On this day in WNC history: After a rough ship crossing of the Atlantic and a lengthy train ride from New York, a group of 161 immigrants arrived in the WNC foothills in 1893. This group travelled from Italy to Burke County, joining nearly three hundred fellow Waldensians who began arriving in June. After purchasing nearly 10,000 acres, they employed their traditional methods in clearing land, sawing lumber, and building homes and farms. They established their own village named Valdese—Italian for “Valley of Our Lord.”
The Waldensians are a Protestant group who adopted a Calvinist belief system and were persecuted by the Catholic Church for several centuries. In the 1800s, many began immigrating from France and Italy to South America and then to the United States as their population grew. Though only their pastor spoke English—the rest either French or Italian— those who came to Burke County were greeted enthusiastically by locals as well as NC governor Elias Carr, who presented them with a state flag.
Local newspapers expressed optimism and generosity toward the Waldensians, boasting of new factories which were soon built in their town, the potential for trade and skilled labor among the group, and the benevolent efforts of locals toward their new neighbors as they prepared for the winter. Tellingly, the Charlotte Observer opined that the success of this group meant that “the best of German and Swiss emigrants” could be brought to the state. During this period when scientific racism permeated (a decade after the Chinese Exclusion Act) many Americans idealized an Anglo or Teutonic heritage or culture. The Waldensians of Valdese gradually integrated into the local society and achieved a great deal of economic success over the following decades, all while immigration restrictions hardened across the region and larger nation.