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How Portuguese Immigrants Came to New England

Celebrating the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in the 1910s. Photo courtesy Museum of Madeiran History.

Portuguese immigrants celebrating the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in the 1960s. Photo courtesy Museum of Madeiran History.

In 1915, four Madeiran men organized a feast at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in New Bedford, Mass., to celebrate the safe arrival of Portuguese immigrants after a stormy journey. The festival mimicked the traditional religious feast observed in their village on Madeira Island, with a celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass, a grand procession, traditional food and folk dancing.

Today, the 103-year-old Feast of the Blessed Sacrament is the largest Portuguese festival in the world, reflecting both the size and the identity of the Portuguese-American population in New England.

Two great waves of Portuguese immigration gave Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island the densest concentration of people with ancestry from Portugal, including the Azores and Cape Verde.

They made their mark with restaurants and bakeries, with fishing fleets, with Roman Catholic churches and with the Boston Red Sox. Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino all have Portuguese ancestry. So does actor Tom Hanks, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. Portugal also produced John Philip Sousa, who composed that most American march, Stars and Stripes Forever, and Emma Lazarus, who wrote the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

History

The first Portuguese sailor, Miguel Corte-Real, may have come to Massachusetts as far back as the early 16th century. A 40-ton boulder now in Dighton Rock State Park is inscribed with writing that Brown professor Edmund B. Delabarre believed was written by Corte-Real, In 1912, Delabarre wrote the inscription on the Dighton Rock that said, "I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians."

Dighton Rock in 1893

Dighton Rock in 1893

During the Colonial period, a small number of Portuguese immigrants came to the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

Jewish Portuguese immigrants came early to America to escape persecution. Wealthy merchant Aaron Lopez and his associates brought the sperm oil industry to Newport, R.I., and built the Touro Synagogue in the 18th century .

Until about 1870, it was whaling that drew Portuguese sailors from the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands – and poverty and military service that sent them. They signed on for low-paying, dangerous work on whale ships and then settled in whaling communities in New England, California and Hawaii.

Portuguese families started to come to the United States in larger numbers around 1870 just as the whaling industry began to decline. They worked in New England’s booming textile mills, in whaling and fishing. Women worked as seamstresses in garment shops.

In 1914, immigrants from Brava, Cape Verde, looking ashore from the Savoia as the await the disembarkation process to be finished. Photo courtesy New Bedford Standard-Times.

In 1914, immigrants from Brava, Cape Verde, looking ashore from the Savoia as they await the disembarkation process to be finished. Photo courtesy New Bedford Standard-Times.

In the late 19th century, many Portuguese, mainly Azorean and Madeiran, settled in ProvidenceBristol and Pawtucket in Rhode Island, and New BedfordTauntonFall River, Gloucester and Provincetown in Massachusetts. They also moved to Hartford and New Haven in Connecticut.

"It was easy to get into this country in those early days,” wrote Portuguese immigrant Lawrence Oliver in his autobiography. “America was a free port. To get in, all you needed was a little money in your pocket, so that the authorities could be sure you wouldn't be destitute and on relief right away."

Portuguese dory fisherman gossiping in the sun, Provincetown 1942. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Portuguese dory fisherman gossiping in the sun, Provincetown 1942. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Even during the Great Depression, Portuguese immigrants found opportunity in America. Capt. Joseph Captiva, a Provincetown fisherman, told a government interviewer in 1938,

…its a good place to live. Good money an' chances for th' young people. They say it's bad times now, but we ain' never seen bad times here like in ol' country. (Read the whole interview here.)

The newcomers began to form fraternal benefit societies and to print their own newspapers, such as A civilizacao luso-americano in Boston. They maintained strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church, and formed committees of festeiros to stage the religious festivals that survive today. The religious festivals helped Portuguese immigrants retain their sense of community and identity.

Evening recreation of the "Young Holy Ghosters" – Ages 15–25, average is 18 – all mill workers – all Portuguese. Whole House on George Street. Great need of leadership. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, 21 June 1916. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Evening recreation of the "Young Holy Ghosters" – Ages 15–25, average is 18 – all mill workers – all Portuguese immigrants.  Location: Fall River, Massachusetts. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, 21 June 1916. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, Portuguese religious festivals are held in the summer. They include the Feast of St. Anthony’s in Pawtucket, West Warwick and Portsmouth, R.I., the Festa do Divino Espirito Santo in East Taunton, Mass., The Feast of the Holy Ghost in Fall River and the Provincetown Portuguese Festival and Blessing of the Fleet. In Connecticut, a Portuguese Day Festival is held every year in Danbury and Festa De Sao Joao is held in Waterbury. Portuguese residents of Stonington, Conn., hold an annual Feast of the Holy Ghost.

Portuguese immigration peaked between 1910 and 1920, then slowed considerably. Literacy was low in Portugal, and many Portuguese immigrants couldn’t get in after the U.S. government instituted a literacy test in 1917. Then the government followed with a quota system that further reduced the numbers of Portuguese immigrants.

