The First Asian-American Settlement in the U.S. Occurred in Louisiana, Built by Filipino Fishermen
Over 4 million population of Filipino migrants living across the United States. The relationship between Filipinos and Americans had gone way back in the early twentieth century when Filipino was once an annex of America in Asia.
However, records show, that long before American imperialism occurred in the late nineteenth century and the annexation of the Philippines after that. Filipinos already arrived on American soil in the 1700s and established their settlement in the murky mosquito-infested marshland, St. Malo, in Louisiana.
In the 16th century, the Philippines was one of the colonies of the Spanish Empire on the east side of the world. Manila, the Philippines' capital, transported goods to the western colonies of the Spanish crown - the New Spain, which is composed now of Latin America, the west coast of America, and Louisiana.
The Manila Galleons were Spanish trading ships that operated between 1565 and 1815. It connected the economies of Asia, the Americas, and Europe for over two centuries. The link between Manila and Acapulco was making one or two round-trip voyages per year.
During this era, Filipinos became vital in the biannual voyages of the Spanish Galleons across the Pacific. As early as the 16th century, many Filipino sailors and indentured servants jumped out of ships and settled across the land that is now Mexico and Louisiana. They were placed under different racial categories that only added to their mystery. In Mexico, they were often listed as Indios Chinos (Chinese natives), while in Louisiana, they were called as Manilamen.
In 1760s, during the Spanish rule, Filipinos were the first Asians to settle in the coastal areas of the Louisiana region and made their homes on the shores of Lake Borgne, east of New Orleans.
Eight to ten generations later, Filipinos were well-assimilated into the state of Louisiana, and new immigrants from the Philippines arrive annually as well, making this group of Louisiana residents one of the state's oldest and newest inhabitants.
St. Malo's Manilamen
These Manilamen were islanders, therefore, they were well able to utilized their seafood-harvesting skills to fishing and shrimping in Louisiana's coastal waters.
On barrier islands and coastal marshes, these Filipino communities living in Saint Malo built houses made from wood and palmetto fronds which resembled their traditional Bahay Kubo of the Philippines.
Based on the earliest known documentation of Saint Malo as a Filipino settlement was dated back to the 19th century. In 1883, writer Lafcadio Hearn wrote about his journey to Saint Malo in an article for Harper’s Weekly magazine.
"Out of the shuddering reeds and banneretted grass on either side rise the fantastic houses of the Malay fishermen, posed upon slender supports above the marsh, like cranes or bitterns watching for scaly prey. . . . All are built in true manila style, with immense hat shaped eaves and balconies, but in wood; for it had been found that palmetto and woven cane could not withstand the violence of the climate. Nevertheless, all this wood had to be shipped to the bayou from a considerable distance, for large trees do not grow in the salty swamp.
The highest point of land as far as the "Devil's Elbow," three or four miles away, and even beyond it, is only six inches above low-water mark, and the men who built those houses were compelled to stand upon ladders, or other wood frame-work, while driving down the piles, lest the quagmire should swallow them up. . . . There is no woman in the settlement, nor has the treble of a female voice been heard along the bayou for many a long year. Men who have families keep them at New Orleans, or at Proctorville, or at la Chinche. . . . There is no liquor in the settlement, and these hardy fishers and alligator-hunters seem none the worse therefore. [They] live largely upon raw fish, seasoned with vinegar and oil." - Hearn, 1883
Destroyed by hurricanes
Filipinos were used to tropical typhoons of Southeast Asia; therefore, these Manilamen were prepared dealing with the raging hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico. However, in 1915 the village of Saint Malo was destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane that swept through New Orleans.
Nevertheless, according to their descendants, countless Manilamen stayed in the area even after the disaster.
Since the 1800s, other settlements similar to Saint Malo were also founded by the Manilamen in nearby areas. One of which was the more extensive settlement called Manila Village in Barataria Bay that existed until 1965. However, Hurricane Betsy destroyed it permanently—leaving no trace of America’s first Filipino settlement.
In 2005, the Madriaga and Burtanog families, the Manilamen's descendants, hosted a grand reunion similar to the stilt houses of Saint Malo and Manila Village, where their grandparents and great-grandparents were raised. Little did they know that Hurricane Katrina would wreak havoc a few months later.
While the earlier hurricanes of 1915 and 1965 washed away the fishing villages. It was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that delivered the final heartbreaking blow. The Category 5 hurricane destroyed much of the research and artifacts relating to the Manilamen and Saint Malo. Many of the families of the Manilamen's descendants were also forced to relocate across the United States. Nonetheless, they remained steadfast in preserving their heritage.
To keep the history of Saint Malo alive, in 2019, the Philippine-Louisiana Historical Society (PLHS) has erected a historical marker of Saint Malo at the Los Isleños Museum Complex in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.
This was the second historical marker erected by the PLHS after the first was unveiled in 2012 to commemorate Manila Village, a community that was central to Louisiana’s shrimp drying industry. The markers for both St. Malo and Manila Village are crucial in protecting the vibrant history of Filipino Americans in Louisiana and keep in line with PLHS’s mission to share the unique history of Filipinos in the Bayou State.
“We want the histories of the communities of St. Malo and Manila Village to be integrated into the Louisiana story everyone knows. The next generation shouldn’t be surprised when they learn there was a Filipino fishing village in St. Bernard Parish.” - Dr. Randy Gonzales, PLHS
Nearly 12,000 Filipino Americans are currently living in Louisiana. Filipino Americans are also credited with pioneering the state's dried shrimp industry which was the precursor to Louisiana's thriving shrimping industry. Today, Louisiana has become one of the nation's top shrimp producers. The industry generates an annual income of $1.3 billion for the Pelican State.