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Enduring Communities

Japanese Americans in the Interior West: A Regional Perspective on the Enduring Nikkei Historical Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah (and Beyond): Part 3

>> Part 2

The two-pronged cause prompting the mass exodus of Issei railroad and mining gang laborers from Wyoming and Montana was their desire to pursue agricultural employment as well as the comparative paucity of opportunities to do so within these neighboring states.  Wyoming suffered the most dismal agricultural scenario; subject to extremely cold temperatures and generally considered to be semi-arid, it was “climatologically inhospitable to farming.”1   According to Masakazu Iwata, while the great majority of Issei immigrants were toiling in the railroad and mining industries in the southwestern part of the state,2 in northern Wyoming a much smaller number took up farming in the Powell and Worland districts and around the town of Sheridan.3   Most of the farmers remaining in Wyoming after 1910 found work as gang laborers in the northern sugar beet fields, although the majority of Issei agricultural workers migrated to such nearby Interior West states as Colorado, Nebraska, and, in particular, Idaho, for employment in those states’ respective sugar beet operations.4

The Japanese agricultural story in Montana, as Iwata has recorded, played out differently from that in Wyoming—and the primary factor in that difference was not climate, but racism.  Very early in the twentieth century, as Japanese immigrant railroad workers began to seek other employment (due in part to the hostility they encountered from white laborers), they were recruited to work on labor gangs in the state’s burgeoning sugar beet industry.  By 1907 Issei had gained invaluable experience farming sugar beets, and they began raising this crop on land they controlled either as owners, or more generally, as leaseholders; most of these farms were located in south-central Montana, just north of Wyoming’s border, around communities like Joliet, Park City, Bridger, and Fromberg.  Shortly after World War I (which swelled Montana farm profits), Issei farmers began growing other crops (e.g., potatoes, melons, onions, and cabbage) as well as sugar beets.  Issei also launched farming ventures in northwest Montana near the town of Whitefish, with some cultivating crops previously deemed not feasible for the area (such as celery and lettuce), and some abandoned vegetable production altogether for dairy farming.  By 1923, anti-Asian sentiments were formalized in the form of an alien land law modeled on the one imposed in California; its strict enforcement both prohibited white landowners from leasing farmland to aliens ineligible for citizenship (i.e., Japanese and Korean immigrants) and persuaded many Issei to either stop farming in Montana or move, as many of their compatriots already had, to more accommodating Interior West states (in particular, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Idaho)5 and there pursue their agricultural aspirations.6

The history of the sugar beet industry in the Interior West is too complicated to be discussed in much detail here,7 but since it was of paramount importance to the frontier and settlement stages of Nikkei in this region, a few basic facts are in order.  (Thankfully, Masakasu Iwata has admirably tackled how and to what extent the sugar beet industry influenced the development of Nikkei agriculture and community building in not only Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah,8 but also in such other Interior West states as Arizona, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.)9

Heart Mountain inmates on work furlough harvesting sugar beets, February 1943. Gift of Mori Shimada, Japanese American National Museum (92.10.2P)

The research and development phase of the industry—which primarily took place in Utah under the guidance of Mormon Church agricultural supervisors—was effectively completed by 1897; between 1898 and 1920, abetted by irrigation practices and the securing of sufficient labor throughout the region, the industry experienced tremendous expansion.10   Working in labor gangs, thousands of Issei dominated the handwork done in the regional sugar beet fields during the twentieth century’s opening decade.  (As succinctly described by Masakazu Iwata, in Planted in Good Soil, “handwork” in the sugar beet fields consisted of “the bunching and thinning, the arduous hoeing, and the back-breaking work of topping and loading.”)11   By about 1920, however, most sugar beet hand laborers were Mexican immigrants.12 This change occurred because Issei bachelors began to nurture a family-based Nikkei society here in the United States, in part due to both the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1908 and the Immigration Act of 1924; they began to marry and bring relatives over from Japan.  As Eric Walz writes, they “chose to move as quickly as possible from the ranks of the common laborer to operating their own farms and businesses.”13

Not all Issei laborers who exchanged railroad and mining employment for agricultural pursuits in the Interior West migrated to this region from within the continental U.S., nor did these migrants always enter farming in their new locations via the sugar beet industry.14   One way of giving these abstract points concrete embodiment is through examining a case study, that of the Japanese experience in El Paso, Texas.  Invaluable to this case study is work done by two past graduate students at the University of Texas, El Paso: the first by a Japanese social scientist, Tsuyako Miyasato, and the second by an American historian, Christe Celia Armendariz.15

Most Issei migrants to El Paso, the largest city along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, traveled either from Mexico or from diverse parts of the continental United States.  After experiencing difficulty entering America from Mexico during 1906-1907, owing to widespread fears in the U.S. of a so-called “Japanese Invasion,” Issei laborers resorted to smuggling themselves across the border into El Paso, where Texas officials welcomed them because of their reputed agricultural expertise.  When the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, the United States suspended its immigration laws in order to provide Nikkei refuge from Mexico.  Thereafter, the refugees—primarily ex-railroad laborers in Mexico—formed the cornerstone of a small yet flourishing Japanese colony in El Paso.

