In the northwest corner of Flores’ rugged, sparsely populated interior stands Morro Alto, the island’s highest peak, looming three thousand feet above sea level. Dozens of rivers and streams originate here, pouring down all sides of the rain-soaked mountain before wending their way to the Atlantic Ocean.

One of these rivers, Ribeira Grande, tumbles over rocks and outcroppings along the mountain’s southern face before settling onto the island’s Central Plain, where it flows steadily across a plateau pocked with four lake-filled craters. The dark, placid surfaces of these caldeiras stand in stark contrast to the plain’s rolling green meadows blanketed with cubres, the yellow flowers that gave the island its name. The river continues west to the plateau’s edge where it plunges more than two hundred feet into another ancient crater, one whose western wall long ago collapsed, creating a lush valley that opens up to the Atlantic. Except when powerful westerly winds send the waterfall into reverse, blasting plumes of water high into the air above the cliff’s edge, the Ribeira Grande, along with half a dozen smaller waterfalls and rivulets that line the canyon wall, drops into the valley, settles once again into a swiftly flowing stream along its floor, then skirts its northern edge before emptying into the sea.

Nestled in the center of the valley is the tiny village of Fajãzinha. Small white homes with red-tiled roofs stand clustered around three sides of a small plaza and spread from there into the surrounding fields. Before the village, the vast blue expanse of the Atlantic stretches to the horizon, while behind and around it, stone-fenced fields step up the green terraced hillside like the rising rows of an amphitheater.

Francisco Antonio de Freitas was born here, on the westernmost edge of Europe, in 1841, in this isolated village that, but for the presence of cars and paved roads, has changed little during the century and a half since his departure. Our Lady of the Remedies, the church where Francisco was baptized, still dominates the plaza as it has since 1783; a labyrinth of low walls fashioned from volcanic rocks still delineates the patchwork of fields, orchards, and vineyards, as it has for five centuries; and though mainland Europeans have today made the Azores a vacation destination, with many buying second homes on Flores and in Fajãzinha, the village still supports a largely agrarian lifestyle.

Established in 1676, Fajãzinha was the religious center of the fajãs, the coastal plains along the western side of the island. It was the seat of the Parish of the Fajãs for nearly two centuries, until the parish’s four other villages — Fajã Grande, Mosteiro, Calveira, and Ponta de Fajã — became part of two new parishes in the mid-nineteenth century. Francisco’s ancestry was largely rooted in the fajãs, most of his ancestors having made their homes in Fajãzinha and Fajã Grande, while a few others came from villages beyond the plains, like Ponta Delgada to the north and Lajes das Flores to the south.

Francisco was born into the simple, arduous life of subsistence farming that had sustained his family for generations, but life in the Azores was especially difficult when he was growing up in the 1840s and 1850s. Today, fewer than four thousand people live on Flores, but in Francisco’s day, before mass emigration led to a century-long decline in numbers, overpopulation crowded the island with more than ten thousand people. Tiny Fajãzinha, today home to fewer than one hundred, was home to more than one thousand. Resources were stretched thin, every inch of arable land was made as productive as possible, and every able-bodied member of the household was required to do his or her part, including children.

Francisco likely had a few years of schooling and may even have completed primary school, but manhood arrived early on Flores as boys took up the tools of livelihood at a young age, tending crops in the terraced fields each day or traveling by foot or by donkey to more distant fields and hillsides where they tended sheep that produced the finest wool in the Azores. Girls harvested crops, prepared family meals, and gathered water in wooden cisterns that they balanced on their heads for the long walk home from distant springs.

In the busy summer months the sky grew pale as early as three-thirty, summoning the crows of roosters and the songs of meadow larks, which in turn summoned the villagers to start the day. The weather was clear and the scents of fruit, dry grass, and wildflowers filled the air as men, women, and children carefully worked their crops — wheat, potatoes, corn, squash, beans, wine grapes, oranges, apples, lemons, woad, and taro grown in swampy fields and lagoons — to be sure there would be enough to eat in the winter. Under the cloudy skies of autumn, the crops were harvested and the taro patches hoed, their pinkish roots gathered in wicker baskets and washed in nearby streams. The wheat was used to make the daily cornbread rise a little, improving its taste. And in November, when the hillsides turned yellow and the trees turned gold and russet, the sky, clear once again, faded to black and filled with stars by the time the bell of Our Lady tolled six.

At night families slept in spartan one-room homes with earthen floors, few pieces of furniture, and no glass in the windows if they had windows at all. Some homes had lofts or separate cooking areas; most did not have a stove but rather a fireplace and a stone oven. Decorations consisted of religious pictures and images of patron saints. Beds were simple mattresses stuffed with corn husks, dried moss, or homespun fibers. Donkeys, mules, goats, pigs, chickens — Azoreans’ most valuable and vital possessions — shared the home or slept under shelter nearby.

