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SUBJECTS OF THE MIKADO

The Rise and Fall of Sheridan County's Japanese Community, 1900-1930

By Cynde Georgen, 2001, revised 2003

Used by permission

During the early years of the twentieth century, Sheridan County became home to immigrants from all over the world. Hundreds of Czechs, Slovaks, Montenegrins, Poles, Austrians, Hungarians and Scots came to work in the underground coal mines north of Sheridan. A dozen or so Chinese entrepreneurs opened restaurants and laundries, while uncounted numbers of Mexican laborers came to work in the sugar beet and potato fields owned by German and Scandinavian farmers. Prior to 1908, however, the number of Japanese residents in the county could be counted on one hand.

Federal Census records show no one of Japanese birth living in Sheridan County in 1900. By 1910, that number had increased to eighty men, women and children. The Japanese population dropped to under sixty in 1920 and by 1930, census records and Sheridan City Directory listings showed only a few dozen Japanese families remaining in the area. Within a year or two, most of these families were gone as well, leaving only a handful of first and second generation Japanese residents in the county. 

This gradual disappearance had to do in part with the economic hardships of the Great Depression as well as the declining fortunes of the coal mines and the resulting impact upon the railroads. One of the most important factors, however, was the enactment of a series of federal and state laws severely restricting both the arrival of new Asian immigrants and the civil rights of unnaturalized resident aliens. 

Most of the Japanese men living in Sheridan County prior to 1920 worked as section hands for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad. Almost all had arrived in the United States prior to 1907, the year Japan and America signed the "Gentlemen's Agreement" which called for Japan to halt the emigration of Japanese labor to the United States. (1)

The laborers were brought to Sheridan under the auspices of Shinzaburo Ban, a well-educated, highly respected and extremely successful merchant and labor contractor based in Portland, Oregon. Born in Tokyo in 1854, Ban was educated in both Japanese and English, in preparation for a career in diplomacy. He spent several years with the Japanese Foreign Service and was stationed at both Shanghai and Honolulu. In 1891, Ban moved to British Columbia and entered "the commercial life." He relocated to Portland in 1896 where he "attained unusual success … as a contractor, lumber dealer and shingle manufacturer." (2) By the early 1900s, he was the leading Japanese businessman in the state of Oregon. (3) One of his specialties was recruiting workers to fill jobs that white citizens didn't want, such as migrant farm work, mining and railroad construction.

Ban's contracting business, the S. Ban Company, had two offices in Japan - in Osaka and Tokyo - at which they recruited Japanese workers for the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and other railroads. The company was so successful that branch offices were soon opened in Denver, Seattle, Ogden (Utah) and Sheridan.

Upon their arrival in northern Wyoming, sometime around 1908-1909, the contract workers were provided with housing, Japanese groceries and medical care by the Ban Company. The contractor also paid for funerals for any men (and their family members) killed by accident or illness while in its employ. Of the thirty-six registered burials of Japanese men, women and children in Sheridan County between 1903 and 1930, twenty-six of them were known to have been paid for by the Ban Company. In 1909, for example, when twenty-five-year-old K. Honda of Denver was accidentally struck by a train and killed near Alger Station north of Sheridan, local Ban Company agent F. M. Suchiro and M. Terasaki, another Ban Company employee identified as "the leader of the Japanese colony," made arrangements for Honda's burial at Mount Hope Cemetery in Sheridan. (4) All fees were paid by Ban despite Honda's having only been in the Sheridan area for a week or two.

In order to maintain its contract with the C B & Q, the Ban Company kept its Sheridan office open through the mid-1920s. A changing political climate in both Oregon and the rest of the United States, however, soon led to the end of imported Japanese railroad workers. In 1911, the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization service reaffirmed an 1870 Act of Congress which stated that only whites and blacks could become naturalized citizens of the United States. In 1917, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was expanded to cover all Asians, thus eliminating any lingering hope that Japanese might be eligible for American citizenship. In 1923, Oregon's Alien Land Law was passed, making it illegal for non-citizens of Japanese heritage to own or lease land, including the timber lands upon which much of Ban's income relied. The next year, the federal government's Immigration Act of 1924 effectively halted all immigration of non-whites by stating that no one ineligible for citizenship could immigrate to the United States. (5)

By the end of 1924, after being stripped of his lands and livelihood, Shinzaburu Ban was bankrupt. Two years later, he left Portland and returned to his ancestral home where he eventually died without issue, bringing an end to thirteen generations of Ban family history. (6) By the time the company closed its Sheridan office in 1926, it was no longer importing rail workers. Instead, it provided Japanese goods and groceries for the local Asian community. Without the influx of new workers, however, Sheridan's Japanese community quickly diminished in number and the store was no longer needed.

