- Historic Sites
The Deepest South
Five thousand miles below Mason-Dixon line, a Brazilian community celebrates its ties to antebellum America
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
The chapel’s spare interior has just two adornments, a cross and a large portrait of Robert E. Lee.
“I understand that using the Confederate flag can be a delicate matter in America,” says Noemia Pyles. “For us it’s a family symbol, not a political one.” Though the Confederados feel a strong attachment to the United States, and especially to the South, their experience has taken some ironic turns. The most important contributions the Americans made to Brazil were in agriculture (the steel plows they brought were superior to what most Brazilian farmers were using at the time), education (they founded schools based on a spirit of free inquiry), and religion (they were the first indigenous Protestant community). So it was that in the 1870s and 1880s republicans who wanted to abolish the Brazilian monarchy, end slavery, and separate church from state took up the cause of the Confederados , promoting them not as refugees from a conservative, slave-owning society but as representatives of advanced, liberal, democratic America.
When questions about Southern patriotism and slavery come up, Confederados enjoy the discussion as much as any American Civil War buff, but at a certain point they tend to become mystified. For one thing, by the third generation in Brazil most in the community had adopted the country’s more casual attitudes toward race relations. For another, their ancestors were not necessarily the Rebels least willing to be reconstructed; they may simply have been those with a stronger taste for adventure.
Many came from what is called the Broad River group, a collection of intermarried merchant-planter families that first emerged as an identifiable community in Virginia and North Carolina just after the American Revolution, when a number of them migrated to the Broad River area along the Georgia-South Carolina border.
“The most ardent advocates of opening the Alabama territory—and other lands farther west—to American settlers came from this nucleus,” writes Laura Jarnigan, a historian who has studied the Confederados . “Once land grants in Alabama were made available from the federal government, many of the Broad River group were among the first to make their way” to Huntsville and Montgomery. Jarnigan adds that those who left did not sever ties with their old neighbors and that one of the societies formed to promote emigration to Brazil after the Civil War was in the Broad River community of Edgefield, South Carolina.
One American descendant almost every visitor looks up in Brazil is Judith MacKnight Jones, the community’s unofficial historian. “See this pecan tree?” she says with pride; it towers over her house. “Its original seeds came from Texas. Then, when the variety no longer existed in Texas, we sent seeds from this tree back there to plant.”
Jones, who is eighty-one, can trace her family farther back than most. “The MacKnights started in Scotland, then spent a hundred years m Ireland before landing in Pennsylvania,” she says. “Then they drifted south. My great-grandfather, Calvin MacKnight, brought the family to Brazil. They were all farmers. It was the only thing they could do. They didn’t even know the language.”
A vital resource for the community, Jones is the author of two books in Portuguese on the Confederados and the keeper of the group’s genealogy. “People call me almost every day either to give me information about their families or to ask me what I know,” she says. She is also, among other familial connections, the aunt of the most famous American descendant in Brazil, the rock singer Rita Lee (born Rita Lee Jones). “My brother-in-law was a fanatic,” she says. “He made sure his daughters had Lee as a middle name—after Robert, of course.”
Though today surrounded by an urban landscape, Jones’s house sits behind a high fence and still has the feel of a country place, with a wide covered porch and lots of shrubbery. The land it’s on once belonged to Col. William Norris, the founder of the Confederado community, and it is in Americana, a larger town three miles east of Santa Barbara. Though Santa Barbara was at the center of several clusters of Confederado farms, when the railroad came in the 187Os it passed it by. When a station was built, the Americans called the area around it Estação, but the Brazilians named it for its residents.