Texas did not impose an anti-Japanese alien land law until 1921, so prior to that date the Japanese population in the city and the surrounding valley of El Paso grew steadily as Nikkei farmers availed themselves of the twin opportunities to farm their own land and to become permanent settlers.  The first Issei to purchase land in El Paso did so in 1914, and just two years later El Paso had 44 Japanese residents.  By 1920 Issei farmed—mainly as leaseholders—one-fifth of El Paso Valley’s 50,000 acres of fertile land, and by the next year there were 125 Japanese who owned 70 acres and leased another 5,000 acres proximate to the city.  Cantaloupes were the chief crop, although it later suffered devastation by nematodes (i.e., roundworms). 

A number of Issei men who came to El Paso not only married Mexican women, but they also adopted Spanish first names; thus, Ryiochi Okubo became José Okubo.  During the 1930s, the El Paso Nikkei population swelled due to those who moved to Texas to escape the unbearable racism leveled against those of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast and in Mexico.  Then, too, in the 1930s, as the actions of the fascist Japanese government became manifest in the media, some Japanese El Pasoans sought to protect themselves by changing their Japanese surnames to Mexican ones.16   Of the 38 Nikkei who made El Paso their home during World War II, the majority escaped confinement in concentration camps, while El Paso Valley’s mainstream population and their organizations refrained from publicly demanding the wholesale removal of its Japanese-ancestry residents.  When the war ended, however, the Japanese in El Paso became the victims of racial hatred, and this persecution drove many to move to other parts of the U.S.17

Part 4 >>


1.  Hickman, “Japanese Railroad Workers in Wyoming,” p. 32.

2.  See A. Dudley Gardner, “The Japanese in Southwest Wyoming,” (accessed July 11, 2009).

3.  Iwata, Planted in Good Soil , pp. 604-05.  See also, Cynde Georgen, “Subjects of the Mikado: The Rise and Fall of Sheridan County’s Japanese Community, 1900-1930,” (accessed July 11, 2009)

4.  Hickman, “Japanese Railroad Workers in Wyoming,” p. 33.

5.  Thus, all four of these states experienced increased Japanese populations between 1910 and 1920—Colorado, 2,300 to 2,464; Idaho, 1,263 to 1,569; Nebraska, 590 to 804; Utah, 2,100 to 2,956— even after the passage of the 1908 Gentlemen’s Agreement, by which the Japanese government agreed to limit issuance of continental passports to non-laborers; former residents; parents, wives, or children of residents; or settled agriculturists (i.e., those who wished to assume active control of an already possessed interest in a mainland farming enterprise).  See Hickman, “Japanese Railroad Workers in Wyoming,” p. 47.    

6.  The information about Japanese farming in Montana is drawn from Iwata, Planted in Good Soil , pp. 605-07.

7.  For a baseline study pertaining to this topic, see Leonard J. Arrington, Beet Sugar in the West: A History of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1891-1966 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966).  See also four articles on this same topic that appeared in volume 41 (January 1967) of Agricultural History : Leonard Arrington, “Science, Government, and Enterprise in Economic Development: The Western Beet Sugar Industry,” pp. 1-18; Paul S. Taylor, “Hand Laborers in the Western Sugar Beet Industry,” pp. 19-26; Gerald D. Nash, “The Sugar Beet Industry and Economic Growth in the West,” pp. 27-30; and Wayne D. Rasmussen, “Technological Change in Western Sugar Beet Production,” pp. 31-36.

8.  For a discussion about Colorado, see Iwata, Planted In Good Soil , pp. 634-69, especially pp. 634-45 and  661-63; for Idaho, see ibid., pp. 615-24, especially pp. 616 and 622-24; for Nebraska, see ibid., pp. 607-614, especially p. 609; and for Utah, see ibid., pp. 595-604, especially pp. 595-99, 601, and 603-04.

