Awkward efforts to woo European immigrants

"With us, ready at hand, are the means of rapidly transforming this into a densely populated, thriving State. No clime is fairer than ours. It is no idle boast we make that our soil is not surpassed by any other on the habitable globe. We can safely compare health statistics with any other portion of the world. Our cotton is in important respects better, our grain as good as that anywhere else produced ... Nature seems to delight in granting us bountiful yields of the best of vegetables, fruits, grapes, flowers, and all that is useful and all that is beautiful, almost for the asking... And yet those abroad know nothing of all this."

--Address of Executive Committee, Pulaski County Cooperative Aid Society, Sept. 29, 1877; reprinted in the Arkansas Gazette

Last week a friend from Texarkana confirmed what Charles Portis observed about the frequency of proclamations of a "New South" by Southern editorial writers: they were issued about every five years. So my friend noted in the 1960s, and so Portis noted in 1999.

Explicit declarations may have tapered off since, but for evidence that certain New South ideas are alive and well, look no further than last week's announcement that the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and 33 local employers are offering $10,000 stipends to skilled workers who agree to move here or, if originally from here, move back.

Modern organized efforts to attract immigrants to Arkansas began just after the Civil War. (Depending on the particular effort, "immigrant" can mean foreign immigrants or simply anyone from out of state.)

With the aim of attracting foreign immigrants, the Arkansas Immigrant Aid Society organized in 1865, and in October of that year published a broadside called "Arkansas! The Home for Immigrants!" The broadside apparently failed to attract any immigrants to Arkansas, and the AIAS dissolved in 1866.

An article by Beverly Watkins published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in 1979 chronicles the formation and dissolution of the AIAS, as well as the effort of legislators, with the support of the Arkansas Gazette and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, to send a state-funded agent to New York to recruit foreign immigrants to Arkansas. The effort failed.

According to Watkins, a German Immigrant Aid Society organized in Little Rock in late September 1867 with the support of the Little Rock Republican, and again, the Chamber of Commerce.

The GIAS created a plan for Arkansas landowners to donate land to German immigrants if they agreed to work as servants or gardeners; Little Rock merchant Frederick Kramer was an agent for the Hamburg Steamship Line and was to travel to New Orleans to recruit. While several Arkansas landowners made generous offers, it is unclear whether Kramer actually made the trip, and if so, how many Germans he recruited. The GIAS dissolved by the end of 1867.

Arkansas was re-admitted to the Union on June 22, 1868, and under the administration of Gov. Powell Clayton, the office of Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands was established within a month. The commissioner's duty was to collect and distribute information (in English and German) about agriculture, minerals, and manufacturing in Arkansas, to manage the surveying and sale of state lands, and to travel in the United States and abroad to attract immigrants.

The violence of the Ku Klux Klan and Clayton's resulting declaration of martial law, however, dampened the enthusiasm of would-be immigrants to Arkansas.

Watkins' account of Arkansas' efforts to attract foreign immigrants extends from 1865 through 1874. She notes that from 1860 to 1870, the foreign-born population of Arkansas increased from 3,600 to 5,026, and did not surpass 10,000 until 1880. She concludes that during the period of her study, Arkansas never managed to compete with the states of the Midwest for immigrants arriving from Europe.

Published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in 1966, Jonathan Wolfe's article "Background of German Immigration" begins with a prediction from the Immigration Aid Society of Little Rock in 1872. With descriptions of the bounty of Arkansas much like the one that begins this article, the Society declares that things are going to be really great once we get the right people to come here.

In his study of German immigration to the Arkansas River Valley, Wolfe finds that during the 1870s and 1880s, schemes to bring foreign immigrants (especially Germans) failed to bring enough people "to enlarge the labor force drastically," as New South promoters hoped.

The commissioner of immigration and state lands did manage to publish a pamphlet in English (1873) and German (1874), but Arkansas was unable to do much advertising abroad. The Gazette took the immigration bureau to task for fumbling visits from scouts; in one instance in 1875, a group of three German men arrived in Little Rock looking for a place to settle 20 families. While they received pamphlets, no one could be found to give them a tour of Little Rock.

Independent of state government and working closely with the railroads (who had enormous land grants to sell off), a new Bureau of Immigration formed in 1888 to attract immigrants "without regard to politics, creed, birthplace, or profession," to which (according to "Arkansas: A Concise History") the Walnut Ridge Telepleane replied, "We don't want any anarchists in politics, we don't want any Mormons in religion, and we don't want any tramps by profession."

Alert readers might be wondering what was going on among African Americans during all the fuss over attracting European immigrants. The answer begins in "'The Great Negro State of the Country': Arkansas' Reconstruction and the Other Great Migration," published by Story Matkin-Rawn in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in 2013.

It reports that 36,000 African Americans came to Arkansas from southeastern states during the 1870s; 200,000 African Americans came to Arkansas from the end of the Civil War to World War I. We'll begin to consider their stories soon.

Brooke Greenberg lives in Little Rock. Email: brooke@restorationmapping.com