The First Asian American Settlement Was Established by Filipino Fishermen

Historians in the News
tags: immigration, Louisiana, Asian American History, Filipino History

The history of the oldest known permanent Asian American settlement remains mysterious and as murky as the mosquito-infested marshland it was built on. Saint Malo was first established as a fishing village along the shores of Lake Borgne in Louisiana in the 18th century and continued to flourish until the 20th century.

The settlement’s namesake, Juan San Maló, was a leader of a group of Maroons (runaway enslaved people) who took refuge in the marshlands. True to the settlement’s namesake, the Asian pioneers of Saint Malo were the Filipino sailors and indentured servants who escaped the Spanish Galleons in the 1700s. They were later known in history as the Manilamen after the capital city of the Philippines.

The Manila Galleon Trade was a thriving global trade network between 1565 and 1815 that connected the economies of Asia, the Americas and Europe for over two centuries. It was during this era that the Luzones Indios (natives of Luzon) became vital in the biannual voyages of the Spanish Galleons across the Pacific. Luzon is the largest island of the Philippines where Manila is also located.

As early as the 16th century, many Filipino sailors and indentured servants jumped ship and settled across land that is now Mexico and parts of the United States. They were placed under different racial categories that only added to their mystery. In Mexico they were often listed as Indios Chinos, while in Louisiana they were later known as the Manilamen.

According to oral traditions there was already an existing Filipino community in Saint Malo as early as 1763 when both the Philippines and Louisiana were under the Spanish colonial government in Mexico. However, the oldest known documentation of Saint Malo as a Filipino settlement only dates back to the 19th century. It was in 1883 when Lafcadio Hearn, a Japanese writer of Greek-Irish descent, wrote about his journey to Saint Malo in an article for Harper’s Weekly magazine. 

Despite the uncertainties regarding the earliest Filipino settlers prior to Hearn’s 1883 article, the Manilamen of Louisiana were already active participants in the history of the United States. They were among the bands of privateers who took part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. They fought under the command of future President Andrew Jackson in a decisive battle that secured U.S. victory against the British in the War of 1812.

Hearn’s article notes that the Filipino settlement of Saint Malo in Saint Bernard Parish had existed for at least 50 years before his visit. He described the fishing village as a thriving community of houses built on stilts similar to the countless floating communities in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. “All are built in true Manila style, with immense hat-shaped eaves and balconies, but in wood,” he wrote.


Read entire article at History.com

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