Dominicans and Black American Roots?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader wants to know more about ancestors who settled in the town of Samaná.

 
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Residents in Samaná, Dominican Republic (Michael Hanson/Getty Images)

(The Root) --

"My ancestors were former American slaves invited to live in the Dominican Republic when Haitians had control of the island. We know that these former slaves came from Philly. Samaná was mostly populated by American slaves. Everyone there pretty much has an American last name -- mine from that side is Jones. What other information do you have about formerly enslaved black Americans moving to Samaná, Dominican Republic? It's a very little known fact." --Kristen Rice-Jones 

After the Haitian Revolution in the early 19th century, the leaders of Haiti had the opportunity to reshape the country's identity. One of the early leaders of Haiti after the revolution, President Jean Pierre Boyer, envisioned a country that was welcoming to all of those of African descent. He promoted brotherhood, equality and citizenship to those who immigrated to Haiti. Furthermore, he believed that bringing free Africans together in Haiti would stimulate the country's economy by increasing the labor force and strengthen diplomatic relations with the United States. In 1824, President Boyer offered several incentives to encourage free African Americans to immigrate to Haiti, such as a free passage, land grants and financial support upon arrival.

By August of 1824, several African Americans accepted President Boyer's offer and were preparing to move to Haiti. One of the largest groups left from Philadelphia and settled in the town of Samaná, which is now part of the Dominican Republic (as you may know, the two nations are on the same Caribbean island of Hispaniola).

Jonathas Granville and the Rev. Loring D. Dewey were two of the main proponents of African Americans immigrating to Haiti. Dewey was a member of the American Colonization Society, a group whose primary goal was to facilitate the return of free African Americans to Africa. The Rev. Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister, had formed the society in 1816 based on his belief that Africans would never be fully integrated into the U.S. and were a threat to the nation's well-being. He believed returning to Africa was the best option for them.

Whatever the motivation, as a result of the work of the ACS, more than 12,000 African Americans immigrated to Liberia, the largest colony formed by the society. Although many in the ACS favored Liberia, it was logistically more difficult to send the emigrants to West Africa because the trip was longer and more expensive. Dewey heard of President Boyer's plans to repopulate Haiti, and thus he began correspondence with Boyer. From this effort, Dewey coordinated the immigration of African Americans to Haiti in 10 locations on the island (including Samaná).

Jonathas Granville was Haitian-born, and he was sent on behalf of Boyer to recruit African Americans to immigrate to Haiti. In June of 1824, he traveled first to Philadelphia, and then to New York, where he distributed some of the money allotted by President Boyer to pay passage to Haiti. The Rev. Dewey and others wrote extensively in newspapers regarding the status and quality of life of those who immigrated to Samaná. In March of 1835, the North Star in Danville, Vt., reported, "The government appears to have realized every promise made by Mr. Grenville and about 270 of the immigrants are located at Samaná, where land has been given to them, on which some are already at work to improve, and are much encouraged to be industrious."

Over time, approximately 6,000 African Americans immigrated to Haiti; however, many of them did not stay permanently. The new immigrants faced many challenges, such as mismanagement of the resettlement process and cultural differences between the Haitians and the African Americans. By 1826, the positive articles in newspapers had given way to criticisms of those who returned from Haiti stating that they were unwilling to work. A January 1826 edition of the United States Gazette wrote that "The public hears but little of Hayti [sic] as a place of emigration, since certain of those who visited the island 6 or 8 months since returned without being able to report that the place would afford shelter and sustenance to those who desire not to labor."

Today, the town of Samaná, now a part of the Dominican Republic, is the only area where there is still a concentration of descendants of African Americans, mostly from Philadelphia. Since the community is not easily accessible by road, the descendants of African Americans remain isolated; as a result, much of the culture has been retained. For example, many today still speak American English. Many of the residents of Samaná are also practicing Protestants instead of Catholic, which is the dominant religion in the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, as you noted, many of the surnames of those in Samaná are derivatives of an American surname, which can often be traced back to a free African-American family in Philadelphia.

If you are interested in learning more about your ancestors in Samaná, there are a few sources that might be helpful. The Dominican Republic did not implement civil registration of birth, marriage and deaths until 1944. Before this time, the Catholic Church kept most records, since this was the dominant religion of the country. Thus, it may be difficult to find records of your ancestors in the parish registers, as many of the African Americans in Samaná were not Catholics.