Two brothers in their early twenties crept carefully in the darkness along Flores’ western shore to a small, secluded cove. They could barely discern the silhouette of an American whaling ship standing a few miles out, where it was safe from the dangerous rocks of the island’s ragged shoreline.

One of the brothers struck a match on a rock, lit a lantern, held it toward the sea, and flashed the light three times. They waited several minutes for a response. When none came, they flashed the light again, and again they waited.

This was not unusual. Many others had done the same — years before, weeks before, perhaps even the night before. For nearly half a century, a steady stream of Azorean men had made their way to the United States by joining American whaling crews, and many departed from Flores, the westernmost island, whose residents caught the first glimpses of American whalers as they approached the archipelago to provision their ships and take on crew before embarking on years-long voyages.

Though it was illegal to leave the islands, the number of men departing increased significantly in the 1850s, following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, and the number was still increasing in the early 1860s, as these two brothers, Francisco Lopes and Francisco de Freitas, anxiously awaited an answering light from the dimly silhouetted ship on the horizon.

After a few minutes, they opened the lantern, signaled three times more, and waited again. This time a distant light answered, flashing three times across the water.

That was all the encouragement they needed. The brothers pulled a small rowboat and oars from a concealed spot among the rocks, extinguished the lantern, climbed into the boat, and pushed off into the choppy waters of the Atlantic.

• • •

Or … it may not have happened that way at all. This was a common scenario, but just as often Flores men left the island in broad daylight. Surreptitious midnight departures were sometimes necessary to avoid patrols, especially on the Eastern and Central islands, but Flores, due to its great distance from Portugal and the other islands, was scarcely policed much of the time. Francisco de Freitas and his brother may have rowed out to a waiting ship with not the slightest concern for who was watching. Or they may have been ferried out by American sailors returning to the ship in a rowboat piled high with provisions acquired on the island.

We may never know exactly how they departed or when, or which ship they boarded; crew lists recorded only the names of those aboard when the ship left its American port. And whaling journals kept by captains and other officers recorded little about the men they picked up along the way.

• • •

The whaling ship Francisco and his brother boarded would have been at sea only a few weeks. For the few men already on board — a skeleton crew consisting of a captain, first and second mates, a cook and perhaps his assistant, a cooper or two, and three or four sailors — this was just the beginning of a very long journey.

They had set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts, with basic provisions obtained from the prosperous merchants that supplied the city’s booming whaling industry: scores of 268-gallon barrels filled with seawater to keep them swollen and tight until they could be filled with whale oil; lumber and cooper’s tools for making more barrels; huge stores of firewood; several tons of salt beef and pork and several more tons of bread; casks of freshwater and casks of rum and gin; vast supplies of whaling equipment like harpoons and lances, as well as sails, rope, oars, charts, clothing, medicine, and navigational tools; and three whaleboats suspended above the decks, plus at least two spare boats stored on racks.

“[T]he gradual consumption of provisions and stores keeps pace with the gradual accumulation of oil,” explained a Massachusetts whaleman, “and a whaleship is always full, or nearly so, all the voyage.”

But many provisions they went without for the first leg of the journey. They could obtain vegetables and fruits and livestock much cheaper if they first sailed two thousand miles west on the Gulf Stream to the Azores, commonly known to Americans at the time as the Western Islands. And, just as important, they could fill out their crew. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was exceedingly difficult to convince Americans to sign on for grueling years-long whaling voyages that were as filled with danger and uncertainty as they were devoid of compensation. But the “Portagees” of the Western Islands were more than willing; for decades the Azores had proven a reliable source of eager, hardworking novice sailors, “green hands” who would put in two or three years on a whaling ship in exchange for low wages and passage to America.

American whalemen viewed these foreign green hands more as provisions than sailors. The journals and logs of whaling captains and officers frequently cite the goods attained from the Azores in inventoried lists. One seaman recorded in his journal in 1852 that he returned from the island to the ship and “came on board bearing 18 pigs, a lot of fouls, pumpkin, bananas and oranges, and 2 Portugeues.”

Whether by daylight or under cover of darkness, alone or ferried by crewmen returning to the ship, Francisco de Freitas and his brother would have reached from the boat to a waiting ladder, climbed up to the deck, and perhaps grabbed hold of an outstretched hand to heave themselves aboard, then paused for a moment to take in their surroundings. This would be their home for at least a year, perhaps two, or even three.

• • •

We may never know exactly how, when, and on which ship Francisco de Freitas and his brother departed Flores. Whaling crew lists contain only the names of those who left American ports, not the names of sailors picked up along the way. And the names of Azorean green hands, when anyone bothered to record them in ships’ logs or in private journals, were rarely recorded accurately. American English spelling hadn’t been standardized at that point; everyday words had many spellings, and the unfamiliar names of foreigners stowing away on whaling ships had many more.

Much of the story of Francisco’s departure and of his whaling voyage(s) is culled from various histories of whaling and Azorean emigration — from histories, journals, memoirs, and novelized accounts. Francisco’s story, at least to this point, is anything but unique; he was just one of many thousands of Azorean men who followed a similar emigration pattern.

What we know specifically about Francisco’s departure comes from just a brief mention in notes made by his son William Frates (known in another branch of the family as Willie Lopes; known in our branch as “Uncle Willie”). Willie’s family history notes are, unfortunately, not entirely legible. The only copy we have is a photocopy of which the margins were cut off, leaving us with several pages of fragmented sentences. Willie, using one of the variant spellings of his father’s name, wrote, “My father, Frank Fraites, in and about his early … twenty age, embarked on an American whaling ship at New Bedford, Mass.” (The ellipsis denotes illegible words at the margins.)

Willie’s version of the family history has many significant and accurate facts, but some details are vague or condensed. It’s likely that he has merged some facts from different elements of his father’s story. For instance, he states here that Francisco “embarked … at New Bedford.” The likely truth is that Francisco left Flores aboard a whaling ship that originated in New Bedford (and returned to New Bedford at the end of the voyage) and that he later left the city again for other voyages, whether on whaling ships or fishing ships. We have evidence for this; as we’ll see in later documents, in 1869, years after his arrival, Francisco was a resident of New Bedford and still identified his occupation as “mariner,” suggesting that he continued to work as a sailor aboard New Bedford-based ships years after his first voyage from the Azores to America.