Q&A: Author Elizabeth Neidenbach On How A 19th Century Refugee Crisis Shaped New Orleans

Jun 2, 2020

New Orleans inherited its red beans and rice, Creole cottages and Caribbean drum rhythms from the people of San Domingue, the French colony now known as Haiti.

The San Dominguans relocated to New Orleans during the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Many fled to Cuba first but were expelled by the Spanish in 1809. So they headed to New Orleans in a mass migration that doubled the city’s population.

Author Elizabeth Niedenbach speaks with New Orleans Public Radio’s Betsy Shepherd about her article in 64 Parishes on the San Dominguan refugee crisis that dramatically altered New Orleans demographics and culture and inspired fierce political pushback.

Betsy Shepherd: Your article explores the 19th-century refugee crisis in which 10,000 people from Saint Domingue resettled in New Orleans. Can you talk about the historical events that led to this refugee crisis?

Elizabeth Neidenbach: Over roughly a nine-month period, starting in May of 1809, over 10,000 former inhabitants of the French Colony of Saint Domingue arrived in New Orleans from Cuba. Before I get into those details, I should explain how thousands of Saint Dominguans ended up living in Cuba in 1809. And that takes us back to the Haitian Revolution, which was a 13-year-long conflict that began as a massive uprising of enslaved people in 1791.

Throughout the revolution, Saint Dominguans are fleeing the island. They go to other places in the Caribbean, like Cuba, which is nearby. Over the next six years, these people are beginning to rebuild their lives. For many people, this is considered a permanent relocation.

But then, in February of 1808, Napoleon's troops invade Spain. So between then and April of 1809, Cuban authorities start to deal with an increasing anti-French sentiment on the island. And it compels them to eventually make this decision to expel all Saint Dominguans.

New Orleans offers convenience and availability because it's right across the Gulf of Mexico. There are regular cargo ships going back and forth between the two ports. And some refugees in Cuba had family, friends and acquaintances who had already settled in New Orleans. And also, the city offered a sense of familiarity for Saint Dominguans because it contained a sizable French-speaking population.

New Orleans contained about 10,800 people in 1807. So an influx of an additional 10,000 people from Saint Domingue via Cuba just two years later had a major and an immediate demographic impact on New Orleans.

In addition to their sheer numbers, the timing of the refugees’ arrival made their presence in New Orleans politically charged. The Saint Domingue refugees come during what we think of as the territorial period. And this is between 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase takes place, and 1812, when Louisiana becomes a state. And this is a really transitional period for the city as Louisiana is shifting from a Spanish colony and also, very briefly, a French colony again to a United States territory.

Governor William C.C. Claiborne is striving to maintain control over a multiracial, multiethnic and a multilingual population that's navigating this new terrain of American rule. And he's also dealing with a power struggle that's starting to build between white Creoles and Anglo-Americans.

etail from John L. Boqueta de Woiseri’s 1803 A View of New Orleans, depicting the riverfront looking upriver from the perspective of Bernard de Marigny’s plantation (today’s Faubourg Marigny).
Credit The Historic New Orleans Collection

What's really interesting is that when the ships arrived, the refugees consisted of equal parts white people, free people of color, and enslaved people. And so it's a good test case for how attitudes on immigration vary depending on what kind of immigrants are in question. And that's something your article explores. Can you talk about how attitudes differed?

This is actually a complicated question because white opinion on the refugees was divided. And to be clear, the newspaper articles that form the basis of my research for the article were written by and provide the perspective of white people.

The divide over the refugees and how they were viewed fell mostly along ethnic/language lines. So you have white Creoles/French residents on one side and then Anglo Americans on the other side. For the most part, French speakers support the admittance of the Saint Dominguan refugees. English speakers, not so much. And the city's French language and English language newspapers reflect this divide.

The race of the refugees very much kind of dictates the level of support. So for the most part, white refugees elicit sympathy among both groups of white New Orleanians. You have articles in the French language newspaper like Le Courrier de la Louisianne, which was also known as The Courier, that presented white refugees as these hard-working planters who had become destitute through no fault of their own.

