The Secret Settlement

A discovery in the B.C. woods sheds light on the history of Japanese-Canadians

In a previous column, I wrote about Manzo Nagano, the first Japanese to immigrate to Canada. He began fishing for salmon on the Fraser River after arriving in New Westminster in 1877, and was a pioneer for many Japanese who settled in British Columbia and worked the land, rivers and sea. But over a century later, new discoveries in the province show that the history of that community is still being pieced together.

For more than 10 years, archaeology teams from Capilano University in Vancouver have been excavating a long-forgotten settlement. Dubbed the Nikkei camp — the term Nikkei referring to people of Japanese ancestry who live abroad — the site, some 20 kilometres northeast of the city, is in the forest along the Seymour River, which drains into Burrard Inlet, and is an area that sees plenty of rain and bears.

Judging by the artifacts and ruins uncovered there, the researchers believe it was a Japanese community. Eikichi Kagetsu, a Nikkei logging entrepreneur, may have established the camp around 1920. After all the trees had been harvested around 1924, Kagetsu moved his business to Vancouver Island. However, the settlement may have been inhabited for decades after that, possibly as a refuge for Japanese who were ostracized at the time. Then, its inhabitants disappeared.

Muckle believes the inhabitants of the Nikkei camp abandoned it in a hurry.

Singular Discovery

About 1,000 artifacts have been dug up, including teapots, buttons, medicine bottles, sake and beer bottles from Japan as well as hundreds of fragments of Japanese ceramics. While none of the artifacts can be reliably dated to after 1920, some are very suggestive: a rusted shawl pin is evidence of women being at the camp, occupation in winter and perhaps year-round habitation.

The researchers have also found the locations of 14 small dwellings, as well as a bathhouse, a reservoir and what was possibly a Shinto shrine. The settlement was probably a logging camp for 40 to 50 people, one of several lost communities in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve. Unlike others, however, this site was Japanese and became a village.

“It is significant for multiple reasons,” says Robert Muckle, an anthropology instructor at Capilano University who has led the exca­vations. “It is the only Japanese logging camp [that has been] excavated. Relatively little is known about Nikkei logging operations in Canada, compared — for example — to [them] working in lumber mills, and the fishing and agricultural industries. It may have continued to have been occupied after its initial use as a logging camp to escape racism and it provides material evidence of preparations for incarceration: for example, hiding artifacts and leaving much of their material culture behind.”

Incarceration refers to the fact that, from early 1942 — following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong, where Canadian troops were stationed — people of Japanese descent in British Columbia were targeted as potential enemies. They had already faced decades of institutionalized racism, and after hostilities ignited, they were stripped of their possessions and interned for the remainder of World War II. Those who resisted were sent to prisoner of war camps, but most were interned in ghost towns in the country’s interior.

Muckle believes the inhabitants of the Nikkei camp abandoned it in a hurry. They left behind valuable objects that could have been resold or used, such as skid road planks that were used to reinforce logging roads, work boots, cooking stoves, a pocket watch and even an Eastman Kodak Bulls-Eye camera.

“It is unusual for so many personal items in good condition to be left behind when abandoning a site, but makes sense if leaving for forced relocation or internment,” says Muckle. While there are no records proving people lived there until the internment began, there may be artifacts from that period that still lie buried there. Future digs could bring them to light.

Historical Legacy

Muckle is preparing to give camp artifacts to the Nikkei National Museum as well as the North Vancouver Museum and Archives. He’s working on a book that will be published by the University of Toronto Press. Meanwhile, the findings have been featured in international media; Smithsonian magazine ranked it as the top archaeology story of 2019. For Muckle, it’s a long-term passion project that is even getting official recognition.

“A few years ago, I nominated the site to be placed on the British Columbia Register of Historic Places, and was very glad to have had it accepted,” he says.

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