Posted on

On assumptions and arrivals: early American attempts at tea

Originally published July 7, 2011

Well, since it was the 4th of July and all…

It was, of course, the British who most determinedly set themselves to the “reverse engineering” of the cultivation and production of tea, with the object of producing tea in their own territories. In America, while tea had been enjoyed by the early colonists, its later association with the Boston Tea Party – an act of protest against symbolic, and heavy, taxes to Britain – put a major dent into its popular acceptance as a drink of choice.

Eventually, however, the unholy gobs of money generated by the British trade could not fail to reawaken an American interest in tea. Early U.S. works on the subject focus primarily on importing tea from China, but there was also some interest in the cultivation of tea, actually growing tea on United States soil. Both approaches to the “tea question” shared one goal: competing directly with, and eventually overtaking, the Great Britain-China trade for the supply of the world’s tea.

As always with tea history, we are going to find conflicting reports, dubious claims, and utter mysteries, but as best as we can currently manage, let’s review the history of early attempts at tea cultivation in the United States. Put the kettle on and come back, this will take us some time.

Please bear with me, I’m resurrecting these old writings of mine from notes and copies, however, I’ve lost most of my citations and images (very annoying). I’m recreating the material as best I can but things will be missing until then.

André Michaux: Charleston, SC (ca. 1804)

The earliest introduction of the tea plant to the U.S. is a matter of some minor mystery. Today one occasionally comes across the statement that the tea plant was first grown in Georgia in the 1770s, however, there is no detailed information regarding this in any agricultural report of the following one hundred years. Lippincott makes a passing mention that tea cultivation “was, indeed, attempted in 1772, in Georgia”1, but his essay “Geography of Plants”, uniquely verbose, philosophical, and about as subtle as hippopotamus sex, had a bit more to do with the politics of 1863 than with the natural history of tea or any other plant. An 1877 report also mentions that tea had “already been grown” in Georgia, but gives no information on the year, extent, or organizers of the experiment.2

Middleton Place, SC, today. Yeah, I could live here.

For a more verifiable version, and what is also generally stated by reputable authors: the tea plant was introduced into the United States by the French botanist André Michaux, at Middleton Barony (today, Middleton Place) along the Ashley River outside Charleston, SC. It is unknown precisely when Michaux first planted his tea: one modern source claims 17993, but a contemporary government inspector, who saw the plant itself (then a 15-foot “small tree”), puts the date at 18044. This may also be wrong, as one usually finds Michaux’s death stated as occurring in 1802. It could be worse, I guess: one USDA report names the wrong French botanist entirely.5

At any rate, Michaux had no specific interest in the tea plant, and there was certainly no concerted effort at Middleton Place for commercial growing of tea. Seeds were distributed among friends, passed through a network of gardeners throughout the South, and the plant cultivated as an ornament and curiosity. Some enterprising growers attempted to process the picked leaves for steeping, but only on a personal scale.

Of notable exception is William Jones of Liberty County, Georgia, who grew tea successfully enough that his children, particularly daughter Rose Screven, continued the family operation for some time following Jones’s death.6 Screven’s correspondence is showcased in one Department of Agriculture report: the family had based their method on the writings of Robert Fortune, preparing a red tea that they sold locally.7 The Rural Carolinian of 1869 mentions large-scale tea production in Georgia, but beyond the yield (“441 pounds per acre”), no details are provided8,9, so I am unsure if this refers to Jones-Screven or not.

Sometimes one finds tea mentioned as being cultivated (or, even worse, discovered growing wild) in Pennsylvania around the 1860s; there was even the formation of an “American Tea Company”. However, all evidence indicates these efforts were mistakenly based on one or another different plant, never the true tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Beware any author that tells you tea was grown in Pennsylvania, or refers to “New Jersey tea” (Ceanothus americanus) as evidence tea is/was grown here: these plants and their decoctions are no more tea than they are apples or oranges.

Junius Smith: Greenville, SC (1848-1852)

Like Robert Fortune, the daredevil subject of a previous essay, Junius Smith was a remarkable man who likely would have made enough mark in history without ever having touched upon the subject of tea. A native of Connecticut and longtime resident of London, he built his immense fortune aggressively investing in steamships at a time the new technology was widely viewed with suspicion; he is sometimes referred to as “the father of Atlantic steamships”.10

In his long and successful career, Smith comes across as a detailed, controlling, possibly obsessive man. His fascination with transatlantic shipping seems to be driven by an almost pathological frustration with communications and commerce being hampered by slow transit times, and he was often critical and belligerent to those who failed to carry out his instructions properly and promptly. It is irrelevant whether his success was due to, or in spite of, his idiosyncrasies, but they certainly characterize the zeal and attention with which he pursued his quest to create American tea.

