyon’s hillside on a piece of cardboard.

While there were a fair number of Japanese immigrants in nearby parts of Santa Monica, and large Japanese communities at the Terminal Island fishing village or in downtown Los Angeles, the Matsumura kids were among the only Japanese Americans attending Canyon School. They made friends easily. Classmates Masaru and Ernie Marquez were best friends all through school.

(Photo from

One other thing the census reports from those days noted was their citizenship status. Giichi and Ito were listed as resident alien. Their country of birth (Japan) and year of immigration (1924) were also duly noted. Such first generation immigrants were known as Issei by the Japanese. The Matsumura children, American-born and thus citizens, were Nisei, the term the Japanese used for this second generation.

While life may have been fairly harmonious for the Matsumura family in Santa Monica Canyon, there was a growing resentment against the Japanese American community in the United States, especially in California. This dated all the way back to fears of a “yellow peril” after the unexpected military victories of the Japanese over the Russians in 1904-1905 and echoed the Chinese Exclusion Act and jobs protectionism of the 1880s in California. Growing Japanese militarism and a sense of competition for jobs amongst the laboring class during the Great Depression ramped up anti-Japanese sentiment during the 1930s.

Japan’s aggressions

In the fall of 1931, Japan began occupying Manchuria. Japan’s plans to create a Pacific Empire were counter to the interests of the United States. Diplomatic relations began deteriorating. In 1935, the Office of Naval Intelligence warned of Japanese espionage rings in various West Coast cities. Lists were compiled of suspects of Japanese heritage who were deemed sinister enough to warrant surveillance, were potentially dangerous, or even just exhibited pro-Japanese tendencies.  Everyday people such as Japanese language teachers, martial arts instructors, travel agents, and newspaper editors made this list.

In the fall of 1941, when war seemed with Japan seemed imminent, President Roosevelt asked the State Department to determine the degree of loyalty of residents of Japanese descent. The report, authored by Curtis Munson, basically concluded there was no Japanese “problem” on the Coast and that there likely would be no armed uprising of Japanese.

Munson further stated that “for the most part, the local Japanese were loyal to the U.S., or at worst, would hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs.”  Events later that year would render any calming force Munson’s report might have had utterly forgotten.

Round Up

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. For the Matsumura family, and every person of Japanese heritage on the West Coast, that fateful day that President Roosevelt later said would “forever live in infamy” changed their lives, utterly and completely.

Within hours of that attack, the FBI began rounding up Issei leadership of the Japanese Americans from that list of those supposed potentially dangerous subversives. The round-up was swift and frightening to the Japanese American community.

Many of these so-call possible subversives were held for years under no formal charges. Giichi’s daughter recalled decades later that her father, thankfully, was not among those rounded up by the FBI in the early days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But that didn’t mean that the war would not touch their lives.

Within days after Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war, the West Coast was officially designated a theatre of war. This declaration made possible much of what followed for the Matsumura family and so many others.

The February 27, 1942, issue of the San Francisco Examiner proclaims the removal of Japanese Americans to not-yet-existent “interior facilities” as racism and fear swept the West Coast after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Photo from World War II multimedia database)

Agitation in the press stoked fears and egged on the government to take drastic steps. Hearst columnist Henry McLemore wrote in January 1941 that “I am for immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don’t mean a nice part of the interior either.” After suggesting they be herded off to the badlands, and he expressed a desire for them to be “pinched, hurt, and hungry,” the caustic writer admitted that “personally, I hate the Japanese.”

Syndicated columnist Walter Littmann offered a more sober argument in a February 12, 1942, article, outlining the perceived threat from a “fifth column on the Coast,” where he warned that “the Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and without” and a “Japanese raid accompanied by enemy action inside American territory.”

It wasn’t just newspaper editorials that stoked the race prejudice and war hysteria. Even Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron said, “We cannot run the risk of another Pearl Harbor episode in Southern California.” Fear that Japan could soon invade the West Coast gripped America, as did fast-spreading misinformation.

Exclusion orders in San Francisco. (Dorothea Lange photo, courtesy of Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration & Office of War Information Collection, LC-USZ62-34565)





On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, empowering the U.S. Army to designate areas from which “…any or all persons may be excluded.”

That order, to borrow FDR’s phrase, would itself forever after “live in infamy.” It is today considered a blight on his reputation. It heralded a dark chapter in our nation’s history.

For an in-depth retrospective of Order 9066, listen to the American Public Media podcast by the same name. 

In March, the War Relocation Authority was created. By this time, the writing was clearly on the wall (indeed, literally, as the above photo indicates) for any Japanese American living in California. In addition to the early round-up of suspected subversives right after Pearl Harbor, entire communities were beginning to be subject to exclusion orders and relocation. The Japanese fishing village at Los Angeles’s Terminal Island was one of the first Southern California evacuations, forever wiping out an ethnic community’s entire industry.

In April, Civilian Exclusion Orders 7, 8, and 9 were issued, calling for the relocation of residents of Japanese descent from several regions of Southern California, including Santa Monica Canyon. The Matsumuras were told they would have to leave.

Children headed to relocation. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

The Matsumura children had to leave school. Ernie Marquez felt that his school chum, Masaru, was being unfairly punished, since Mas had no more connection with Japan than Ernie had with Mexico. “We were both born and raised in the canyon.”

The family was given very little time to prepare. Giichi didn’t even have time to sell his car, a prized possession, so ended up giving it away. Most families did the same, some giving up businesses, homes, pets. Everything was lost to relocation.

Kazue, only six years old at the time, remembers they could only bring one suitcase. How does someone pack everything they own and might need in one small suitcase? But her main memory of that otherwise painful time was being excited about the bus ride. It was a long ride on a big bus, all the way to Manzanar.

* * *

On October 24, 2019, Associated Press reporter Brian Melley followed up his initial story about the discovery of a skeleton on Mount Williamson with startling news of just whose remains the two hikers may have discovered. Authorities were reluctant to confirm or give any credence to the theory Melley (and soon many other reporters and journalists) proffered.

Inyo County Sheriff’s Office insisted the theory was just one of many possibilities they were investigating. They stated they planned to conduct DNA tests, but would not reveal if they had obtained a comparative sample to prove identity.

(Melley’s reporting, however, discovered they already had collected a sample from a suspected relative.)

DNA testing from bone matter is a complicated process and results could take months. So in the meantime, the Sheriff’s Office would offer no further comment.

Manzanar cemetery with memorial obelisk. (Photo by Jay O’Connell)

At the far western edge of the Manzanar National Historic Site, lying just outside where the barbed wire fences once were, is the camp cemetery. A National Park Service interpretive sign tells its history and notes that 150 people from the camp died during incarceration and most had been buried in the Manzanar cemetery, with its distinctive memorial obelisk standing sentry.

The interpretive copy also informs anyone who bothers to read it that there was one man who died during the final days of the camp while exploring the nearby Sierra. His name was Giichi Matsumura, and he is “buried high in the mountains above you.”

In the next installment, the Matsumura family arrive at the Manzanar War Relocation Center and we get a glimpse of what life was like behind barbed wire for them and the 10,000 others incarcerated for years at the high desert camp in the shadow of the mountain.

Read Part 4.

Read the entire series here.

Part 4: In the Shadow of the Mountain. One man’s journey from a WWII incarceration camp to the second highest peak in California.

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published February 2020.

In this Nov. 1, 2019 photo, Lori Matsumura poses in front of the block where her father and grandparents lived at the Manzanar, Calif., internment camp during World War II. Matsumura provided the DNA sample to identify the remains of her grandfather, who died while hiking in the mountains near the end of the war. His partly unearthed gravesite was discovered by hikers in October and his skeleton was retrieved by the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff said on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020 that the DNA test proved the remains were of Matsumura. (Thomas Storesund via AP).

The Camp

In the previous installment, after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066, forced evacuation of Japanese Americans began. In April 1942, the Matsumura family was ordered from their home in Santa Monica Canyon and boarded a bus headed to incarceration at a desolate camp in the high desert of eastern California.

Lori Matsumura was surprised when, in October of 2019, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office contacted her to say they believed her grandfather’s remains had been discovered on Mount Williamson. Investigators asked the Santa Monica resident to provide a DNA sample for comparative testing.

