We don’t know what sort of personal motivations Frank Freitas had for leaving the Azores. But it’s reasonable to think that a young man born with a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the ocean might experience a sense of wanderlust. Many Azoreans did. By the nineteenth century, the islands had become far less isolated than ever before, as ships from around the world stopped there to provision. The sight of these ships — not to mention the sailors and captains who came ashore bearing stories of distant lands — inspired many young men to seek adventure. Further enticement came from fellow Azoreans who ventured out to sea and later returned with their own tales of adventure, new lands, and opportunities.

But it’s quite probable that wanderlust played only a minor role in Frank’s decision or, at best, was one of several motivations. In fact, Frank was part of a flood of Azorean emigration that had begun as a trickle a decade or two prior to his departure in the 1850s and continued for many decades afterward, well into the twentieth century. For these Azoreans, it was less the pull of the New World than a push from the old that convinced them to leave.

There were four central causes of Azorean emigration:

The land-tenure system

Decisions made during the early years of the Azores’ settlement, in the 1300s and 1400s, affected the islands for several centuries afterward and became significant factors in prompting thousands of nineteenth-century Azoreans to emigrate. Chief among them was the captain-donatary system of governance and the land-tenure system that resulted from it.

When the Azores were discovered in the 1400s, each island was gifted by the Portuguese crown to a captain-governor, the equivalent of a colonial governor. Each of these men essentially owned his island, and a few owned more than one. Since the primary purpose of settling the islands was to provide food and supplies for mainland Portugal and for international trade, the system basically turned the settler families into servants of the king via their captain-governors. And not only did the productivity of the islands benefit the mainland, the king took ten percent of the income, and the captain-governors received ten percent of the king’s share.

The aristocratic families of the captain-governors intermarried, further consolidating their wealth, and over time their landholdings were passed on to their heirs. By the mid-nineteenth century, these wealthy absentee landlords, the descendants of the original captain-governors, owned most of the fertile land on the islands.

Azorean farming families leased their land from these property owners; very few farming families owned land. The land tenure system concentrated ownership and power among the elite and created a permanent peasant class that had no path to ownership or prosperity. Usually in a tenant-farmer system, the farmer and the land owner share in both good times and bad, so that a bad crop or a bad year does not place the burden solely on one party or the other. But the system in place in the Azores did not spread the burden; rather, it left it solely with the farmer, who had to pay the landlord regardless of the success or failure of the harvest. Thus the wealthy landowners were assured of a profit while the tenant farmers bore the brunt of economic hard times.

The lease that tenant farmers had on the land was hereditary — it could be passed from one generation to the next and never  expired. However, there was no path to purchasing the land and the lease did not allow the land to be subdivided and passed to multiple children without the consent of the landlord. This consent was rarely given. Consequently, the number of peasants who could not find land to farm grew with each generation. In 1840, all the arable land on the islands was owned by less than three percent of the population.


The difficulties faced by farmers in the land tenure system were compounded by the difficulty of planting viable crops in the rocky, volcanic soil and by the boom-and-bust agricultural economy. Many crops, like potatoes, beans, and corn, succeeded on one island, then spread throughout the archipelago and became staples of the Azorean diet. But many other crops failed or, like tobacco, exacted too great a toll on the land and were replaced by others. Even successful harvests were often followed by crop diseases, depletion of resources, or market crashes. Or all three.

Azores-grown oranges, for example, were a holiday season luxury item for the English from the 1600s to the late 1800s. Many English merchants moved to Saõ Miguel in that period to supervise the production, packing, and shipping of the delicate fruit. (Some of the merchants’ stately homes still stand, presenting a stark contrast with the humble homes of Azorean natives.) Though the crop was successful, the need for wood for packing boxes gradually led to deforestation of much of the islands. Then disease struck the orange groves in the 1880s, and by the time the crop recovered, competition from California and Florida groves — many planted with Azorean parent trees — had usurped most of the market.

Many crops were tried in the Azores and most were tested first on Saõ Miguel. If they failed, the experiment rarely was repeated on other islands. There was almost no margin for error; the soil was rocky and difficult to farm and there just wasn’t enough arable land to support a wide variety of crops. And that left nothing to fall back on if one crop should fail to grow or find a market. Again, the laborers and tenant farmers, with no assets to rely on during tough times, bore the brunt of it, leading to poverty and deprivation.

Yet even some of the successful crops were not planted on other islands. Flores and Corvo, due to their isolation, small size, and limited arable land, did not play much of a role in the larger agricultural economy. Corvo, being the most isolated and sparsely populated island, was not greatly affected by islands’ economy. But Flores, although it was, for the most part, a subsistence agricultural community, was not immune to the effects of the boom-and-bust economy. Dire conditions in other parts of the archipelago cast a pall over Flores and dissuaded residents like Frank Freitas from seeking a living on the other islands.