Up to this late point in his life, Smith’s career had had absolutely nothing to do with tea. According to the man himself, Smith’s fascination with tea started rather suddenly in February 1847, when he received a letter from his daughter (living in India at the time) describing the alleged superiority and imminent financial success of Assam tea over its Chinese counterpart. It then struck him that if the plant grew there, it could be grown here, and, “From that hour, I devoted myself to the introduction and cultivation of the tea plant in the United States.”11

His interest, apparently, was seriously piqued, or Smith was a demon of a man when it came to tackling new projects – somehow I suspect the latter. In less than a year he had devoured as much literature on the subject of tea as a man possibly could, poring over issues of the China Repository and rapidly assembling his ideas into a master plan for the cultivation of American tea. Originally intending to deliver his ideas in a series of lectures throughout the South, he instead returned to London to attend to business, and published his collected essays as a book in 1848.12 An incredibly detail-oriented planner, he delivered precise instructions to his partners in the U.S. for the printing and distribution of his book, particularly to the farmers of the Southern states, where he felt that tea could unseat cotton as the most important commercial crop of American production.13,14

While Smith’s enthusiasm was certainly superhuman, he did perhaps suffer slightly for rushing himself through the learning process. His Essays are quite well-researched, but he does express certain odd assumptions about the biology and manufacture of tea: for one thing, Smith seems utterly convinced that green tea was only the result of artificial coloring. Further, he firmly believes that the extended processes the Chinese used to create red tea were only necessary for tea that suffered a long sea journey in export, and that a higher-quality tea was drunk in China and Russia that was merely sun-dried, or not processed at all. He strongly declares that “age is detrimental to tea” and reasons that fresh tea is always the most valuable.15 We must at all times remember that Smith intended to cultivate and market a fresh, unprocessed tea, quite unlike anything commonly drunk today, or indeed at any time in history.

It may be worth pausing here to note the reasons tea is not widely cultivated in the United States, at least as a commercial crop. First and foremost is the cost of labor, universally acknowledged to be an obstacle to tea cultivation everywhere. The act of tea-picking can be somewhat delicate (i.e., difficult to automate), and is conducted in very narrow windows of opportunity, only a few days a year. Attendant upon this is the consideration that the environment healthiest to the tea plant is often terrifically unhealthy for the human beings laboring around those plants.

The skilled workers, equipment, and time required for processing tea leaves, of course, present yet another great obstacle to its profitability. Smith’s conviction that the rolling and firing of tea leaves was unnecessary allowed him to entertain expectations of financial success; he had neatly eliminated the cost-of-labor concern by simply dismissing the labor as unneeded. One can certainly suspect that his somewhat unique insistence on “fresh” tea might have been a matter of self-persuasion motivated by economic considerations.

In his defense, one should note that some of Smith’s ideas absolutely reflect the tastes of 19th century America. Here, green tea had long been preferred to red, which was suspected to be a lower quality tea masked and enhanced by artifice. Ironically, in the early 1830s a series of incidents occurred involving false green tea sold in America, stuff that had been artificially colored with, among other substances, “Prussian blue” (which is, sadly, semi-poisonous). This had been done by Chinese merchants in an attempt to supply that season’s increased demands of American speculators, most of whom in turn failed abjectly. The entire matter was very well publicized by the British, who did not miss many opportunities to enjoy a good chuckle about the affair. Hence, Smith’s dismissal of Chinese methodology as either mindless tradition or the stuff of myth and legend could reasonably be viewed as part of a general American bitterness over that recent affront.

It should here also be noted that Junius Smith’s thinking was never without mercantile object – while he had shown a lifelong love of horticulture, he was, first and always, a businessman. Along with grand humanitarian notions of bringing Southern farmers into a vast new enterprise, he also had very specific plans regarding the export of their tea – by his own steamships, you may be surprised to learn! – in order to deliver their high-value product to the European markets within 2 to 3 weeks of their harvest.16,17 He absolutely believed that his “fresh tea” would be superior to tea from China or elsewhere, and probably reckoned on profits in the hundreds of millions, should his plans succeed.

Armed with this newly-acquired (and extremely selective) knowledge of tea, Smith dedicated his boundless energy to acquiring some land, settling on the Golden Grove Plantation in Greenville, South Carolina, where he planted his tea garden in December of 1848.18,19 Apparently possessing some horticultural skill, Smith did succeed, writing on July 4, 1851, “Now I have before me a pot of fresh tea from my own plantation, the first I have enjoyed.”20 While Smith’s garden was successful in that a (reportedly) drinkable tea did result from it, it never grew beyond the scale of his personal attention, and certainly never amounted to a commercial enterprise. Whether the tea was in fact good or not is debatable; while Smith enjoyed it, it seems others were polite towards his valiant efforts but did not necessarily agree with his taste in fresh, unprocessed tea. One cannot help but notice that the only cultivators of this time who experienced any modicum of commercial success were those who had worked from Fortune’s writings, and processed leaves using Chinese methods.21

Smith’s plans remained grandiose, and he went to great lengths to distribute plants and seeds as far and wide across the South as he possibly could. In a later USDA report on the subject, the vast majority of cultivators of tea corresponding with the Department state that they received their seeds from Smith’s supply.22