Editorials in the English language papers often offered sympathy for white refugees, but they also bemoaned the fact that this influx of French-speaking white people is really going to bolster this white Creole population to the detriment of Anglo Americans who are starting to move into Louisiana from other states following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Creoles, of course, also recognize this. Part of their support for the refugees, particularly white refugees, was politically motivated because they knew it was advantageous to have such a large number of French-speaking white people arrive in New Orleans at this moment.

But Saint Dominguans of African descent are not so readily welcomed. And although here, differences of opinion are going to also depend on the refugee of color's status as well as their sex. The arrival of Saint Dominguan refugees brought the specter of the Haitian Revolution to Louisiana. Because in the Haitian revolution, you had enslaved people and free people of color joining together and successfully overthrowing both the system of slavery and the French colonial government. So white New Orleanians fear that a similar uprising could occur in Louisiana. And much of this, the white sentiment that's expressed against the arrivals of refugees of color, alludes to this fear.

Surely this huge migration from Cuba changes the demographic makeup of New Orleans in the sense that now New Orleans has a huge population of free people of color, which makes it really unique compared to most other American cities, especially southern cities.

Yes, especially at this time. The most demographically significant impact of the refugees coming in 1809 is to the free people of color population because it triples it. By 1810, it's the height of the percentage of free people of color to the city's population. It's going to start going downhill the further you get into the antebellum period as you get this huge influx of white ethnic immigrants from Germany and Ireland.

There are charities for these refugees that are segregated by race. Can you talk about that?

It's May of 1809. There's a notice published in the papers where the mayor and the city council have created what they call a welfare committee. And it's a number of “citizens” who have been named to the committee who would go out into the city and basically raise money to assist the refugees.

A few weeks later, the mayor puts a notice in the paper where he asks free people of color in the city to hold a voluntary fundraiser for “the women of color recently arrived from Santiago de Cuba and overburdened with young children.” And he explains that if they don't organize a collection on their own, they can always donate the money to him, to the mayor, and he would make sure that the money was used to assist “people of their own class.”

So you essentially have these segregated welfare committees, and I think it makes clear that white New Orleanians, whether they were French-speaking or English-speaking, don't feel a public responsibility to provide assistance to refugees of African descent.

Another example of the racializing of this issue is the ways in which the press is actively editorializing on behalf of white landowners. Can you give some examples of that?

It's white landowners, but it's also white slave owners, too. I think one good example that would make this clear is from a Courier article on May 24, 1809. Somebody writing in favor of white Saint Dominguans says, “Ever victims of the horrors of war, those unfortunate planters whose conduct was an example of industry, of equanimity and adversity and of submission to the laws of the country where they had found asylum, have again been compelled to abandon the fields which they have grubbed up and tilled, Attended by a few slaves whose heroic devotion had participated in their sufferings, their fatigues and their privations, the fugitive colonists have again crossed the seas where they could at last repose their heads.”

They're basically saying these industrious and charitable slaveowners have been victimized once again by having their slaves taken away.

Yeah. The idea is that they're all these industrious planters in Cuba who, according to this, physically did the labor to build the plantations, which, of course, we know is not true. And that was all taken away from them. And they've lost everything because of the revolution, and they've lost everything they rebuilt in Cuba. But luckily, they've made it to Louisiana where they can hopefully rebuild again if they get the right support.

Another good example is a letter by Edward Livingston in June of 1809. He was a New York lawyer who moved to New Orleans in 1804 and he goes on to serve in the government. He writes a letter to Congress asking Congress to provide relief to white Saint Dominguan refugees.

He writes, "Forced a second time to abandon the plantations created by their industry, they naturally fixed their hopes on that country from which its earliest existence has been the refuge of the unhappy in an asylum for the victims of oppression.”

And I think this is probably the most explicit documentation I found talking about this idea of America as a land of asylum. He's basically calling white slave owners victims of oppression. And how coming to the United States is a land of welcome.

That sounds ironic to modern-day readers, but these primary sources are a lens for examining how press coverage at the time and the editorials that they printed reflect attitudes of the era, and also how the press was actively shaping narratives about race, citizenship and immigration. Can you talk about your research process?

