Emigration to Liberia (Part IV): Liberia, 1867 - 1903
SOURCE: Emigration to Liberia from the Chattahoochee Valley of Georgia and Alabama, 1853 – 1903 by Matthew F.K. McDaniel. 2013.
The Liberia in which the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants settled was slow to experience prosperity. Although founded in 1822 and claiming expansive boundaries at the time of its independence in 1847, Liberia remained largely a country of small towns and villages clustered along the Atlantic Coast. Native tribes – such as the Bassa, Vai, Kru, and Dei – accounted for the majority of the country’s population and remained largely independent in Liberia’s interior. Native people within or located closer to the coastal towns developed trading partnerships with the colonists and settlers, or Americo-Liberians, who the natives often referred to as “white” because of their alien culture. As Liberia expanded its borders, both to extend “civilization” to the natives and to claim resources, friction often ensued, and military skirmishes were not uncommon. Agricultural production was generally limited to what land had been cleared near the coast, and affluence was often gained not by farming but by trading with European merchants. Settler farmers had a difficult time clearing land, raising unfamiliar crops, and struggling against an unfamiliar climate and strange pests.
These earlier, American colonists and settlers transplanted to Liberia much of the economic and cultural system that had discriminated against them or enslaved them in the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century. They imported the plantation system they knew from the United States, and some of Liberia’s city merchants were also absentee landlords of coffee, sugar, and rice plantations, where lower strata Blacks, including poor settlers, worked in a familiar station. The earlier Americo-Liberians also established social strata in which newcomers, such as the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants, were generally relegated to the bottom. Towns resembled American villages, and well-to-do families built homes that resembled those in the American South. They dressed like Americans and, preferring imported foods to indigenous varieties, still ate like Americans. Determining what became of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants who entered this Black-led, American-style world in the tropical West Africa proves the most elusive task when telling their story since evidence is limited. The information that has survived does provide a glimpse of what the emigrants found when they arrived in Liberia and how they fared over the years. Most of this evidence survives in a handful of letters written by the emigrants and published in the ACS’s Repository and in local newspapers.
Bell I. Wiley, who edited nearly all of the Liberian emigrant letters known to exist in private possession or public depositories in 1980, was rightfully wary of drawing conclusions based on the letters written to the ACS and published in the Repository. He therefore chose to include few of them. The ACS generally chose and edited letters to show Liberia in the best light, though this was not exclusively the case. This same caution applies to those letters selected and published by the local press in Georgia, which had its own agenda to protect the local workforce, partly by discouraging Black emigration. To dismiss the correspondence found in the Repository or the local newspapers, however, is to reduce the available evidence on what happened to the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants to practically nothing. Despite the somewhat flawed reason for their preservation, these letters are used for this study. Moreover, there are reasons to give the surviving letters credence. The Chattahoochee Valley correspondence, although a small sample, does not follow the pattern suggested by Wiley or that established by the Columbus press. One of the letters published by the ACS in the Repository gives no glowing account of Liberia but describes the hardships of a young man from Columbus and his desire to return to the United States. Several of the letters published in the Columbus newspapers describe emigrants who were faring well in Liberia, not the harsh conditions the newspapers more often described.
The first post-war Chattahoochee Valley emigrants to arrive in Liberia were the Simpson family and Alfred Howard. They sailed from Charleston with a larger group on May 30, 1867, and arrived at Monrovia, the capital of Liberia on July 8, where they stayed ten days before sailing again for Greenville, a smaller port on Liberia’s southern coast. Frank Simpson, a farmer and the 25-year-old son of John Simpson, wrote home to his sister and to his former master, J.R. Jones, after a month in Liberia. The letters had much the same content. They described the birth of a daughter during the voyage and the family’s inland accommodation and provisioning by the ACS. In the letter to his sister, Simpson raved about Liberia’s agricultural prospects and encouraged those he left behind to follow him: “Give my love to the people at the plantation and tell them if they get to Liberia they must come, for Liberia is a country where a man can make a support by working half of his time. Everything grown here wild in the woods. Coffee grows all over the woods. Cotton grows here into a tree. The sugar cane grows larger than any I have ever seen. Potatoes grow all the time. Pineapples, cocoa nuts, oranges, lemons, and everything else grows wild in the woods.” Simpson went on to describe Liberia as “one of the best countries in world.” Interestingly, in his letter to his former master, J.R. Jones, published in the Columbus Enquirer, Simpson described similar agricultural conditions, but added that he had not been in Liberia long enough to give a “full account of the country.” The letter to Jones also indicated that four people had died on the voyage, a woman and three infants, a fact omitted from the letter to his sister, or edited out of the version published by the ACS. Simpson’s letter to Jones was published in Columbus on October 20, 1867, only weeks before the first large emigrant group would depart the city. Undoubtedly, his glowing report influenced the decisions of many to leave that November. Simpson not only described a lush environment where food grew wild and subsistence required half the work, but he also confirmed that the ACS was, in fact, supporting the emigrants upon their arrival, despite newspaper accounts suggesting the contrary.