Unfortunately, Junius Smith met a tragic end. While one writer mysteriously indicates Smith was shot23, this does not mesh with any other studies of Smith’s life, or the published news of the time. On December 23, 1851, it is reported that Smith was assaulted at his house on Pinehurst Plantation by person or persons unknown; he was severely beaten and left for dead, remarkably dragging himself to a neighbor to receive medical attention. His letter describing the incident, in his usual determined tone, matter-of-factly reports he is recovering well and looking forward to returning to work on his plants.24 This, unfortunately, never happens; the assault had fractured his skull, in turn causing violent changes to Smith’s mental and psychological state. He was entered into the asylum at Astoria, NY, and died there in January of 185325; his abandoned tea garden was sold the following year.26

The reasons for Smith’s murder are unknown. Pond writes that Smith was attacked by “Patrollers”, vigilante gangs of the South who sought out and punished supporters of abolition, or people who provided education or employment to blacks.27 While Smith certainly had visions of educating black farmers in the enterprise of tea cultivation, and had also had some history of supporting the abolition of slavery, there is no definitive proof of Pond’s suspicion.

Smith’s place in tea history is an interesting one: while he was certainly not successful by any definition in the pursuit of an American tea industry, his tireless efforts, in his brief career as America’s tea expert, kept U.S. government interest in (and financial support of) the project alive; he was directly responsible for the distribution of thousands upon thousands of seeds of the tea plant to growers across the South. He was, at this time, the most famously successful man to pursue tea in America, and it seems likely that with his notoriety, formidable wealth and connections, and the trademark industriousness with which he pursued his venture, Smith was more directly responsible for inspiring private and public interests to consider the “tea question” in America than anyone else in history. Had he been more familiar with the subject than a year’s research, and not so doggedly convinced about the uselessness of all Chinese method and practice (something he expressed in some very disparaging terms on occasion), his endeavors might well have been remembered as greater successes than turned out to be the case.

John Jackson: Summerville, SC (1880-1883)

Following the death of Junius Smith, there is a long intermission before the U.S. government resumes the pursuit of tea cultivation. Some private growers continue to experiment, notably Rose Screven and family (Liberty County, Georgia), and Alex Forster (Georgetown, South Carolina). Like Screven, Forster refers to the literature of Robert Fortune as the basis of his method. In his correspondence with the USDA, Forster restates the now-standard concerns regarding labor costs, and expresses his conviction, in polite contradiction to Smith’s notions, that “the Chinese method of curing tea is impossible in this country [due to labor costs,] yet some equivalent to this process is necessary to the production of tea, such as we drink it, for a decoction of the tea leaves dried without this manipulation has little resemblance to the beverage we all so much appreciate.”28 Forster died in 1874, and tea production on his land ceased immediately.29

The backdrop of this “post-Smith” time, of course, is the turbulence of the U.S. Civil War, which falls outside the scope of this little article, but certainly distracted everyone involved for a significant period of time. Tea cultivation is entirely ignored during the conflict, but afterwards quickly resumes a principal place of interest to the government, particularly as a potential replacement crop for cotton, and an industry whereby the South could be revitalized and rebuilt.

As such, under Commissioner William G. Le Duc, the Department of Agriculture reopened their investigations into tea culture in the 1870s, and earmarked funds to resume experiments. Le Duc was keenly interested in tea and strongly believed it was vital to the future of Southern agriculture; in 1876 he negotiated (with some subterfuge, according to a dubious source30) the leasing of the Newington Plantation at Summerville, down the Ashley River from where Michaux has planted the original tea of South Carolina.31

In 1880, Le Duc employed John Jackson, a Scotsman who claimed experience planting tea in India, to “cultivate tea planted 30 years earlier in Liberty County, Georgia”32, plants that were likely acquired from the already-mentioned Screven-Jones plantations. What subsequently happened between Jackson and the USDA is murky; while there seems to be the occasional implication that the project was badly mismanaged (or poorly conceived), the entire affair is politely glossed over in later reports as an unfortunate attempt undercut by extenuating circumstances. We know that Jackson quickly expended the funds provided him, running through “seven years of heavy federal subsidies”33; further, Jackson dies soon after the plants’ relocation to Summerville, barely getting the project off the ground.

Le Duc himself retires from office, and the new commissioner, George B. Loring, enters the picture with a strong view that tea cultivation was impossible in the U.S. He writes in his 1883 report: “To those familiar with [tea] culture it is not expected that much can be proven to show that it can be commercially profitable. The climatic conditions are not favorable for it. The want of a proper amount of rainfall during summer is fatal to its extensive production for market, although it can be produced as a domestic article, where profit is no object, over a large territory.”34

All of these circumstances rather suddenly dissipated the USDA’s interest in tea and, in the words of Shepard, “combined to cause the total abandonment by the government of the gardens which it had established, at great expense”.35

Charles Shepard: Summerville, SC (1888-1915)

If Junius Smith is the grandfather of U.S. tea cultivation, then Charles U. Shepard is its father. He is the man who resumed Smith’s work and, within limits, had the greatest successes in establishing a commercial tea plantation in America. (Note: he is also not to be confused with Charles Upham Shepard, mineralogist, 1804-1886.)