Lori’s family had always known her grandfather, Giichi Matsumura, was buried high in the mountains above Manzanar, but the story had faded over time and the exact location of his final resting place was lost to time. Had the grandfather she never knew indeed been “rediscovered”? 

Lori’s father, Masaru Matsumura (Giichi’s oldest son), had been incarcerated at Manzanar as a teenager. Like many who endured the hardship and humiliation of that dark chapter of American history, he seemed bitter and rarely spoke of the camp. Masaru died in 2019 at the age of 94. Lori now wishes she had dug a little deeper, asked questions, and found out more about what had happened to her family during their days at Manzanar.

* * *

After President Roosevelt created the War Relocation Authority in March 1942, efforts to evict Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast accelerated. The ensuing mass removal took place in two phases.

First, people of Japanese ancestry were sent to live in temporary prison camps, euphemistically called “assembly centers.” Most of these temporary facilities were hastily built at racetracks and county fairgrounds near coastal population centers. Families were forced to share one-room barracks built of plywood and tarpaper. Worse, many had to actually live in animal stalls, as there was a shortage of human barracks at these often makeshift facilities.

Then, as permanent incarceration camps in remote parts of Western states (and one in Arkansas) were built, displaced Japanese Americans were relocated there, often via long train or bus rides many hundreds of miles, for the duration of the war. Eventually, by the end of that summer of ’42, there would be ten camps that held more than 110,000 incarcerees, and approximately two-thirds of those were United States citizens.

On April 25, 1942, the Manzanar Free Press, under the headline “They’re Coming,” heralded the imminent arrival of 2,000 “new settlers” to the camp situated just east of the Sierra Nevada crest and over 200 miles north of Los Angeles. With an offensively cheery tone, the government-published newspaper admittedly made “no apologies for the more or less primitive living conditions at Camp Manzanar,” but predicted that “by our efforts and our mutual cooperation we expect to develop here a model community.” 

Having received the Exclusion Notice, the Matsumura family was ordered from their home and given a location where they would board a bus. A little girl of six at the time, Kazue Matsumura only remembered being excited about the bus ride. To imagine what she must have thought as the bus made the all-day journey up through the Owens Valley and finally to Manzanar, consider the recollections of another young Japanese American woman who made a similar journey.

“I could see, way out yonder in the desert, all these barracks and some men without their shirts on, cause it was so hot. I said to the person next to me, ‘Oh, I am so glad I don’t live in a place like that.’ What do you know, the bus turned right in there, and I’m telling you, my heart sank down to my toes.”

Seventy-five years later, Kazue only remembers it was a desert, “nothing there, just dirt.”

At least Giichi and his family weren’t sent, like most in the Los Angeles area, to the assembly center at Santa Anita. Conditions at the race track were miserable, with many families actually forced to live in horse stables. But Manzanar, which served originally as an assembly center, and later — when construction was nearing completion — a permanent camp, didn’t boast of conditions much better.

New arrivals to Manzanar were issued an army cot and had to make their own mattresses by stuffing a sack with straw. Giichi and Ito, along with their four children and Giichi’s elderly father, lived in a single 20-foot by 20-foot room. Construction of the barracks had been slap dash, often using wood planks that were still green. When the boards dried, they shrank, and sand and dust would come in through the resulting cracks.

‘Nothing but dirt.’ -Kazue Matsumura (Dorothea Lange photo)

The winds at Manzanar could be relentless. People living in these barracks would sometimes wake up in the morning covered with sand, faces grimy with dirt. Conditions were bleak, and the desert environment harsh.

Originally assigned to Block 16, where a school would soon be built, the Matsumura family relocated to Block 18 at the far western edge of camp. Giichi’s brother, Tadao, and his family lived in Block 13, way on the other side of camp.  Both Giichi and Ito worked while living at Manzanar. Giichi started off working in one of the mess halls, but his daughter Kazue remembers that he worked outside the camp, having something to do with “watching a water tank.” (He probably worked tending the system of reservoirs and storage tanks that supplied the camp with water. It was one of many jobs incarcerees performed outside the camp border.)  Ito washed dishes at the Block 23 Mess Hall.

A third-grade class similar to Kazue’s at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. (Photo taken in February 1943 by Francis Stewart, National Archives and Records Administration)

Giichi’s children attended school at Manzanar. His oldest, Masura, unable to finish high school with his good friend Ernie Marquez back in Santa Monica Canyon, was part of the first graduating high school class of 1943 at Manzanar. The other two boys also attended high school while incarcerated. Giichi’s youngest, who had only briefly attended first grade back at the Canyon School, suddenly found herself in third grade at Manzanar. She doesn’t remember ever being in second grade.

Those incarcerated at the camp did their best to persevere in the face of the unendurable and to do so with dignity. The Japanese had a term: Gaman. Making do. And beyond just making do, many in camp found ways to find enjoyment. Even behind barbed wire and even after having left their homes and most everything they owned behind, even after all that, they sought to make life worth living.

Baseball was incredibly popular at Manzanar. It’s a safe bet that the Matsumura boys played on one of the many teams at camp. Based on Giichi and Tadao’s days on a team in Santa Monica Canyon back in the 1920s, one can imagine the Matsumura men also took part in the popular pastime. After all, Tadao was still a young man in his 30s and even Giichi, in his mid-40s, was still capable of playing the sport so popular in both his homeland and adopted country.   

Giichi undoubtedly also utilitzed his gardening skills while at Manzanar. From the very first months of the camp’s existence, residents did all they could to transform the barren desert environs, which Kazue aptly described as “nothing but dirt,” into a lush, beautiful landscape. Although a daunting task, many of the Blocks soon boasted elaborate Japanese gardens.

The Manzanar Free Press, reporting on a garden contest in the November 5, 1942, issue, stated the Block 34 garden, which “boasted generous green slopes and dips, a fish pond, and different greenery,” was judged the winner. Close second was an entry from Block 22 with a huge fish pond of interesting design. It is not known if Giichi and his Block 18 neighbors entered the contest, but they were not reported as among the contest winners.

Painting by Giichi Matsumura of Manzanar’s entrance with guard tower in background. (Courtesy of Lisa Matsumura Reilly)

But Giichi did do something else to create beauty amidst the harshness of incarceration. He took up painting while at Manzanar, which according to his daughter he had never done before. Scenes of the camp and the view of the nearby mountains were the subjects of his watercolor paintings. Through his newfound art endeavors, Giichi was able to find beauty, albeit a desolate and harsh beauty, in the everyday world around him. A peaceful, beautiful method of Gaman.

Things were far from peaceful and beautiful, however, as time passed at the camp. Regardless of the baseball games and gardens, it was still a prison.

Watercolor painting by Giichi Matsumura of barracks at Manzanar. (Courtesy of Lisa Matsumura Reilly)

In late 1942, an incident that came to be known as the December Riot resulted in the institution of martial law at the Manzanar. It culminated with Military Police firing into a crowd of inmates, killing two and injuring many. The incident was triggered by the beating of a Japanese American Citizens League member upon his return from a meeting in Salt Lake City, and the arrest and detention of another incarceree for that beating.

The following year, the War Department and the War Relocation Authority joined forces to create a bureaucratic means of assessing the loyalty of those in the camps. All adults were asked to participate in a “loyalty questionnaire,” which only succeeded in provoking upheaval. 

Two questions most disturbed the incarcerees:

“Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?” and, even more troubling, would they swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S., defend it from attack by foreign or domestic forces, and “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization.”

This only exacerbated tensions. Many who answered no to these two questions — “No Noes” as they came to be called — would end up relocated to the even more desolate and harsh Tule Lake camp, which was in effect a high-security concentration camp. Giichi and his sons apparently did not answer no to either of these questions, as the Matsumura family all remained together at Manzanar throughout the war years.

But this doesn’t mean there wasn’t a desire to escape the prison walls, to bound out beyond the barbed wire. Some men did more than just dream of such freedom. Some men at Manzanar found a unique way to assert their freedom, if only for a few brief peaceful respites. Giichi was friends with some of these men, and that association would cost him and his family dearly.

* * *

Filmmaker Cory Shiozaki, like many Japanese Americans of his generation, never heard his parents talk about what happened to them during the war. Like many who suffered the indignity of forced relocation and incarceration, Cory’s parents spoke little about the hardships they had endured. Indeed, Cory did not even realize until he was in college that his parents had even been incarcerated.

