Friday, May 4, 2012

Azorean Migration to California

I was looking at the newly released 1940 US Census images for various enumeration districts in Sonoma County, California. Since the images for this census are not indexed, I had to look at each image within a given enumeration district.

As I browsed through the images looking for people named Houston, I happened to notice quite a few of the residents were either born in the Azores or were the offspring of one or more parents born in the Azores. The only thing that I really knew about the Azores was that they are islands in the Atlantic Ocean governed by the Portuguese government.

The instructions on the 1940 Census form states, "If foreign born, give the name of the country in which birthplace was situated on January 1, 1937." Similarly, the instructions on the 1930 Census form states, "If of foreign birth, give the name of the country in which birthplace is situated." This instruction is consistent in the previous enumerations.

Since Azores or Azores Islands are not the name of a country, I was a little surprised to see it recorded in the Place of Birth field. I was curious about why so many Portuguese had settled in Sonoma County. I found a paper written by Robert L. Santos of California State University, Stanislaus, about the migration of people from the Azores to California.

Reading the paper, I learned that city of San Leandro had the greatest concentration of immigrants from the Azores in the west. I looked at the enumeration of that city in 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 and found that in most cases the enumerator wrote Azores Islands in the Place of Birth field rather than Portugal.

I was now curious to find out why these citizens of Portugal seemed to be emphatic about being from those islands. Mr. Santos paper provided much of the answer.

The Azores are comprised of nine islands formed by volcanic action. Only about 40% of the land on these islands are inhabitable because of the volcanic terrain. Wikipedia claims the total land area of the Azores is 906 square miles while claims a land mass of 893 square miles. In either case, the total inhabitable area is about 1.5 times the land area of Los Angeles.

Overpopulation, food scarcity and droughts periodically created problems for the inhabitants. One of the earliest bouts of hunger in the Azores was in 1680. Gold was discovered in Portuguese-controlled Brazil about that same time. The Portuguese government offered incentives to Azoreans to permanently settle in Brazil, primarily to work in the gold mines.

In the 1830s potato rot and a grape fungus plagued the islands. The fungus resulted in the virtual decimation of the wine industry. Then in 1877, the islands citrus crop suffered from orange blight. The crop yield was a third of normal. Unlike the hunger of 1680, the Portuguese government did little to aid the inhabitants during these periods.

In 1800, Portugal instituted a mandatory conscription law in which 14-year-old boys were conscripted into the military. By 1873, a family could pay a surrogate to replace a son but the Azoreans were too poor to take advantage of the new law. To avoid conscription, parents secreted their sons off the islands aboard whaling ships that stopped at the islands.

Throughout the 1800s, the majority of Azorean immigrants to America were males between the ages of 14 and 44. These men and boys would work two or more years aboard a whaling ship before settling in America.

Because of these factors, Azoreans held very little allegiance to Portugal. Although these immigrants would state that their mother tongue was Portuguese, when asked the name of the county in which they were born they stated, Azores or Azores Islands.

To Be Continued...

Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement by Robert L. Santos. Denair, CA: Alley-Cass Publications, 1995.

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