“Where the water touches this soil of disintegrated granite ... these Indians have made ... their Country, which otherwise were Desert, to bloom and blossom...” U.S. Army Captain J.W. Davidson, 1859
Relocations recur throughout the history of Manzanar and the Owens Valley. The Paiute and early farmers, as well as Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes at different times and in different ways.
American Indians began using the valley 10,000 years ago. About 1,500 years ago the Owens Valley Paiute established villages here. They hunted, fished, collected pine nuts, and diverted local streams to irrigate native plants. Miners and ranchers moved into the valley in the early 1860s and homesteaded Paiute lands. They raised cattle, sheep, fruit, wheat, and other crops. A conflict between Paiute and settlers over land use erupted. The U.S. Army was called in and forcibly relocated nearly 1,000 Owens Valley Paiute in 1863.
Many Paiute later returned to the Owens Valley and some worked on local ranches. The town of Manzanar, the Spanish word for “apple orchard,” developed as an agricultural settlement beginning in 1910. Farmers grew apples, pears, peaches, potatoes, and alfalfa on several thousand acres surrounding the town.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began acquiring land and water rights in the valley in 1905. The department completed the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. Land buyouts continued in the 1920s. By 1929 Los Angeles owned all of Manzanar’s land and water rights. These acquisitions forced some farmers to relocate out of the Owens Valley. Five years later the town was abandoned. A long era of settlement and agricultural production came to an end.
“It was a hard winter with so much snow that the sagebrush was buried and you could not see even the top of it. We ate seeds my mother had gathered ...”
- Sam Newland, a Paiute describing his Owens Valley childhood, mid-1800s.
The Owens Valley Paiute relied on abundant water from snow-fed Sierra streams and a diversity of plants and animals for their subsistence. Living in settlements along the waterways, the Paiute created irrigation systems to enhance the growth of native plant foods. For more than 3000 years they hunted game, gathered piñon nuts, made baskets and pottery, and traded with other native groups beyond the mountains.
In the 1860s, discovery of gold and silver in the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains attracted a flood of prospectors. Ranchers and farmers followed, often using Paiute irrigation systems and grasslands. A harsh winter and scarce food in 1861 - 1862 forced the Paiute and settlers into open conflict. The military intervened. In 1863, they forcibly removed 1,000 Paiute 175 miles away to Fort Tejon, in the mountains south of Bakersfield, California.
Many Paiute eventually left Fort Tejon and returned to the Owens Valley where they lived in camps near towns and farms. They integrated farm and domestic labor with traditional food gathering. By 1866, they were indispensable to the Owens Valley agricultural economy.
“He brought his family to the country, locating on the beautiful stream ... There he built a home noted ... for its comfort and its open handed welcome to the friend or transient.” - Inyo Register, describing the home of John Shepherd, who settled in 1864 at what later became Manzanar.
Nearly half the miners who came in search of riches in the 1860s were immigrants. They came from countries including Scotland, France, Mexico, and Chile. Pablo Flores, a Mexican miner, first discovered silver at Cerro Gordo in 1865. The area eventually produced over $13,000,000 in silver, lead, and zinc. Other newcomers, using the Homestead and Pre-emption Laws to settle on Paiute homelands, farmed and raised livestock to support the mining camps.
After 1880, a decline in mining reduced demand for local farm products. With no adequate transportation to outside markets, the Owens Valley economy wilted. This changed when the narrow gauge Carson and Colorado Railroad was built on the east side of the valley. It provided an adequate, though expensive, means of shipping livestock and crops. By 1885 seven major canals provided Owens River water to valley farms.
John Shepherd homesteaded 160 acres near Manzanar in 1864. By the late 1880s, he owned 1,300 acres. He employed Paiute men and women as field workers and as laborers. They worked on a toll road to the Panamint and Darwin mines east of the Owens Valley, in what is today Death Valley National Park.
“Manzanar was a very happy place and a pleasant place to live during those years, with its peach, pear, and apple orchards, alfalfa fields, tree-lined country lanes, meadows and corn fields.”