9.  The situation in Arizona is discussed in ibid., pp. 672-701, particularly pp. 674-75; for Kansas, see ibid., pp. 614-15; for Montana, see ibid., pp. 605-07; for Nevada, see ibid., pp. 624-26; for New Mexico, see ibid., pp. 701-08, particularly pp. 702-03; for South Dakota, see ibid., p. 755; for Texas, see ibid., pp. 717-41, particularly pp. 734-35; and for Wyoming, see ibid., pp. 604-05.   Of the 14 Interior West states, Iwata fails to mention only Oklahoma and North Dakota relative to the Japanese role in sugar beet agriculture.  However, he does state that “in the Dakotas, statistics indicate that the Japanese population in North Dakota was from the earliest years greater than that of South Dakota because of the entry of railroad, mine, and farm workers from the neighboring state of Montana” (ibid., p. 755).  

10.  Historian Leonard Arrington observes that in the 1898-1913 interval, a total of 86 new beet factories were built, more than half by 1903, involving an $80 million investment (“Science, Government, and Enterprise in Economic Development,” p. 10).  In “Japanese Settlement in the Intermountain West” Eric Walz, being more pointed, writes that in the states of “Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah, sugar beet acreage expanded from a total of 168,425 acres in 1910, to 506,200 acres in 1920 [and that] the number of sugar factories in those same four states increased from ten in 1900, to forty-nine in 1920, while the total tonnage of sugar beets produced  . . . grew from 39,385 tons in 1901 to 4,779,00 tons in 1920” (p. 2).

 11.  Iwata, Planted in Good Soil, p. 167.  For a detailed account of sugar beet handwork, including a recollection by an Issei who experienced it, see Eric Walz, “Masayoshi Fujimoto: Japanese Diarist, Idaho Farmer” (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 1994), pp. 16-17.  

12.  Taylor, “Hand Laborers in the Western Sugar Beet Industry,” p. 22.  For the role of Mexican labor in the Interior West sugar beet industry in the states of Wyoming and Colorado, see, respectively, Augustin Redwine, “Lovell’s Mexican Colony,” (accessed July 13, 2009); Barbara Hawthorne, “Mexican American Cultural History,” (accessed July 13, 2009). 

13.  Walz, “From Kumamoto to Idaho,” pp. 408-09.

14.  For a useful multicultural study focused on the sugar beet industry within the Interior West, see R. Todd Welker, “Sweet Dreams in Sugar Land: Japanese Farmers, Mexican Farm Workers, and Northern Utah Beet Production” (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 2002).  Welker’s scholarship builds upon three published studies of the sugar beet industry in Utah and Idaho―Arrington’s Beet Sugar in the West: A History of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1891-1966 ; J. R. Bachman, Story of the Amalgamated Sugar Company 1897-1961 (Caldwell, Ida.: Caxton, 1962); and Fred G. Taylor, A Saga of Sugar: Being a Story of the Romance and Development of Beet Sugar in the Rocky Mountain West (Salt Lake City: Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1944)―and a newer unpublished work on the same subject: John L. Powell, “The Role of Beet Growers in the Cache Valley Sugar Beet Industry 1891-1981 (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 1995).  Whereas the books by Arrington, Bachman, and Taylor are written, as their titles may indicate, from the perspective of the sugar companies, Powell’s thesis generally embodies the point of view of the white, Mormon beet growers. As for Welker’s thesis, it approaches the topic from the frame of reference of two racial-ethnic groups―Japanese/Japanese Americans and Mexicans/Mexican Americans―involved within a single sugar beet farming community in northern Utah.

15.  See Miyasato Tsuyako, “The Japanese in the El Paso Region” (master’s thesis, University of Texas at El Paso, 1982); and Christe Celia Armendariz, “Inconspicuous but Estimable Immigrants: The Japanese in El Paso, 1898-1948” (master’s thesis, University of Texas at El Paso, 1994).  A note: the author’s name on the title page of the first of these studies follows the Japanese practice of placing the surname before the given name; however, all references made to this source will follow the practice in English of a given name preceding the surname.  For additional information on the early Japanese community in El Paso, see Beverly Ramirez, Kenneth Kurita III, and Elvi Nieto, “Japanese Immigration Came Slowly to Borderland,” Borderlands: An El Paso Community College Local History Project , (accessed July 26, 2009); with respect to the World War II experience of the Nikkei community in El Paso, see Beverly Ramirez and Elvi Nieto, “World War II Affected Japanese Immigrants,” Ibid .

16.  See Armendariz, “Inconspicuous but Estimable Immigrants,” pp. 18-44 passim.

17.  See ibid., 105-15 passim.

© 2009 Arthur A. Hansen

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About this series

Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah is an ambitious three-year project dedicated to re-examining an often-neglected chapter in U.S. history and connecting it with current issues of today. These articles stem from that project and detail the Japanese American experiences from different perspectives.