The history of the oldest known permanent Asian American settlement remains mysterious and as murky as the mosquito-infested marshland it was built on. Saint Malo was first established as a fishing village along the shores of Lake Borgne in Louisiana in the 18th century and continued to flourish until the 20th century.

The settlement’s namesake, Juan San Maló, was a leader of a group of Maroons (runaway enslaved people) who took refuge in the marshlands. True to the settlement’s namesake, the Asian pioneers of Saint Malo were the Filipino sailors and indentured servants who escaped the Spanish Galleons in the 1700s. They were later known in history as the Manilamen after the capital city of the Philippines.

The Manilamen of St. Malo

The Manila Galleon Trade
Culture Club/Getty Images
Fight for the Manila galleons between, c. 18th century. The Manila galleons were Spanish trading ships that sailed once or twice per year across the Pacific Ocean between Manila (Philippines) and Acapulco (New Spain)

The Manila Galleon Trade was a thriving global trade network between 1565 and 1815 that connected the economies of Asia, the Americas and Europe for over two centuries. It was during this era that the Luzones Indios (natives of Luzon) became vital in the biannual voyages of the Spanish Galleons across the Pacific. Luzon is the largest island of the Philippines where Manila is also located.

As early as the 16th century, many Filipino sailors and indentured servants jumped ship and settled across land that is now Mexico and parts of the United States. They were placed under different racial categories that only added to their mystery. In Mexico they were often listed as Indios Chinos, while in Louisiana they were later known as the Manilamen.

According to oral traditions there was already an existing Filipino community in Saint Malo as early as 1763 when both the Philippines and Louisiana were under the Spanish colonial government in Mexico. However, the oldest known documentation of Saint Malo as a Filipino settlement only dates back to the 19th century. It was in 1883 when writer Lafcadio Hearn wrote about his journey to Saint Malo in an article for Harper’s Weekly magazine. 

Fighting for US Independence in War of 1812

Battle of New Orleans, 1815
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
The Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815.

Despite the uncertainties regarding the earliest Filipino settlers prior to Hearn’s 1883 article, the Manilamen of Louisiana were already active participants in the history of the United States. They were among the bands of privateers who took part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. They fought under the command of future President Andrew Jackson in a decisive battle that secured U.S. victory against the British in the War of 1812.

A Floating Village

Hearn’s article notes that the Filipino settlement of Saint Malo in Saint Bernard Parish had existed for at least 50 years before his visit. He described the fishing village as a thriving community of houses built on stilts similar to the countless floating communities in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. “All are built in true Manila style, with immense hat-shaped eaves and balconies, but in wood,” he wrote.

The hurricane-prone, mosquito-infested marshland that many others avoided reminded the Manilamen of the Philippines, according to Rhonda Richoux. Richoux is a sixth-generation descendant of Felipe Madriaga, a sailor from the Philippines who settled in Saint Malo with his Irish wife in 1849. Their descendants remain residents of Saint Bernard Parish up to 2021.

'Shrimp Dancing' and Other Advances 

The Manilamen revolutionized the shrimping industry in the south by introducing methods such as the Shrimp Dance. The method was a process of separating shrimp shells from the meat by teams of fishermen dancing and stomping on piles of shrimp in a circular motion. Their tradition of drying shrimp was an effective way of preserving the shellfish before the advent of refrigeration technology.

It was not only fishing and shrimping traditions that Manilamen brought over to the bayous of Southeastern Louisiana. Throughout history the Manilamen of Louisiana intermarried with other ethnic groups of the region, such as the neighboring Isleño and Cajun communities. These intermarriages began as early as Saint Malo’s establishment when the early Filipino settlers were composed of mostly men.

More Than Just a Melting Pot

Library of Congress
Men playing a gambling game in the remote Filipino fishing village on Lake Borgne.

The Manilamen and their families became an integral part of Louisiana’s multicultural society. Their multiethnic families often blurred and challenged the racial lines imposed by mainstream society. Their colorful contributions to the distinct cuisine and architecture of the region persists in the 21st century.

In a journal article published in 1994, filmmaker Jim Kenny said “The ‘melting pot’ never intended to include African- or Asian-Americans who are racially and culturally distinct. Yet, as our film [Dancing the Shrimp] shows, the experiences of eight generations of Filipino-Americans refutes the ‘melting pot's’ narrow exclusivity and illustrates a unique example of cultural adaptation and assimilation.”

Saint Malo Today

Their experiences with the tropical typhoons of Southeast Asia prepared the Manilamen in 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. According to their descendants, countless Manilamen stayed behind for many years in what remained of their village after the hurricane.

Since the 1800s other settlements similar to Saint Malo were also founded by the Manilamen in nearby areas. This included the bigger settlement called Manila Village in Barataria Bay that existed until 1965 when Hurricane Betsy destroyed it permanently.

Hurricane Katrina 

In 2005, the descendants of the Madriaga and Burtanog families hosted a grand reunion in a camp 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. Richoux recalled how the Category 5 hurricane destroyed much of the research and artifacts relating to the Manilamen and Saint Malo, including the recordings of her own grandparents. Many of their families were also forced to relocate across the United States but they remained steadfast in preserving their heritage.

Despite the destruction caused by the hurricanes, the legacy of Saint Malo and the Manilamen of Louisiana transcends beyond the physical fishing villages. A historical marker to commemorate Manila Village was unveiled in 2012 and another one for Saint Malo in Saint Bernard Parish was installed in 2019.