July 22, 1809, edition of the Moniteur de la Louisiane.
Credit The Historic New Orleans Collection

I think it's important to note that past U.S. journalism in the early 19th century is very different from today. There was not a lot of objective reporting. Most articles really are basically editorials. And the press is controlled by white people.

But I think the narratives that these articles tell make clear distinctions about who should be allowed in, who deserves help and who should be providing that help.

My main sources for this article were city newspapers. By 1809, New Orleans had multiple newspapers, both French and English language ones.

An interesting side note is that Saint Domingue refugees were involved in the founding not only of the very first paper in New Orleans, but most of the city's early newspapers.

The first paper in New Orleans was Le Moniteur de la Louisianne, or The Monitor. It was published in French. It was started by a white Saint Dominguan named Louis DeCloux in 1794. In addition to the Moniteur, I looked at Le Courrier. And then also two English language papers, the Louisiana Gazette and the Orleans Gazette. So to access these, I visited several of our city's very fabulous libraries and archives. I went to the Historic New Orleans Collection, the New Orleans Public Library and Tulane's Howard Tilton Memorial Library.

These papers are all on microfilm. So I had to do the old fashioned way. I knew the date of the Cuban government's expulsion decree, and I basically started going through these papers issue by issue for March 1809 until May of 1810 looking for any reference to the refugees, their arrival, their reception, and classified ads.

This article seems so timely because the topic of immigration has dominated national political discourse for several years. In your concluding paragraph, you say broad patterns illustrated by the example of Saint Dominguans in New Orleans can be observed in the coverage of more modern refugee crises. Can you elaborate?

You see similar patterns in the rhetoric surrounding modern refugee crises and the debates about who is acceptable and who is not. So these debates almost always stem from perceived differences and xenophobia. How will people who speak a different language, who have a different culture, who practice a different religion, how do they fit into the community or the country in which they seek refuge?

Race definitely continues to matter when it comes to who is welcomed and who isn't. Often anti-refugee or anti-immigrant rhetoric in these present-day examples includes arguments that the refugees are terrorists and will bring violence to the host country, which I find to parallel to some of the arguments made against allowing Saint Dominguans from settling in Louisiana, especially Saint Dominguans of African descent.

And then another similarity I see are the ways that refugees seeking asylum becomes a divisive political issue rather than the humanitarian issue that it is. In several newspaper articles in 1809 and 1810, opponents of Governor Claiborne discuss the arrival of the Saint Dominguans and whether or not they should be allowed to settle in Louisiana as an indictment of Claiborne and his ability to govern the territory. The way political parties use refugees to condemn their opposition on this is pretty common today as well.

What can we as modern readers learn from this historical episode?

There are several things we can learn from this historical episode. First, I think it's really important to fully understand the significance of the Saint Dominguan arrival in New Orleans and its impact on the city's history and culture. Refugees of all races and all statuses made numerous contributions to the city's cultural practices, including architecture, music, arts, as well as education, journalism, the legal system and political activism. A lot of what makes New Orleans New Orleans has connections to these Saint Dominguan refugees.

The Saint Dominguan refugee crisis in New Orleans also allows us to think more critically about the perception of America as a land of welcome. While in the end everyone was allowed to enter and remain in Louisiana, there's definitely differential treatment based on race, status and gender. Not everyone was fully welcomed or considered worthy of aid. So how true is the story that we like to tell about ourselves? I think the refugee crisis points to an ideal that our nation has been hard-pressed to fully achieve.

And it allows us to, hopefully, learn the lessons from these past crises rather than continue to repeat them. Because wars, violence, severe economic upheaval like our present moment now with the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change will continue to create refugees. The question is can we as a society change our thinking and be better prepared so that it is not always a crisis.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your research and for unpacking this historical event that was so foundational to New Orleans.

You're welcome.

This interview is part of “Split Press: Democracy, Race, and Media in Black and White,” a project of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities made possible by a grant from the Federation of State Humanities Councils with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.