While Smith and Jackson appear to have operated under established assumptions regarding the superfluity of Chinese tea processing methods, Shepard took the more measured approach of starting from the premise that the practices of China had their reasons and purposes. Given the official title of “Special Agent in Charge, Tea Culture Investigations”, he set himself to scientifically experiment with combinations of soil, aspect, manure, and seed, in order to deconstruct which tea could be most successfully cultivated here, and how precisely it should be done.

It is in 1888 that Shepard founded the Pinehurst Tea Plantation36, on the site of Le Duc’s failed project37. He planted seven different gardens, to compare plant growth: five gardens planted with “Assam hybrid” seed, one with Darjeeling seed, and the “South Fraser” garden, which was proudly planted with seed Shepard acquired through U.S. contacts in China, of the famed “Dragon’s Pool” variety (presumably what we today call Dragon Well or Longjing).38

In 1893, Shepard writes his first report for the Department of Agriculture, Special Report on Tea-Raising in South Carolina. To some extent it appears that Shepard was performing a postmortem on the previous experiments; not focusing on being overtly critical of his predecessors, he does, in measured terms, present a reasonably detailed and measured analysis of the issues surrounding tea culture. His ultimate conclusion is that only a very valuable, high-quality tea would be profitable, in light of the considerable costs involved in labor and production.39

So while optimizing the soil-plant side of tea cultivation, he did not ignore the non-botanical issues surrounding the endeavor. Possibly the most famous detail regarding the Pinehurst Tea Plantation is the schoolhouse with which Shepard addressed the cost-of-labor problem:

The problem of providing labor for plucking tea leaf has been solved so far as a steady and skillful band of nimble-fingered children goes; but its price is inordinately high as compared with the Orient. It was indispensable to secure a reliable corps of pickers. To meet this condition there was built a comfortable school-house and a competent teacher engaged. (Pl. VII, fig. 2.) The colored families of the neighborhood were then invited to send their children to the school free of charge. They would be taught the ordinary branches, and also would be taught to pick tea, and so earn money to buy food and clothing. The offer was accepted, and now there is a good list of pupils to draw from as pickers are required.40

Detail, Plate VII, Fig. 2, Shepard, 1899.

Shepard correctly posited that experienced tea-pickers, were tea cultivation to be successfully launched in the U.S., would have highly marketable skills that they could in turn teach others. While his government correspondence is more softly worded than Smith’s or others, it seems Shepard also believed in the moral value of using tea cultivation as a means of bettering the circumstances of impoverished black farmers. While this likely earned the approval of Shepard’s superiors, it may of course have also inspired opponents of the Pinehurst plantation; bad blood left over from the war, and America’s still-evolving beliefs regarding the rights and futures of blacks, cast an unfortunate shadow over any American story of this time.

But peacefully and without major incident, Shepard’s farm continued to grow, and very soon was successfully producing drinkable tea of American soil. The New York Times proclaims the Pinehurst experiment a success as early as 1895, though echoing the cost-of-labor concerns.41 A contemporary news report in the News & Courier (Charleston) speaks glowingly of the farm’s successes, and Shepard very proudly includes this entire article in his second progress report.42

Pinehurst’s greatest success occurred in 1904 when, with the approval of his superiors, he brought “Oolong tea” grown and produced at Summerville to the St. Louis World’s Fair: his unusual tea won first prize and had Shepard’s name floating around the country’s newspapers as the man on the verge of inaugurating an entirely new American industry. Unlike Junius Smith earlier, this time a wider audience had approved of Shepard’s tea, providing definitive proof that he had created a product for which there could be commercial demand.

Enhanced detail, Plate III, Shepard, 1893.

I have appended to this essay a gallery of the illustrations from Shepard’s 1893 and 1899 progress reports to the government, which the reader will find at the bottom of this page.

From the World’s Fair forward, the tea experiments simply carry on and dwindle out slowly over time, as even with the schoolhouse children, the labor and incidental costs of the farm were proving problematic to its commercial viability. Shepard, for his part, continued his work admirably, studying Asian processing methods (particularly those used in Assam, detailed in the influential essay of Edward Money43,44) and setting himself to inventing machinery to automate as much of the tea-production process as possible, further lowering costs. The Pinehurst Tea Plantation continued its operations until being abandoned entirely upon Shepard’s death in 191545, at which point the U.S. government had invested enough funds to satisfy themselves that tea cultivation could not likely become a viable American industry. In keeping with a recurring theme, wars abroad also distracted the government from these efforts.

Obviously the Pinehurst experiment, while wildly successful in comparison to other American attempts, never grew into the national industry envisioned by Junius Smith and the USDA. Its remaining legacy is in the seeds and plants: cuttings from Shepard’s gardens were used to build and found the Charleston Tea Plantation (see below). The Pinehurst Tea Plantation itself no longer exists, and the lands are now a residential neighborhood.46

Shepard’s legacy is, however, undeniable: by far the most successful of any government researcher on tea cultivation, the creator of the first accepted drinkable tea grown and produced in the U.S., and a tireless innovator, he came closest of anyone to creating an original American tea. His story, and his reports of 1893 and 1899, present an invaluable and fascinating slice of American agricultural history.

