From left: Robert Simpkins, PC Anthropology professor and Cultural and Historical Awareness Program coordinator and archaeologist Jeff Burton address a full house in the Porterville College Theater Friday, March 1 during a presentation on upcoming archaeological digs at Manzanar Internment Camp in the Owens Valley.

CHAP presentation at PC focuses on upcoming archaeological dig at WWII internment camp

National Park Service archaeologist Jeff Burton invited the public and anthropology students from Robert Simpkins’ classes at Porterville College to participate in an archeological dig at Manzanar Historical site during a Cultural and Historical Awareness Program (CHAP) lecture Friday, March 1, at Porterville College theater.

Former CHAP director Richard Osborne encouraged everyone to get involved, and said, “the four-hour drive to Manzanar in the Owens Valley is spectacular, but from Porterville you have to drive around the Sierras. So it is a weekend trip, but worth it. It is important for people to learn about what happened at Manzanar. It’s quite an experience.”

From Wednesday, March 27 to April 1, Burton will be supervising an archeological dig to uncover and stabilize features at the camp hospital and children’s village, where 101 children lived. It was the only orphanage in the ten camps.

The site has become a place of pilgrimage for survivors of the camp and their families, and Burton has been acclaimed and was awarded the John Wesley Powell prize in 2014 for his painstaking preservation work. He has worked with his archeological team, volunteers, and grad students on the project for years.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, the day has forever been referred to in newspapers and on the radio “As a day that lived in infamy.”

After the attack on the United States there was such fear and hysteria, Japanese were arrested, and many Japanese Americans destroyed family heirlooms, left their homes and businesses to avoid prosecution.

On February 19, 1942 Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to designate military commanders to prescribe military areas and to exclude “any or all persons” from such areas. 

People destined for the camps were told they could only take what they could carry, and men, women, and children, even Veterans of World War I were taken to holding camps, one of which was the old Porterville Fairgrounds, said Burton.

It was a day that led to over 110,000 Japanese living in the United States and Japanese Americans to be incarcerated in ten internment camps in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming from 1942 until 1945.

They were taken by train or bus to permanent camps, most which were built for the purpose, and were designed to be self-contained communities. Japanese Americans made the best of what they had, even though they were crowded into residential blocks like barracks with no privacy.

The Manzanar camp, now known as the Manzanar National Historic Site, is perhaps the most well-known of the ten original camps, and is located between Independence and Lone Pine in the Owens Valley of eastern California.

Over 1200 artifacts have already been recovered at Manzanar. In 2014 people working on the dig found four basements, and according to a story from camp history, a woman built her own basement to stay cool in the summer.

A flyer advertising the volunteer work on the dig gives the details, saying “You just need to be willing to get dirty, work outdoors in moderately strenuous activity such as digging with shovels, hand tools, raking, using wheelbarrows, screening sediments and retrieving artifacts, taking notes, filling out forms and making labels for artifacts.”

Now is the chance for anyone 15 or over who is interested in history, archaeology, or helping preserve the Manzanar Historic Site to get involved in an archeological dig. Reservations are required and all work will be outdoors, from 7:45 a.m. until 3:45 p.m. regardless of the weather.

People living at Manzanar started businesses and built a golf course and tennis courts. Each of the 14 blocks had their own basketball court, and after a while people tried to revive their cultural customs. They built gardens, a tea garden, vegetable gardens, raised cattle and pigs, and had a chicken ranch.

Archaeology has helped direct public policy said Burton, and former internees recommended that parts of the camp be rebuilt so people can see what happened. By making the public aware, and with public participation, people can remember and share with their family.

There were 10,000 people at Manzanar, and there is a road grid that will help people see how big the camp was. The internees at Manzanar worked and were paid for their work according to their skills and education. There was a firehouse, a elementary and high school, a hospital, a newspaper, a children’s village, and businesses. People lived their daily lives and made the best of what they had.

But surrounding the camp was barbed wire, and there were military guard towers.

Burton and his team found the foundations of overgrown children’s homes in their village in 1992, with the hospital where the doctors and nurses worked and the infant ward.

Burton recalled that a visitor to the camp said seeing the basketball courts brought tears to her eyes; a simple amenity to make life a little better.

By 1942 Burton said the Japanese were mostly nursery and garden owners, and they’ve uncovered the gardens and landscape of the camp. Volunteers have helped excavate, build and restore the gardens.

In the camp was Merritt Park, named after the first camp warden, where there was a Japanese Tea House. Volunteers have found the wooden post walls, and the original building walls, which they are restoring.

Volunteers are also restoring a cactus garden, and Burton says they return to do the work, bringing family and friends.

He said working with so many volunteers has been rewarding, and the volunteer archaeology project has helped people connect with each other. Without the volunteer archaeology project, Manzanar would still be buried, both literally and figuratively.

Manzanar is very relevant today, said Burton, after a student spoke about the detentions on the border of Mexico of men, women, and children by the Trump administration. 

“You need to walk the site and get out of your car,” he said. “So many people cry when they leave the camp.”

There is a cemetery at Manzanar where people were cremated and buried, said Burton when answering questions from the audience. There was also a settlement and town called Manzanar that predated the camp, as well as Shepherd Ranch, which dates from the 1850s. They’ve found thousands of artifacts from both the house and the ranch as well as artifacts from the Paiute Indians and Chinese immigrants that lived and worked in the area. There are 100-year-old apple orchards and pear trees that are 90 years old.

Grad school student in archaeology Jacob Kasimoff said, “Burton did an excellent job describing what life was like at Manzanar for the internees, living in an arid climate in the high desert. Getting people out in the field in the sand, the dust will give them an idea what conditions were like in these remote areas where people were incarcerated.”

For more information contact archaeologist Jeff Burton at 760-878-2194 ext. 3305 or email to make a reservation.

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