Note Portuguese names on their 1907 map

Portsmouth has a strong heritage of farmers of Portuguese descent.  When did they begin to come to Portsmouth?  How did they come to own their own farms?  What were their farms like? How were they accepted in the community?  Fortunately, back in 1910 twenty Portsmouth farmers of Portuguese heritage were interviewed by a federal government agency for a report on immigrants in various American industries.  The information in this report gives us valuable insight into the roots of the Portuguese farming community here in Portsmouth.  

When did the Portuguese come to Portsmouth?  According to the report, the Portuguese began to come in numbers to the United States as early as the 1830s.  They shipped out from the Azores as sailors on whaling vessels bound for the port of New Bedford.  There were communities of Portuguese in New Bedford and later Fall River.  In the 1880s Portuguese began to come to Portsmouth as farm workers.   They lived in Fall River and worked in Portsmouth.  Within the Portuguese community, Portsmouth became known as a place where men could find agricultural work.  By 1890 the Portuguese began to come directly to Portsmouth.  Of the twenty farmers interviewed for the report, 14 had been farmers or sons of farmers in their native islands.  They were used to working in agriculture and they wanted to continue in that tradition.  They came from the islands of Sao Miguel, Sao Jorge and Fayal in the Azores.  

How did they come to own their own farms?  In 1909 there were 59 Portuguese farmers on the Portsmouth tax rolls.  Thirty-one of them were tenants and twenty-eight were owners of their own farms.   These owners were able to find a path from farmer worker to tenant farmer and then buy their own land.  When they came as farm workers they were not afraid of hard work and long hours.  They saved their money in order to rent land.  Land in Portsmouth was expensive.  Portsmouth agricultural land was considered some of the best farm land in the state.  As tenants they paid for their house and $8 to $10 an acre to farm the land.  They saved money to buy a horse and wagon, a few pigs and a few implements.  Their wives routinely worked the land with their husbands.  The writer made a comment that the women did not neglect their homemaking even though they helped their husbands.   Many of the men worked for neighbors in order to augment their income.   Most tenants (and owners, too) had to take out loans and could not pay their debts until the crops were sold.  Not every farmer succeeded, but most were able to make a good living.  In order to become an owner, they had to take on a mortgage.

What were their farms like?  Most farms were small.  The largest of the Portuguese farms was 95 acres and the smallest was one acre.  More than half the farms were under 15 acres.  Potato was the money crop.  Most farmers had half their ground planted with potatoes.  Their potato crop was marketed through Bristol Ferry to Providence.

Nearly every farm had a few acres in corn, but their corn was used to feed animals.  Five of the twenty farms grew hay.  Some of their farms had dairy herds and poultry products were sold by most of the farms.  They were somewhat self sufficient in providing their own meat, milk, eggs and vegetables.  The writer reports that “on the whole, the farms are well kept and appear like the surrounding farms.”  

Portuguese names on 1907 Newtown School roll

How were the Portuguese farmers accepted in the community?  The report writer claims that “there is really no race prejudice and the Portuguese are not looked down on.” (page 454)  He writes that “Americans regard them as indispensable.”  (page 458)  Their credit is good and the fields “improve under Portuguese tillage.”  One of the few negative comments is that the Portuguese are not as interested in becoming naturalized citizens as other immigrant groups.  

Clearly the Portuguese farmers as a whole were able to take the path from farm worker to tenant farmer to proud farm owner.  Their hard work and willingness to put in long hours paid off.  They became an integral part of the Portsmouth community.

If you want to read the report for yourself it is online at Google Books.  It is titled “Immigrants in Industries:  Part 24: Recent Immigrants in Agriculture.”  Go to  Chapter VI – Portsmouth, RI:  Portuguese Potato Planters.