- Martha Mills, Manzanar resident from 1916 to 1929
In 1905 the city of Los Angeles announced plans to build a 230 mile-long aqueduct to supply their growing city with Owens Valley water. That year John Shepherd sold his Owens Valley ranch to George Chaffey, a prominent Southern California agricultural developer.
Over the next five years, Chaffey’s Owens Valley Improvement Company laid the groundwork for an agricultural subdivision, piping water from local creeks and planting thousands of fruit trees. Eventually 480 acres of apples, 40 acres of peaches, 30 acres of pears, 5 acres of prunes, and several acres of grapes grew at Manzanar. The company’s promotional brochures promised “Fortunes of Apples in Owens Valley.” Several dozen families moved to the area. The new town of Manzanar grew to include a general store, community hall, garage, and school.
During the 1920s the city of Los Angeles began buying additional water rights and property in the Owens Valley. Chaffey sold his Owens Valley Improvement Company interests to the city in 1924. Other farmers followed. Some leased their orchards back from the city while others moved away. The city of Los Angeles managed the Manzanar orchards until 1932. The town’s last two families left in 1934.
War and Exclusion
“We had about one week to dispose of what we owned, except what we could pack and carry for our departure by bus . . . for Manzanar.” - William Hohri
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, led the United States into World War II. It radically changed the lives of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. The attack intensified racial prejudices. It led to fear of potential sabotage and espionage by Japanese Americans among some in the government, military, news media, and the public.
In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might be a threat to the war effort. Without due process, the government gave everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the West coast only days to decide what to do with their houses, farms, businesses, and other possessions. Most families sold their belongings at a significant loss.
Each family was assigned an identification number and loaded into cars, buses, trucks, and trains, taking only what they could carry. Japanese Americans were transported under military guard to 17 temporary assembly centers located at racetracks, fairgrounds, and similar facilities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Then they were moved to one of ten hastily built relocation centers. By November, 1942, the relocation was complete.
Racism & Exclusion
“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. Herd ‘em up, pack ‘em off and give ‘em the inside room in the badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it . . . Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.” - Henry McLemore, a Hearst syndicated columnist, January, 1942
Representatives of the California congressional delegation were reportedly “beginning to get up in arms” over the Japanese situation. They led an informal meeting that included Washington state congressmen, and Justice and War department personnel. The group unanimously approved, on January 30, 1942, a program which called for an evacuation of enemy aliens and “dual” citizens from critical areas.
This led to Executive Order 9066 which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed on February 19, 1942. The order authorized the removal of Japanese Americans from the eastern sections of California, Oregon, Washington, as well as southern Arizona and parts of Alaska. The exclusion zone eventually expanded to include all of California.
Forty years later, Congressional hearings determined that, “the promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it—detention, ending detention and ending exclusion—were not driven by the analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity to tell you what you have done for this country. You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice. And you won. You have made the Constitution stand for what it really means: the welfare of all the people, all the time.”- President Harry S. Truman speaking to the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, July 15, 1946
On March 30, 1942, the War Department issued an order discontinuing the induction of Japanese Americans into the U.S. armed services. The order classified them as unsuitable for military service. Some government officials and the Japanese American Citizens League argued that American citizens of Japanese ancestry should have the same opportunity to prove their patriotism and bear the same responsibility to fight for their country.
Supporting the War
“An oft-repeated ritual in relocation camp schools . . . was the salute to the flag followed by the singing of “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty”—a ceremony Caucasian teachers found embarrassingly awkward if not cruelly poignant in the austere prison-camp setting.” - Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy
The men and women who joined the military were not the only Americans of Japanese ancestry who contributed to the war effort. Manzanar internees immediately went to work helping to build and maintain a community that included mess halls and agricultural operations, a hospital, a newspaper, and schools. Children participated in patriotic assemblies and pledged allegiance to the American flag. Nearly 500 citizen internees wove camouflage nets for U.S. Army use overseas.
