Unsung Heroes: Untold South Asian Immigrant Stories From Early America

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

Recent nomination by Vice President Joe Biden of Senator Kamala Harris as the Vice Presidential nominee to the Democratic ticket has been deemed groundbreaking as it will be the first time a biracial woman with an Indian and Caribbean heritage will run for high office. Both her parents, Donald Harris and Shymala Gopalan were immigrants to the United States who came to pursue higher studies at the University of California, Berkeley. When this announcement was made, there were several headlines regarding Kamala Harris’s Indian roots and inquiry into the influence it may have had on her upbringing.

Upon reading the articles regarding the symbolism of her nomination, her immigration story, I began to think about South Asian Indian immigration to the United States. For many, it would seem that it is a recent phenomenon. However, contrary to that belief, East Indian immigrants have been arriving on American shores soon after the Pilgrims.

The U.S. has always been absorbing ideas from its immigrants, including Indian immigrants, reacting to them, relying on them and being influenced by them. However, these immigrants were present in the margins of American society and their voices were muted but they continued to affect American society despite constraints. Reexamination of our nation’s history would reveal that Indian influence has been ever present in the country throughout the centuries including during its formation. Acknowledging this history will serve to normalize non White immigrant influences on the American body politic.

In contemporary history, Sikhs are more commonly known as the first Indian immigrants to arrive in the west coast of the United States through Angel Island at the end of the 19th century. They worked on farms, lumber mills and construction of railroads. Bhagat Singh Thind is noted for a landmark legal action Thind v. United States in 1923 to fight for U.S citizenship by an Indian and represented by another Indian born lawyer Sakharam Ganesh Pandit (The first Indian to have been admitted to the Bar in the United States). This case denied citizenship to Thind on the basis that he was not ‘white.’

Following this case, the U.S. Congress passed the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 denying immigration to Asians. However, only after a brief period of denial of immigration to Asians, the passage of Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, again allowed Asian immigration, leading to Shymala Gopalan’s arrival to the U.S for higher studies.

Indians from India have been arriving on American shores for centuries. There are records indicating that East Indians have been arriving soon after the Mayflower landed here more than 375 years ago. Even though they have always been present, their impact on American soil has been lost to history.

It is believed that the first East Indian, named “Tony”, arrived on American shores when he accompanied Captain George Menefie in the year 1620, less than a decade after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. George Menefie was an English merchant who settled in Jamestown, Virginia. He was assigned 1,200 acres of land in Jamestown in 1624 and used “Tony, an East Indian” as a headright.

In early colonial America, immigration was encouraged through the headright system which awarded a 50-acre land grant per laborer brought over by an English merchant. Captain Menefie brought 24 immigrants including the East Indian Tony. These records indicate that East Indians began arriving shortly after the first European settlers arrived.

Virginia Gazette (Rind) Williamsburg, August 4, 1768 William Colston

In fact, Genealogist, Paul Heinegg, specifically identified East Indian presence on American soil, distinct from the Native American Indian in his research of early American and colonial U.S. history. He has compiled advertisements for runaway slaves involving East Indians through colonial newspapers and also examined court records. These records indicate that many of the East Indians arrived with English merchants to America already anglicized and christianized. One such advertisement identifies “East India negro man” who speaks French and English.

Runaway slave notice for Martineek, a Mulatto (mixed race ancestry) from the Albany Gazette, April 24, 1789

They were brought to Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina as either slaves or indentured servants by wealthy European merchants. Apparently, East Indian populace was more prevalent than the Native American Indian population in the early 1700’s records. This research is confirmed by Thomas Brown, a faculty member at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, Thomas Costa, professor of history at University of Virginia, and journalists Francis C. Assisi and Elizabeth Pothen.

Even though little is known about them, these East Indians lived on this land, worked to develop it, intermarried with other whites and blacks. They were known as mulattoes or free Blacks and assimilated into American culture where their Indian heritage was concealed by their anglicization. However, they contributed to the framework of American society, they fought for their freedom, overcame abuse, discrimination and oppression. Their descendants became integral members in their communities and shaped American culture.

National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, United Kingdom — Three Lascars of the ‘Viceroy of India’, standing behind the wheel of one of the ship’s tenders Source: Wikipedia Digital Commons

Other East Indians arrived in America recruited as seamen (“lascars”) by the Portuguese, Spanish and English since the first days of European voyages. These seamen were employed for their knowledge of native seas, seamanship and resilience. Many lascars settled in ports around Europe and the Americas and married native women. They were instrumental in seafaring and navigation of ships that crisscrossed the oceans between Asia-Europe-Africa-Americas. It is a fact that East Indian lascars ended up in New York and New Orleans in America from 1880–1960s. Vivek Bald memorializes these histories in his book Bengali Harlem and The Lost Histories of South Asian America.