Wakamatsu Tea Colony: Gold Hill, CA (1869-1871)

Meanwhile, on the West coast…

As California did not become a state until 1850, it does not figure into any government projects on the subject of tea cultivation prior to that time. However, perhaps the most culturally significant of all the early attempts at tea on U.S. soil occurred here, at the Wakamatsu Tea Colony of Gold Hill.

Early growers of tea in California are mentioned sporadically; a correspondent in 1877 writes that Samuel Brannan, the millionaire mogul of San Francisco, made an attempt at growing it, and also mentions an unnamed grower in Modesto.47 On either of these, however, I find no further information. The story of the Wakamatsu Tea Colony, on the other hand, was documented by the Department of Agriculture, and disappeared almost completely until being recently rediscovered. It has since grown in stature as a compelling tale of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States.

Eduardo (Edward) and J.H. (John Henry) Schnell were German brothers who traveled to Yokohama, Japan, around 1860, and built their fortune by selling Western guns and ammunition to the Japanese territorial leaders, or daimyos. The fact that Japan was in a state of complete and total political upheaval at this time meant business was booming, and J.H. Schnell formed powerful associations, most notably with Matsudaira Katamori, the daimyo of Aizu (today, Aizuwakamatsu). Schnell famously embraced Japanese culture, being conferred with the title of samurai by Matsudaira, along with a very prestigious Japanese name, Hiramatsu, incorporating characters from the daimyo’s own name. Schnell was given a house in Aizu, and married a local woman.49

Schnell himself is a polarizing character – depending on how one wishes to approach the Wakamatsu question, he can easily be viewed as a daring visionary doing his best to lead an exodus of Japanese to the United States, or as an opportunistic, immoral con artist who callously abandoned those who trusted him. The fact that little is definitively known of the man compounds this problem, and certainly different reviews of his story reflect the authors’ choices in base assumptions regarding Schnell’s motivations. One writer warns that early biographers of Schnell “mistook Eduardo Schnell, elder brother of John Henry, as the colony’s founder. Their works focusing on Eduardo Schnell are fatally flawed with false assumptions.”50

At this time, Japan was essentially a tense network of over 200 city-states, Aizu being one of the most powerful. Daimyos were either allied with or opposed to the shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu; Matsudaira was one of the shogun’s staunchest and fiercest allies. His armies fought fiercely (and at terrific losses) in the Boshin War against the Meiji forces who would soon emerge victorious and topple Tokugawa. Obviously, Schnell was very important to him, as the supplier of the Western guns critical to his efforts.

In the midst of all this chaos and bloodshed, the people of Aizu suffered greatly, with homes and farms destroyed in the battles, and “a bitter winter of starvation”. It was around this time that Schnell, trusted business partner and advisor to Matsudaira, proposed that he lead a group of Aizu people to establish a small colony in the United States; if the war ended in disaster, Matsudaira and his people could escape and come settle in this new land with the colonists, or if the Aizu were victorious, they would then have a source of income and a foothold in the markets of America. Matsudaira agreed, very likely financially supporting the expedition, and so it came to pass that J.H. Schnell and six colonists left through the Yokohama port on the steamship China, arriving in San Francisco in May of 1869, with sixteen more colonists following in the autumn, and a small number more arriving the next year.51,52

Right from the outset, Schnell behaves a bit strangely, prone to extreme exaggerations and what appear to be stories told simply for the sake of publicity. He proudly proclaims to any journalist that would listen that many more successful and noble Japanese families would follow him to this new colony, and possibly even “Japanese princes” (undoubtedly thinking of Matsudaira). Early newspaper articles contain ridiculously inflated stories of a mass Japanese exodus, when in fact Schnell’s colony never amounted to more than about 35 people.53

Schnell’s tea plantation had a brief, cataclysmic existence, and the story has to be pieced together from various sources. Schnell’s penchant for hyperbole and salesmanship haunts today’s historian, as reports mix fact and fiction, the source of the latter being in most cases Schnell himself. Let’s start with the subject of the land ownership itself, of which the sequence appears to be:

  • June 22, 1869: Schnell purchases “160 acres of land and a house for $5,000. from Charles Graner of El Dorado County.54
  • 1869: A USDA report mentions “Schnell’s 120 acres of land” as well as “about 400 acres of rough land, which he proposes to clear as soon as practicable”.55 This information most likely came from Sherman Day, then the Surveyor General of California.
  • 1870: Though most of Schnell’s tea plants were now dead from drought, Day says, “His efforts merit encouragement and protection from the government”, and that “I look upon these seedlings as the basis of a most important export for this state.”56
  • February 27, 1871: The government sells Schnell public lands “not exceeding six hundred and forty acres” for “improvements, tea gardens, and other culture.”57
  • May 1, 1871: The colony’s land is sold back to El Dorado County.58 More on this in a bit.