Like Frank Simpson’s letter, these early letters from the November 1867 emigrants – all of which were written within days of the emigrants’ arrival in Buchanan – must have also favorably influenced many potential Chattahoochee Valley emigrants still planning their course of action. The content of these early letters was almost exclusively positive, and most of the letter writers encouraged others to follow their lead. Other themes within individual letters, such as freedom and religion, were common to emigrant letters of the period, as noted by Bell I. Wiley, and may have been equally or more convincing than economic opportunity to some of the Chattahoochee Valley freedmen. As the emigrants arrived in the port cities of Liberia, including Monrovia, Buchanan, and Greenville, they were surprised to find how, in some ways, it resembled the South they had just left. Frank Simpson noted the brick architecture of Monrovia, and others described the wooden buildings of Buchanan as “after the American style.” The colonial architecture of Liberia reflected the technologies and styles the former slaves had known and built in the United States. Most buildings were one- or two-story gabled structures of brick or wood, and the towns were laid out in familiar, loose grid patterns. The Liberian had also adopted the social trappings of the whites they had known in America: “The civilized part of the inhabitants are those who emigrated from the United States, or descendants. The mode of living is very similar to the style, manner, and customs, of the white and the best class of colored people in the United States. I see but little difference.” The emigrants would soon learn that Liberian society was indeed stratified, with the earlier settler families, the freeborn, and mixed-race people at the top of the social structure, and the recently emancipated, plantation workers, like most of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants, near the bottom.
Farmhouse near Fortsville
Reports from the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants would soon reflect the hardships they faced and the disenchantment some felt as they attempted to settle into their new country. Willis Fort, the mechanic and carpenter of Eufaula and one of the leaders of that city’s emigrant group, became disenchanted with Liberia almost immediately. The Eufaula News described and paraphrased a portion of a letter Fort sent to “a prominent gentleman,” perhaps a former master, in Eufaula in October 1868. This date indicates the letter was probably written in July or August – probably soon after the May 1868 emigrants arrived. Fort described deplorably conditions for a farmer: no livestock or wagons. He had no money and felt he had no prospects to make any. He pleaded for assistance to return to Eufaula: “If any of my white friends will send for me, I will pay them well for it.” Fort flatly stated that he had been “a great fool” for coming to Liberia and begged for assistance. He and his family were well and “yet alive.” Had letters like this from friends and former neighbors been received in Columbus and Eufaula before each of the 1867 and 1868 departures, fewer people may have emigrated. Certainly, communications like Fort’s. with others like received and more to come, combined with the evolving promise of Reconstruction to diminish potential emigrants’ fervor. The May 1868 departure was the last large group to leave the Chattahoochee Valley for Liberia.
