RIO DOCE COLONY
Most refugees from the South found that living in the Brazilian wilderness was still preferable to living under Yankee military occupation. Colonel Charles Gunter’s group of southern lawyers, surgeons, and plantation owners was living under extreme primitive circum-stances on the banks of Lake Juparana and the Rio Doce, in a lovely setting on the malarial coast of central Brazil.
Probably nowhere in Christendom had a more sophisticated, more thoroughly educated group ever volun-tarily exiled itself into the wild, as this one had done. Two hundred souls cast their lot with the Colonel. Colonists Josephine Foster, Julia Keyes, and Gunter have left in their writings a mass of evidence that this colony of American southerners had the wit and wisdom to understand what they were doing. They were not masochists, nor were they seeking martyrdom. They were simply in pursuit of a happy life
. Julia Keyes had cause to rember what Charles Nathan had said to her when she visited his palatial house in Rio de Janeiro before moving to Rio Doce.. She wrote in her diary: “May 20, 1867---During dinner yesterday, Mr. Nathan made a remark which puzzled us, in reference to the Doce. He spoke of the wild life we would lead on the Doce, saying we would soon forget small forms of etiquette.” Life would be hard for them in the primitive sector of Brazil where even Brazilians hesitated to settle, and the colonists knew it.
In the same diary entry, Keyes wrote: “The Doce is mostly wild and uncultivated, and there is where we are going to live. Father is going to build us a home and then return to Rio to practice his profession (dentistry) and we will divide our time between the country and city.” The Keyes were intent upon reestablishing the joyous days they and their eleven children had experienced in Montgomery, Alabama, before the war, when they had maintained both a city house and a plantation home.
Josephine Foster, previously of Chatawa, Pike County, Mississippi, had a double reason to be thankful for being on the River Doce. She had made the long trek across Texas into Mexico prior to the overthrow of Emperor Maximilian. There she had survived the bloody ouster of the Confederates attempting to set up colonies in the shadow of snow-capped volcanoes at Orizaba. From their homes on the beautiful lake and river, the colonists of the Rio Doce could gaze into the distance and see the dark peaks of mountains among beautiful and ever-changing surroundings, and the pioneering lady had only to imagine a snow-cap on the mountaintops and be reminded of earlier, pleasant days at Oritzaba.
States represented in the Gunter group were Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. Women who had never in their lives washed clothes or cooked food were pitching into manual labor with surprising vigor. Men whose work had been done by servants and laborers were digging ditches, hammering nails, and plowing fields behind balky Brazilian mules. Foster wrote:
“Lawyers, Doctors, etc. have laid aside their professions, and have entered into their new life with the proper spirit, facing the forests , seemingly with the determination to succeed or die in the attempt. The ladies, too, are performing their part bravely, cooking, washing, etc. Such things seemed to come by chance in former years, but we thoroughly understand the process now. We act from a sense of duty, not pleasure, altogether. We already begin to reap the reward of our undertakings, in being happy and con-tented. We did not hope to enjoy such uninterrupted peace and quiet as we are now experiencing---each and all seem to be perfectly satisfied. We have had but little sickness among us, only slight chills, as all new settlers are sub-jected to in any country. We undergo hardships and privations, as a matter of course, but they are as nothing compared with what our forefathers underwent whilst settling Alabama, Mississ-ippi, Louisiana and other states.”
Her fifty-seven year old father in less than a year had almost single-handily cleared four acres of land and planted them with corn, beans sweet potatoes, bananas, pineapples, grapes, ginger, and mandioca, “which is used by the natives as a substitute for corn, and we have already learned to love it, and there is nothing better for stock,” wrote Josephine Foster. The primitive house was comfortable, built to native specifications that allowed breezes to carry through the palm roof, an effective way of cooling the air. The dwelling had dirt floors, and much of the furniture was homemade, There was abundant meat in the woods and fish in the lake.
Some colonists were Catholic, but most were Protestants, many of whom keenly felt the lack of churches of their own fath. Many also resented restrictions imposed by the majority religion in Brazil, though the res-trictions were few. One of these restrictions was that they were required to hold their services in buildings that were not built as churches. The colonists invited missionaries from the States to settle with them, and many responded, but Gunter’s group was unable to attract a minister to Rio Doce.
Settlement at Rio Doce followed the pattern established at the McMullan colony (New Texas), the Dunn colony (Juquia), and the Gaston colony (Xiririca), but these three were clustered together, while the Doce group was isolated five hundred miles to the north. All four groups intermixed to a small degree and kept in close communication. Events in one had repercussions in the other.