As a young man he decided he would one day tell this story of mass roundup and incarceration. But he didn’t know exactly how he would focus a lens on the story. Decades later, when he saw a Los Angeles Times article that featured a photo of a fisherman holding a stringer of trout taken at the Manzanar prison camp during the war, Cory knew he had found his angle.

In the next installment, as the months and years drag on at Manzanar, a group of men assert their freedom, if only for brief respites, by going fishing. Giichi envies these men and, ultimately, after years in camp and with war’s end in sight, seeks to join them in one last excursion.

Read Part 5.

Read the entire series here.

Part 5: In the Shadow of the Mountain. One man’s journey from a WWII incarceration camp to the second highest peak in California.

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published February 2020.

In 2004, Cory Shiozaki saw an article in the Los Angeles Times that featured a photograph by Toyo Miyatake… The Miyatake photo was of a middle-aged man holding a rather impressive stringer of trout… (Photo by Toyo Miyatake)

The Fishermen

Previously in this series, a discovery was made on a mountain, an immigrant started a family in California, that family’s world was turned upside down, and 10,000 people were incarcerated in the desert.

Military guard at Manzanar. (Los Angeles Times file photo)

When Kazue Matsumura was a little girl at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, she sometimes sneaked out of the camp. Perhaps she was able to get out near Bairs Creek where the fence spanned a gully and it was easy to crawl under. She would go catch pollywogs in the stream or stick her bare feet in the water on a hot day or wander farther out from camp to look at the cattle ranging in the wind-swept desert chaparral. These were typical kid things to do.

“One time, the MPs came and said ‘You’re not supposed to be out here,’” she would later recall. “The military police who served as camp guards told Kazue and a friend she was with that they were going to take them to jail. The stern men loaded the little girls in their truck and took them to the camp police station. When Kazue thought back on the episode some 75 years later, she admitted they ‘didn’t put us in jail or anything. It was just to scare us.’”

Giichi Matsumura’s eight-year-old daughter was not the only person to ever sneak outside the camp. Other incarcerees would make their way beyond the barbed wire on occasions, if only to get a temporary respite from captivity and cherish a fleeting taste of freedom.   

*  *  *

In 2004, Cory Shiozaki saw an article in the Los Angeles Times that featured a photograph by Toyo Miyatake. An award-winning professional photographer, Miyatake would later become best known for his photographs documenting the Japanese American internment at Manzanar. Using smuggled and makeshift equipment, he secretly took photographs at the camp while incarcerated there, often working during the early-morning hours to avoid detection by military police.

Toyo Miyatake: a photo of the photographer by a famous photographer. (Photo by Ansel Adams)

The Miyatake photo the Times ran was of a middle-aged man holding a rather impressive stringer of trout.

“The angler in this photograph,” the Times article explained, “has no smile and no first name known to us. He’s remembered only as Ishikawa, Fisherman — a sweet and haunting mystery from a dark chapter in U.S. history.” 

Over the next several years, Shiozaki, a television cameraman and avid fisherman himself, would doggedly seek to solve that mystery. Through his research, he eventually learned the identity of that fisherman and the circumstances of how he and many others were able to pursue their cherished hobby.

In 2012, the result of that research, The Manzanar Fishing Club, was released. The documentary film, directed by Cory Shiozaki and written by Richard Imamura, tells the story of several Manzanar incarcerees, including Heihachi Ishikawa (of that photograph), who would sneak out of camp to fish in the many nearby streams that flowed from the Sierra to the desert plains near Manzanar.

The documentary even highlighted excursions these intrepid men would make to backcountry lakes high in the Sierra, seeking the ever-elusive golden trout. One theme of the film was that fishing served as a symbol of freedom and even subversion for these men enduring forced incarceration.

* * *

In 1942, Jiro Matsuyama accidently discovered that Manzanar was part of eastern California’s bountiful fishing grounds. The 21-year-old defense industry worker had volunteered to come to Manzanar during construction of the camp, where he was asked if would like to work on the reservoir. 

The water system being constructed at Manzanar consisted of a concrete dam and settling basin on Shepherd Creek, northwest of the camp. An open cement-lined flume carried water to another reservoir, and pipes fed storage tanks, ultimately leading to distribution lines into the camp. Maintenance and operation of the system involved having numerous men, including locals, volunteers, and eventually incarcerees, working outside of the camp boundaries.

When I saw the reservoir had trout in it, I said ‘That’s it, I’ll take it’… (Library of Congress photo, 1943)

When Matsuyama first went to check out where he might be assigned, he quickly saw something that caught his interest.

“When I saw the reservoir had trout in it, I said ‘That’s it, I’ll take it.”

The volunteer worker eventually became one of the 10,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated at the camp he helped to build and then one of the charter members of the Manzanar Fishing Club.

Another member of the water crew was Tom Ikkanda. His job required him to go outside the camp and check the streams, where he took notice of the abundant trout. He soon began bringing makeshift fishing gear with him to work.

“When I was out there fishing,” he later recalled, “you tend to forget everything that’s going on that is wrong.”

Soon word spread and many other men from the camp began surreptitiously fishing outside the camp, beyond the barbed wire. George Creek, Bairs Creek, and Shepherd Creek were the closest streams, and more were within hiking distance. Runoff from the nearby Sierra provided lots of water filled with lots of fish.

Security, however, was tight. Armed military police patrolled the fenced perimeter of the camp. Guard towers with armed sentries, machine guns, and powerful search lights augmented the harsh prison camp reality. The lure of “going fishing,” however, would not be deterred.

Industrious would-be anglers soon found ways to sneak out of the camp and avoid the searchlights. A gully where Bairs Creek crossed through the southwest corner of the camp provided space to pass under the barbed wire and shelter from visibility.

With fishing gear either fashioned from materials outside the camp or stowed hidden in pockets, men would head out in the pre-dawn hours and sometimes hike for hours to a secluded trout stream. At other times, water system workers or camp farmers would smuggle men out in work vehicles.

Sometimes getting back into camp with their catch was an even bigger challenge. And perhaps the most difficult thing to hide from the guards and MPs inside the camp was the smell of fish frying on make-shift kerosene stoves wafting through the barracks. 

Eventually some of these Manzanar fishing enthusiasts made trips farther afield, even venturing into the High Sierra. Such excursions would sometimes last days, and getting away for extended periods of time was made easier by the general lessening of security at Manzanar during the later part of the its existence.

By 1945, the guard towers were no longer manned. The primary reason most people even remained at camp was that they had nowhere else to go. So much had been lost during forced evacuation three years earlier, and with no resources and no home to return to, Manzanar was the only place many had left to live.

While some hardy young men at Manzanar had ventured all the way into Williamson Bowl to fish the lakes behind the summit of the mighty Mount Williamson (14,379 feet elevation) that loomed over the desert plains of Manzanar, one incarceree had apparently ventured even deeper into the Sierra.

Trout experts claim that the stringer of trout Heihachi Ishikawa was holding in that Miyatake photo were golden trout. While similar to fish found in the lakes of Williamson Bowl, this particular species of trout were only found in more distant areas of the Sierra. Ishikawa, a weathered, albeit hardy man in his 50s, would ramble through the Sierra for weeks at a time.

It is unknown how far he went to find those goldens, as he generally ventured out alone. As a fisherman, he was in many ways legendary, Miyatake’s photo only cementing that status.

Poster for Manzanar Fishing Club documentary film. See below for information on how to purchase the DVD.

In late July 1945, several other (much younger) fisherman from Manzanar, knowing the war was winding down, wanted to take one last fishing trip. Perhaps they knew of Ishikawa’s catch and wanted to find some goldens themselves. Maybe they saw this as their last chance. It was increasingly evident they wouldn’t be at Manzanar much longer.

Amos Hashimoto, who had lived in the Japanese fishing village at Terminal Island before the war, was organizing the trip. One man, who worked on the water system and thus probably knew many of the fishermen, was a 46-year-old incarceree who wanted to go on this trip up to the mountains.

Giichi Matsumura was not so much interested in fishing as he was in painting. He was looking for new and dramatic landscapes to serve as subject matter for his watercolor paintings.

Hashimoto tried to dissuade Giichi from coming along. The hike would be grueling. They would be climbing up over 12,000-foot Shepherd’s Pass. The bowl where the lakes were was a brutal scramble of jagged rock.

