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William Hutchinson Norris led the American exodus from the Southern United States to Brazil. Norris was a modern Moses leading these Americans to the new promised land.

Following the American Civil War, the South lay in ruins. Life would never be the same for most of the population. Many in the family were killed, and starvation from what little food they had being stolen or destroyed was the norm. Farms lay in desolation with no seeds to plant or horses to plow. Homes and buildings were burned to the ground with no prospect of rebuilding.

The south was divided into districts with military governors (U.S. Army generals) out for revenge calling the shots. Taxes were due, made excessively high, with no money to pay. This is where the “carpet baggers and scalawags” we see in “Gone With the Wind” come in. The former slave population was not treated any better by the liberators. They were relegated to work camps and shantytowns. They found themselves having to rob and steal to survive. Many went back to the plantations of former masters hoping to endure.

As many have said, “The war was hell but reconstruction was worse.” It was not what we think about when we think of us helping rebuild Japan and Germany after World War II or Iraq in modern times. It has been compared to cultural genocide, and that description is not far from the truth. It was a time of oppression, recession, starvation, violence, social chaos, property loss, truly worse for many than the war itself.

What few know is that as many as 40,000 southerners left the country following the war to find a new life elsewhere. Some went to Europe, some to Canada, some to Panama, Honduras, Venezuela, some to Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Ireland and England. A large group went to Argentina. But most went to Brazil. Some have described the “rebels flight” as the largest exodus in US history. Yet very few know the story.

I am going to put one thing to rest at the beginning. Several writers have “surmised” that they left the South and took their slaves with them. Also, that they chose Brazil because it was a slave holding state. Here is my take on that. Since slavery was ended in the U.S. in 1865, all men were free and therefore no longer slaves. Former slaves did accompany former masters to Brazil, but not as slaves. It was their choice as free men. A 2009 paper written in Brazil at Campinas University by L. Agular states, “It is a false statement that the North American immigrants came to Brazil because Brazil was a slaveholder nation.”

Emperor Dom Pedro II started advertising in U.S. newspapers as early as 1865 to entice emigration to Brazil. Dom Pedro II seems to be the only dictator of a country to be loved by his people and is still revered in Brazil today. A Confederate veteran in Brazil wrote the Wilmington (N.C.) Daily Dispatch describing the emperor. The lengthy letter mentions, he “is liberal and progressive in his views, encourages immigration with full protection in every respect to all creeds and denominations.” It concludes, “He is a wise and far-seeing statesman and has done and will do nothing to trammel conscience. He is a gentleman in every respect, a worthy potentate, and a true man.” The brilliance of Dom Pedro II will be revealed as this writing continues.

I have a copy of a handbill that was distributed in the U.S. Its bold title is “Emigration to Brazil” subtitled, “by the United States and Brazil Mail Steamship Co.” then capitalized “ON THE 22nd OF EACH MONTH.” Don Pedro II was offering free or almost free transport and then land could be claimed at little to no cost. Land with a price tag could be purchased and paid for from future crops over time with little to no interest. It was a win-win for anyone wanting to leave the U.S., or so it seemed.

One of those taking the emperor up on his offer was William Hutchinson Norris of Alabama. Norris was a veteran of the War with Mexico and not of the Civil War. Norris was 65 years of age at the time and not one that would be expected to make such a life altering transition.

Norris had two sons who fought in the war. One, Robert Norris, was part of the 15th Alabama whose troop train stopped in Greeneville to refuel on their way to northern Virginia. Robert served under Stonewall Jackson and later stormed Little Roundtop at Gettysburg. He lived to be part of the surrender at Appomattox and returned home.

The senior Norris said, “Although I know nothing of the Brazilian culture or its language, I’m just mad enough to give it a go.” Norris was not some backwoods bumpkin set on not surrendering after the war. He was, in fact, a leading citizen of Alabama having served as governor, representative and senator. He had also served the Masonic Grand Lodge of Alabama as Grand Master.

What Norris did in Brazil is simply amazing. With five regions of the country being colonized by Americans into 11 individual colonies, Norris chose an unsettled area in the south of the country, in the state of Sao Paulo. I have been there, and my first thoughts were that it reminded me of south Alabama with its red soil and summer heat, just without the pine trees.

As Norris and his fellow Confederate transplants tamed the wilderness and established plantations, he convinced Don Pablo II to put in a railroad. Norris believed that they would be able to grow large amounts of cotton and other cash crops. They would need a way to get them to the coast and to market. Norris asked his fellow settlers to give a right of way for the railroad. Then he asked that they move their boundaries to allow for a town to be built. This would become known as Americana (City of the Americans) and later the rail line was extended to the small village Santa Barbara de Oeste (Santa Barbara in the West) to the west as more Americans settled there. The railroad was completed in 1875, and Dom Pedro II was there for the Aug. 27 dedication of the new “American” train station.

Americana was an American city in the middle of almost nowhere at that time in Brazil. Norris approached people in the colony asking, as an example, “Joe you helped your uncle in the general store, we need a store, and you know how the Post office worked, we need a Post Office. Tom you were a bank teller, we need a bank.” This was a cooperative effort that served everyone and is why the colony flourished. It was a democracy in a country ruled by a dictator. Today, the city of 200,000 is one of Brazil’s leading textile centers and the only town in Brazil with the Confederate Battle Flag as the centerpiece of its coat of arms.