For several hundred years the Azores had sustained a modest population, but by the nineteenth century it had grown beyond the islands’ natural limit — and it was still increasing. Overpopulation meant less land, less food, more competition for work, and seemingly little future. These conditions were only exacerbated by the land tenure system, which left more and more young Azoreans without land to farm.

When the first official census was taken in 1864, the total population of the Azores was 249,135. Flores’ population was 10,259. But the better statistic for judging the impact of overpopulation is population density, which is calculated by dividing the population by the land area. In 1864 the Azores had a population density of 280 persons per square mile and Flores had 187 persons per square mile. Yet even this is an understatement because roughly forty percent of the land was unusable. Taking this into account, the islands had a population density of about 700 persons per square mile while Flores had more than 300 persons per square mile. Today Flores has an official population density of about 70 persons per square mile, or 170 after adjusting for usable land area.

(Mass emigration brought the island’s population back to sustainable numbers in succeeding decades. Though a few of the islands saw an increase in population in the forty years between 1864 and 1904, six islands saw significant decreases in that period as emigration offset the natural population increase. The total Azores population declined by just half a percent in that period, but Flores, whose subsistence economy could sustain only a small number of people, saw a twenty-six percent decline in population by 1904 and another eleven percent decrease by 1920, bringing its population density down to a more sustainable 122 persons per square mile — roughly 200 when adjusted for usable land area. Changes to American immigration laws in the 1920s made it difficult for Azoreans to move to the United States, and consequently the Azores’ population increased until those restrictions were lifted in the late 1950s. Today most of the islands have significantly lower populations than they did in 1864, but the total Azorean population is comparable to what it was a century and a half ago because dramatic increases on two of the islands have offset decreases on the other seven islands. The population of Flores in 2011 was 3,793 with a population density of 69, or 172 when taking into account the usuable land area. By contrast, San Francisco, which is roughly the same size as Flores, had a population of about 812,000 in 2011 and a population density of about 17,275.)


Military Conscription

For Azoreans considering emigration, the final straw was military conscription. In the 1800s, the Portuguese crown instituted mandatory military service for all Azorean men once they reached the age of 14. (In later years, the age was changed to 16, but it was 14 when Frank Freitas was on the islands.)

This was a bitter pill to swallow for several reasons. First, Azoreans rarely thought of themselves as Portuguese. Unlike modern Americans, for instance, who usually think of themselves first as Americans and second as residents of a particular state, county, or city, Azorean identity in the nineteenth century started at home with the family, the church, and the village, and moved outward from there. Though residents may have identified with their particular island, it would have been a stretch for them to identify as Azoreans because the islands were so far from one another and not many people traveled between them. This feeling may have been more acute on Flores and Corvo due to their isolation from the rest of the archipelago.

(This issue of identity gradually changed. The Azores officially became an Autonomous Region of Portugal in the 1960s, and most modern Azoreans think of themselves as Portuguese first, Azorean second. Identification with the mainland is also a matter of convenience; when Azoreans travel abroad it is easier to call themselves Portuguese since the Azores are not every well known.)

A second reason for Azorean resentment regarding military service was that Portugal was largely seen as a colonial force in the islands, keeping Azoreans in relative poverty and servitude, demanding taxes yet offering little in the way of support or improvement. Nineteenth-century islanders had little love for a motherland that was indifferent to their plight at best and exploitative at worst. And this was exacerbated by the fact that the rich could buy their way out of military service, whereas the average farming family could not afford the fee to excuse their sons from service. To emigrate from the islands without serving or paying this in-lieu fee was against the law.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, young men on the islands faced a bleak future. The land tenure system was depriving them of a means of survival. Opportunity for even a hand-to-mouth existence was dwindling. The population was growing beyond the islands’ ability to sustain it, and hunger was rampant. On top of that, military service to the mainland was looming. By the early 1800s, many young Azorean men were desperate for a means of escape. And it finally arrived, in the form of the American whaling industry.


  • A History of the Azores, Volume V, James H. Guill, Golden Shield Publications, Tulare, Calif., 1993.
  • And Yet They Come: Portuguese Immigration from the Azores to the United States, Jerry R. Williams, Center for Migration Studies, New York, 1982.
  • Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement, Robert L. Santos, Alley-Cass Publications, Denair, Calif., 1995.
  • Azores, David Sayers, Bradt, 2010.