The immigrants busily added to their huts, making them into comfortable houses, and whitewashed them neatly. The houses were built native style. Poles were first driven into the ground and then the roof poles were tied to them with a strong vine. No nails were used. After this framework was tied together, Daubing with clay created the, and the roof of palm leaves was applied. The building of a house was an event in which the whole neighborhood participated. Americans and natives alike pitched in to daub. The floor was made of layers of clay, each of which was pounded with heavy wooden pestles, making it as hard as rock. Later, all of the Americans were able to put in wood floors when Dr. Farley established a sawmill.
At times the Confederates attempted to improve on the Brazilian way of building houses. Some insisted on putting American-style singles on the roof, instead of the palm leaves. To their consternation the heavy trop-ical rain easily penetrated the shingles, and they had to be replaced with palms.
Life in the wild had its compensations. Every morning the settlers would walk directly from their beds down to the white, sandy beach in front of their houses and bathe in the warm waters of the lake. A little nook was found in the bushes four dressing. No discomfort was felt in such a mild climate, uniform throughout the year. The colonists enjoyed the absence of flies, a constant annoyance back home in the U,S,A,. Brazilian mosquitoes, however, seemed to be less friendly than the U.S. variety. The lake was not only a thing of beauty and recreation, it was the road by which they visited each other and brought in supplies. Jenny keys, Julia’s daughter, enjoyed watching the canoes go by with their white sails glimmering in the sun. The Americans had introduced sails to the canoes, and Brazilians were copying the fashion.
The Millers, before they moved south to Americana, were prominent members of the Gunter colony, and they entertained widely. Christmas at their house the first year was a grand occasion, with a large baked turkey crowning the dinner table. In only nine months, they had transformed their home at lakeside into a showplace. Thoughts of those present around the well stocked table were about their loved ones back in Mis-sissippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the other states of the old Confederacy, struggling to survive. They missed their friends and relatives back in America. Separation had formed a permanent ache that not even a phys-ician could heal. Some wondered whether their grandparents and great grandparents had felt the same ache when settling the wilderness in the South.
Colonel Gunter, who had gotten several months start on the other settlers had the finest crop the first year. Though plagued with the malarial fevers as were many of the colonists, his family worked hard in the fields and grew fine watermelons and sweet potatoes, which they divided with their neighbors.
The Rio Doce settlement went through a series of misfortunes beginning in 1868. Many of the settlers were stricken with malaria, a virulent five not unlike the malaria prevalent at the time in the southern coastal areas of the United States. Quinine supplies sometimes were limited and real suffering occurred, though there were no fatalities. A drought, the the worst in thirty years, ruined many of the crops. The Keyes family decided to move to Rio and left their plantation with the Spencers. Others moved on to other colonies or set up independent plantation to their own.
The colony never grew from its original size, yet it prospered in the long run. Planters came and went, some acquired riches, other barely survived. The vast number of professional men in the colony in time sought their fortunes in the larger cities of Brazil, particularly Rio, where life was even grander than they had experienced in the U.S. South. In Rio one could sample the best of Europe. Women wore Parisian fashions, the best people drank only French wines, traveled in the liveried carriages, lived in palatial houses made not.of daubed clay but of exquisitely cut marble and brick. Long winding driveways led to the front door. There was a great demand for physicians, and most established large practices. The first of them to move, Dr. McDade, settled at Itapemirim. In his first year he had many patients.
The sacrifices of living in the country paid dividends later to some of the children of the refugees, as in the case of the leader of the Rio Doce group, Colonel Gunter. Along with many of the original settlers on the Rio Doce, Colonel Gunter stayed on the land and continued to develop his cotton, coffee, and sugarcane fields. He died there on August 19, 1873, seven years after his arrival, leaving quite a legacy. His son, Basil Manley Gunter, was named a consular representative of the United States government in Victoria in 1889, though he was a Brazilian citizen. He invested heavily in the Brazilian Railway system and amassed a fortune, living his entire life in Brazil.
Despite the permanence of the settlement, the government of Brazil was never able to establish a regular steamship line to the colony site at Lake Juparana. For this reason, the Confederates found it difficult and expensive, though not impossible, to transport their products to other parts of the country. Some, therefore, moved away in the 1880's, among them the Bunnells of Alabama and the Brassell family of Georgia, who returned to Mexico.
TOWN OF LINHARES WITH THE RIO DOCE IN FOREGROUND, - LAKE JUPARANA IN BACKGROUND