There were also accounts of lascars in colonial America. R.L. Brunhouse in Lascars in Pennsylvania: A Side-Light on The China Trade and Rajender Kaur in The Curious Case of Sick Keesar: Tracing the Roots of South Asian Presence in the Early Republic, discuss the case of Sick Keesar and his band of lascars.

Rajender Kaur analyzes the runaway slave advertisements from that period revealing the presence of lascars in North America. One such record from 1667 cites the sale of two lascars as slaves to Captain Tillman of the American Ship Constant Friendship bound for Virginia. Kaur also cites Charles R. Foy who wrote that lascars were a regular fixture in American ports after the American Revolution. Included in his research is a complaint of a 16 year old boy in a New-York jail who was born in Bombay and came to New York from Santa Croix on the Snow Nancy. Native names of the lascars were anglicized for log books contributing to their obscurity in the narrative of American history.

The Curious Case of Sick Keesar: Tracing the Roots of South Asian Presence in the Early Republic — Rajender Kaur- University of California Digital Library

A petition by an East Indian named Sick Keesar is interesting due to the fact that it found its way up to the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin and other prominent men of the American Revolution through The Executive Council of Pennsylvania. The discussion in the petition indicates the rhetorical and philosophical policies being debated and articulated at the time of the Revolution and how the newly founded United States wanted to be perceived by the world. Great emphasis was made in trying to portray America as a cosmopolitan nation that believed in individual liberties and principles of justice and fairness.

Sick Keesar., on November 3, 1785, filed a petition for redress against Captain John O’Donnell of Pallas Indiaman. Hailing from Bengal, the petition charged that O’Donnell had reneged his contract to secure a return passage home for Keesar and his company of thirty-five seamen, kidnapped and sold his son and starved and abused his men. These men were supposed to sail till Batavia (Dutch Indonesia) but were forced to navigate all the way to Baltimore.

Manuscript Document signed by Charles Biddle as Vice President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, offering aid to stranded Chinese and Indian Sailors Dated May 30, 1786- Image from PBA Galleries Auctioneers and Appraisers

In response to their petition, Vice President Nicholas Biddle of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, argued to Governor Paca of Maryland on behalf of the lascars so that “they may not be permitted to carry back to India with them any well grounded objections against either the justice or humanity of these U.S.”

According to Brumhouse and Kaur, even the newspapers at the time that reported on this issue seem to see the United States as a land accepting of all persons from around the world, Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser provided the following notice “It is no unpleasing sight to see the crew of this ship, Chinese, Malays, Japanese and Moors, with a few Europeans, all habited according to the different Countries to which they belong, and employed together as Brethren; it is thus Commerce binds and unites all the Nations of the Globe with a golden chain.”

Levi Hollingsworth, a prominent Philadelphia merchant supporter of the American Revolution and fought battles in Trenton and Princeton while serving under General Washington supported Keesar and his company with food and lodging for one year. It is unknown how many of the men survived and whether the sailors journeyed back to India or remained in the United States. Records are silent on whether Keesar was reunited with his kidnapped son, this story also highlights the anguish, abuse and exploitation faced by them.

This petition is significant in showing that Indian people who came to North America were valued for their seafaring knowledge and goods. They also fought for injustice and utilized the judicial mechanism to address their claims and garnered public support for their cause and thus made an impact and contributed to the definitions and debates of the day regarding how the United States wished to be perceived by the world.

Captain O’ Donnell was instrumental in making Baltimore a major city in the United States. He carried exotic goods such as tea, china, and silks on Yankee clippers that employed lascars. Beginning in the nineteenth century, trade with India was a leading source of custom duties.

Trade with India also cemented the wealth and culture of the elite later known as “Boston Brahmins.” Along with tea, silks and spices, trade in ideas and books such as The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita was also apparent, igniting an interest in spirituality and the Transcendentalist movement in American literature led by Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Only recently it has been acknowledged that Colonel Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States commenced a secret relationship with Mary Eugenie Beuharnais Emmons who was born in Calcutta around 1760. She came to the United States through Haiti where her original Indian name may have been erased.

It is believed that she may have been brought to the United States by Marcus Prevost, the first husband of Thedosia Prevost who was stationed in Haiti for the British Army in 1772 and 1773. Upon her arrival to North America, she may have taken the name Mary Emmons, became part of Theodosia’s household and worked as a governess or servant.

