Connecting Santa Barbara’s early 20th-century Japanese-American Community to those interned at Gila River during WWII

Dr. Stacey Camp of Michigan State University (left) and Koji Lau-Ozawa (right) analyzing ceramic artifacts and field notes from the Chapel excavations. Image by Michael Imwalle.

During the month of July 2019, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP) hosted Stanford PhD Candidate Koji Lau-Ozawa at El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park to conduct research on the previously excavated remains of the early 20th century Nihonmachi (Japantown) of Santa Barbara. I was lucky enough to assist as Koji’s assistant in this process. The goal of the project was to find as many pre-World War II Nihonmachi related artifacts as possible in order to compare them to findings from Gila River, one of ten official Japanese-American Incarceration Camps used during the war to unconstitutionally incarcerate nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans. 

Photographing artifacts for analysis. Image by Ashlynn Deu Pree.

While Koji came into this project with a plan, having worked in archaeology for 13 years, I, coming from a background in history, had no idea what to expect. Very quickly I was thrown into the world of archaeology with my main goal of the month being to re-catalog as many artifacts as possible, most of which had not been looked at since the 1970s. I learned very quickly what this entailed: picking a bag, finding its catalog number, searching through the catalog, identifying  and dividing artifacts by material type, weighing, re-cataloging, and finally re-bagging the artifacts. I went through this process almost 750 times. On day one I learned the difference between “shard” and “sherd.” By week two I was attempting to identify different types of ceramic sherds, and by week three I no longer needed to ask whether something was porcelain, whiteware, or improved whiteware. 

Hundreds of bags of re-catalogued artifacts. Image by Ashlynn Deu Pree.

Over the course of the month we re-bagged and cataloged thousands of artifacts and by the last week we began analyzing what we had discovered. From various bottle bases with maker’s marks, to so-called “geisha girl” porcelain, we had a lot to choose from. We decided to narrow it down to specific pits identified on hand drawn 1970s maps of the excavation site. I was determined to use as many identification marks as I could to date these pits as accurately as possible. While many of the bottles were harder to identify, two distinct foil milk bottle caps were clearly labeled “Durbiano… Santa Barbara.” We were also able to find an “Old Continental Whiskey” bottle in its entirety. Using this information and City directories from Santa Barbara’s Public Library, we will be able to find exactly when this dairy company existed and whether it corresponded with the Nihonmachi.

1911-1912 Santa Barbara City Directory listing a Japanese Mission at 925 Santa Barbara Street. Image by Ashlynn Deu Pree.

While my work in this project is coming to an end, I am grateful to Koji for the opportunity as a history major graduate to learn so much about archaeology. Thank you as well to Archaeologist Mike Imwalle and SBTHP for having us. We hope that this project can fill what we believe to be a void in our historical record, by providing a better understanding and perspective of the lives of pre-war Japanese American communities and how these lives were affected and changed by incarceration.

Written by Ashlynn Deu Pree

Ashlynn Deu Pree cataloging artifacts from the circa 1970’s Bonilla House excavation. Image by Michael Imwalle.
Koji Lau-Ozawa with Shoyu (soy sauce) bottle from the Chapel site marked “Noda” which is the area in Chiba Prefecture where it’s manufactured and is an early version of Kikkoman. Image by Ashlynn Deu Pree.

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