Giichi, however, was persistent. He really wanted to go. Perhaps he even pointed out that he wasn’t as old as Heihachi Ishikawa, and he’d been all over those mountains.

The group of anglers relented. Giichi could join them. He would have a chance to paint Mount Williamson from an entirely different vantage point. He would be in the shadow (on the other side) of the mountain.

* * * 

In a 2018 oral history interview conducted by Rose Masters, an interpretive ranger at the Manzanar Historic Site, Kazue Matsumura, then well into her 80s, admitted that she had always had premonitions.

“I get those feelings sometimes, you know, before…”

She remembered that back in the summer of 1945, when she was only 10 years old, she had a very bad feeling about a trip her dad was about to take.

In next week’s final installment of In the Shadow of the Mountain, Giichi makes it to Williamson Bowl, World War II draws to a conclusion, and life is once more turned upside down for the Matsumura family.

Click here to purchase The Manzanar Fishing Club DVD from the Japanese American National Museum. 

Read Part 6.

Read the entire series here.

Part 6: In the Shadow of the Mountain. One man’s journey from a WWII incarceration camp to the second highest peak in California.

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published February 2020.

Watercolor painting of Mount Williamson by Giichi Matsumura during his incarceration at Manzanar War Relocation Camp. (Photo courtesy Lisa Matsumura Reilly)

The Storm

In last week’s installment, we met members of the Manzanar Fishing Club. Giichi Matsumura, acquainted with these men, had just convinced them to let him join a planned excursion high into the mountains above Manzanar. For them, it was a chance to fish the mountain lakes one last time perhaps. For Giichi, it was a chance to paint new landscapes as his years of forced captivity in the wind-swept, desert camp were apparently coming to a close.

John Muir once described a summer storm he’d experienced in the High Sierra: “A range of bossy cumuli took possession of the sky, huge domes and peaks rising one beyond another with deep cañons between them, bending this way and that in long curves and reaches, interrupted here and there with white upboiling masses that looked like the spray of waterfalls.” It was, to the famed naturalist, both beautiful and imposing.

To most people caught out in such an onslaught, it would be a frightening mix of lightning, thunder, rain and, on rare occasions at high elevation, snow and deathly freezing cold. Anyone who has spent appreciable time in the Sierra high country knows that summer storms can hit quickly and without warning. And while a blizzard in August is a rare thing even high above timberline, it has been known to happen. Sometimes with deathly consequence.

* *

By the summer of 1945, those who had been incarcerated at the Manzanar War Relocation Camp were technically free to leave. A War Defense Command proclamation lifting the West Coast exclusion orders and restoring the rights of Japanese Americans to return to their former communities had gone in to effect in January of that year.

But for the Matsumura family, like so many others who had been forcibly relocated to the desert facility years earlier, they had nowhere else to go. Having lost all their possessions in the forced evacuation, they had little or no resources. Having lacked regular income for so long, money was in very short supply or non-existent.

Furthermore, there was great uncertainty as to what welcome they might receive upon re-integration into the outside world. What were the chances that Giichi Matsumura, who had worked as a gardener in Santa Monica Canyon before the war, would be able to re-acquire clients upon return from camp?  Especially as Japan was still, in July 1945, stubbornly fighting an endlessly destructive war against the United States and resentment of his very race might overwhelm common decency.

So for the Matsumura family and so many others, Manzanar remained their last best option, imprisoned now more by the culmination of circumstances than by barbed wire or armed guard towers.

Giichi Matsumura, circa 1943. (Photo courtesy Manzanar National Historic Site / Matsumura family)

Giichi was known to sketch and paint watercolor pictures all over the camp whenever he had free time. When his wife, Ito, learned of his plans to accompany a group of fishermen from the camp up to the mountains, she didn’t want him to take his pencils or art supplies. His daughter, Kazue, later recalled that her mother feared “if he started drawing, he’d get lost.”

Even though Ito refused to give her husband his art supplies, Giichi was able to borrow some from someone else. On July 29, 1945, Giichi and the group of fisherman set off toward Mount Williamson. It would be a long, grueling hike up over Shepherd’s Pass and into the lake-dotted bowl on the other side of that looming peak. They would be gone for days.

“Before he left,” Kazue recalled, “I knew he was never going to come back. I had that feeling, but I never told my mom. I knew he was never going to come back.”

Exactly what happened up on the mountain is hard to know exactly. Filmmaker Cory Shiozaki offered perhaps the best account in a newspaper interview late last year. Shiozaki told how once the group of several men, led by Amos Hashimoto, made it to Williamson Bowl, Giichi chose to do some painting while the others went on ahead to fish at another lake. They would all meet back up after fishing to return to Manzanar.

“During that time, a sudden snowstorm broke… a complete whiteout. The main group that followed Amos took refuge in a cave.” 

After the snowstorm, the fishermen searched the immediate snow-covered area but could not locate Giichi.

“They assumed he must have gone back to camp,” Shiozaki explained. But when the group got back to Manzanar, they learned Giichi had not come back.

Tragically, little Kazue’s premonition — the feeling that she’d had — had come true.

Days later, two search parties made up of some of the fisherman plus two of Giichi’s oldest sons and his brother Tadao went back up to the mountains to try and find him. Kazue remembered that her “brothers and them went up to search,” but that her mother didn’t want them to go. Upset as she was, Ito didn’t want anybody else to get hurt.

On August 25, 1945, the Manzanar Free Press ran a notice “In Appreciation – To the residents of Manzanar for their kindness in searching for Giichi Matsumura.” It was signed by Ito Matsumura and her father-in-law, Katsuzo Matsumura.

In a remarkable 2018 oral history interview conducted by Rose Masters, a park ranger at the Manzanar National Historic Site, Kazue Matsumura recounted the still-vivid memories of a little girl concerning her missing father.

“I had a dream about him,” Kazue said. “And I saw some places. And I told the people that went up there, I dreamt he was in one of those holes or something. ‘Yeah, there’s a place like that, we’re going to go see.’ And they found his jacket there. I was little, but I remember that.” 

Sadly, his jacket was all they found.

A few weeks later, two hikers, Mary and Paul DeDecker from nearby Independence, discovered Giichi’s remains and contacted authorities. The fishermen and Matsumura family members of the earlier search parties banded together once again, this time as a burial party.

1945 burial party. From left to right: Masaru, Giichi’s oldest son; Heihachi Ishikawa; Tadao, Giichi’s brother; Frank Hosokawa; and Tsutomu, Giichi’s second eldest son. (Photo courtesy the Matsumura family)

Kazue recalled that her mother sent a sheet up to cover her dad. The burial party made their way back up over Shepherd’s Pass and into Williamson Bowl, now knowing exactly where to find Giichi’s body.“They covered him up with rocks and created a card with a prayer pasted onto the grave site in typical Japanese fashion.” Shiozaki recounted that “they got his fingernail and hair clippings and brought those back for his wife.”

While we will perhaps never know exactly how Giichi died up on that mountain, his daughter Kazue, more than 70 years later, would describe it almost as if she were actually there. Whether she was just an imaginative little girl or eerily clairvoyant is not completely clear.

In Kazue’s words, “the storm started coming, he starts rushing, trying to get back to camp, and that’s when he fell… ’cause it was raining, and all those rocks, you could slip on those… and he hit his self, bad, and he had a bloody nose, and he fell back again, and he died.”

* * *

“The bowl is no joke,” Tyler Hofer offered in an account of his 2019 trek up Mount Williamson. It was an area where you wouldn’t want to drop anything, lest it be lost in the myriad craggy crevices underfoot. And God forbid you make one careless misstep and crack your skull in the resulting topple.

And when Tyler and his hiking companion, Brandon Follin, later found skeletal remains on the lake-dotted stretch of tumbled, jagged rock, it appeared to both like the skull had been fractured on one side. Tyler surmised from some kind of blunt-force trauma, perhaps. This just added to the remarkable mystery of their high-altitude and rather grisly discovery.

* * *

Kazue, who was ten years old when her father died, remembered how hard his disappearance and death was on her mother.

“She was really scared,” Kazue remembered. “I felt sorry for my mom, you know. She couldn’t eat or anything… And her hair, it turned white when we couldn’t find him. She had black hair and it turned white all of a sudden.”