Liberian Cabinet, c. 1880
By the early 1870s, Liberia had attained some limited wealth. The country walked a fine line as European powers carved the African continent into colonies, and in some cases, those powers encroached upon territory Liberia claimed. Nonetheless, the country had kept up a relatively brisk trade with Europe and the United States and had exported sugar, coffee, rice, and forest products. However, the Liberian economy peaked, and by the mid-1870s, a combination of factors pushed the country’s trade into decline. Global depressions, European colonialism and control of African trade, and the emergence of sugar and coffee production elsewhere coalesced to send Liberia’s economy into a downward spiral. Thus, in the late nineteenth century, emigrants and settlers faced new economic hardships and uncertainty. General hardship would remain a theme. In August 1880, John W. Herron wrote from Grand Bassa County to E.A. Banks (from Columbus) in New York, a member of the family that had owned the Herrons. In his letter, John, now 32, acknowledged a “box” that Banks had sent to his mother and expressed the family’s gratitude and appreciation that Banks had not forgotten them. Herron described the many difficulties and hardships the family faced, including sickness and poverty, and noted that “sometimes we find it very good, then again it comes hard.” They were having “quite a sickly time and people were dying in every direction.” To make matters worse, the Krue people, a native tribe, were threatening the community. Herron wrote that “they say this country belongs to their forefathers, and they intend to have it.” However, if it came to conflict, he was “ready at any moment to go and discharge my duty.”
The later correspondence of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants is less plentiful than the earlier letters sent as settlers arrived in Liberia, but it does give hints that earlier themes had persisted in the minds of some despite the hardships they had encountered. At least two of the preachers had survived past 1880. The Reverend Judge Cook, as late as 1883, was still preaching to the settler communities, as well as spreading the “civilizing influence” of Christianity to the native peoples. The Reverend Alexander Herron, when healthy, had likely fulfilled a similar role. As late as 1903, Spencer Parker, a successful farmer, was certain he had made the right decision to leave the United States. He still believed true freedom was impossible for the Black man in the United States but a reality – at least for Americo-Liberians – in his new African country. A detailed and certain account of what became of the approximately 500 Chattahoochee Valley emigrants to Liberia cannot be developed. They evidence is scant, often edited, and incomplete. However, what information is available does provide ample clues and suggests that the Liberian experience was, if not a success, neither a failure nor a disaster. Simply arriving in Liberia had its own set of challenges. A significant number of emigrants, both children and adults, probably did not survive their first year in the country; mortality was unusually high for emigrants, and, as a group, the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants would have suffered.
Further, as a largely agrarian group, the emigrants were ill-prepared for a quick transition from destitution to prosperity. Success or failure was on the individual level. Farming was extremely difficult in Liberia, particularly for newcomers. Dense forests, a new climate, new crops, and new pests and problems meant hard work, trial and error, and for many farmers, little production or failure. The social hierarchy of Liberia probably did not encourage those who struggled. Not only were their farms producing little, but also other Black, fellow Liberians, looked down upon them in many of the same ways the whites of the South had. Free soil in Liberia had a steep price, and some could not pay it. Those who wished to and were able returned to the United States, where at least they had familiarity and some comfort level with the conditions, if not the political situation. However, of those who had survived the acclimation, most stayed – probably the great majority – either because of a lack of means to return or a lack of desire to do so. Many likely had a fairly hardscrabble existence, similar to the lives they would have led had they remained in the South. Good times were cyclical. It took hard work to survive. Sickness came and went, and life went on. A lucky and hard-working few appear to have achieved some level of prosperity in Liberia, and, notably, were either not farmers or not exclusively so. Chapman Abercombie was a successful builder but did keep a small farm. Judge Cook was a missionary preacher and likely had some form of outside support. Spencer Parker, a farmer, was also a government official and operated a mill. The Herrons, who were farmers and apparently not thriving in 1880, were led by a preacher and may have received some additional resources because of his position. Some measure of success, particularly in Grand Bassa County, appeared to hinge on hard work and a recognition that farming along could not support a family. Thus, the Chattahoochee Valley emigrant experience appears to have been a “mixed bag.” Some died, some returned, some struggled on as they would have had they remained in the South. Some few, probably very few, realized the dream they envisioned upon their departure in 1867 and 1868. Next Week: We will start a new series for March called Lost Columbus! It will highlight a few of the buildings - residential, commercial, and civic - that we have lost over the years. These stories will also be the centerpiece of a special exhibit from Historic Columbus that will be placed in the RiverCenter. We are very grateful for this new partnership! Stay tuned and we will see you next week!
DON'T MISS OUR UPCOMING FUNDRAISER!
TICKETS AVAILABLE ON THE HISTORIC COLUMBUS WEBSITE
A Night in Paris at the Moulin Rouge Friday, April 15, 2022 Country Club of Columbus 6:30 - 9:30 PM