Land of Promise or Peril?

We recently enjoyed an opportunity to collaborate with Texas Christian University. We have been digitizing our archives, and often the papers we’re working with are difficult to decipher due to age, condition, media, and orthography. The students in Dr. Theresa Gaul's American Literature seminar class transcribed our 200-year-old Andrew Bulger Papers, and they made some interesting discoveries. A selection of the students blogs will be posted to the museum’s feed over the next few days.

This post is by Whitney Lew James, a doctoral student in rhetoric and composition studying academic discourse and genres, translingual theory, multimodal pedagogy, community literacy, and disability studies.

–Jon Frembling, Archivist, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

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^ “These unfortunate people who were principally mechanics with few professional men—had been led to believe they were coming to a much more settled place than the Colony really was in, a place where the people were prosperous and happy. Indeed many of them, who were in comfortable circumstances in their own country on reading the glowing description of the Red River Colony, sold their little properties, and with their families embarked for the ‘Land of Promise.’”—Andrew H. Bulger, Andrew Bulger Papers, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

The passage above is excerpted from a partial page in the Andrew H. Bulger Papers at the Amon Carter. A portion of the papers are Bulger’s drafts of the “Papers on the Selkirk Settlement Rupert’s Land,” which chronicle the history of the Red River Colony, which is in present-day Manitoba country but originally extended into Wisconsin in the United States. The settlement was originally sponsored by Thomas Douglas (1771–1820), the 5th Lord Selkirk, as a humanitarian effort for displaced Scots following the failed Jacobite rising. As the epigram indicates, Lord Selkirk, “friends of the colony” who encouraged emigration, and newly arrived settlers had high hopes for the colony.

The reality was very different. In other sections of the papers, Bulger documents the poor living conditions of the settlers: insects and birds ravaged their “little crops,” prairie fires destroyed their homes, correspondence with the homeland was greatly limited, and natives and fur traders warred over the lands, just to name a few.

Still, the fantasy of “prosperous and happy” communities and America as the “Land of Promise” pulled people to the colony. In fact, we retain many of the same idealized images of the first settlers of the United States. For the most part, we are told the same story of the Americas that Bulger reflects on here. That is, small groups of settlers seeking religious freedom traveled to North America by ship and, while they endured hardship, their industrious efforts led to prosperity, harmonious living, and the “American Dream” as we know it. While our national image of the first Thanksgiving has shifted to consider the complexity of the encounters between settlers and Natives, it is difficult to move away from ideas about who the settlers were and why they came. Bulger’s descriptions of the circumstances of emigration and settlement serve to complicate our understanding of exactly who built our country and under what conditions.

Elsewhere in the Bulger Papers he discusses a prospectus entitled “La Colonie de la Riviere Rouge,” which was “extensively circulated among the cantons of Switzerland, attracted much attention, and induced many families to emigrate,” even as reports from the colony were disappointing. Bulger writes that the false promises disseminated by Lord Selkirk’s agents were explicitly “made to increase the population of the settlement.” While the prospective settlers were deceived about the condition of Red River, those already settled in America expected different emigrants. Bulger writes that, “M. Macdonell [the first governor of the Red River Colony] was not too well please[d] with [German and Swiss emigrants], as they seemed to have been collected from the roving and unsettled class of people… and not likely to make good or industrious settlers.”

Thus, Bulger sheds light on an alternative narrative for immigration. Rather than individuals actively seeking out the Americas for religious freedom or other means of social mobility, at least some emigrants were specifically solicited and deceived in order to develop the colonies. Additionally, settlers that preceded the newest emigrants did not always welcome newcomers who did not fit their ideas about who could contribute to their community, a narrative that we see acted out on the national stage to this day.

While I have been unable to locate the prospectus that Bulger mentions in his papers, census data from the Statistical Review of Immigration 1820-1910 conducted by Mr. Dillingham of the Committee on Immigration does reflect a significant increase in emigration from Switzerland. In 1820, only 31 individuals emigrated from Switzerland, but in 1821 and 1822 emigration spiked to 93 and 110, respectively. While it remains unclear when the prospectus Bulger refers to might have reached the cantons, the hard work by Lord Selkirk’s agents was certainly paying off. Unfortunately, the individuals induced to emigrate abandoned settled lives in their homeland for difficult, unsettled, and precarious positions in the “Land of Promise.” Ultimately, Bulger’s papers provide one more piece of evidence that our romanticization of immigration and American settlement must be revised.

Robert S. Allen and Carol M. Judd, “Bulger, Andrew H.,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, eds. George W. Brown and Ramsay Cook (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1985)

J. M. Bumsted, "Red River Colony," in The Canadian Encyclopedia (Toronto, Ontario: Historica Foundation of Canada, 1985)

Reports of the Immigration Commission: Statistical Review of Immigration, 1820–1910; Distribution of Immigrants 1850–1900, S. Doc. No. 756 (1911).