Saint Malo, Oldest Filipino Settlement in USA?

Saint Malo was the first settlement of Filipinos in the United States and quite possibly the first of any Asian people in the United States. The Saint Malo settlement was established in 1763 by Filipinos who deserted from Spanish ships during the Manila Galleon Trade. It existed in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana on the shore of Lake Borgne from the mid 18th century into the early 20th century, until it was destroyed by the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915. The people who settled in the bayous were called Manilamen and later on as Tagalas. They governed themselves and kept their existence a secret from mainstream society for over a hundred years. The diet in the village was mainly fish.

It wasn’t until journalist Lafcadio Hearn (aka Koizumi Yakumo) published an article in Harper’s Weekly in 1883 that their existence was finally exposed to the American people. Hearn’s article is the first known written article about the Filipinos in the United States. Saint Malo was only one of the Filipino settlements in the Southern United States. The other settlements included the Manila Village on Barataria Bay in the Mississippi Delta by the Gulf of Mexico; Alombro Canal and Camp Dewey in Plaquemines Parish; and Leon Rojas, Bayou Cholas, and Bassa Bassa in Jefferson Parish, all in Louisiana. The oldest of these settlements was Saint Malo. Among the legacy introduced by the Filipinos was the production of dried shrimp, which is still produced by the Cajuns of Louisiana.

These Filipino men or Manilamen had it really hard in Saint Malo. Their diet consisted of fish and rarely eating rice, a staple for every Filipino. In my opinion, one of their biggest struggles was the fact that there were no women in the village. In fact there were no women in the village during Lafcadio Hearn’s visit. I wouldn’t last a day in Saint Malo if these were the conditions. Since there were no Filipino women, the Manilamen often courted and married Cajun women, Indians, and others. Some of them enrolled their children in schools in New Orleans. For fishermen who did have families had them live in New Orleans or in other localities. The reason for this can be attributed to the isolated and harsh conditions of the settlement.

Louisiana was not the only place where Filipinos jumped ship. Others deserted and found homes in various parts of Mexico where many easily assimilated due to their fluency in Spanish. For more on a history of Filipinos in Louisana, please refer to Marina Espina’s Filipinos in Louisiana. (Thanks Renato)

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  • I wish there was some way to prove definitively that the settlement at St. Malo began in the 1700’s, but all we have are the memories of stories handed down. My great grandmother told me of the old fishing village on a bayou off of Lake Borgne where Filipinos had been long before our ancestors found their way there. My ancestor, Felipe Madriaga, started his family approximately around 1849; he was found on a census, along with many other Filipinos, in St. Bernard Parish in 1860. My guess is that they were the men who fished out of St. Malo, as my great grandmother told us that her grandfather fished out of St. Malo at first, and also cooked for the fishermen. When Manila Village was completed in 1895 (I think), the men in our family began to fish out of there. Manila Village was bigger and there was a network of “camps” (houses on stilts) surrounding it from Jefferson to Plaquemines Parishes. It was more family friendly; my grandmother and many of her childhood friends often reminisced about there time at Manila Village.

    Everyone in our family lost everything to Hurricane Katrina; you see, we had come full circle, returning to St. Bernard Parish to raise our families. I am now trying to research my family history and to preserve the history. There is an old Filipino tomb in the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery No. 2 that I am trying to get preserved and designated a national historic site. I think that our history here is important. Thanks for writing about it! ~ Rhonda Lee Richoux, descendant of Felipe Madriaga of Ilocos Norte  and Bridgett Nugent of Ireland.