Unearthing the Past: Researchers Survey Former Lumber Town for 19th Century Nikkei History

Special to the JCCCW by David Raymond Carlson

Digging around in other people’s trash probably doesn’t sound like fun to most people. But to the historical archaeologists of the Issei at Barneston Project (IABP), it provides the best window into the experiences, struggles, and successes of a little-studied Japanese American community. 

For the past two years, University of Washington PhD candidate David Carlson, under the guidance of Assistant Professor Sara Gonzalez, has been conducting historical archaeological research at a Nikkei sawmill worker camp in Barneston, Washington. The goal of this work is to better understand the daily lives, choices, and experiences of these workers and their families.

Established by the Kent Lumber Company in 1898, Barneston processed lumber gathered in what is now the Cedar River Municipal Watershed until 1924, when the town was acquired by the City of Seattle as part of their effort to preserve local water sources. About one-third of Barneston’s workforce were first-generation Japanese Americans. The site currently sits on land protected by the city and managed by Seattle Public Utilities.

Relatively little has been written specifically about Nikkei workers on sawmill towns like Barneston. These mills are an important part of Pacific Northwest history, adding to our understanding of economic development, unionization, and environmental history. But in the history of their Japanese workers, they also have something to tell us about the experiences of immigrants. 

At towns like Barneston, Issei workers and their families found economic opportunities as laborers in the mill yards and plants. The money from this could be invested in future work, like farming, or used to support their families here and in Japan.  

At the same time, their work was physically demanding and dangerous; most Issei worked outside stacking and tying heavy lumber, and even those that would have found work inside one of the mills would have had to contend with conveyors, machine saws, and other hazardous equipment. 

Even the local environment could be tricky; according to one informant, inhabitants of the Barneston Nikkei community rarely went outside after dark, due to the dangers of falling and injuring oneself over tree stumps, rocks, and uneven terrain. 

And even with this economic opportunity, the towns were not free of discrimination. From early pay inequalities to a consistent hierarchical labor organization, in which Japanese workers were often restricted to only the most basic labor, Issei still had to navigate United States racism.

The question the IABP poses, then, is what can historical archaeology tell us about how all of this impacted the daily lives of the community at Barneston? And what can the evidence of this daily live—what people ate and drank, what they did in their spare time, how they organized their community—tell us about how they responded to these issues?

To answer these questions, the project directors will rely on a combination of oral testimonies, historical documents, maps, photographs, and archaeological evidence. One of the strengths of historical archaeology is its ability to weave these different lines of evidence together to create a more complete picture of the past.

One example of this process in action is the current efforts at surveying the site. Over the past two years, David Carlson, with assistance from UW graduate and undergraduate students, has worked to “ground-truth” historic maps and photographs of the Nikkei community. “Ground-truthing” involves evaluating the accuracy of historic documents like these through archaeological survey. Scatters of bricks, metal water pipes, nails, and burned wood can all confirm the presence of historic buildings. They may even indicate places where the archaeological record deviates from these documents, such as the presence of additional homes, building extensions, or rock gardens. 

Once the survey is complete, the archaeologists will identify the most intact building deposits and middens and begin excavating them. This work, funded by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement grant, will hopefully give the project leads what they need. By comparing artifacts from different areas of the site—such as those of a household to a communal trash heap, or of a household to the bathhouse—they hope to be able to reconstruct the variation in daily life at Barneston’s Nikkei camp and address some of their questions about the role of racism, class, and labor play in immigrant experiences.  

If you have information to share with UW researchers, write to davidrcn@uw.edu.