In his autobiographical novel, Home Is an Island (1951), Flores-born Alfred Lewis (né Alfredo Luis), who emigrated in 1922 to California’s San Joaquin Valley where he became a municipal judge, described a typical Flores home:

The house consisted of two rooms: the kitchen, whose dirt-packed floor was always cold, even in summer; and, separated by a stone wall, the living-sleeping quarters. Here, the floor was of pine, oak and cedar — driftwood gathered…a little at a time. After every storm, the sea brought forth the products of its anger: planks, empty barrels, pieces of canvas. As the storm abated, the shore was invaded by the inhabitants of [the village], to search for and gather every useful scrap — pain and death in the water had its tragic usefulness somehow.

There was very little furniture in the house…. In [the village], stone and tile were the material of all houses…. Houses were built by use and tradition begun centuries before. One street looked exactly like the next: same patios, stone steps, windows and chimneys.

Cooking was done on an altar-like stone structure known as the lar; over it, above crude stone wells, the pots were fitted to cook the food. Wood was the only fuel.

Underneath their living quarters there was another room, where the goats slept, and the potatoes, apples, garlic, and squash were stored. The animals gave the house a sense of security. Come what may, milk could always be had to sate one’s hunger.

Time not spent planting and harvesting was spent socializing with neighbors, singing songs at home or in the streets, attending church and Mass, or taking part in the various religious festivals that brought intermittent relief from the daily struggle. Although in Francisco’s era, these traditions may not have provided the rest and contentment they had in years past.

• • •

Construction on Our Lady of the Remedies, the island’s finest church, began in 1776 and was completed in 1883, replacing the original chapel that had stood for more than a century. Built of quarried stone, faint traces of time-ravaged frescos adorn the walls of the interior, which is divided by two sets of five arches, their columns painted to resemble marble.

Francisco, the fourth of six children born to Manuel de Freitas Lopes and Maria de Jesus de Freitas Ourive, was baptized here in 1841. Following tradition, Manuel and Maria had married in the bride’s village, Lajes de Flores, and made their home in the groom’s village, Fajãzinha. (Though Manuel’s parents also had made their home in Fajãzinha, his paternal grandparents and their parents made their homes in Fajã Grande, while his maternal side came from Fajãzinha and from Ponta Delgada on the island’s northern coast.) Like most Azorean parents, they gave their children traditional names, often the names of Catholic saints; to do otherwise was considered frivolous and a potential embarrassment for the child. Francisco’s siblings were named Isabel, Maria, Manuel, Jose, and Anna (known as Annie). Other given names in Francisco’s family tree are João, Eduardo, Pedro, Jose, Custodio, Francisca, Isabel, and Catharina.

Baptism and marriage records from the islands’ parishes are the core of the Azores’ genealogical record, but it’s a difficult record to parse. Most of these documents were recorded in Latin, many are damaged and decayed and difficult to read, and some of the information is inconsistent. Deciphering these records is complicated by the interwoven relationships among families, the frequent occurrence of identical or similar names, and by the number of surnames claimed by individual Azoreans, as well as the means by which they acquired them.

Freitas, a common name in the Azores, appears in several branches of Francisco’s family tree. Though the name has several possible origins, the version that carries the most weight with genealogists is that the name first appeared on the mainland in the twelfth century when João Dias, a contemporary of the first king of Portugal, became the first lord of the northern village of Freitas and took the name João das Freitas. Another version gives the name a topographical derivation, meaning “one who comes from rocky terrain.”

(DNA studies of the Azorean population and their descendants show that most of their genetic material derives from ancestors from the Iberian peninsula, and from Northern European populations. But other ethnicities play significant roles as well. Most significant are Moorish and African DNA, which is most present in the Eastern group of islands, where slavery was prevalent, and Near East and Jewish DNA, which is most present in the Central group. Due to its relative isolation and small population, the Western group, Flores and Corvo, is less diverse than the other two groups. Flores’ population is largely descended from the island’s original Flemish settlers and from Iberian peninsula ancestors, mostly from northern Portugal, where the village of Freitas is located.)

Another reason for the frequency of the name Freitas in the family is that marriage among second cousins was common in the Azores. The culture of the islands — Flores and Corvo in particular — was, to a great extent, insular. Few Flores residents traveled beyond the island. And though ships from around the world made the islands a waystation on their cross-Atlantic voyages, these visitors did not stay long, leaving Azoreans to continue with their centuries-old traditions, including marrying within the extended network of interrelated families that made up each village. This was not unique to the Azores; marriages between second cousins were common in much of the world at the time, including America. In fact, in America there were no laws against marriage even among first cousins until the 1860s, whereas in the Azores such a union required special dispensation from the Catholic Church. Even today, it is estimated that twenty percent of all marriages worldwide are between cousins.

The nature of these marriages can make it difficult to pin down the relationships between Azorean couples. The genealogist’s work is complicated by the inconsistent method by which Azoreans acquired surnames. Individuals, as they came of age, could choose their primary surnames from among many family names, and a person could have as many as four surnames. Freitas is the surname that appears most frequently in the family tree, followed by Trinidad and Pimentel, but Francisco was the only one of his siblings to use it, at least as his primary surname; his brothers and sister went by Lopes. (Not to be confused with the Spanish Lopez, Lopes rhymes with hopes).