Schnell was not above some creative storytelling for the sake of drumming up interest in – and financial support for – his colony, and it would seem that he found a willing listener in the Surveyor General, Mr. Day. A local historian in 1883 writes that 150,000 plants were set out by Schnell59, while a USDA report of 1870 citing Day’s survey sets the figure at 400,00060. In June of 1870, Schnell exhibited at the Horticultural Fair in San Francisco “fine healthy tea plants, which were planted on March 14.”61 These, and the glowing reports of millions of plants in the colony’s near future, painted a picture of early success at Gold Hill.

However, there is plenty of reason to doubt the truth of much of this, not least because of Schnell himself — again it somewhat depends on how the historian wishes to perceive his character. If he is nothing more than dedicated to the cause of promoting the welfare of the Aizu in his care, then Schnell was simply light years ahead of his time in his understanding of the power of promotion, marketing, and “buzz”. If, however, we think of Schnell as a manipulative liar, then we have a bag of tricks, using Day’s gullibility or collusion, and the clever simulation of early success in hopes of acquiring further funds or lands.

No matter Schnell’s motivation (as both postulated could explain the same behavior), I find that a greater proportion of reports on Gold Hill seem to be either by those who never see the wonders they describe and are therefore reporting the words of Schnell himself, or speculative numbers of what was likely in some indistinct near future. Simply put, none of the breathless announcements of the Gold Hill Farm’s success jibe in any way with its rapid and complete failure.

The fact of the matter is that the Wakamatsu colony faced terrible obstacles in its brief existence. Different authors present different explanations:

  • The area was, at this time, crippled by drought, and this should have adversely affected the Japanese plants, used to their native humid summers62; in Sherman Day’s reports we find the ominous note, “Many of the plants perished, no resort having been had to artificial irrigation.”63
  • On the subject of water, a respected modern researcher writes that local miners dammed up the river64, which supports the Sacramento Union, 1971, “local miners turned hostile and deprived the colonists of water supply to irrigate their plants.”65 Another writes instead that miners attacked the farm and destroyed the ground and plants.66
  • This last author adds that Schnell, lacking any real botanical knowledge, had been cheated on the plants he had imported67; certainly, the fact that Schnell “knew very little of farming”68 is a legitimate concern.
A Wakamatsu colonist.

As seems to be typical with the stories of today’s entry, this one also comes with a tragic ending (at no extra charge!). The farm was clearly failing within its critical first years, and Schnell’s response is what makes it so easy to skewer him as a heartless sack of manure for ever afterwards: he runs away.

The farm was in terrible debt, and being unable to produce tea or silk to sell, wasn’t generating any income. Schnell told the colonists he would return to Japan to get more funds.69 Taking his wife and two children, he then sold the land on May 1, 1871, without telling the colonists, and disappeared to Japan.70 His fate is unknown; he was later reported to be killed in Japan, without further detail. Most of the Japanese colonists, simply abandoned in El Dorado County, literally wander off into the American wilderness, and all but three disappear from history without a trace.

So, what’s truly mind-blowing here is that Wakamatsu Colony represents the very first Japanese to purposefully immigrate to America. The importance of Japanese-American history, to California especially, makes it quite remarkable that so little is known of the Wakamatsu Colony. The reassembled history is largely the work of Sacramento historians Nakatani, Sayre, and Taketa71, and the valuable work of John Van Sant.

Modern attention centers on the beautiful and poignant stories of Okei, the 19-year-old nursemaid whose “short life and tragic death in a strange land have become romantically symbolic” of the Colony itself72 and whose gravestone still stands there today, and Matsunosuke Sakurai (“Matsu”), a samurai who remained settled in the area until his death in 190173. For my own part, I find myself in agreement with Taketa’s sentiment that “the real tragedy was the one which befell the other colonists who had nobody to turn to for help and vanished into nowhere.”74

I mean… seriously… think about that!  Most of the first Japanese immigrants to the U.S. were left with no choice but to just walk “out there” into post-Civil War California, and nobody knows what happened to any of them.

Okei’s grave. From Sacramento Union, 1971, reprinted by Nichi Bei.

As it is not my purpose here to replace the already excellent retellings of others, I strongly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about Wakamatsu Tea Colony to explore the links listed below. Most particularly I suggest reading the website of Phillip Veerkamp, descendant of the Veerkamp family, also central to the Wakamatsu story.

From a tea perspective, one must admit, the affair is one of only minor importance: tea was never successfully cultivated here, and the Wakamatsu Colony seems to have no bearing on any tea cultivation on the West Coast today. While its notice (and funding) by the government does make it a part of our American tea history, it is of course as part of a larger human history from which Gold Hill derives its significance.

American Classic Tea: Charleston, SC (1963-present)

Today, the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, Charleston, SC, is the only (commercial) producer of tea in the (eastern continental) United States – for some years it was proudly proclaimed to be “the only tea grown in the U.S.”, though this has not always been entirely true, as small-scale commercial efforts have popped up from time to time in California, Oregon, or Washington, and there is some tea cultivation in Hawai’i (see below).