After the Ban Company lost the railroad contract, some of its former employees stayed in Sheridan County. A few continued to work with the railroad where, with their years of experience, they became section leaders and foremen of the repair crews. Because of both language and racial barriers, however, most worked in low-paying, menial positions. Some signed on as porters for local businesses while others hired out as domestic servants and gardeners for the wealthier residents of Sheridan and Big Horn. There were also several hotel keepers, a photographer, a cook or two, and several grocers. Only four Japanese were listed as landowners in the county; they were partners in a truck farm just north of Sheridan, between the city and the mines. (7) Like their former employer, however, these men lost their property with the passage of the alien land laws.

Even before the Ban Company pulled out of Sheridan, some of the railroaders abandoned track work and hired on with the Sheridan-Wyoming and Acme Coal companies. According to city directory listings, these men did not work in the underground mines; instead, they worked above ground as tipplemen and yardmen. According to a 1913 newspaper article,

A number of Japanese are employed permanently at the [New Acme] mine as topmen and loaders. They have their own boarding house and keep pretty much to themselves. They have been found among the best and most efficient workmen obtainable. (8)

According to a 1912 article, "The Japanese laborers have a small settlement of their own and are more than content with their quarters." (9) This group of small, white houses along the banks of Tongue River -- known as "Japtown" -- was located just down the road from "Macaroni Flats," a community of Italian miners. (10)

If they didn't live in one of the mining communities, most unmarried Japanese men roomed at one of the Japanese boarding houses located near the railroad tracks on the north end of Sheridan. The San Yo Hotel (later Sumida House) and J. Hosaki's Japanese Hotel on North Broadway -- along with the Ban Company's building on West Crook Street -- were home to the bulk of the Japanese workers. Others lived in tarpaper shacks and converted railroad cars erected in the CB&Q's right of way between Fifth and Eighth streets.

Census records indicate that while many of Sheridan County's Japanese laborers were married, only a few had their wives with them; many of the women stayed in Japan where they lived on the wages sent back home by their husbands. Of the Japanese women who did come to Sheridan, most did not speak English and were fairly isolated from the rest of the mining and railroad communities. Very few, if any, worked outside the home and only a few of their children were enrolled in public school.

Even if they were fluent in English, few Japanese integrated with the Anglo community; nor were they particularly encouraged to do so. Federal, state and local forces were against them: the Japanese were prohibited from becoming citizens, they couldn't own land, they couldn't even bring their wives and children over from Japan. (11) At the local level, on those rare occasions when they chose to acknowledge the city's Oriental population at all, Sheridan's newspapers referred to the Japanese as "Yellow Men," "Japs," "Sons of Nippon," and "Subjects of the Mikado."

Like their fellow immigrants from other countries, Sheridan County's Japanese residents had occasional brushes with the law. Most had to do with a combination of alcohol and billiards. In 1910, four "Sons of the Mikado" were arrested for gambling at Y. Koyama's Japanese Billiard Parlor on East First Street in Sheridan. The unnamed foursome posted bail but forfeited the bond when they declined to appear in court to enter a plea. A few years later, five unidentified Japanese men were arrested for gambling at a pool hall on North Broadway, adjacent to the railroad tracks. While they also chose to forfeit their bonds, the Japanese proprietor of the hall was convicted of "keeping his place of business open after midnight and permitting liquor to be drank on the premises." (12)

Violent crime was apparently rare within the local Asian community, but there were exceptions. In March of 1909, Herbert Yakamura died as a result of "being struck on the head by a billiard cue ... by a fellow countryman." (13) According to the Sheridan Enterprise, conflicting stories were told as to the reason for the altercation:

