The History of the United States’ First Refugee Crisis

Fleeing the Haitian revolution, whites and free blacks were viewed with suspicion by American slaveholders, including Thomas Jefferson

Illustration of the slave revolt in Haiti, and what slaveholders in the United States feared. (Digital Media Lab, University of Virginia)
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Between 1791 and 1810, more than 25,000 refugees arrived on American shores from the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the modern-day nation of Haiti. Their homes and plantations, which were the engine behind the world’s most profitable colony in 1790, had been consumed by a bloody conflict that began as an appeal for racial equality, and ended in what historian David Geggus has called “the largest and sole fully successful [slave revolt] there has ever been." Disembarking in cities including Philadelphia, Charleston and New Orleans in waves, some with slaves in tow and others with nothing, these supplicants embodied the first refugee crisis in United States history.  

The initial wave of emigration from Saint-Domingue began as more than 450,000 slaves took up arms against their masters, setting fire to the island’s plantations and townhomes. Port-au-Prince was reduced to cinders in November of 1791. The revolution’s early leaders had sown the seeds of revolt over months of covert interplantation recruitment, and within the first few weeks of fighting, more than 1,000 slaveowners were killed. In 1793, the capital at Cap Français was razed, Great Britain and Spain entered the conflict and French general Leger Felicite Sonthonax abolished slavery in the hopes of regaining control of the colony. This plan failed, and Sonthonax fled the island before the year's end, leaving a complicated fray behind him. By 1804, Saint-Domingue was no more, and the free, black republic of Haiti reigned in its place.

Consequently, whites, mulattos and free blacks who did not support the end of the plantation regime, along with a few thousand slaves forced to join them, scrambled to board departing vessels. White or black, those who left of their own volition had been planters, artisans, printers, blacksmiths and tailors, but whether they were rich or poor beforehand, all became refugees upon departure.

While some sought asylum nearby in Jamaica and Cuba, thousands began turning up in the harbors of the nascent United States as well. In Philadelphia, for example, what began with 15 refugees aboard a ship called the Charming Sally in 1791 turned into a flood of more than 3,000 refugees by 1794.  As events on Saint-Domingue intensified over the next decade, similar influxes occurred at ports in Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland and Louisiana. In 1810 alone, 10,000 refugess arrived in New Orleans; expelled from their first refuge in Cuba, they doubled the city's population in a matter of months. 

The newly minted American government’s first response to the crisis was to provide aid to whites still on the island. George Washington’s administration, filled with slaveholders including the chief executive and his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, extended $726,000 and a modest amount of military support to the colony’s planters. Jefferson, who did not support direct intervention, still opposed the rebellion, stating that "the reestablishment of peace and commerce...and the free exchange of our mutual productions” were vital to the American economy. Sugar and coffee produced in Saint-Domingue were highly valued by American consumers, and the food and finished goods that American merchants furnished in return constituted one of the young nation's most important trade relationships.

For many, however, Saint-Domingue was not only a valuable trading partner, but a symbol of slavery’s legitimacy and merit. The prospect of a successful slave revolt posed challenges to American slaveholders' prevailing notions of racial domination, and even politicians who didn't own slaves voiced concern about the message being sent. Timothy Pickering, who succeeded Jefferson as Secretary of State, was from Massachusetts and supported gradual abolition, yet still expressed a deeply seated fear that “an army of black troops might conquer all the British Isles and put in jeopardy our Southern states.”  

All this meant that despite the rhetoric related to liberty and equality that had underpinned the American Revolution, the quest for black freedom in Saint-Domingue was viewed as a dangerous contagion by its neighbors to the north. These fears played out in the media and in politics, and the slaves on Saint-Domingue were regularly depicted as reactionary, if opportunistic, savages. Books from the period featured engravings of black rebels holding severed heads, or chasing refugees out of Cap Français as it burned to the ground in 1793. Accounts published in newspapers like the Pennsylvania Gazette described the colony’s soil as “bedewed with blood,” and reminded Americans that inaction might “plunge you into the same misfortunes." Jefferson himself referred to the rebel slaves as “cannibals of the terrible republic,” and cautioned, “if this combustion can be introduced among us under any veil whatsoever...we have to fear it.”

When it came to the refugees themselves, however, Americans’ response depended on when the refugees arrived and what they looked like. According to historian Nathalie Dessens, black refugees, of which there were more than 16,000, were “feared as agents of rebellion,” and their admittance was debated by politicians and members of the public alike. Ships headed for New Orleans were stranded south of the city to prevent blacks from disembarking, and Georgia and South Carolina both tightened restrictions on slave importation during the 1790s.

Across the South, fearful observers saw the influence of Saint-Domingue everywhere. A string of fires that threatened Charleston in 1793 was instantly attributed to “French blacks.” An abortive slave plot uncovered in 1795 near Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, was presumed the work of free blacks recently imported from the Caribbean. Though evidence was scant, the accused were executed, and in Louisiana, the importation of foreign slaves was quickly suspended. Louisiana’s governor, the Baron de Carondelet, was convinced that, “all slaves between Pointe Coupee and the capital [at New Orleans, more than 100 miles away] had knowledge of what was going on.”

In supporting a national ban on foreign slave trade in 1794, South Carolinian and future Supreme Court justice John Rutledge noted that “considering the present extraordinary state of the West Indies…[the U.S.] ought to shut their doors against anything that might produce the like confusion in this country.”

In spite of all this paranoia, however, South Carolina actually lifted its ban on foreign slaves in 1804, and all those who arrived from Saint-Domingue eventually settled there. According to Dessens, many were even welcomed quite warmly. This was especially true for the 8,000 or so of the 25,000 refugees who shared both skin color and a common religion with their American counterparts. For these migrants, the conditions of relocation were padded by Christian charities and French Benevolent societies, which took up collections for the relief effort, and arranged lodging with sympathetic members of the community.

In Philadelphia, nearly $14,000 was raised to support the 1,000 migrants who arrived in 1793 alone. New Orleans’s first newspaper, Le Moniteur de la Louisiane, which was established in 1794 by Luc Duclot, a Saint-Domingue refugee himself, published favorable editorials that absolved white refugees as "victims of the horrors of war.” In Charleston, city officials postponed construction on a new public marketplace to create temporary housing, and the state legislature of South Carolina voted to forgo their salaries for the year 1793 to assist those in need, provided they were white.

Without question, fear and uncertainty drove many Americans to denounce the slave revolt that caused our nation’s first refugee crisis. But those who turned up on America’s shores between 1791 and 1810 were ultimately accepted as victims. The transmission of violence, Dessens says never happened. Although uprisings did occur in Louisiana in 1811 and Virginia in 1831, she points out that "recent scholarship tends to prove that the people who plotted or started the few rebellions [that did occur] were not Saint-Domingue refugees."

While many shuddered at the prospect of admitting potential insurrectionists, Dessens says that more than anything, refugees' role as agents of rebellion was"a myth that’s been narrated over and over since the early 19th century." Instead of destabilizing society, these refugees (of either race) became yet another immigrant class at first rejected, but then accepted, as a thread of the greater American fabric.

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