Even first names were fluid. Azores might drop their given name in favor of a confirmation name. As we’ll see later, Francisco’s brother Manuel Lopes also came to America, but at some point he stopped using the name Manuel in favor of Francisco, or Frank. (Years later, the brothers would live near each other in the San Francisco Bay Area, one as Frank Freitas, the other as Frank Lopes.) In fact, it was not uncommon for siblings to have the same given name. Francisco’s father was one of three brothers named Manuel.

• • •

Though the fortunes of Flores residents would change for the better in the 1860s and 1870s, Francisco’s time was one of poverty, overpopulation, and the rise of a separatist movement that called for the Azores to declare their independence from Portugal, or even for the islands to be annexed to the United States. There was no sense of nationalism among Azoreans; mainland Portugal and its monarchy were viewed as oppressors.

Not only did nineteenth-century Azoreans not see themselves as Portuguese, for the most part they did not even see themselves as Azoreans. A hierarchy of loyalty that began at home, with one’s extended family and village, spread outward only so far as one’s island. Francisco and his family would have identified strongly with the village of Fajãzinha, the fajãs region, and with the island of Flores. But the distance and infrequency of travel between the islands, as well as their many cultural differences, did not foster a broader Azorean identity. The islands were distinguished from one another by their religious and cultural celebrations, the industries they supported, and the origins and nationalities of their settlers and corresponding linguistic differences.

The lack of identification with the Azores was most acute on Flores and Corvo. The two western islands were forever in the shadow of the more accessible islands of the Central and Eastern groups. Even as recently as 1976, when the Azores won designation as an autonomous region of Portugal, an oversight resulted in an official notice that declared the victory on behalf of seven islands rather than nine.

Overpopulation, scarcity of resources, declining agriculture, a land-tenure system in which Azoreans worked fields owned by absentee landlords, and the looming threat of mandatory military service for a despised monarchy — these were the primary reasons that many young Azorean men sought a means of escape from the islands.

Flores, the westernmost island, was the easiest point of departure. Its distance from the mainland and the other islands gave it a measure of protection from the watchful eye of Portuguese authorities while its position as the first port of call for many American whaling ships gave it access to the world beyond. Many Azoreans came from other islands to Flores, to Fajãzinha and Fajã Grande, to find their way aboard these visiting ships. Generations of Flores boys and men, steeped in the lore of the sea, of whaling, and the promise of America, left the island to become crewmen on long whaling voyages that would eventually take them to the United States. Many never returned to their homeland but sent back money and letters that told of their new lives; others came back, most none the richer, a rare few significantly richer, but always rich with tales of adventure.

Their tales were filled with vast and varied landscapes, towering mountains, wide-open plains, orchards and fields and crops and livestock, bustling cities of shops and theaters and saloons, plenty of opportunity for those ready to seize it, plenty of work for young men willing to work, and plenty of food and drink to fuel the next day’s work.

And money. Lots of money.

In Home Is an Island, Alfred Lewis described the impressions a young boy gleaned from the tales of America told by his elders:

[H]is father spoke of that fabulous country called America. In those days America was only a name — a very pleasant one, to be sure. It meant that perhaps, on the other side of the sea, there existed a land where all little boys had lots of candy to eat; where coffee and sugar were always plentiful. How good to listen, and to think of that great and good country!

As they approached the square, they saw a group of men sitting and talking. These men had been to America long ago, until one day, nostalgia called them home. They returned, wearing boots and denim shirts, all very new and smelling that strange and goodly American smell unknown in the village. … Satiated with the island’s smallness, [they] recalled again that land of rivers and valleys and talked of this to all who cared to listen.

“If you were a cement mixer in America, you’d receive enough money in one day to feed you a week over here. America is full of money. Everybody wears shoes of good leather: a pair for work, a very good pair for Sundays…. You don’t climb trees in America. If you want fruit, you buy it. Why should you climb a tree to pick an apple or an orange?” …

“There is no country like America; funny thing, when we’re there, we think of our little Azores; then, when we come back, never to return, we remember and regret our absence from that good land.”

Indeed, the more difficult decision for a young Azorean may have been to stay home. By the time Francisco came of age, leaving home on an American whaling ship, though illegal, was commonplace, serving not merely as a means of escape from military conscription and from the island’s isolation and hardships, but almost as a rite of passage.

What country was this America? [the boy thought.] In vain he looked toward the horizon. The clouds and the water barred the view. The ocean held his island a prisoner.

In a foreword to the 2014 reissue of Home Is an Island, an Azorean descendent wrote, “In countless ways…Azoreans viewed themselves as Americans long before they left the Azores.”


  • Family tree: Baptism records, Fajãzinha, Flores, Azores.
  • Flores, Azores: Walking Through History, Pierluigi Bragaglia, Bradt, 2009.
  • Home Is an Island, Alfred Lewis, Random House, 1951; Tagus Press, UMass Dartmouth, 2012.
  • Azores, David Sayers, Bradt, 2010.
  • 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.
  • A History of the Azores, Volume V, James H. Guill, Golden Shield Publications, Tulare, Calif., 1993.