Classic black-and-white photos from the early decades of the American West often fail to capture the diversity of the people who came here. Chinese migrants helped build the railroads and were important in gold mining. The Basques of Spain became known for herding sheep. The first Filipino cannery workers arrived at the turn of the last century. Now archaeologists in Oregon are on the surprising trail of Japanese families who lived in a now-vanished logging town.
The project promises to paint a fuller picture of those who built the Pacific Northwest, which is a favorite research target of archaeologist Chelsea Rose, director of the University of Southern Europe’s Anthropology Laboratory. Oregon. In his team’s latest foray into eastern Oregon, they’re literally digging into lumber history.
“The logging story is a white man’s story,” Rose said. “Not only do you not see the Japanese, the Chinese, all the other people who were working on these kinds of operations, but you also do not see the families. You do not see the women and children.”
Which brings us to the ruins of the old Baker White Pine Mill and the company town that once surrounded it in rural Grant County, Oregon about a century ago – 1912 to 1930, to be more accurate.
A spindly pine forest has grown back on the property northeast of Prairie City. But keen eyes and metal detectors helped Rose and a team of professional archaeologists and volunteers identify places to dig where the workers’ homes might have been.
The scene had all the characteristics you might associate with archaeology. There were grid markers and shallow square pits in the ground with people wielding trowels, brushes, buckets and sifting trays.
Working in the hot July sun, the researchers only had to scrape away a few centimeters before they began to uncover remnants of domestic life. The bounty included a delicate ring with encrusted gemstones and many shards of Western-style Japanese export porcelain, some with distinctive dragon and cloud designs.
“We’re on an industrial site and we find doll arms, marbles and tea sets. It’s really reminiscent of the idea that families were part of those early industries in those remote areas,” Rose said during a lunch break. “We need to broaden our understanding of what that looks like.”
The sawmill ruin and missing company town is now an unmarked U.S. Forest Service site. Blue Mountain Ranger District archaeologist Katee Withee said the Forest Service may eventually install interpretive signs or add the site to a driving tour. When Withee was growing up in eastern Oregon, she said she had no idea that Japanese workers a century ago were building railroad branch lines, cooking in lumber camps and being hired in factories in the region.
“It makes sense once you look at the census records, doesn’t it,” Withee said. “But that was definitely not something that we were highlighting in the eighth grade story.”
Census records from 1910, 1920, and 1930 included the names and occupations of dozens of immigrants and Japanese American families who lived in the township around Baker White Pine Mill. They weren’t farmers, it’s a common assumption – and often a correct presumption – of what this group did a century ago.
The information from the archaeological digs was exciting and new enough to prompt the acting deputy director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Mark Takiguchi, and the museum’s research coordinator, James Rodgers, to drive all the way from Portland to observe .
“It’s so cool !” Takiguchi erupted after walking through the large site.
“Personally, I’m really interested in knowing where they went,” Takiguchi said. “What was the next chapter after this chapter closed? Where did they travel in Oregon or Idaho? What were the stories? I think we have some really exciting leads from living people that we can pursue.”
They would be descendants probably three generations away from the names appearing on the old census lists.
“We’re going to bring some really exciting stories back to our community,” Takiguchi promised.
The genealogical research will take place simultaneously with the examination of thousands of artifacts collected during the excavations of the sawmill. The physical objects were brought back to the Southern Oregon University lab in Ashland in late July. So far, Rose said researchers haven’t been able to link specific artifacts or origin sites to identifiable families, but that’s a key goal.