Funeral ceremony at Block 18 Buddhist church, September 1945. (Courtesy Manzanar National Historic Site /Matsumura Family)

At Manzanar’s Block 18 Buddhist church, a funeral ceremony was held for Giichi Matsumura. The funeral was attended by many. Large wreaths were constructed with crepe-paper flowers made by hand. But there was no body. Giichi would remain at his final resting place high up on the other side of Mount Williamson.

By the time of Giichi’s funeral, the war had ended. Japan surrendered to the United States on August 14, 1945. Manzanar would only remain open a couple more months, giving time for the  families and people staying on to make some kind of arrangement to find a place to live. Life for those incarcerated had utterly changed, and their difficulties were far from over.

“We all had to get out of camp,” Kazue explained. “We took the bus, and our friend in Los Angeles, he gave us a ride to my aunt and uncle’s house and we stayed there for two years, I think. That was hard on my mom. We didn’t have any other place to go.”

The difficulties that lay ahead for the Matsumura family and so many other Japanese Americans after incarceration at relocation camps in the American West is another story, perhaps yet to be told here.

* * *

In October 2019, after having climbed Mount Williamson and making their gruesome discovery on the hike, Tyler Hofer and Brandon Follin checked with the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and left Independence, facing a long drive back to the San Diego area where they both lived. Heading south, they saw the sign for the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Tyler had driven past the site on Highway 395 many times but had never taken the time to stop.

“I am not really sure why we decided to stop that day,” Tyler explained. “Maybe there was something drawing us to that place.” 

Maybe, like a little girl named Kazue who’d lost her father 75 years earlier, he was just a little bit clairvoyant.

On January 3, 2020, DNA testing confirmed that the skeletal remains they’d discovered on Mount Williamson were indeed those of a Manzanar incarceree who had died in the summer of 1945. His name was Giichi Matsumura and his story has finally been told.


The author would like to thank the following for their input, assistance, and support on this project: Brian Melley of the Associated Press, who first broke this story; Rose Masters at Manzanar Historic Site, who kindly sent me a DVD of her remarkable interview with Kazue Matsumura; Thomas Storesund, who put me in contact with two of Giichi’s granddaughters; Cory Shiozaki for speaking with me about his research making The Manzanar Fishing Club; and Carma Roper at the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office for answering my questions.

Source materials for this series were voluminous and included contemporary newspaper accounts (including the Manzanar Free Press, which is available online), numerous books and magazine articles, census reports, and extensive online resources such as those provided by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project and the wonderful NPS-provided Manzanar: Historic Resource Study. Information on the Matsumura family was also found in the 1997 book Santa Monica Canyon: A Walk Through History.

I would like to personally thank Tyler Hofer and Brandon Follin for speaking with me at length about their memorable trek up Mount Williamson. 

And a special heartfelt thank you to Lori Matsumura and Lisa Matsumura Reilly. I hope I have adequately honored their family history, and that the attempt here to tell their grandfather’s story, as well as the story of Manzanar and Japanese American incarceration, has in some small way succeeded in illuminating a dark chapter of history.

Read the entire series here.

One man’s journey from a WWII incarceration camp to the second highest peak in California.

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published February 2020.

This begins a multi-part series by local author Jay O’Connell. It starts with a gruesome discovery in late 2019 and ultimately will tell the story of one man’s family and their life in California leading up to and during one of history’s darkest chapters nearly 80 years ago.

A History of the Kaweah Colony

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.

Members of the Kaweah Colony at the base of the Karl Marx Tree (today better known as the General Sherman Tree), the largest tree on Earth.


When I began work on this book in 1991, the largest Marxist-inspired society in history was in the midst of collapse. Monuments to that great experiment were being destroyed — statues were toppled and walls were knocked down. Soviet communism, as established by Lenin and ruthlessly enforced by Stalin, was a distant cry from the communist utopia Marx and Engels had envisioned. Nonetheless, to more than one generation of Americans, the name Marx would forever be linked to the powerful and evil Soviet communist regime—our greatest threat and the losers in a long and bitter Cold War.

One monument to an earlier Marxist-inspired utopian endeavor still stands, even though the experimental colony disbanded 100 years prior to the recent dissolution of the great Soviet experiment. There exists an old photograph of this living monument with more than two dozen socialist pioneers standing shoulder-to-shoulder within the width of its massive trunk. The incredibly large redwood tree was christened the Karl Marx Tree by these pioneers, the Kaweah colonists. Being the largest tree in the forest (in fact, it is the largest tree in the entire world), it was given a name representing the greatest honor in their eyes.

Today, that giant sequoia is known as the General Sherman Tree and is a major tourist attraction in Sequoia National Park. Those who know the story of the 19th-century utopian experiment, however, will always partly look upon this awe-inspiring giant as a monument to a colorful and dramatic chapter of California history: the Kaweah Colony.

Having grown up in Three Rivers, the tiny foothills community at the edge of Sequoia National Park, one could say I was figuratively raised in the shadow of that giant tree. And living so near to Kaweah, the Colony’s story had always been a part of my hometown history. This is not to say that I was interested in local history. As a kid, I was only vaguely aware of this colorful chapter of our local lore, which was one part history, one part rumor, and one part myth. Rumors, when they last over 100 years, graduate to the class of myth, and there are several that surround Kaweah. I had always heard that there had been some sort of Socialist utopian commune experiment up the North Fork road back in the old days. But growing up in the 1960s in a town that attracted its fair share of free thinkers and radicals, I didn’t give the story a second thought. I just figured the Kaweah Colony was a bunch of hippies ahead of their time.


One common misconception about the Kaweah Colony is that they were generally hated by the established local communities because of their Socialist politics. Evidence to the contrary can be found in the Visalia Weekly Delta and the Tulare County Times. Both reported extensively on the Colony, generally in a favorable light. George W. Stewart’s Delta, however, ultimately turned against the Colony, but even his hyper-critical expose’ indicted the Colony leaders as scam artists and frauds rather than Socialists. Meanwhile, Ben Maddox’s Tulare County Times continued to support the Colony, printing editorials that complained of rampant persecution against them.

Proof that local businessmen supported the colonists is found in a circular, signed by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, which appeared in both papers and stated: “These colonists as a class have proved themselves to be industrious, law abiding and worthy citizens. This treatment of them by the national administration is inexplicable.”

One other persistent myth about the Kaweah Colony is that the U.S. Cavalry forcibly chased them off their timber claims, thus preventing them from cutting giant sequoias. The Colony suspended logging operations on their disputed claims for a number of reasons: weather, a washed-out road, and the arrest and conviction of Colony leaders for cutting trees on government land. But the Colony’s mill was never even close to Giant Forest — the modern heart of Sequoia National Park — and so they scarcely presented a threat to that spectacular grove of Big Trees. A standoff of sorts did eventually occur between the Colony and Cavalry troops at Atwell’s Mill, an area of leased land where the Colony tried to resurrect a defunct logging operation. As we will later see, the real story is far from the popular notion of Cavalry firepower halting Colony axes, but their plan to cut timber in what is today Sequoia National Park naturally contributed to a perception that they intended to destroy the grand forests of giant sequoias.

Perhaps the most salacious and persistent rumor about the Colony was the stigma of a “Free Love” commune. One historian researching the Colony in 1960 — nearly seventy years after it disbanded — said of the Tulare County old-timers he spoke with that “everyone here is a historian. They still hate the Kaweans, and call them free lovers.”

Kaweah Colony is neither an Anarchist nor a Free Love Colony, and persons of that turn of thought are not desired nor will they be received as members.

So read a notice that ran on the back page of the Colony-published newspaper every week for several months, proving the rumors ran rampant even during the Colony’s existence. Many years later, former members of the utopian experiment were still trying to dispel the free love rumor. One local historian recalled a trip to the Colony site in 1948 with Frank Hengst, a former member:

As we explored the site, Mr. Hengst approached a spot cut in the hillside and viewed it pensively. I asked him why. “I vass yust t’inkin,” he said in his German accent, “My oldest boy, George, vass born right here in a tent.” He straightened his still massive frame. Fires of long burned-out anger rekindled in his eyes as he said: “Free-luffers, dey called us! Free-luffers!?! My vife and I haff been married fifty-fife years, and I never look at anudder voman!”

