Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

Colonization by the Numbers

Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to colonize the freedmen abroad during the Civil War failed for a number of reasons, including diplomatic difficulties with foreign countries, the general unpopularity of the idea within the black community, and even internal dissent and subversion from his own cabinet. After four years and multiple attempts, no more than about 500 African-Americans relocated abroad, most of them to the ill-fated Ile a Vache colony off the coast of Haiti that required rescue by the government in 1864.

Despite the lack of willing participants, Lincoln initiated colonization with significantly larger plans in mind. In 1862 he obtained congressional approval of $600,000 in colonization funding, $100,000 of which was dedicated to the District of Columbia. Though small by modern standards, this figure would have amounted to almost 1% of the entire federal government’s budget by pre-Civil War standards.

So how many African American colonists were actually contemplated? Using the best available information, the following chart reflect the proposed number of colonists for each location attempted by the Lincoln Administration.

Colony Dates Considered Proposed # of Colonists Actual # of Settlers
Chiriqui, Panama Sept. 1862-c. Jan 1863 50,000-250,000 0
Ile a Vache, Haiti Dec. 1862-Feb. 1864 500-5,000 453
Liberia, American Colonization Society Jan. 1863-May 1863 200 26 (est.)
British Honduras May 1863-Jan. 1864 50,000 0
British Guiana May 1863-April 1864 Unknown, 500 requested in 1864 0
Suriname 1863 Unknown, 300 families requested 0
Panama, Butler Proposal* April 1865 50,000 0

Note on Sources:

Contract notes for the Chiriqui colony reflect the proposal of 100-250,000 settlers (See Senate Executive Document 55, pp. 13-14), whereas correspondence about the colony between its proprietor Ambrose W. Thompson and the Colombian government contemplated at least 50,000 settlers”with plans to take more than 50,000 additionally (See Parraga to Thompson, September 26, 1862, Thompson Papers, Library of Congress). Initial contracts for the Ile a Vache between Bernard Kock and Abraham Lincoln contemplated 5,000 settlers. Subsequent communications referenced plans to transport 1,000-1,500. An estimated 453 colonists were aboard when the ship departed for Haiti in early 1863 (See Ile a Vache Colonization Papers, Slave Trade and Negro Colonization Records, Record Group 48, M160, National Archives and Records Administration). In early 1863, Lincoln’s Emigration Commissioner James Mitchell presented a list of about 200 prospective names to the American Colonization Society for resettlement in Liberia. Though the original record did not survive, the American Colonization Society reported transporting 26 persons from the list in May of 1863. The government also advanced some $200 to Rev. Chauncey Leonard and $285 to the family of Peter Stafford relating to travel to Liberia (See Mitchell to R.R. Gurley, April 16, 1863, American Colonization Society Papers, Library of Congress and “Departure of the Mary Caroline Stevens on her Eleventh Voyage to Africa,” The African Repository, June 1863). According to the terms presented by colonial land agent John Hodge for the British Honduras settlement, the British Honduras Company intended to transport 5,000 emigrants per year over the course of 10 years, totaling 50,000 persons (See “Memorandum on Self-Sustaining Emigration,” Slave Trade and Negro Colonization Records, RG 48, M160, National Archives). Due to its relative infancy as a proposal and a general scarcity of records, the number of colonists sought for British Guiana is unknown. One letter from 1864 references a license from the governor of the colony to recruit 500 adult African-Americans (See Rowe to Seward, April 25, 1864, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, RG 59, National Archives). The Suriname colony was negotiated as a proposed treaty through the State Department rather than the Emigration Office, and left few specific projections of numbers. One report from the U.S. Consul in Paramaribo references a request for 200-300 families of colonists (See Sawyer to Seward, September 3, 1862, Despatches from the U.S. Consul, Paramaribo, in State Department Records, RG 59, National Archives). *The proposed Panama colony from Benjamin F. Butler’s account of his April 1865 meeting with Lincoln is included in this estimate for purposes of comparison. Though Butler’s account remains controversial, corroborating evidence weighs in its favor. In each of the three instances where Butler committed his memory of the conversation to print, he estimated that the project would entail 50,000 freedmen from the United States Colored Troops (See “Spain to Abandon Cuba,” New York Times, August 20, 1884).

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