[missing image — Charleston Tea Plantation : Charleston Tea Plantation.]

After the 1915 abandonment of Charles Shepard’s plantation at Pinehurst, the remaining tea plants were simply “left to grow wild”. In 1963, the Thomas J. Lipton Co. took an interest in the plants, presumably with an eye towards re-investigating the possibility of U.S. tea cultivation. The tea was transplanted from Pinehurst to the purchased lands on Wadmalaw Island, and this new plantation eventually becomes known as the Charleston Tea Plantation.75,76

In 1987, Mack Fleming and Bill Hall purchased the plantation from Lipton, and started “America’s Only Tea Garden”, American Classic Tea. The central innovation was the use of a new harvesting machine invented by Fleming that automated the leaf-picking process.77 Something occurred in the following years to derail the project, and in 2003 the partnership was dissolved. The plantation was publicly auctioned; Fleming kept his dream alive, convincing the R.C. Bigelow tea company to purchase the land. American Classic Tea remains a Bigelow trademark, and the Charleston Tea Plantation is still in operation today.78

Hawai’i (2001-present)

While tea was apparently introduced into Hawai’i as far back as 1887, and pursued commercially in the 1980s, its cultivation has never been adopted on a large scale in the state. However, recent innovations, particularly those of Dr. Francis Zee, focused on the genetics of the plant and alternative methods of curing the leaf (including one using a microwave oven!), leave open the possibility of a successful tea industry in Hawai’i.79 These efforts are currently ongoing, and it remains to be seen if they will realize their objectives. There are some tea plantations operating in Hawai’i today, whose product is available for purchase online.


The past experiments detailed above, while all interesting in their own ways, must be viewed as failures in their stated objective of launching a new industry in American-grown tea. While today’s projects are too young to dismiss as unsuccessful, the long history of America’s inability to cultivate tea commercially leads one to view their prospects with a cautious optimism at best.

The theme has always remained the same: the costs of labor involved in the tea production process remain prohibitive, and if tea is to become a successful commercial crop, it will in all likelihood be the result of innovation and invention that automates much of the handiwork involved, or in some other way drastically reduces production costs.

The tea world is certainly complete enough as it stands, in that a lack of a respected American-grown tea does not constitute a serious void. While it would certainly be interesting to see what tea could be grown and prepared here, the produce of China, India, and the various established tea plantations across the world, seems sufficient to allow tea-drinkers to be patient for some time yet.

It is usually assumed the miners attacking Wakamatsu colony were motivated by racist hostility towards the immigrants, and certainly with the well-known history of violence towards Chinese in these times, there is sufficient reason to propose this as an explanation. We find analogous assumptions in treatments of the death of Junius Smith, and in neither case are the ideas preposterous.

In the case of J.H. Schnell, we have many writers painting the man as a heartless villain, though nobody seems to explain what exactly his motivations might have been, or how, other than the abandonment of the colony (certainly an unforgivable act), he actually conducted himself villainously.

I must admit, I find it strange that with named individuals we are quick to assume some kind of trickery or gamesmanship, while with nameless groups we casually assign sinister and vague motives.

Let me start by floating an idea about Schnell and the Wakamatsu “tea colony”: maybe he never had any intention of growing tea? It must be borne in mind that the only thing we can be somewhat certain of with Schnell is that he loved wealth, and would go to extreme ends to achieve it. His proposed plan to Matsudaira, and his expedition to California, come in the years immediately following the “Gold Rush”, and in fact gold was discovered in California only a few miles away from the lands Schnell settled upon for his colony.

There was nothing particularly recommending these lands for tea cultivation that I can tell, and while there are continually references to the Japanese colonists being familiar with tea culture, I find no verifiable information confirming the extent of the small colony’s ‘expertise’. When confronted with his first dead plants, Schnell admits (or claims) he is “not satisfied that the soil is the best in the neighborhood”80, which may betray an amateur opinion, or merely a hint that he needed more public lands.

Why not guess he was like so many others, simply searching (though admittedly in an odd manner) for the infamous gold of the California hills? Why should Matsudaira not be in agreement, for that matter? We can then postulate that Schnell was hoping to find gold as quickly as possible, and never planned ahead for the colony’s debts which he was unable to manage.

While I have no further justification for this speculation, I propose it here as being every bit as possible or likely as any other. It is strange to me that modern authors sometimes seem quite eager to paint Schnell as an absolute monster, whereas at time he seems to me to merely be a man in over his head. That he had (and did not abandon) a Japanese family is not the behavior of a merciless conniver; I also question why, if his goal was simply to abandon the colony, he would bother going back to Japan at all.

I guess what I’m saying is, it seems at least possible Schnell was more of an idiot than a villain.

And coming back around to this postscript’s premise, if we can ascribe Schnell’s actions to ulterior motives (gold-hunting or any other), why do we not do the same to the miners believed to attack the colony? Certainly it makes a bit more sense than simply writing off the attack as a bigoted mob – while I readily admit that many humans are in fact quite prejudiced in some part of their thinking, it’s also generally my experience that people are more motivated to commit dangerous and exhausting acts of violence for money than for any other reason. Violence is hard!