So what did these Southern Americans do for Brazil? I could make a long list of what the Americans brought to Brazil: frame houses, shingled roofs, cook stoves, heating stoves, sewing machines, washing machines, glass pained windows, shutters on those windows, homes built to take advantage of cool breezes in summer and to shut out cold winds in winter, innovative farm buildings. The list would be long.

Here are some contributions:

Agriculture. They introduced the “Georgia Rattlesnake.” Yes that’s right, except it is not what you think — it is a variety of watermelon. Joseph Whitaker of Alabama brought the seeds of his favorite watermelon along. They became a favorite of Brazil, and Americana became famous for growing them. Also, pecan nuts, new varieties of corn, cotton, rice, beans and tobacco. They brought modern agriculture techniques along with implements such as plows, harrows and wagons. They later imported superior livestock.

Norris began teaching his new neighbors modern farming techniques, and the first agricultural school was born. Adam Bowen was hired as a teacher by the state and the agricultural school of Itapira was started. Their teaching the Brazilians modern farming techniques resulted in creating two agricultural universities in Brazil. Several established ranches and plantations hired the Americans as managers or advisors. American blacksmiths started plow factories, which also made wagons and other implements, making modern farm equipment available to area farmers.

Education. The immigrants were responsible for opening 12 American schools and four universities in Brazil. This North American educational system was adopted as the model for the Brazilian educational system in 1891 and still influences the educational system today.

Thanks to the Americans, algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, astrology, philosophy, and languages were but a few of the disciplines added to the curriculum.

Engineering. Civil engineers from the Santa Barbara d’ Oeste colony were responsible for the elaboration of the first topographic maps of four Brazilian states.

Health. Dr. George Barnsley opened a dental office, and his teaching others resulted in Brazil’s first school of dentistry. Norris sent his son Robert back the U.S. to finish his education in medical school. Dr. Robert Cicero Norris would found Brazil’s first medical school. Pearl Ellis Strong Byington organized the first effort to reduce the high rate of child mortality in Brazil. Today, the most famous children’s hospital in Brazil is named for her. Also, Perola, a city in the state of Parana was named in her honor.

Religion. This was the birthplace of the protestant religion in Brazil. The ministers among the immigrants as well as missionaries from the U.S. that were sent to attend the needs of the colony spread the protestant religion in Brazil.

The Catholic faith was the official state endorsed religion of Brazil. The Americans found that they were not allowed to worship in the Catholic Church, hold funerals, marry, or bury their dead in the cemeteries. In 1867, with the death of Beatrice Oliver, wife of Col. Asa Thompson Oliver, he buried her (as he later buried his daughters Inglianna and Mildred, all three died of tuberculosis) on a plot of land on his property as was a tradition in the southern U.S. He donated the land so that American families would have their own cemetery to bury their dead. This became the Cemetery of the Americans (Campo Cemetery). In 1867 they built a small brick chapel that could be used for weddings and funerals. The chapel is still a cornerstone of the community.

The Campo Cemetery and chapel is recognized as the origin of the first Baptist Church in Brazil (1871) the first Methodist Church in Brazil (1871) and the third Presbyterian Church in Brazil (1870)

Brazil witnessed a significant expansion of these religions through the missionary work of American immigrants. These missionaries went to every state in Brazil opening churches. It held a decisive impact on the inclusion of religious freedom at the time of the elaboration on the first federal constitution in 1891, also heavily influenced by the Southern Americans.

When I visited there the first time in 2016, I was amazed to see towering pines in the cemetery. I had not seen them anywhere else in Brazil. I asked if they were brought here from the U.S. and was told, “Yes, many years ago from Alabama and other southern states.” So, these departed souls not only rest in red Southern soil, they also rest in the shade of native pines.

Norris lived until 1893, being buried in the Campo Cemetery with his fellow southerners. He served his new country as an imperial congressman for the State of Sao Paulo, and as the colonel of the national guard. He introduced Free Masonry to Brazil, founding the Grand lodge of Brazil under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Alabama. In 2015, a large marker was placed near the cemetery by the Grand Lodge of Brazil honoring Norris as the founder of Freemasonry in Brazil on its 150th anniversary. For the Americans in Brazil, he was the modern Moses leading his people to a new promised land.

In the 1960s, a large obelisk was placed near the cemetery with the surnames of all the immigrant families. To stand and read the names is to feel an emotional connection to those who left their homeland for a better life. Every Southern state is represented here.

This group came to be known as the Confederadoes (Confederates). An annual celebration is held on grounds next to the cemetery. It is like our county fairs with buildings, a stage, great food, and vendors set up. I’m going to warn you up front, they only accept Confederate money. It is called the “Festa Confederada” (Confederate Festival) or as the Brazilians call it “the Party.” It features music and dancing, politicians and dignitaries, and those proud descendants of the Americans that came here 150 years earlier. It started out as a gathering of the families but has grown into a national festival. It is the only state recognized event in Brazil. It attracts not only the descendants but people from all over Brazil and the U.S.

I have been asked why I have not written about Brazil except for an occasional comment. The truth is, I didn’t know where to start nor where to stop. I had hoped to make my third visit with the Confederadoes last April, but COVID canceled that. This year doesn’t look any more promising. I hope you enjoy our visit with the Americans in the really deep South as we continue in Brazil.

Greene County historian Tim Massey is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations. He can be reached at horses319@comcast.net.

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