Just where these free love rumors started is hard to say. Perhaps it was due to William and Charles Riddell. It has been said they left the Colony and moved up to a secluded nearby lake where they started their own utopian community of sorts. They built two houses — one for the women and one for the men — as they did not believe in conventional marriage and outlawed intercourse. They apparently did not stay entirely true to their Shaker-like beliefs, as babies were born to the women of the group.

Another possible explanation of the free love stigma was due to an earlier American utopian experiment. The Oneida Community, founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, achieved considerable success and notoriety for several decades. One aspect of Oneida’s communalism that surely raised eyebrows was their practice of “complex marriage.”  Under the system, conventional marriage was abolished and Oneida was transformed into one large “family.” Monogamous relationships were forbidden and all adults in the community were considered married to each other and thus could engage in sexual intercourse.

Though the Kaweah Colony did not condone this system, the mere fact that they, too, were an experiment in cooperative (or communal) living invited comparison to Oneida and inevitably contributed to the free love taint. Likewise, Kaweah’s Socialist ideology would logically contribute to comparisons with later experiments in Socialist (or Communist) societies.

This is the rumor-and-myth part of Kaweah’s history, and once I became more familiar with the story, I realized the necessity of peeling these layers back to try to discover the real history.


California, Wallace Stegner once wrote, is like the rest of the United States, only more so. Likewise, the Kaweah Colony’s story is in many ways like that of California. By examining the concentrated details of the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony’s history and the establishment of the state’s first national park, a bigger picture of California will ultimately come into frame. What started out as research into local hometown history eventually became a lesson on California and, more importantly, a shining example of the human spirit that dreamed up the Colony and settled the West.

Kaweah involved far more than just a local group of early hippies. In fact, three key issues of 19th-century California history are illustrated by events at Kaweah. Land and its acquisition, labor and the organization of it, and conservation — a seemingly 20th-century concept that was very much a headline grabber in the later 19th century — are at the heart of this story. They are personified in the early chapters of this book by three major characters in the drama of Kaweah. Via Charles Keller’s experiences, we will look at land issues in California. Organized labor will find its voice through Burnette Haskell, who will in turn find his life’s calling. And conservation will be championed by George W. Stewart with an effectiveness that even he will find surprising.

Land, labor, and conservation certainly are not all there is to both the history of California and Kaweah, but during the particular period in question it is impossible to understand what was going on without closely examining the influences these three issues had. (Many will be quick to point out that one can’t even discuss the history of California without considering water. Although water certainly plays a part in the story of Kaweah, the dominance of that issue in California belongs to a slightly later period.) Any and all of these aspects of our history have been studied exhaustively, but it is how they intersect and collide, conspire and conflict leading up to and during the time of the Kaweah Colony, and it is how that conspiracy and conflict effected the outcome of Kaweah that we gain a better understanding of the history of California and indeed the American West.

The study of local history obviously helps us to know the place from which we come. My investigation into the Kaweah Colony began with a curiosity about Kaweah and Three Rivers, a place I will always consider home. It has taken me, however, to entirely new places. I have been exposed to stories and histories, aspects and issues I never would have otherwise considered. Just like great literature, art, or music, it has opened for me a whole new world.

In that world thatwe will visit — the Kaweah Colony and California in the 1880s — land, labor, and conservation all play a part in the story of a cooperative dream. In this particular story, it is a dream actively pursued by only a few hundred people, but there is no telling how many people have at one time or another dared to share the dream. It is for all of us who share that dream of a better world that this story is told.


This is not, it should be pointed out, merely a story about issues. Nor is it history of the analytical sort, seeking to prove some theory or put forth a new argument. It is not about the dream itself, but rather a story about the dreamers. Granted, they were people who felt strongly about certain issues, and so to understand the people it is necessary to look closely at the issues that steered their actions. But, as a well-respected local historian once wrote of Kaweah, “The fascinating part is not the principle involved, but the people who made it up. They were a fairly delightful microcosm; to know them with their strengths and failings is to love them.”

Joe Doctor, who described himself as a “country journalist,” made that statement. He was long considered one of the experts on the Kaweah Colony. Everyone around knew that if you wanted information on the Colony — or just about anything else that had ever happened in Tulare County — you had better go and look up Joe. I finally did just that, shortly before his death in 1995. I had put it off for several years, out of shyness perhaps. Only after years of researching the Colony on my own did I feel qualified to go knocking on Joe’s door. I came away not only enriched for having known the outspoken, generous individual, but left with a box full of his original notes and manuscripts on Kaweah, including notes from interviews he conducted in the 1940s with surviving Colony members.

Why Joe decided to entrust me with his archive of Colony materials I can only guess. Well into his eighties and fighting cancer, he obviously knew he was close to the end. Perhaps he sensed from our discussions that I would treat the story as he always felt it should be, as a story of human drama.

“If you are half as sincere and enthusiastic as your letter reverberates,” Joe wrote me in answer to my initial request to meet him, “you are an answer to my prayers of many years; that someone would treat the Colony as it should be, a group of idealists who did their thing as human beings, and not as a socialist band of people whose motives should be criticized, rehashed, second-guessed and downgraded.”

Joe complained that some of the writers who had already written about the Colony were “academics and bureaucrats who didn’t really know what the Colony was all about.” I, at least, did not fall into either of those dreaded categories. Joe was also disappointed that a young scholar who had contacted him 35 years earlier never wrote his proposed book about the Kaweah Colony. Joe had befriended Oscar Berland, a young labor historian from San Francisco, back in the early 1960s, but theorized that Oscar got carried away “by his own socialistic-communistic convictions which ended in disillusionment,” and so abandoned the project.

As I departed from what would be our final visit, Joe urged me to follow through with my efforts on a book about the Colony. He didn’t want me to give up and disappear on him like Oscar. He didn’t want the writings of academics and bureaucrats to be the final word on Kaweah. I pledged to write this book and to let the people who dreamed of a utopia at Kaweah tell their story. I write it not as a historian, but rather as a compiler, an editor, and a referee. I have worked to present the available information in as logical, clear, and even-handed a manner as possible and let the reader, as an active partner in the process, provide the analysis and arguments. I have tried to be true to the spirit of those people involved. More than anything, I have aspired to the role of dramatist presenting a narrative, for perhaps only the dramatist can find that ever-elusive truth, if there is such a thing, in history.

SOURCES: In addition to contemporary newspaper reports from the Tulare County Times and Visalia Weekly Delta, and the Colony-published Kaweah Commonwealth, key sources for this foreword include personal papers made available to the author from both Oscar Berland and Joe Doctor, as well as “Why Kaweah Failed” by Joe Doctor in Los Tulares (No. 78, September, 1968), a quarterly publication of the Tulare County Historical Society. Maren L. Carden’s book Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation (Johns Hopkins Press, 1969) was also consulted for insight on that endeavor’s free love reputation.

A History of the Kaweah Colony:  Keller and California Land

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.

Having occasion to take a train down the valley I was fortunate to find a seat… behind two men who were civil engineers.[One] informed his companion that east of Visalia was the most magnificent forest in the state of giant redwoods [which had] lately been opened for sale. That revelation seemed to me a pointer by God himself… and a beginning of the scheme I had in mind.(Charles Keller, in photo above)

The story of California can be told in terms of land. So stated historian and former title insurance executive W.W. Robinson in his book Land in California. “Better still,” he continued, “it can be told in terms of men and women claiming the land.” One man who lived that story was Charles F. Keller.

In the spring of 1885, Charles Keller, a resolute looking man with a small beard, neatly trimmed to form a point at the chin, was 39 years of age. Born in Germany in 1846, he had come to America with his parents when he was a boy of nine. They had settled in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, along the Susquehanna River.

In 1864, he ran away from home to enlist in the 7th U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, serving for the remainder of the Civil War. Keller came west to California in 1867, arriving first in San Francisco. The 21-year-old was not much impressed with the town and before long had signed on with a work party that took him down to the southern part of the state, to the San Bernardino Mountains. There Keller worked building a mill and dam for a mining operation. The pay was excellent — five dollars a day in gold plus board — but the job only lasted six months. Keller and California Land

The next stop for Keller was in the valley below, in the town of San Bernardino, where a short stint in the brewery business ended after a flood inundated his adobe brick beer cellar. Keller found himself on the move again, and he would be many times before settling in the booming San Joaquin Valley town of Traver, which is where he was headed on a spring day in 1885.


