Records at the National Archives at Seattle and Other West Coast Facilities Relating to the Japanese-American Incarceration Experience – Part 1 of 3
by Ken House
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), as the nation’s “record-keeper,” is responsible for preserving and making available permanent historic records created by federal agencies, offices, committees, and courts. Included are federal records created during and after the forced mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans living along the West Coast of the United States during World War II. These records may be found in many of the NARA facilities nationwide. Copies of some of the records can also be found on NARA microfilm publications and websites.
The goal of this article is to help researchers identify and locate those records. It focuses on the holdings in the National Archives at Seattle and touches on records held elsewhere in the National Archives system.
Established in 1934, NARA is the largest and most diverse archival organization in the United States. The agency holds billions of pages of historical information, in addition to photographs, film, maps, and electronic records. The NARA system includes two major sites in the Washington D.C. area, 13 Presidential Libraries, civilian and military personnel records centers in St. Louis, and 13 field facilities located across the United States.
The field sites hold records from specific geographic areas. For example, the Seattle facility receives records from federal offices in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
There are exceptions and inconsistencies to the geographic distribution of records resulting from changes in federal government operations over the decades. For example, all records of the Bureau of Reclamation operations in the western United States have been centralized at the National Archives in Denver, rather than distributed to closer NARA sites in Seattle, Riverside, or San Francisco, because the Bureau’s West Coast headquarters is in Denver.
Locating information held by NARA can be daunting and confusing at times as well as very rewarding. Typically, records from the headquarters of an agency are held in the Washington DC area, while records from field offices are held at one of the local branches of the National Archives. Presidential papers are sent to the appropriate Presidential Library.
It is the job of NARA archivists to direct you to the records you need and to provide access to them. They are your allies in research. Archivists should know the records in their facility and be able to direct you to other facilities holding related records. They cannot do in-depth research for you, but can sometimes provide answers based on a quick review of records.
The research inquiry e-mail address for the National Archives at Seattle is seattle.archives@ nara.gov and information about the facility can be found at www.archives.gov/seattle.
Today, researchers expect to access digital copies of records online, or at least to be able to search online and discover where records are held. While NARA is constantly working to increase online content, the reality is that most paper records are only available in hard copy at a single location. This necessitates traveling to the facility holding the records themselves or contacting the appropriate facility to request copies.
The NARA online catalogues including the Online Public Access Catalog, www.archives.gov/research/ search, and the Guide to Federal Records, www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records, are not yet complete or comprehensive, so when in doubt, always ask an archivist.
The National Archives at Seattle
The Seattle NARA facility is located in the Hawthorne Hills residential neighborhood of northeast Seattle. The NARA building sits on the site of a truck farm operated by the Uyeji family and their neighbors, the Takasugi family, who lived there from about 1918 until May 1942. Hawthorne Hills was once part of a rural community called Pontiac. Located several miles outside the Seattle City limits [at the time], Pontiac was home to a significant number of Japanese immigrants and their children, including Gordon Hirabayashi, who was born there in 1918. The arrival of the Uyejis and their time in Pontiac can be traced, in part, in digitized ship passenger manifests and federal census records, available at the National Archives.
In 1942, a series of exclusion zones, or geographic areas, were established to implement the orders of General John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command to forcibly remove all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Exclusion orders were prepared for each area and issued sequentially.
Pontiac fell within Exclusion Zone 57. Residents of Japanese ancestry were ordered to be “evacuated” on May 12, 1942. A search of the Japanese American Internee Data File at the NARA Access to Archival Databases website, aad.archives.gov/aad, indicates the Uyeji family was first sent to what was called the Pinedale Assembly Center, in central California, and then to the Tule Lake Relocation Center, in northern California.
The land that had been the Uyeji farm was condemned in 1944 by the U.S. Navy to build the warehouse now occupied by NARA. The warehouse served the adjacent Naval Air Station, Seattle. The federal land condemnation process led to the creation of federal district court case files and associated records.
Illustrating the sometimes unexpected archival holdings at NARA, the court condemnation case file and Navy administrative files held in Seattle contain appraisal photographs of the former Uyeji farmhouse, fields, and greenhouse. The images show the impact of the family’s two-year absence and provide a striking contrast to photos from the 1930s, of the Uyeji family and their farm, that are available at the Densho Digital Archives website, www.densho.org/archive/default.asp
Closing the story, Tomiko Uyeji returned from the Tule Lake Relocation Center and found her family home, farm, and livelihood replaced by what she correctly called “cement and a monstrous thing for a warehouse.”
The warehouse became a NARA facility in 1963 and holds the following records related to Japanese “internment.”
Records of the Department of Agriculture, Record Group 16
The National Archives at Seattle holds a handful of subject files created by the Regional Attorney serving the Department of Agriculture and the Farm Security Administration. The Attorney was based in Portland, Oregon, and dealt with legal and policy issues related to the management of agricultural land farmed by Japanese Americans before their removal.
The files focus on 1942 starting in March. They contain correspondence, transcripts of meetings and telephone calls, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and policy documents. They discuss the removal of Japanese American farmers from Bainbridge Island and subsequent removals from other areas.
The records show the Attorney responding to developments as they rapidly evolved.
He wrote on March 28, 1942, “I received a telephone call… requesting that I immediately proceed to Bainbridge Island… The farmers on Bainbridge… were ordered to be evacuated by the close of the current week, their evacuation to be in a group.”
Within the files are a few inventories of Bainbridge Island farm equipment and personal property. There is also a transcript of a meeting of agricultural association leaders and Department of Agriculture staff regarding the impact of the mass removal of Japanese American farmers on continued agricultural production, held in San Francisco on March 28, 1942.
Ken House a Senior Archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at Seattle, grew up on Whidbey Island, Washington. He attended Western Washington University, Bellingham, and holds a M.A. degree in Archival Studies and History. He is passionate about locating and making available archival records documenting the struggles of people in challenging circumstances. While an archivist at Weyerhaeuser Company, he researched and made presentations about the history of the Company’s Japanese American workforce. He lives in Tacoma and serves as the chair of the City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Editor’s note. This article is reprinted, captions shortened and footnotes deleted, from an original in Discover Nikkei (June 2013). Its content matters today owing to the State of Washington’s pending lawsuit to keep the National Archives branch in-state (see “Tribes join lawsuit to keep national archives collection in Seattle,” Crosscut, Jan. 27, 2021). Accordingly, the NAP plans to similarly reprint the remaining two parts of the series across the next few issues. Note that listed web addresses may have changed.
Discover Nikkei is published by the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles. http://www.discovernikkei.org