There was a time when Tennessee was trying to get foreigners to move here.
You see, a lot of former enslaved people left the South during the generation after the Civil War. So many left Tennessee for Midwestern states such as Kansas and Missouri that they have a name, that being the “Exodusters.”
This departure created a labor shortage. Before the war, large farms had been assembled with the idea that slave labor would work them. After slavery ceased to exist, the owners of these large farms had to hire new workers or sell some or all of their land. Either option required new residents.
Immediately after the war, Tennessee started trying to recruit Europeans.
In May 1866, the Tennessee Immigration Society was incorporated in Nashville, with its president being former Union Army Gen. George H. Thomas. It immediately started working to create a colony of immigrants near Tullahoma. Two years later, the Davidson County Immigration Society wrote letters to Europe in its attempt to get people to move to Tennessee. At a time when Nashville had a German-language newspaper called the Demokrat, Nashville also had a German Immigration Society to entice more hardworking Germans to move to Tennessee.
State government was doing its part. In the late 1860s, Tennessee Commissioner of Immigration Hermann Bokum wrote a book called “The Tennessee Hand-Book and Immigrants Guide.” The book praised Tennessee’s “water-power, timber, soil, climate; its various railroad lines; its adaptation for grape culture; its stock raising, etc., all considered with special reference to the subject of immigration,” the Knoxville Press reported in April 1868. After the handbook was translated to German, the state bought 1,000 copies of it and sent them to Germany to be distributed to prospective immigrants.
Soon counties all over the state were getting into the act. The Washington County Immigration Society was formed in 1875. “We invite farmers, mechanics, artisans, capitalists, educators and all others to make our county the home of their adoption,” the group announced. Two years later, citizens of Coffee County formed an immigration society and began assembling lots for immigrants to buy. In 1879, the Roane County Immigration Society printed and sent brochures to Europe, encouraging people to move there. By 1882 there was a Giles County Immigration Society in Pulaski and a West Tennessee Immigration Society in Memphis.
Citizens in Lawrence County — working with the Catholic Homestead Association of Cincinnati, Ohio — relocated several hundred German immigrants to Lawrenceburg and Loretto. That’s why Lawrence County’s foreign-born population increased almost tenfold from 1870 to 1880 (from 58 in 1870 to 456). Today, there are two beautiful Catholic churches in Lawrence County, both built during this era. They are 15 miles apart, and they are both called Sacred Heart.
In East Tennessee, the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company brought Welsh miners to extract coal from the northern part of Anderson County near the communities of Briceville and Coal Creek (now Rocky Top). That’s the main reason the number of foreign-born people rose in Anderson County from 64 in 1880 to 218 in 1890.
Also in the 1880s, a group of New York capitalists brought immigrants from Europe to mine coal at a place called Helenwood.
Around the same time, a well-publicized English colony called Rugby was established in Morgan and Scott counties.
Some of these places still celebrate their heritage. The Grundy County Swiss Historical Society has an event every July, while Rugby still has its original church and library and a wonderful visitor center.
It’s easy to see this list of foreign colonies and get the impression that immigration to Tennessee was a big deal. However, these were small communities, and some of them (Rugby in particular) didn’t have much staying power as colonies. Also, keep in mind that immigration societies were critical of each other. “There is to be another German colony planted on the Cumberland Mountains,” the Pulaski Citizen reported on March 30, 1882 (referring to a colony that I don’t think ever came about). “We protest against this. It brings the South into disrepute to have these strangers cajoled and swindled into buying our commonest lands when the best soil in the world is cheap in Tennessee. Why not quarter these people where they can make a living?”
Finally, do understand that these immigration recruitment efforts did not extend to Africa, Asia or South America. The same newspapers that printed stories about how great it would be to bring in immigrants from Germany and England ran stories about how these same offers didn’t extend to all immigrants. “(The Chinese) have grown up a band of lawless vagabonds, more destructive of moral virtue, more poisonous to pure Christianity, more threatening to the life of the American republic than all over evil influences that ever brooded them over our land,” the Reverend O.C. Wheeler was quoted as saying in the Feb. 18, 1880, Memphis Daily Appeal. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, putting a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers emigrating to the U.S.
In any case, it is wrong to imply that foreign immigration to Tennessee was a major factor after the Civil War. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Tennessee’s foreign-born population actually fell from 19,316 in 1870 to 17,746 in 1900. So, despite all the immigration societies and all their press coverage, Tennessee had fewer immigrants at the end of the century than it had just after the Civil War.