If the story of California is to be told in terms of land, then that story is never really complete until water is added. While the politics of water had yet to dominate California as it did after the turn of the 20th century with the eras of the Reclamation Board, William Mulholland, and the Central Valley Project, water was beginning to permeate every aspect of California’s development by the 1880s.

It was water, rather than gold or silver, that fueled the boom in Traver, and Charles Keller had been enthusiastically attracted to the opportunity the blossoming town offered. Situated only 10 miles north of Visalia, the county seat of Tulare, Traver was a product of one of the first large irrigation projects in the Central Valley. The 76 Land & Water Company was formed in 1882, conceived by civil engineer P.Y. Baker. With the aid of several investors, the project set out to develop thousands of acres of land by means of irrigation.

While California’s great Central Valley was mostly arid in terms of rainfall, there was a bountiful water source nearby. The valley is bordered on both the east and west by mountains, and those to the east comprise one of the largest, most spectacular mountain ranges in the world. When the earliest Spanish missionaries first viewed the range from afar, they described it as “una gran sierra nevada” — literally, a great snow-covered range — and the name stuck.

Several major river systems carry the runoff of the Sierra Nevada into the Central Valley. Those rivers draining the watersheds of the northern and central Sierra ultimately flow into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which form a complex delta system and eventually meander into the San Francisco Bay. The southern, and steeper, end of the Sierra is drained on the west by three major streams — the Kings, Kaweah, and Kern rivers — all of which terminate in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The waters of the Kings and Kaweah once drained into the vast Tulare Lake. (The lake is now usually dry, but prior to the advent of extensive agriculture in the valley, it was the largest body of water west of the Mississippi and boasted perhaps the greatest concentration of game and fish anywhere in America.)

When irrigation projects moved this bountiful water to otherwise arid land, large districts that had afforded nothing more than sheep ranges would be converted into lush gardens, vineyards, orchards, and alfalfa pastures, the irrigation promoters promised.

Irrigation certainly was not a new idea to the San Joaquin Valley in the 1880s, although there were still those opponents who claimed irrigation on such a large scale would be disastrous. Skeptics and naysayers feared that the action of the water under the influence of the sun would destroy the substance of the soil, or believed that when the water was put upon the land it would produce chills and fever in such amount that irrigated districts would be uninhabitable.

But by the mid-1880s, local farmers were familiar enough with small-scale irrigation, and investors so motivated by the economic potential, they paid little if any heed to such dire predictions. With water assured for the district, promotion was started on a grand scale early in 1884.

The final step for the 76 Land & Water Company called for the establishment of a town, which was named for one of its directors, Charles Traver. Within one month, Traver could boast of three mercantile stores, two lumber yards, two livery stables, a post office, two hotels, barber shops, and a new railway station in the process of being built. Schools and churches soon followed, and the town, situated on the main Southern Pacific line, quickly became the principal shipping point for grain in the area.

While nearby Visalia was a fairly sizable and well-established town, having been around for several decades rather than a few short months, Traver had become the rising star in the Central Valley. Charles Keller undoubtedly felt like finally, for once in his life, he was at the right place at the right time. He would finally obtain a piece of the golden opportunity the California dream had always promised, but which so few had realized.


As Charles Keller rode the train through the Central Valley that spring day in 1885, the landscape outside his window was dominated by endless acres of wheat — it was the era of the bonanza wheat farms. Grain farming was one of the first agricultural enterprises in the Central Valley. It could be successfully dry-farmed most seasons, and the coming of the railroad in 1872 provided a boon, opening up vast markets. Additionally, California wheat was able to withstand long shipment by boat, thus opening up the European market.

Not really farming at all, but more like a variety of mining — exploitative farmers would decimate the soil, planting the fields year after year without variation of crops, giving the land neither rest nor manure. Once a section was exhausted they would simply move onto virgin soil elsewhere on their vast landholdings. The same feverish frenzy that characterized mining in Gold Rush California also characterized wheat farming.

In 1885, wheat farming had still to reach its statistical peak in Central California. But the proliferation of irrigation projects, developments in horticulture and viticulture, and the completion of additional rail lines were bringing about a change to more of an orchard economy.

Still, in 1886, Tulare County would produce nearly six million bushels of wheat, roughly one-third of the state’s entire production. And, in 1888, Traver would ship more wheat than any town in the world ever had. It wasn’t until 1891 that the Traver Advocate would proclaim that “the reign of King Wheat is nearly over; the orchard, vineyard, apiary and poultry farm is usurping his domain.”


Monopolization of the land by a relative few had made bonanza farming possible. As Charles Keller traveled through the heart of the great Central Valley, he could look out and see many of these vast holdings. In 1871, 516 men in California owned 8,685,439 acres. In Fresno County, there were 48 landowners with holdings of 79,000 acres or more each. Partners Henry Miller and Charles Lux had managed to acquire 450,000 acres by the early 1870s, and that figure would eventually double.

How had so much land come to be acquired by so few in California?  In 1871, an insightful pamphlet, Our Land and Land Policy, by San Francisco journalist Henry George, traced the problem back to the Mexican land grants. With them, George lamented, began California’s history of “greed, perjury, of corruption, of spoliation and high-handed robbery, for which it will be difficult to find a parallel.”  Strong words, but Carey McWilliams would later call even that a conservative statement.

In his classic work, Factories in the Fields, McWilliams wrote of speculators emerging from “dusty archives with amazing documents,” and explained how men who came to be owners of these grants had acquired them from Mexican settlers “who had sold an empire for little or nothing.”  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had guaranteed property rights to Mexicans in proceedings, rested on these native Californians. With few assets beyond the tenuous title to their land, it is easy to imagine how unscrupulous speculators could acquire what were already questionable claims.

Many times, these holdings became vastly enlarged through liberal and unregulated resurveying. The point, McWilliams emphasized, was not that settlers were swindled and huge profits made, but that the grants, many known to be fraudulent, were not broken up. The monopolistic character of land ownership in California was established.

Keller, himself, had experience attempting to settle on a disputed land grant. In 1869, after his unsuccessful stint as a San Bernardino brewer, he headed to Mission San Buena Ventura, where he learned there was government land to be had.

This land [Keller once wrote] was in dispute, the Mission claiming it as a Spanish grant whereas people took up the land contending that it was government property, that the grant was false and counterfeit. The settlers employed a lawyer to contest the claim of the Mission. I remained on that claim two years. We employed this lawyer for $2,000 to fight our case and later found that he had taken our retainer and then got $5,000 from our opponents. Of course, the case was dropped; we lost and we ejected.

Keller continued his northward migration, this time into Sonoma County, where he met Caroline Woodard, a teacher at the district school. The two were married in Healdsburg in 1871, where they remained for two years. They were soon able to buy a cattle ranch near Eureka and operated a dairy business for three years. Then Keller decided to take on a local monopolist. Looking back in a brief autobiographical manuscript, Keller recalled the episode:

I separated my herd, farmed out the milk cows and drove everything that would make beef to Eureka, the county seat. I opened a market in opposition to a millionaire land and cattle owner who had driven out, by underselling and later buying out, everyone who had ever attempted to oppose him. I determined I would stay to see how long he would last. It was scarcely six months before he came and made terms.

Just how accurate Keller’s account of his triumph against the millionaire is hard to say. But we do get a prime example of an attitude that Keller undoubtedly shared with many Californians of the 1870s. After a decade dominated by severe economic depression, the state had been polarized into tight sectors of poverty and wealth. This polarization was caused, according to Henry George, in great part by land monopolization. Charles Keller was one of many who shared that realization, and any business success Keller might realize represented a great victory against the wealth and corrupt barony of California.


Wealthy individuals were not the only entities to control vast areas of land in 19th-century California. The railroads, most notably the Central Pacific, which eventually merged with the Southern Pacific, owned millions of acres by the 1870s. This land had been granted to them by the government in alternate sections along various rights-of-way of proposed rail lines that in addition to cash subsidies provided the capital to build and begin operations of the railroads. As Keller, in 1885, was traveling south by the giant locomotive of progress, belching steam and smoke over twin bands of iron, he had to be aware of the railroad’s role in shaping the state. And thanks to one particularly painful episode, still a fresh wound in the minds of most residents, Keller’s awareness and opinion of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s contributions would have been decidedly one-sided.

