On April 23, 1929 the Puyallup/Nisqually tribal statesman Henry Sicade took the witness stand in Superior Court Judge Frederick Reman’s courtroom on the upper floor of the towering Pierce County Courthouse in Tacoma. The respected Native American community leader and Fife valley farmer was a character witness in an extraordinary trial dealing with the last will and testament of John McAleer and the legacy he left to a 15 year old boy named Ray Yamamoto. For weeks the trial was front page news partly because the inheritance was valued at more than $200,000 including one of the valley’s most prominent estates. But more importantly, the will of pioneer John McAleer challenged the power of one of the most influential and feared politicians in America.
Henry Sicade’s testimony was an account of his long friendship with John McAleer that began during the Prairie Line days of the 1880’s and ended with his death in May 1928. Over the years, the two partnered in buying back Puyallup reservation land, building farms in the rich Fife Valley and establishing working relationships with the area’s growing Japanese community. By the early 20th Century, they each owned hundreds of acres of farmland and together with largely Japanese and Italian farmers supplied a large share of Tacoma’s public market produce and flowers.
Reporters in the crowded courtroom noted the calm, veracious account Sicade gave of John McAleer’s iron willed determination to clear his land and convert a stump farm and dairy into some of the most productive vegetable growing farmland in the region. He also talked about the cooperative relationship he and tribal members developed with immigrant Japanese farmers who brought efficient agricultural methods and family ties to public markets in the city to the fertile farmland of the Puyallup Valley. By the 1920’s, McAleer Gardens was one of the largest vegetable growing enterprises in the Fife area. It was operated almost entirely by Japanese American farmers.
The Japanese born issei farmers leased or worked large tracts of land in the Fife Valley, including Puyallup tribal allotments and privately held farmland like Sicade’s and McAleer’s. As the land dedicated to vegetable farms grew in acreage during the first two decades of the 20th Century, the politics of immigration, citizenship and property ownership swirled around Fife and the Puyallup Valley.
Henry Sicade’s courtroom account went on to talk about how John McAleer built a gymnasium and schoolhouse on his land in Fife for the Japanese American community and how a young champion wrestler named Kichigoro (Kay) Yamamoto became a loyal farm manager and eventually a trusted member of the McAleer household. The story he was telling the judge and 12 member jury did not go uninterrupted. One of the front page newspaper accounts describes the courtroom scene and Sicade’s demeanor as “smiling and suave under a thundering barrage of cross examination and objections by Maurice Langhorne, counsel for the relatives, who seek to break McAleer’s will.”
Maurice Langhorne was a Tennessee born lawyer and political backroomer who had run for congress, served as prosecutor in Lewis County and established himself in Tacoma and the state house as a friend of power. In the years after the First World War, Washington’s legislature passed land laws specifically aimed at Japanese Americans, first outlawing property ownership and then, in 1921, making it a crime to sell, lease, rent or hold in trust property on behalf of aliens. Langhorne was a champion of the laws and the most vociferous organization backing them, the American Legion.
Later that year, Tacoma’s Congressman, Albert Johnson, who had ascended to the Chairmanship of the House Committee of Immigration and Naturalization, sponsored legislation in Congress that further limited immigration, travel and citizenship as a matter of Federal policy. The
Johnson Quota Act that was passed in May 1921 established for the first time, numerical limits on immigration based on country of origin. Johnson fully embraced the then popular pseudoscience of eugenics and used his office to incorporate its principals into Federal immigration policy. On May 26th 1924, Representative Johnson steered the Reed-Johnson Immigration Act into federal law, ending immigration from Japan and most of Asia entirely. Citing the large population of Japanese in Tacoma and the Puyallup Valley, it became a matter of pride to Rep. Johnson that the immigration and land laws be strictly enforced in his Congressional district. Maurice Langhorne understood the importance of the McAleer trial to the Congressman and no doubt measured the political appreciation he would enjoy by blocking the inheritance intended for Kay Yamamoto.
But before Langhorne could confront Kay Yamamoto on the stand he had to diminish and discredit the testimony of Henry Sicade, the second to the last
witness called by the defense attorney Wesley Lloyd in the nearly month long trial. Sicade was proving to be a difficult witness for the attorney contesting the will as the quiet and restrained Lloyd led him through a series of answers and stories that described the long association and loyalty between Yamamoto and McAleer. Langhorne found it nearly impossible to rattle or confuse Sicade with his bellowing objections and digressive interruptions.
When the confident, mannered lawyer stepped from behind the counsel table and began his cross examination, he dove into a series of questions about McAleer’s whiskey drinking and diminished judgement due to alcohol. He implied Yamamoto had illegally supplied whiskey by the caseload to the old Irishman and manipulated him into turning over his property to a foreigner. The Japanese was breaking federal laws concerning prohibition and probate and his neighbors were indifferent to his plans to ignore Washington State laws outlawing the ownership of property by Japanese Americans.
Sicade was controlled in his response. In a clear, poignant voice he recognized that prohibition-era liquor was a paralyzing social problem that deeply affected his friends and people but that John McAleer was of sound mind when he wrote and signed his last will and testament. He went on to state that like John McAleer, he and other tribal land holders had trusted agreements with the Japanese farmers who could not own or hold farmland in their own name or that of their American born children. In an exchange of glances, both men realized the point Sicade had just landed.
The State and Federal land laws passed during the 1920’s to discourage immigrants and obstruct livelihoods for Japanese American families were preceded by native presence going back thousands of years. A natural law of ancient occupation had been recognized in the 1854-5 Medicine Creek Treaty between native people and the United State Government. For all the power and influence Congressman Johnson and his followers wielded in Washington D.C. and Olympia, Japanese American farmers and families were welcome on time honored tribal land in the Puyallup Valley.
Langhorne had no further questions for the witness. The following day Kay Yamamoto was called to the witness stand.
Charles McClain, Japanese Immigrants and American Law: The Alien Land Laws and Other Issues (Garland Publishing Inc, New York, 1994)
U.S. House of Representatives, Japanese Immigration, Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, part 4, hearings at Seattle and Tacoma, July-August, 1920, (Washington, 1921)
Douglas W. Nelson, “The Alien Land Law Movement of the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the West,1970, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 46
Mark Lazarus, “An Historical Analysis of Alien Land Law: Washington Territory and State: 1853-1889,”University of Puget Sound Law Review, Issue 12, 203