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I make it a point to stop at Manzanar National Historic Site every time I’m driving the stretch of US395 between Mammoth and Lone Pine.
There’s not a lot to let you know that it’s there: a small brown road sign indicating “Manzanar National Historic Site”, and a lone guard tower that blends into the mountains sitting next to the highway.
But if you actually stop and take the 1/4-mile detour off the highway you’ll be introduced to one of ten camps where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced to relocate in 1942.
Being required to read Farewell to Manzanar in high school is actually the only reason I knew what it was.
The book is one of many works of art created by the internees. They participated in a number of activities to pass the time and stay sane. They created churches, rock gardens, ponds, established theaters, farmed, and published a paper.
A history of forced
It wasn’t just Japanese Americans who were forcibly relocated. In the 19th century, the local Owens Valley Paiute tribe was relocated to a fort in Texas to make room for white settlers and ranchers. Some of them eventually returned to the Owens Valley.
By 1929 the city of Los Angeles had bought all of the land and water rights from these ranchers and farmers in Manzanar. They were forced to sell this land to make room for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Manzanar turned in to a ghost town.
The U.S. Army then leased this land from Los Angeles in 1942 to create the Manzanar Relocation Center. In a twist of irony, some of the workers who helped construct the camps were Paiutes whose ancestors were forced off the land in the previous century.
Japanese Americans were given little to no warning about the relocations. They were first sent to “processing centers”, leaving behind their homes and their businesses, only able to take what they could carry. They would spend the next three years in prisons without Constitutionally-mandated due process.
The Supreme Court decided with the government’s decision in a 1944 ruling; that ruling was repudiated by the modern Supreme Court in a 2018 filing. Chief Justice Roberts in June 2018:
“The forcible relocation of U.S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority.”
Manzanar by the numbers
Rather, I hope the introduction and the photos inspire you to visit this place on your own. And if you can’t do that, at least explore some of the books & artwork created by the interned American citizens. There may even be another camp near you.
The experience is a good reminder about how fragile our civil liberties are, and how we often do things that we later regret when we’re faced with fear.
- Relocation dates: March 1942 to November 1945
- Peak population at Manzanar: 10,046
- Number of internees who were American citizens by birth: nearly 7,000
- Acreage: 6,000
- Number of barracks: 504
- Deaths in Manzanar: 135 (6
remainburied in the cemetery)
- Restitution payment offered to survivors in 1988: $20,000
- Number of Japanese Americans fighting for the U.S. military during the internment: 26,000
Manzanar National Historic Site is located just outside of Independence, California (directions). The visitor center is open from