Paul Vandervoort was a Union Veteran that settled in Omaha after the Civil War, but he is best known for his work helping to found an American colony in Cuba around 1900.
Image of Omaha circa 1867 [RG2119.PH0-000001]
Paul Vandervoort (1846-1902), who once lived and worked in Omaha, is perhaps best remembered for the American colony he helped found in Cuba about 1900. Populated chiefly by Union veterans of the Civil War, the colony, La Gloria, was the largest American settlement on mainland Cuba. It survived for more than fifty years, reaching a peak population of about one thousand.
Vandervoort was himself a Union veteran. He had enlisted in the Union army from Illinois at the age of fifteen, was captured by the Confederates in December 1863, and imprisoned in Andersonville, Belle Isle, and Libby prisons. After the Civil War ended, he entered politics, both in Illinois and later in Omaha, where he worked as chief clerk for the Railway Mail Service. He began his political career as a Republican, but later left the party to become a Populist.
Vandervoort joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, in 1866 and helped reorganize the GAR’s Department of Nebraska. He eventually became commander-in-chief in 1882, the first enlisted man to do so. His one-year term was among the most successful in the GAR’s history. Membership rose to a record ninety thousand, and the auxiliary Woman’s Relief Corps was organized.
After Vandervoort lost his railway mail position, he became assistant general manager of the Cuban Land and Steamship Company of New York. With the installation of a U.S. military government in Cuba in 1899, ship lines, such as the one that employed Vandervoort, transported prospective emigrants and investors to Cuba for a new life and new opportunities, especially in citrus farming.
Vandervoort planned much of the La Gloria colonization venture in the Cuban Land and Steamship Company’s Omaha office. The settlement was founded in 1900 or 1901 (the exact date is unknown) on the north coast of the Cuban province of Camaguey on unimproved, heavily timbered land that was two days’ travel by boat from the nearest town. It was intended by Vandervoort to be a new home for Union veterans looking for a fresh start.
Land had to be cleared, houses built, and gardens and orange groves planted. Vandervoort did not live to see La Gloria grow. He died in Cuba on July 9, 1902, and is buried in Omaha’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.
By 1920 La Gloria had a community church and town hall, an orange growers’ association, and a population of seven hundred. One former resident in 1944 recalled that as many as one thousand people had once lived there. However, a combination of natural disasters, political upheaval, and a shift in focus for agricultural production (away from citrus crops and towards sugar) marked the decline of American colonies in Cuba, and by the mid-1950s La Gloria had disappeared.