Mary Emmons had two children Louisa Charlotte, in 1788 and John Pierre in 1792 with Aaron Burr. Burr kept his family with Mary Emmons a secret throughout his political life. At the time of his Vice Presidency, Louisa Charlotte was twelve and Jean Pierre was eight. They were aged 22 and 18 when their father set sail for Europe after his acquittals for treason.

Aaron Burr (left) and his son, abolitionist John Pierre Burr (right) (Image from Smithsonianmag.com, Public Domain)

Jean Pierre Burr went to make a living as barber and his barbershop became a station on the Underground Railroad working to liberate runaway slaves. He organized the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and served as an agent for William Llyod Garrison abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator and published the Journal of American Reform Society. He was politically active protesting disenfranchisement of free blacks and signed a petition with Frederick Douglass.

Louisa Charlotte followed in her mother’s footsteps and worked as a housekeeper for a prominent Philadelphia family. She married Francis Webb who was an abolitionist. Together with her husband she worked to further abolitionist goals. Her youngest son, Frank J. Webb was recognized as an early African American writer who authored the novel, The Garies and Their Friends, in 1857 (Second novel published by an African American).

Jean Pierre and Lousia Charlotte lived very long lives and produced several children whose descendants continue their legacy. Sherri Burr, a University of New Mexico Law Professor and member of the Aaron Burr Association, who traces her ancestry to Aaron Burr and Mary Emmons, unearthed further details about Aaron Burr’s secret family through compelling evidence in a property deed from Aaron Burr to Jean Pierre, as well as letters indicating his relationship with them including DNA evidence verifying the relationship he had with Mary Emmons.

Similar to Kamala Harris’s mother Shymala Gopalan, Mary Emmons arrived in North America and raised children who assimilated into the American black society and made significant contributions in their communities and worked tirelessly towards their progress.

There may have been other Indian women known as Ayahs employed to take care of American children. Ayahs were professional caregivers and experienced travelers who accompanied British families on steamships while traveling between Britain and India. They were often exploited and suffered at the whims of their employers and abandoned after their journeys. In order to earn their return passage back or simply to survive they advertised their services. Some Ayahs may have found their way to the United States in this fashion. They were prized for their child-rearing experience and sought after by the memsahibs of the day.

Woman of South Asian or African Origin Holding Caucasian Baby (1855–1875) Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Francis C. Assisi and Elizabeth Pothen conducted research into pension records from the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers System. These records revealed evidence of at least 50 South Asians enlisted and served in the U.S. armed forces during the U.S. Civil War and received pensions for their service.

Though the names appear to be anglicized, the military records include the birthplace and their physical features. Records show the soldiers birthplace of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Burhampur, Pondicherry and Bangalore. Their physical features are also listed characterizing them as mulatto, creole, bronze, negro and dark. They came from varied professions and backgrounds including sailors, cooks, mariners, laborers, students, farmers and machinists.

Unknown South Asian Soldier in The American Civil War — Source Imgur.com

They enlisted in the Navy, Cavalry, Artillery, Infantry serving in various capacities including Sergeant, Steward, Seaman, Fireman and Cook. They served on many USS vessels and in regiments in New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri. They were part of 31 and 19th US Colored Troops, serving in various corps and batteries and battalions fanning out to New York, Oregon, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The unique story of Congee Rustumjee Cohoujee Bey renamed Antonio F. Gomez also unearthed by Assisi and Pothen sheds light on Indian presence and service in the U.S. A Parsi prince from Lahore, after conversion to christianity in Britain, he served in the U.S. Navy around 1862 and made his home in San Francisco. He was interned in the Presidio in San Francisco with full military honors in 1911. Also found in the records was another man named Charles Simons, born in India and enlisted in Virginia in New Hampshire Infantry received a medal of honor on 30th July 1864 from President Lincoln.

Indian immigration to the United States is not a new phenomenon, the stories enumerated serve to highlight Indian contributions throughout North American history and the founding of the nation. These immigrants made meaningful contributions toward American society through service, activism and ideals. They were pioneers in search of better opportunities, valued for their skills and work ethic. They withstood exploitation and discrimination and fought for their rights utilizing the judicial system. They participated in American democracy and tested the laws and norms of American society. Including them in the greater American narrative contextualizes Senator Kamala Harris’ story as quintessentially American.

Also published at Peripatetic.

Is a writer, whose work focuses on immigrant stories and histories of migration and diaspora, particularly from India and the South Asian subcontinent.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store