One effort, the quayule project, channeled the unique scientific and research talents of Manzanar residents in support of the war effort. When America’s rubber supply was cut off by Japanese incursions into Southeast Asia, government agencies sought alternative sources of rubber. During the spring of 1942, experiments in guayule rubber culture were undertaken at Manzanar. Dr. Robert Emerson, a Cal Tech professor and Quaker, assembled a group of internee scientists, horticulturists and laborers to develop rubber from guayule. Propagation beds, field plots, a chemical and a cytogenetics laboratory were built in camp. They successfully extracted natural rubber contained in the woody parts of this desert plant. Camp administrators and internees promoted the project both as a chance to allow internees to use their agricultural and scientific expertise and to contribute to the war effort.
“The first morning in Manzanar when I woke up and saw what Manzanar looked like, I just cried. And then I saw the high Sierra mountains, just like my native country’s mountain, and I just cried, that’s all.”
- Haruko Niwa, Manzanar internee
In 1942 the U.S. Army leased 6,200 acres at Manzanar from the city of Los Angeles to build and operate a War Relocation Center for Japanese Americans. In addition to being remote, Manzanar’s isolation, water resources and agricultural history made it suitable for such a purpose. About two-thirds of all Japanese Americans confined at Manzanar were American citizens by birth. The remainder was resident aliens, many of whom had lived in the United States for decades, but who, by law, were denied U.S. citizenship.
The 500-acre housing section was surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers staffed by military police with searchlights and guns. By September 1942, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. There was little or no privacy in the barracks or anywhere else in camp. The 200 to 300 people living in each block had separate men’s and women’s toilets and showers, a laundry room, and a mess hall. Up to eight individuals were housed in a 20-by-25-foot room, with four rooms to each barracks, furnished with an oil stove, a single hanging light bulb and cots.
Coming from Los Angeles and other communities in coastal California and Washington, Manzanar’s internees were unaccustomed to the harsh desert environment. Summer temperatures soared as high as 110°. In winter temperatures frequently plunged below freezing. Throughout the year strong winds swept the valley often blanketing the camp with dust and sand.
“One of the hardest things to endure was the communal latrines, with no partitions; and showers with no stalls.” -Rosie Kakuuchi
Japanese Americans endured many changes and indignities. However, a great number attempted to make the best of a bad situation. The War Relocation Authority [WRA], the civilian agency that administered the camp, formed an advisory council of internee-elected block managers. Internees with the support of the WRA established churches, temples, and boys and girls clubs. They developed sports, music, dance, and other recreational programs. They built gardens and ponds and published a newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press.
Most adults worked, maintaining and operating the camp. Children and many adults attended school. The barracks had no cooking facilities. That meant that internees had to line up three times a day, in any kind of weather, to eat at their block mess hall.
As the war turned in America’s favor, restrictions were lifted, and Japanese Americans were allowed to leave the camps. Church groups, service organizations, and some camp administrators helped find sponsors and jobs in the Midwest and the East.
A total of 11,070 Japanese Americans came through Manzanar. From a peak of 10,046 in September 1942, the population dwindled to 6,000 by 1944. The last few hundred internees left in November 1945, three months after the war ended. Many of them had spent three-and-a-half years at Manzanar, some had no home to return to.
“It may be hard for people who have always lived according to the American pattern to comprehend the full import of the term ‘nothing to do,’ but to (the internees) confined within a . . .barbed-wire enclosure it was only too real and full of meaning . . . No going anywhere to see or do anything!”
-Final Report of the War Relocation Authority
Despite working in camp or attending school, many Japanese Americans found time to join clubs and play sports. Some people, particularly the older Issei men and women, the original immigrants from Japan, chose not to work.
Children and adults participated in a variety of games and sports. Playing and watching baseball was so popular that Manzanar supported not just baseball teams, but leagues of multiple teams. Many blocks built basketball courts. Students played volleyball in the firebreak west of the auditorium. Some internees even built a 9-hole “golf course” of oiled sand in the southwest corner of the camp. Japanese traditions were kept alive through judo and kendo and games like Goh and Shogi.
Arts and craft clubs provided opportunities to share knowledge and culture. Artists gave lessons in painting and sketching, providing their own equipment and supplies themselves. Several expert sewing teachers who had operated a sewing school before the war gave lessons to over 1,100 individuals. Early on, hundreds of students learned paper flower-making without real flowers. Knitting, embroidery, puppetry, and Japanese calligraphy helped internees pass the time and beautify their surroundings.
