The Azores

The nine mid-Atlantic islands that make up the Azores first broke the ocean’s surface forty-five million years ago. Thrust upward by the combined forces of volcanic and seismic activity, the islands are the peaks of a triple junction of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the underwater mountain range that runs the length of the Atlantic Ocean. The islands mark the spot where the North American tectonic plate is moving slowly away from the African and Eurasian plates, at the rate of half an inch per year. As the plates pull apart, molten lava from the earth’s core wells up between them, cools, and solidifies into rock; the Azores are some of the few points where the ridge rises above the water’s surface.

The islands are divided into three groups. The easternmost group, consisting of Santa Maria and São Miguel, are about 870 miles from Portugal. The center group contains five islands: Graciosa, São Jorge, Faial, Terceira, and Pico. The westernmost group contains the two smallest and most isolated islands, Corvo and Flores.

The combined surface area of the islands is 908 square miles, but because of the rugged terrain, which consists of hills and tall peaks, deep ravines, dormant and active volcanoes, and steep coastal cliffs, just forty percent of the land is inhabitable. Corvo is the smallest of the islands and the largest is São Miguel. Corvo and Santa Maria are farthest from one another, a distance of 373 miles. The Azores’ nearest neighbor is Madeira, consisting of the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, which lie 435 miles southest of Santa Maria.

All nine islands were born of volcanic activity, and many of these volcanoes are active still. Four of the islands, including Flores, have not seen any such volcanic activity since settlement began in the 1400s. The rest have experienced fairly frequent activity that has destroyed homes and even taken lives. A quake in 1522 launched tidal waves throughout the archipelago and sent a hillside tumbling onto the village of Villa Franca on the island of São Miguel, covering the village in just sixty seconds. It took a year to excavate the town and bury the five thousand islanders who lost their lives. An eruption just off the island of Faial in 1957 lasted for thirteen months, launching more than three hundred seismic events in that time, destroying hundreds of homes, and displacing more than two thousand Azoreans. The submarine eruption sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and the fallout created a new, small island that grew until it connected with Faial. Earthquakes are common too; the islands have experienced about twenty major quakes in their recorded history.

The islands are also struck by forces from above. Cyclones sweep through, usually between September and October; some years have seen as many as a dozen. Winter storms hit once or twice a year as well, usually in January and February. Average rainfall in Santa Cruz, on the island of Flores, is fifty-four inches per year; the eastern islands have less rainfall than the western islands. Maximum temperatures in the islands are about eighty-two degrees, with an average of fifty-seven.

The islands have no native land animals, but much marine life was documented at the time of discovery, the largest being whales, porpoises, and dolphins. Most common was the sperm whale, which used the surrounding waters as feeding and breeding grounds. Early settlers found many migratory birds, some of which had adopted the islands as a permanent habitat. The name Açores supposedly derives from one of these, a hawk-like bird, but there are other theories behind the name as well, including that it comes from the word azul, which means blue in both Portuguese and Spanish.

Though the islands are isolated, their location — virtually in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — gave them a crucial role in international shipping and trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many shipping lines passed by the islands, which came to serve as a waystation where ships could make repairs, stock up on fruits, vegetables, and meats, or take on new crew members. In fact, ships departing New England passed by the islands almost regardless of their destination: the easiest method for crossing the Atlantic was to sail along the Gulf Stream current, which leads directly from America’s East Coast to the Azores. One historian has said that the islands’ central position, with its exposure to ships and sailors from many nations and many walks of life, made the average Azorean far less isolated than a farm boy living in the American Midwest.

Discovery and Settlement

The Madeiran islands were discovered first, in 1418. At the time Prince Infante Dom Henrique of Portugal, leader of the religious-military organization the Holy Order of Christ, was battling the Islamic forces of Morocco at the behest of his father, King John. Portugal had gained control of the city of Cueta, on the Mediterranean side of the Moroccan peninsula, two years earlier, and now the Muslims were laying seige. Access to the sea was crucial to the city’s security, so the prince — better known as Henry the Navigator, the father of modern navigation — sent patrols into the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

João Goncalves Zargo and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, two of Henry’s squires, were ordered to sail down the African coast to find Guinea, a region south of Morocco. But a storm sent their boat three hundred and fifty miles off course, where they came upon an unoccupied island they named Port Santo (Holy Port). Soon afterward they discovered the larger island to the southwest, Madeira. Henry immediately began stocking the islands as a waystation for his military, for it was a convenient base of attack against Morocco and would also serve as a good point of departure for future exploration.