From the story told by the Japanese it seems that Yakamura and others were playing pool in the building used by the colony as headquarters in the northern part of the city, and that one of the number struck Yakamura over the head with the cue, not intending to hurt him. But the blow was harder than anticipated and Yakamura was taken to the hospital, where he died ... Another story is that the Japanese were incensed and had it in for Yakamura on account of his having taken out his first papers, intending to become an American citizen, and that he was hurt in a fight, but this story was not the one given out by the Japanese who were present at the time the deed was done ... (14)

The Enterprise went on to describe Yakamura as:

 ... a hard working Japanese, a market gardener, and had his headquarters on Big Goose creek where he raised vegetables and sold them in the city. He is said to have had considerable money, and is spoken of by those who knew him as a good, sober and industrious young fellow, being about twenty-five years old. (15)

The name of the assailant in Yakamura's death was not revealed in the papers or other official records. It was simply noted that he "left the country" and wasn't seen again. Funeral home records, incidentally, referred to Yakamura as "H. Kayama," and stated that his death was an accident. (16) This type of name change was not unusual; most Anglo-Americans made little effort to learn the correct spelling of any foreign-sounding names, be they Japanese, Chinese, Polish or Greek.

Accidents and disease were the leading causes of death among all immigrant laborers in Sheridan County. Accidents were common in the mines and along the railroad tracks; dozens of men and boys of all nationalities were killed during the mining boom of the 1910s and 20s. At least four of the deceased were Japanese section hands who received fatal "crushing injuries" while working for the railroad and at the mines. (17)

Death from disease was also common. Typhoid, which occasionally swept through the mining camps and shanty towns that grew up along the railroad tracks, killed four or more Japanese miners and railroaders between 1908 and 1911. (18) Particularly lethal to the immigrant community was the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. In the last three months of that year, just in Sheridan County alone, several dozen men, women and children of every nationality died of the flu or its complications. Of the eighteen men and women that died at Sheridan's Emergency Hospital -- established just to treat influenza victims -- four were known to be from the Japanese community:

October 18, 1918 -- A young Japanese woman was another victim of influenza yesterday, her death having occurred at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The young woman had been ill some days and was removed yesterday to the new emergency hospital where death occurred shortly after. 

October 22, 1918 -- A Japanese, whose name is at present unknown, died at the emergency hospital this afternoon at one o'clock. The man had been ill some time and for the past twenty-four hours his condition was such that it was known that death could not long be delayed. 

October 25, 1918 -- A woman whose name is at present unknown, but who is of Japanese nationality, died last night at the emergency hospital of pneumonia resulting from influenza. 

November 3, 1918 -- S. Akagaki died yesterday morning at 11:30 o'clock at the emergency hospital after a brief illness, his death due to influenza. Deceased was a Japanese who had been employed by the Burlington [Railroad]. At the present time his wife is also seriously ill. (19)

According to funeral home records, a total of nine Japanese were among those who died of influenza between October 1918 and March 1919. When they became ill, most of the Japanese victims did not go to the emergency hospital, choosing instead to be cared for at home by family and friends. In these cases, very little was reported about their deaths. While obituaries for white fatalities were extensive, those for Japanese sufferers were very short. Even so, they reveal how pervasive the disease was in the tightly-knit community:

October 18, 1918 -- The bodies of U. Okazaki and his young wife are both at the Champion & Shannon mortuary where funeral services will probably be held Sunday. The husband died October 11 and on Wednesday morning at 8:30 the wife passed away. Both are Japanese and have made their home in Sheridan for some time. 

October 22, 1918 -- A quadruple funeral was held Sunday afternoon at the Champion & Shannon chapel, the services being for four Japanese, all victims of the prevalent malady. They were members of one family. U. Okazaki died on October 11, and his wife passed away on the 16th. While the bodies were being held at the undertakers awaiting interment the father of Mr. Okazaki passed away. On Thursday Mrs. Akimoto died at the emergency hospital and the funerals of all four were held at the same time.