Arts and craft clubs provided opportunities to share knowledge and culture. Artists gave lessons in painting and sketching, and provided their own equipment and supplies. Many had been successful artists before they were sent to Manzanar. The classes allowed internees to pass the time while creating beauty in the bleak camp.
Before he was sent to Manzanar, Charles Isamu Morimoto was a well-known commercial artist in Los Angeles. Through pencil drawing, pen and ink sketches and watercolor paintings he documented life in the camp. Scenes ranged from the camouflage net factory to the baseball fields. Morimoto also sought to capture the power of the Sierra Nevada Mountains rising dramatically to the west of camp. By teaching his craft at Manzanar, Mr. Morimoto inspired young and old artists alike.
Many become reknowned artists after leaving Manzanar.
School and Sports
“We are building for tomorrow for a strong and active life. Not for fame or gold to borrow nor to wage a war of strife. Forward! Forward! Forward for America!” -Words of the Manzanar School Song as remembered by Victor Muraoka
The Education Department at Manzanar “started in the corner of one barrack in June, 1942,” reported the Manzanar Free Press. Shortages of space, supplies, and teaching staff presented significant barriers to educating Manzanar’s students.
At first, ninth-grader Yuri Matsunaga recalled “sitting on the floor in a bare room without any desks or chairs.” She was among more than 2,300 students relocated to Manzanar before the end of the 1942 school year.
One year later, however, the Manzanar Free Press reported, “about 50 percent of the total community population is going to school.” The elementary school enrolled 1,300; the secondary school 1,400; and the Adult Education program 2,050. An “Americanization” program began in May 1942, with adult English language, Democracy, and U.S. History classes taught by internees.
Many college students who had their education disrupted by war, and others who aspired to attend college, were able to leave the camps in pursuit of higher education. Camp teachers, counselors, and the Quaker-led National Japanese American Student Relocation Council assisted more than 4,000 students in leaving war relocation centers for schools away from the West Coast.
"We were faced with children ill with measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, diarrhea. The only place we had for care were barracks without heat, no stove, no water . . . For me, it was a matter of 14-16 hours per day of struggle and frustration."
-Dr. Yoshie Togasaki, describing early medical care at Manzanar
Japanese Americans came to camp with a diversity of work skills. Most immediately used these skills for the betterment of the camp, as it grew to a city of 10,000 people. College- educated professionals helped establish the hospital, skilled laborers built and managed the reservoir and sewage systems.
Manzanar blossomed under the care of farmers, gardeners, nursery owners, and landscapers who were sent to camp. They tended areas of fruits and vegetables, and raised chickens, hogs, and cattle. They made clothes and furniture for themselves and camouflage netting and experimental rubber for the military. They served as mess hall workers, doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and teachers.
Professionals were paid $19 per month, skilled workers received $16, and nonskilled workers got $12. Many pooled their resources and created a consumer cooperative that published the Manzanar Free Press. They operated a general store, beauty parlor, barbershop, bank, and provided many other services. Young people, many of whom had to leave college to come to camp, took jobs to gain experience in a variety of fields.
In sixteen connected buildings, the Manzanar hospital housed operating rooms, wards, laboratories, kitchens, laundry, pharmacy, and staff quarters. While there were a few Caucasian doctors and nurses, nearly the entire staff were Japanese American doctors, nurses, dentists, and technicians. Treatment was available and free to all, and a steady stream of ailments, both real and imagined, kept staff overworked. Easy access to care meant that some people sought treatment sooner than they would have outside the camp.
“We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
- President George H.W. Bush, in a letter of apology to former internees, 1990
After the war, the federal government sold the barracks and other buildings and returned Manzanar to the city of Los Angeles. For the next four decades, local residents hunted, cut firewood, and harvested fruit from the original orchards.
For most Japanese Americans, returning home was difficult. By the end of the war, many American born Japanese resettled in the Midwest and on the East Coast with help from churches and other organizations. Parents faced the decision of whether to join their children in new communities or to return to their pre-war communities. Many had lost their homes, businesses, and farms. They were forced to start over again.