Though some evidence suggests the Azores had been visited by mankind in the fourteenth century — a few maps drawn in the 1300s included at least a few islands somewhere off the coast of Portugal — they were not officially discovered until the 1430s, when Henry sent one of his knights to find them. On August 15, 1432, the feast day of the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother, Gonçalo Velho Cabral landed on the easternmost of the islands and named it Santa Maria in her honor. The island of Sao Miguel was discovered next, followed by Terceira (“third”) and the central group of islands. Flores and Corvo were not discovered for another two decades.

It would be three years before the first settlers established colonies; the Portuguese people were generally not enthusiastic about moving to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a thousand miles or more from civilization. But gradually Gonçalo Velho Cabral carried out Henry’s orders to populate the islands. The goal of settlement was to serve mainland Portugal by supplying commodities, growing crops for trade, and acting as a station for the repair and supply of ships.

Cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs were brought to the islands; villages were established; fields were cleared of rocks and debris; grains, grapevines, sugar cane, and other crops were planted. The early settlers were a diverse group, consisting of Portuguese from Algarve and Minho, Madeirans, Moorish prisoners, French, Italians, Scots, English, Flemings, Spanish clergy, Jews, soldiers, European merchants, Portuguese government officials, and sugar cane growers. African slaves were brought, too, but were later sent to Brazil and the Caribbean for fear of an insurrection. The Flemish in particular played a significant role in early settlement; by 1490 there were more than two thousand Flemish settlers on the islands, including the earliest inhabitants of Flores. So many lived on the islands that for a time the Azores became known as the Flemish Islands.

The Azores were established under the Holy Order of Christ, and so the settlers were to be Christians. The isolated and at times harsh conditions forced the disparate settlers to band together. The non-Portuguese settlers gradually shed their native languages in favor of Portuguese and abandoned their surnames in favor of Portuguese names. The Portuguese were a racially open and tolerant people, stemming from the fact that mainland Portuguese were themselves descended from a broad array of peoples and tribes who had swept through and by turns conquered the Iberian Peninsula over the centuries. This attitude was passed on to the Azores and to the country’s other colonies, where Portuguese settlers freely mingled with natives. As the Brazilian philosopher Gilberto Freyre put it, “God created the white and the negro, and the Portuguese made the mulatto!”

Cape Verde and Madeira

The vast majority of American Portuguese are Azorean, or of Azorean descent. The second-largest contingent is from the Cape Verde islands, which have a much different racial makeup than the Azores, having served as a center for the Portuguese slave trade. The intermixing of Portuguese and other Europeans with Africans led to a mixed-race population; when Cape Verdeans arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century, they identified themselves as Portuguese to avoid the prejudice directed against African Americans. An even smaller minority of American Portuguese come from Madeira, while mainland Portuguese have never immigrated to the United States in significant numbers.

Cape Verde won its independence from Portugal in 1975. The following year, the Azores and Madeira became autonomous regions of Portugal.

Possible Origins and Meanings of the Name Freitas

The name Freitas is listed among the surnames of the earliest Azorean settlers. These Freitases came from Madeira, probably from the families of Gonçalo de Freitas and João Rodrigues de Freitas, two of that island’s heads of families between the years 1420 and 1450. The Madeiran Freitases who came to the Azores settled on the islands of São Miguel and Santa Maria and were represented by the coat of arms pictured here: five six-pointed gold stars on a field of red. Flores, the island our family comes from, did not see permanent settlement until decades later, and those settlers were largely from the northern provinces of mainland Portugal. So while it is possible that we descend from one of the Madeiran Freitas families, it is more likely that we descend from a mainland Portuguese family.

The meaning most often cited for the name Freitas is “from rocky terrain.” And though that’s an accurate description of the Azores, the name existed before those islands were discovered. There are other possible meanings. It could derive from the word freires, which means friars, monks, or brothers, de Freitas therefore meaning those who lived in or near a church or monastery. The name could also be a variation of the Portuguese word frei, meaning “knight,” possibly in reference to the knights of the Holy Order of Christ. It could also stem from Freiras, a region of Madeira. Or de Freitas could be taken literally, meaning “from Freitas,” a small village in northern Portugal.




  • 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.