Before the War

Japanese immigrants established themselves in the country, growing their family.


The first wave of Japanese immigrants eked out their piece of the American Dream by working as laborers on farms, mines, railroads, factories, and fishing boats. They worked hard and saved money to buy land and houses.

Japanese American farmers transformed barren plots of land on the West Coast into lush farms. In the process, they earned the envy of all farmers. Although Japanese residents in California controlled less than two percent of the total farmland before 1940, they produced a third or more of the state’s truck crops, like fruits and vegetables. Despite restrictive laws, the Issei married, had children, and became economically stable in America as merchants, tradesmen, and farmers.

By 1940, the American-born children of the Issei, known as Nisei, were coming of age, ranging from young teens to early 20s. The Nisei, or “second generation,” spoke English and were assimilating into the American lifestyle and culture.

Suddenly, on December 7, 1941, life changed for all Japanese Americans when Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor set off a wave of fear and suspicion against the Issei and Nisei. Many believed that there might be saboteurs among the Japanese living in the western states.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by issuing Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to set up military zones which led to the forced removal of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry.

Groups along the West Coast sought to rid the region of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children. These racial exclusionists were periodically joined by powerful economic interests resentful of the agricultural successes of Japanese farmers.

“Evacuees” soon began to arrive at Heart Mountain from California, Washington, and Oregon and, before long, the Heart Mountain population swelled to 10,767, unofficially regarded as Wyoming’s third largest community. Incarcerees were often transferred from one camp to another, and by the time Heart Mountain closed in September 1945, a total of 14,997 had been confined there.

See the roster of Heart Mountain incarcerees on our Digital Resources page.