It seems easy and stereotypical perhaps in a different way, but the idea of prospectors scaring the colony away to get at their land seems more likely to me than a group of miners attacking foreigners living miles away from them in the neighboring hills and, from all accounts, having nothing whatsoever to do with them or their activities. If anything, one could even consider this supporting of my theory about Schnell: imagine he was secretly prospecting for gold, and someone in the area discovered this. We continue to assume that the individual (Schnell) was a cunning rogue and the group (miners) were mindless thugs. Why is this?

We see similar assumptions at play in the Junius Smith case, I might add. It is usually stated or suggested that Smith was a gallant, noble man who was murdered by ignorant bigoted Southern whites. This is tidy and overly simplistic. Smith was very likely, at times, an intolerable and awful person; his writings strongly suggest to me that he could be an overbearing, demeaning, belittling, insulting, tyrannical jerk. I personally have no difficulty at all imagining his death having had motivations other than race-related politics.

I remain unsure if a historian has a moral obligation to resist the “it was hate” temptation, or to utilize it as a useful and real fact of the human condition that any scientist should use to more efficiently go about their work. It is not the researcher’s fault that our past could be grossly summarized as: humans are generally terrible to each other; occasionally one invents something.


For those interested, here are the bulk of the photos from Charles Shepard’s progress reports of 1893 and 1899. I have omitted only two, of bare fields from the 1899 report. Please forgive the image quality; I have extracted these from poor scans of old texts, and while I tried to optimize them a bit for displaying here, I have endeavored to present them “as is”.


  1. Lippincott, James S. “Geography of Plants.” In Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1863, 516. Washington, DC, 1863.
  2. Jones, A.C. Thea Viridis, or Chinese Tea Plant, 4. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1877.
  3. Mitchell, Ann. “Steeped in History.” Carolina Homes & Interiors,
  4. Shepard, Charles U. “Special Report on Tea-Raising in South Carolina.” In The Report of the Secretary of Agriculture for 1892, 627. Washington, DC, 1893.
  5. Saunders, William. Tea-Culture as a Probable American Industry, 5. Washington, DC, 1879.
  6. missing
  7. Jones, 1877, 20-21.
  8. “Shall We Grow Tea?”. The Rural Carolinian, 34. October 1869.
  9. “The Tea Plant and Its Culture.” The Rural Carolinian, 92-93. November 1869.
  10. missing
  11. Smith, Junius. “Communication from Junius Smith, Greenville, South Carolina.” In Report of the Commissioner of Patents, for the Year 1850, part 2, 192-94. Washington, DC, 1851.
  12. Smith, Junius. Essays on the Cultivation of the Tea Plant, in the United States of America. New York, 1848.
  13. missing
  14. missing
  15. missing
  16. missing
  17. missing
  18. missing
  19. missing
  20. missing
  21. missing
  22. missing
  23. missing
  24. missing
  25. missing
  26. missing
  27. missing
  28. Saunders, William. Tea-Culture as a Probable American Industry, 17-18. Washington, DC, 1879.
  29. missing
  30. missing
  31. missing
  32. missing
  33. missing
  34. Loring, George B. Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 4-5. Washington, DC, 1883.
  35. Shepard, 1893, 628.
  36. missing
  37. missing
  38. missing
  39. missing
  40. missing
  41. “Tea Growing in South Carolina.” New York Times, February 24, 1895.
  42. Shepard, Charles U. Tea Culture: The Experiment in South Carolina, 11-13. Washington, DC, 1899.
  43. Money, Edward. The Cultivation & Manufacture of Tea, 3rd ed. London, 1878.
  44. Money, Edward. The Cultivation & Manufacture of Tea, 4th ed. London, 1883.
  45. missing
  46. missing
  47. missing
  48. missing
  49. missing
  50. Lee, Kyung Won. “Gold Hill Colony: Hope and Betrayal for a ‘Mayflower’.” Sacramento Union, June 6, 1971.
  51. Lee, 1971.
  52. missing, or Kevin Starr? I suspect contemporary newspaper article
  53. missing
  54. missing
  55. missing
  56. Lee, 1971.
  57. An Act to Enable J.H. Schnell, of California, to Enter and Pay for a Section of Public Land in California for His Tea Colony. Act 2390. February 27, 1871.
  58. missing
  59. missing
  60. missing
  61. missing
  62. missing
  63. missing
  64. missing
  65. Lee, 1971.
  66. missing
  67. missing
  68. Lee, 1971.
  69. Lee, 1971.
  70. missing
  71. Lee, 1971.
  72. missing
  73. missing
  74. Lee, 1971.
  75. missing
  76. missing
  77. missing
  78. missing
  79. missing
  80. missing

Ginsburgs, Boris. “On Assumptions and Arrivals: Early American Attempts at Tea.” Melange Tea & Spice,

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons LicenseCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. You may reuse the text (not images) for non-commercial purposes, but must (a) give the author proper credit and (b) prominently display a link to this page with the reused material.