October 29, 1918 -- A double funeral was held at the Champion & Shannon chapel Sunday afternoon at 2 o'clock after which the bodies of Mrs. Equeki and S. Otoni, two Japanese who died a few days previous were laid to rest. (20)

Most of these men and women -- as well as others from the Japanese community who died in Sheridan County -- were buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery (now the Sheridan Municipal Cemetery). Their resting places are indicated by tall stone markers etched with Japanese characters. (21)

Mount Hope Cemetery also contains the remains of at least one Japanese suicide victim. On July 15th, 1914, thirty-nine-year-old Sam Munesato, reportedly depressed by a combination of accumulating debts and ill health, shot and killed himself in his small Sheridan home. He and his wife had arrived in Sheridan some seven months earlier from Montana. Munesato worked for a brief time for another Japanese immigrant named Tom Otani, but later purchased a small lunch cart (also called a "waffle cart") and went into business for himself. According to friends, Munesato got behind in his payments and became despondent, acting "rather strange for several days" prior to committing "the rash act." (22)

Munesato's suicide was front page news in both of Sheridan's newspapers. The following is excerpted from a July 17th Sheridan Post article entitled "A Subject of the Mikado Takes Life by Pistol Route:"

In a rusty, sheet iron shack, located in a lonely spot between the alley off Alger avenue west of Main Street and Big Goose creek, and about 200 feet north of the bridge at the city mission, some time after 11 o'clock Wednesday Sam Munesat, a Jap, placed the muzzle of a .45-caliber Colts' in his mouth, pulled the trigger and sent a bullet thru his brain, the ball not stopping until after it had pierced the board ceiling above his head. How much farther the missile went is not known for its further course was not traced. 

Sam, whose wife is a white woman, was the proprietor of a lunch wagon located on Alger avenue a few doors east of Swan's grocery. At 11 o'clock Wednesday forenoon Sam left his place of business stating to his wife that he was going after some meat for the noonday meal. His wife states that he was in good humor, and said he would be back in just a few minutes. He did not return, however, when he had said he would. Neither did he show up at the lunch car during the afternoon. 

At a few minutes prior to 6 o'clock in the evening, Mrs. Munesat went over to the hovel on Goose creek she and her husband called home. Upon entering the place she found in a small room at the northwest corner of the building the dead body of Sam lying across a bed, with the revolver clutched in his right hand lying upon his breast. She gave the alarm and in a short time two or three officers were on the scene, besides a large crowd of morbid spectators. 

The situation of the body, and other indications in evidence, led to the conclusion that Sam had assumed a standing position close to and with his back to the bed. He evidently placed the gun against his breast with his right hand grasping the butt, inclined his head forward until the muzzle was in his mouth, then pulled the trigger ... 

On a small stand near the bed occupied by the corpse was found a piece of brown wrapping paper upon which was written in the Japanese language a note bearing the address of deceased's relatives in Japan, also the request that they should not be apprised of the fact that he had killed himself but that they should be told that he had sickened and died from natural causes. (23)

After her husband's death (and burial, paid for by the Ban Company), Munesato's widow left Sheridan. It was very hard in those days for any widow to make a living; for a woman who had married an Asian immigrant, it was even more difficult. Racial intermarriage was not appreciated by the local community, whether the couples involved were Asian and white, Indian and white, Hispanic and white or Black and white. Even so, census records indicate a number of mixed marriages between Japanese men and Anglo women (there were none between Anglo men and Japanese women). (24)

One of these mixed marriages, between a Polish-American maid and a Japanese railroad worker, is fairly well documented. Tadaichi Kawamoto, known locally as "Tim," was born in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1882. (25) He came to the United States in 1896, at which point he can be connected with the Shinzaburo Ban Company in Portland. It is not known if he came to the U. S. on his own or was recruited by Ban.

Kawamoto worked on railroads in several locations before coming to Sheridan County in 1902. That same year he was promoted to the position of section foreman for the section gang working at the Dietz Mine north of Sheridan. Sometime around 1912, he bought three lots of land in Sheridan. He lost it, however, when Wyoming's alien land laws made it illegal for Asians to own land.

About this same time, Tim met and married Anna Bertha Clara Blansky, a sixteen-year-old Polish-American working as a pantry girl at the Dietz Hotel. Born in Illinois, Anna was the stepdaughter of Stanley Petros, a coal miner who worked in Kawamoto's section gang. Anna and Tim married in 1913 and moved into their first home, a pair of boxcars placed together near the railroad depot. They later lived in Dietz and Monarch before moving again to Sheridan.

