Earliest Filipino Immigrants to North America

In 2006, the State of Hawai‘i celebrated its centennial of Philippine immigration, but the earliest Filipino immigrants to North America arrived in 1763, and their story was first brought to the attention of Americans by a writer chiefly famous for his ties to Japan, Lafcadio Hearn, according to The Filipino Americans (1763–Present): Their History, Culture, and Traditions, by Veltisezar Bautista (Bookhaus, 2002), excerpted at length here.

About 235 years ago, a settlement was established by Filipino deserters from Spanish ships at Saint Malo in the bayous of Louisiana, near the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The people who settled there were called Manilamen, who jumped ship during the galleon trade era off New Orleans, Louisiana, and Acapulco, Mexico, to escape Spanish brutalities. Known as Tagalas, they spoke Spanish and a Malay dialect. They lived together—governing themselves and living in peace and harmony—without the world knowing about their swamp existence.

Thus, they became the roots of Filipinos in America.

It was only after a journalist by the name of Lafcadio Hearn published an article in 1883 when their marshland existence was exposed to the American people. It was the first known written article about the Filipinos in the U.S.A.

(Note: This write-up was adapted from Hearn’s article entitled Saint Malo: A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana, published in the Harper’s Weekly, March 31, 1883.)

The Times-Democrat of New Orleans chartered an Italian lugger—a small ship lug-rigged on two or three masts—with Hearn and an artist of the Harper Weekly on board. The journey began from the Spanish fort across Lake Ponchartrain. After several miles of their trip, Hearn and the artist saw a change in scenery. There were many kinds of grasses, everywhere along the long route. As Hearn described it, “The shore itself sinks, the lowland bristles with rushes and marsh grasses waving in the wind. A little further on and the water becomes deeply clouded with sap green—the myriad floating seeds of swamp vegetation. Banks dwindle away into thin lines; the greenish, yellow of the reeds changes into misty blue.”

UPDATE: In the comments, Lirelou expresses some doubts about the location and date of this account.

There are some definite disconnects here. First, no treasure galleons operated anywhere near Louisiana. Spanish treasure from the Philippines was off-loaded at Acapulco and transported across the country (through Mexico City) to Veracruz, from where it travelled to La Habana, and after that, off to Spain. Second, Filipinos were not unknown in Mexico. Indeed, the Mexican national dress (la Poblana) is generally agreed to have been inspired by the the Filipina wife of a prominent colonial official in Puebla, who was known throughout the city as “la china poblana”. The “chinese” allusion is in reference to her race. Filipinos were classified as “chinos” in Mexican colonial records. More to the point, when the city of Los Angeles was founded in the 1780s, one of the founding families was listed as “chinos” whose place of birth was “Manila, Islas Filipinas”. So, Filipinos played some minor roles in Mexican colonial history as far north as California. The tone of the original article suggests that it was written at a time when tales of Spanish atrocities against their colonial subjects abounded. This does not mean that Saint Malo was not founded by Filipinos who had jumped ship from Mexico. Spain received Louisiana from France in compensation for the loss of Havana in the Seven Years War (1[7]63), and had a tough time recruiting colonists. After several failed attempts in Spain, they turned to Acadians recently paroled to France, with the end result that enough of these latter volunteered to leave us the Cajuns of today. The colony was, until its return to France, sustained and supplied out of Mexico.


Filed under Hawai'i, Japan, North America, Philippines, Spain

4 responses to “Earliest Filipino Immigrants to North America

  1. i am a descendant of Felipe Madriaga of Ilocos Norte, who settled in Louisiana around 1846. He told my great grandmother stories of St. Malo, and said that it had existed at least 50 years prior to his knowledge of it. Felipe fished out of St. Malo as well as the Bayou Bienvenue fishing village, and when Manila Village was established in 1895, the family fished out of there. Manila Village was a place where families could visit and feel welcome. Manila Village was still around when my mother was young, and she has memories of Manila Village and Camp Dewey, just around the bend in Plaquemines Parish. The Filipinos of St. Malo did indeed have a hand in the War of 1812; when, in 1815, the British came looking for the Americans, the Manilamen showed them the way.

    So many of our family photos and documents were ruined in Hurricane Katrina that sadly, all we have left is oral history. I am in contact with relatives who are going to send me some of their old photos. Hopefully, I can fill in some of the blanks with those pictures.

    I don’t know why so many people dispute the existence of Filipinos in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, in the 1700’s. It was the perfect place for them. Spain had populated the place with Islenos from the Canary Islands, and the Spanish speaking Filipinos would have fit in well with them. Our local historians know of St. Malo and the Filipinos there and at Bienvenue. I have a census from 1860 with my family at Bienvenue.

    Filipino American history is fascinating to me. The people of New Orleans considered Filipinos as white, and by my generation we had panned out from the French Quarter into The Marigny neighborhood, where there were Filipinos, Frenchmen, Italians, Chinese and African American families. We all got along and we all enjoyed our various ethnic clubs. It was a wonderful way to grow up.

    Sorry for writing so much, but once I get started, it’s hard to stop. My genealogy page is at http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/f/o/x/Rhonda-R-Fox/PDFBOOK1.pdf

    Please feel free to read it. – Rhonda Lee Richoux

  2. Stupid white people think they’re the only race who can travel, so what if Filipinos did not initiate the travel and Filipinos were dragged aling by the Spaniards; point is the Spaniards trusted Filipinos enough to bring them along on thatbling journey. Second, due to the geographical location of the Philippines, Many Filipinos are natural in terms of sea travel as well as building and repairing boats, no matter how crude – hey it floats. You white people need to stop thinking you all are the only geniuses around; if that’s the case, why is America rotting from within, and the Philippines is on the rebound, albeit slowly. Your way of thinking just shows how ignorant you all are in the way of the world.

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