Frustrated farmers, merchants, and land seekers had long blamed their troubles — high transportation rates, a slumping economy, and frustratingly slow agricultural development — on the highly visible railroad monopoly. In the Mussel Slough area, near Hanford in the west of what was then still Tulare County (now Kings County), groups of settlers began moving onto railroad-reserved sections of land in the early 1870s. The reserved land had yet to be patented to the railroads, and much as Keller had done on the Mission claim in Buena Ventura, these settlers were betting the claims would be voided by the courts.

The settlers tried in vain to file claims on the land. They sent petitions to Congress with no result. In 1878, some Mussel Slough farmers formed the Settlers’ Grand League to publicize their position and create solidarity. Seeking to allay growing alarm, the railroad sent out prospectuses, which assured that when the railroad won title, the farmers occupying the land would be offered the right to purchase land at $2.50 per acre “without regard to improvements.”

The railroad received legal title to their grants and began to send land appraisers to evaluate their holdings as a step toward sale. The land was first offered, as promised, to those in possession, but at exorbitant prices of $17 to $40 and even $80 per acre, a value that reflected the improvements made by the settlers. League members refused to pay. The courts, in 1879, upheld the railroad’s right to evict the settlers, who were by this time squatters in the eyes of the law.

The situation deteriorated. In May 1880, U.S. Marshall Alonzo Poole, along with a Southern Pacific land grader and two recent purchasers of railroad land, set out to take possession. While settlers had congregated in Hanford for a picnic, unaware of Poole’s mission, two ranches had the furniture removed. After emptying the second ranch house, Poole and his men were met by a contingent of settlers on horseback, who “arrested” Marshall Poole and demanded that the other men surrender their guns. Suddenly a horse reared, knocking Poole into the road. Shooting broke out and five of the settlers and one of Poole’s men were killed. Another man from the Marshall’s party was later found dead in a field with a gunshot in his back.

The tragedy at Mussel Slough was an immediate cause celebre. Settlers, frustrated at their inability to acquire land, cast the railroad as pure villain. Nearly 20 years later, Frank Norris summed up their attitude in his historical novel, The Octopus. In the fictional account loosely based on the Mussel Slough affair, he called the railroad:

…the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles and steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the Monster, the Colossus, the Octopus.


Large corporations, such as the railroad, were easy targets for the disgruntled poor. Their ability to exploit land laws and swindle the government out of countless acres of land was a major cause of the widening gap between poverty and wealth. Charles Keller became well acquainted with just that sort of swindle.

After his triumph against the millionaire competitor in the meat business in Eureka, Keller apparently enjoyed several years as a successful merchant. It was while running that market that he “became acquainted with the fraudulent entries that were being made in government land in Humboldt and Trinity Counties.”  He described learning of a scheme by lumber companies of using dummy buyers to file claims on government land:

This news was brought to me by various people coming into the meat market, and the stealing was so gross and such a breach of the government intent to throw these lands open that I induced various of my informants to make affidavits. I forwarded their statements to the Land Office in Washington. Each affidavit stated that the best of the timber lands were being located on by these dummies and were to be transferred later at the request of the companies who hired the locators. Each of these [dummy filers] received fifty dollars when proving-up time came and they turned the land over to the milling companies.Keller and California Land

Several of the parties were arrested and I was cited to appear as witness. However, the money influence of those for whom the land was being taken was such that neither of the head men was arrested, but a few of the poor dupes whom they had subverted to do their work were sent to prison. After that my time in Eureka was nearing its end because everyone was so hostile to my movement. Then having a chance to dispose of my business, I sold out.

Again, Charles Keller found himself on the move, this time ending up back in San Francisco where he saw an advertisement for business opportunities in the brand-new town of Traver. He quickly jumped at the chance, and it was on a train trip between San Francisco and his new home in the Central Valley that another golden opportunity came his way.


Keller had learned a valuable lesson from his whistleblowing in Eureka, beyond the obvious one about angering powerful men in the town where one does business. He had become “conversant with the essentials necessary to secure” government land as set forth by the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. Designed to provide for the sale of 160-acre tracts of surveyed land, the value of which was chiefly in the timber and stone upon it. Such land could be purchased for $2.50 per acre. But, as Keller had also learned in Humboldt, this lent itself to fraud. The Timber and Stone Act was not the first land legislation to avail itself of widespread fraud in California. The Swamp and Overflow Act of 1850 was designed to provide the state with money for reclamation of land deemed more than a certain percentage swamp or overflow, which the state offered for $1.25 per acre. But as this process depended upon locating and determining swamp land, government surveyors found themselves in an easily corruptible position. Some very valuable land was returned to the State of California as swamp and quickly bought up at the bargain price by well-connected and influential men. 

One example of such abuse lay just to the east of Traver in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Tulare County. In 1883 and 1884, W.H. Norway and P.M. Norboe surveyed the area in and around Giant Forest, where some of the most impressive groves of giant sequoias in the world were located. They returned to the state the meadows, which during spring did contain a fair portion of swamped land, along with the dry forest land, deeming it all swamp and overflow. Norway reportedly wrote up his field notes in camp without doing any actual surveying, and for a consideration of 25 cents per acre would declare any land as swamp or overflow. In this way, the land became state property and then passed into private hands, allowing the lush meadows of Giant Forest to become summer pasture for Tulare County stockmen.

One of these surveyors, P.M. Norboe, happened to be on the same train with Charles Keller in the spring of 1885. Also on the train that day was P.Y. Baker, the civil engineer behind the 76 Land & Water Company. Keller’s own accounts of their encounter are somewhat contradictory, but in one version Keller claims to have overheard a conversation between Baker and Norboe, wherein “Baker informed his companion that east of Visalia was the most magnificent Forest of giant redwoods… opened for sale by order of the Interior Department.”  The element of serendipitous eavesdropping was probably played up by Keller for dramatic effect. In another account, he admits he simply “introduced myself and asked if I might take part in their conversation,” and then learned of the “virgin forest of giant redwoods, practically within sight of Visalia, wholly unknown to the average citizen” that belonged to the government and was “actually open to purchase as timber land.”

What would this knowledge mean to Charles Keller, a merchant who now owned a market in the thriving valley town of Traver? His future certainly seemed promising without speculating on timber land in the mountains. Keller’s only experience with lumbermen involved being run out of town by them in Eureka. But Keller was interested in this discovery of available timber land, not just for himself, but for a far greater purpose.

Keller belonged, at that time, to the Co-Operative Land Purchase and Colonization Association of San Francisco. The association was an outgrowth of various labor and social reform organizations, most significantly the International Workingmen’s Association, to which Keller also belonged. It is likely Keller had even attended a meeting of this association during this last visit to the Bay Area — meetings at which the membership was reminded of its primary duty, which according to Keller was “for each to consider himself a committee of one to seek out opportunities to purchase” land with resources sufficient to sustain a cooperative colony.

It was almost as if this opportunity had sought out Charles Keller. As the train pulled into the Traver depot, still under construction, Keller couldn’t wait to further investigate his findings and inform his associates in San Francisco. He became increasingly excited about the prospects for the future. It was now a future he envisioned set in the lush forests of the mighty Sierra Nevada.

SOURCES: The Charles F. Keller papers, housed in the Sequoia National Park historical archives, was a valuable source for this chapter. Some of the books consulted for the chapter include: Land in California: The Story of Mission Lands, Ranchos, Squattters… by W.W. Robinson (UC Press, Berkeley, CA 1948); Empire Out of the Tules, by Brooks D. Gist (Tulare, CA 1976); Railroad Crossing: Californian and the Railroad, 1850-1910, by William Deverell (UC Press, Berkeley, CA 1994); Factories in the Field, by Carey McWilliams (1939); and Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus (Signet Books, 1964, originally published in 1901). Douglas Hillman Strong’s unpublished dissertation “History of Sequoia National Park,” was also valuable, as was Lary M. Dilsaver and William C. Tweed’s Challenge of the Big Trees (SNHA, Three Rivers, CA 1990) and The Sierra Nevada, A Sierra Club Naturalists’ Guide (San Francisco, 1979) by Stephen Whitney.