The Kawamotos had several children, all of whom attended local schools. In an ironic twist, daughter Grace Kawamoto received an award for "Best Girl Citizen" of Sheridan High School in 1932 -- a year during which her father was still excluded from applying for citizenship, despite having lived and worked in the United States for thirty-six years. It wasn't until 1952, just a few months after the McCarra-Walter Act removed race as a basis for exclusion, that Tim Kawamoto finally received his citizenship papers.

As a result of the failing mineral industry, changing foreign policies, and the Sheridan community's racial prejudice (usually covert but occasionally overt), less than two dozen Japanese men, women and children were still living in Sheridan County by the mid-1930s. That number continued to decline until only three or four families remained in the 1960s, and even fewer in the 80s and 90s. (26) While members of other ethnic groups thrived in northern Wyoming, the Japanese immigrants of the early twentieth century were unable to make Sheridan County their permanent home on the range.

REFERENCES

1. Susan Lowes, “Timeline of U. S. Immigration Laws and Rulings,” accessed June 2001.

2. Joseph Gaston, Portland Oregon: Its History and Builders, S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1911, 3:383-384.

3. Oregon State Department of Public Instruction, “Asian Americans in Oregon,” July 1990; accessed November 2001.

4. "A Japanese Found Dead," Sheridan Enterprise, 21 September 1909.

5. Tricia Knoll, Becoming Americans: Asian Sojourners, Immigrants and Refugees in the Western U.S. Portland, Oregon: Coast to Coast books, 1982.

6. Gaston, Portland, Oregon, p. 383.

7. Sheridan County Polk Directories, 1907-1930.

8. "Post Representatives Visit the Sheridan County Mines," Sheridan Post, 11 November 1913.

9. "New Acme Camp Newest Coal Mine," unidentified Sheridan newspaper, 5 September 1912.

10. Stanley Kuzara, Black Diamonds of Sheridan, Sheridan, Wyoming, 1977, 113

11. The Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924 banned foreign-born wives and children from emigrating from Asia to America.

12. "Japanese Convicted," unidentified Sheridan newspaper, 1 March 1918.

13. "Japanese Dies State Hospital," Sheridan Enterprise, 9 Mary 1909.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Smith Funeral Home, Funeral Record No. 537, 8 May 1909.

17. Japanese-born victims of track-related accidents include 41-year-old M. Uchigama (10 April 1911), 24-year-old R. Hyrayama (26 March 1913), 33-year-old Teizo Takahashi (2 June 1921) and 36-year-old Takenosuke Hasegawa (19 December 1922). Burial records, Reed and Champion funeral homes, Sheridan, Wyoming.

18. Japanese typhoid victims included I. Masaki (1 January 1908), K. Mikieda (16 March 1910), S. Ohashi (13 August 1910) and 20-year-old C. Sumimoto (11 August 1911). Burial records, Reed and Champion funeral homes, Sheridan, Wyoming.

19Sheridan Post, 18, 22 and 25 October 1918, 3 November 1918.

20. Sheridan Post, 18, 22 and 29 October 1918.

21. Several Japanese burial plots are concentrated in Lot 1-block 16, Lot 16-block 16, and Lot 5-block 3. Others are scattered throughout the cemetery.

22. "Sends Bullet Through Head," Sheridan Enterprise, 16 July 1914.

23. "A Subject of the Mikado Takes Life by Pistol Route," Sheridan Post, 17 July 1914.

24. The number of interracial marriages between Asian men and American women declined sharply after 1922, when Congress enacted the Cable Act, which decreed that any American woman who married an alien who was ineligible for citizenship would herself lose her citizenship.

25. The bulk of the information on the Kawamoto family was compiled by Edythe Kawamoto Vine and published in Sheridan County Heritage Book, Sheridan County Extension Homemakers Council, 1983. Other information comes from City Directory and Federal Census records. 

26. For more information on individual members of Sheridan's Japanese community, see Alphabetical List of Japanese Residents of Sheridan County, 1903-1980.

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