From the closing of camp in1945, to the first pilgrimage in 1969, Manzanar lay largely forgotten. However beginning in the 1970s, Japanese Americans and others worked for decades to insure that Manzanar would be preserved so that all Americans could learn this important part of our shared history.
On March 3, 1992 Congress established Manzanar National Historic Site, entrusting the National Park Service to preserve the site and tell its stories.
“We are so sorry that this tragedy ever happened and are here to pay our respects.”
- Note left at the Manzanar cemetery with a decorated teakettle by visitors
On May 16, 1942, Matsunosuke Murakami, 62, became the first of 150 men, women, and children to die in camp. He and 14 others, most infants and older men without families, were laid to rest in the Manzanar cemetery. The cemetery was outside the barbed wire fence in an old peach orchard from Manzanar's farming era. In the shadow of majestic Mt. Williamson their somber funerals and memorials were attended by hundreds of mourners.
While some deceased were sent to hometown cemeteries, most were cremated. Their ashes were held in camp until their families left Manzanar. Six burials remain today.
Visiting the cemetery can be a personal pilgrimage: of reflection, worship, remembrance, or protest. Some people leave offerings: coins, personal mementos, paper cranes, water and sake, and religious items. These are tangible expressions of the ongoing, unspoken conversations about America’s past and its future.
For more than six decades, the large concrete monument in the Manzanar cemetery has memorialized those who died here. The monument’s Japanese Kanji characters read, “Soul Consoling Tower” on the front and “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943” on the back.
Amid the 1960s civil rights struggles, younger Japanese Americans spoke out, shattering their elders’ silence and shame about the camps. In December 1969 a group of about 150 people journeyed to Manzanar for what they called the first Manzanar Pilgrimage. They discovered that two Issei leaders, Buddhist minister Sentoku Maeda and Christian minister Shoichi Wakahiro, had actually been returning to the site for 25 years.
Sue Kunitomi arrived at Manzanar in May 1942, at age 19. In camp, she served as a teacher’s aid and wove camouflage nets to support the war effort. She also worked as a reporter, and then managing editor of the Manzanar Free Press.
Years later, Sue Kunitomi Embrey was among the first of her generation to speak out about the camps. As the driving force behind the Manzanar Committee, she organized the Manzanar Pilgrimage for 37 years. She worked tirelessly to ensure that this site and its stories would be preserved to protect the human and civil rights of all. Today, Sue’s legacy endures in the ongoing work of informing and inspiring future generations.
In recent years the Manzanar Committee has reached out to Arab- and Muslim-American groups and included their representatives in the Pilgrimage events. At the 2006 Pilgrimage, Monica Embrey, granddaughter of Manzanar Committee founder Sue Kunitomi Embrey, said, “In the early days of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, our grandmother often spoke of how gratifying it was to have so many Sansei and young people of all races coming and struggling to understand how and why this happened. And more importantly, she always said how essential it was that so many people came forward pledging to fight against something like this ever happening again.”
“No one could really learn from the books. You have to walk through the blocks, see the gardens, and the remains of the stone walls and rocks -Sue Kunitomi Embrey
In January 1972, the California State Department of Parks and Recreation designated Manzanar as a State Historic Landmark. On July 30, 1976, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1977 the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board declared Manzanar a City Historic Landmark. In February 1985 Manzanar was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
On March 3, 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed legislation establishing Manzanar as a National Historic Site under the stewardship of the National Park Service. Today the National Park Service operates an extensive interpretive center in the restored camp auditorium. Visitors learn about the experiences of Japanese Americans, Owens Valley Paiute, ranchers, and farmers at Manzanar. Staff tend the site’s historic orchards, excavate and preserve camp gardens, and host hundreds of school children and nearly 100,000 visitors each year. Volunteers participate in landscaping projects, archival projects, and serving visitors.
Thousands of visitors have been exposed to Manzanar stories since the center opened in April 2004. Many more learn about Manzanar through official National Park Service websites, including this virtual museum.