The 2nd Wave of Portuguese Immigrants

A series of volcanic eruptions in the Azores from 1957-58 spurred the second wave of Portuguese immigration to the United States. The Capelinhos volcano, on the coast of the Azorean island of Faial, erupted on Sept. 27, 1957 and didn’t stop until Oct. 24, 1958. No one was killed, but the volcanic activity covered the island with ash, destroyed homes and forced several thousand residents to leave. In September 1958, Congress passed the Azorean Refugee Act allowing allowed 4,800 Azoreans to immigrate.

Portuguese-American Girl Scout, New Bedford, 1942. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Portuguese-American Girl Scout, New Bedford, 1942. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Seven years later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the quota system and spurred a new wave of Portuguese immigration. Portuguese began to enter the United States at the rate of 11,000 to 12,000 per year. Between 1961 and 1990, 44.5 percent of all Portuguese immigration to the United States took place.

Portuguese immigrants make up only four-tenths of one percent (0.4 percent) of the entire U.S. population. In Rhode Island, Portuguese immigrants make up 9.7 percent of the population – the densest concentration of Portuguese in the country. Massachusetts ranks second, with 6.2 percent, Connecticut fourth, with 1.3 percent and New Hampshire with 1.2 percent.

Rhode Island, though, has only the third-largest Portuguese population. California is second. Massachusetts has the largest number of residents with ancestry from Portugal, with about 320,000, according to estimates of the 2010 Census.

The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in early August brings tens of thousands to New Bedford for folk dancing, pop music, soccer and traditional Madeiran food – carne de espeto, bacalhau, linguica, ceviche, bifana sandwiches and milho frito. (For a description of these foods, click here.)

The beverage of choice? Madeira wine, of course. The festival ends with a parade that follows a route marked by 70 arches of bayberry leaves, illuminated by twinkling lights.

This story was updated in 2017.

18 comments

  1. Very interesting! I’ve been curious about the long Portuguese settlement in the Americas.

    Did the fascist government that controlled Portugal so long in the 20th century cause any refugee outflux to New England? It seems to have effected Cape Verde and Angola, though the violently racist policies enacted under Salazar et al targeted colonial residents of color.

    • Salazar was racist? I am a Portuguese with almost 60 years old who lived in Africa the first 21 years.

      Yes, first of all Salazar was anti-communist. A crazy anto-comunist. Second Salazar was conservative, a very conservative leader. Third Salazar was very religious, a Catholic man.

      He had the same stat car for 42 years!! When he died he had 12 shirts and 7 suits!

      He invested in the African colonies a lot more than in the mother land (Portugal).

      He understood the need of a higher level of culture for the African people in the Portuguese territories and in Mozambique, for example, in 1974 (the start of descolonization) Portugal had more primary schools in Mozambique than in the continental Portugal!

      So, Salazar is a controversal figure, yes! He forbidden (with violence) some basic human rights (mainly the right to be a comunist or a liberal) but it was not eveithing bad….

      • The Africans HAD their own culture. Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Cape Verde were merely colonies. But lest we forget, there is also a BIG TIME African heritage in Portugal that antedates the Moors by millennia; the Portuguese carry African genes, both North of- and Sub-Saharan.

  2. Very interesting reading.I enjoy reading anything about our culture, and on what we have exeled. There must more people of Portuguese ancestry that have exeled. I know that there are some players current in the NHL, and some have retired.

  3. Very interesting piece, thank you. I’ve learned more in the last 10 minutes about the Portuguese presence in Rhode Island than I did in four years at Brown University in Providence. (Granted, I probably could have sought out the information back in the day.) I hope today Brown makes more of an effort to provide students with R.I. history. The thought “required course” crosses my mind – fat chance of that Brown. I could imagine the school sponsoring a snappy and watchable 30 minute film about state history and devoting a room at the Rock to artifacts that change every month or so.

    • Brown U. has been offering excellent lusophone studies for quite some time (Dept. of Brazilian and Portuguese Studies). Check it out…. Happy Holidays! Boas Festas! Sempre p’ra frente!

      • Re:
        A.
        December 10, 2017 at 8:56 am:

        Your comment is awaiting moderation.

        PLEASE CHANGE:
        “Dept. of Brazilian and Portuguese Studies” to read
        “Dept. of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies.”

        Thank you.
        A.

        HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

  4. When referencing the Portuguese in the United States you seem to conflate immigrant and ethnic in the population data you cite.

  5. É bom lembrar os nossos imigrantes na América e que tanto sucesso tiveram na construção civil, ainda hoje.

  6. Marjory Gomez O'Toole

    Oral histories from the Little Compton, RI Azorean community reveal that teenage boys were abandoned by captains on the wharves in New Bedford and found crying by local farmers who took them home to work as farm laborers. Other Azorean boys were dropped offshore in the water, made their way to the closest house and pantomimed a request to work in exchange for food and shelter. They assimilated quickly and encouraged family members to join them. Today about 20% of the community has Azorean roots.

  7. I am second generation Portuguese. I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you

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