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Whaler, Ranch Hand, Saloon Owner, and Shepherd

by John Vasconcellos

My maternal grandfather, Jose Joaquim de Freitas, left his natal home on the Island of Flores in the Azores in 1869 at the age of 17. At that time, it was very common for young men subject to military conscription for service in the African colonial territories to emigrate (often illegally) from the Azores as crew members on the whaling vessels that often called at the Islands. Flores, being the most westerly of the Azores, was often the first port of call for whaling vessels coming from the whaling ports in Massachusetts (New Bedford, etc.) in search of crew. My grandfather was taken on a small boat from the northwest shore of the Island to the whaling vessel in the dead of night to avoid the government patrol boats.

We don't know all the details of his voyage, but in due time the vessel he was on ended up in Alaskan waters in search of whales. What little we know, my grandfather passed on to his son, my uncle Joe, my mother's brother. In one rather harrowing incident, the vessel was frozen into the ice in a bay on the Alaskan shore. The crew was welcomed ashore by eskimos who fed and sheltered them. One morning, the eskimos said to return to the ship because they were expecting a chinook wind to come up and break up the ice. This proved to be true, the ice broke up and the ship was on its way. He did notice the crushed hulls of several ships in the bay. Histories of whaling in Alaskan waters mention the "big freeze" of 1871 in which many whaling vessels were trapped in the ice and crushed so I would estimate that this incident probably took place in 1872.

On the way south, my grandfather jumped ship in Panama and worked his way back up to San Francisco. He decided to try his luck in the gold country and moved onto Sonora, where in 1873, he walked into the local court house, filled out the necessary forms and became a US citizen. It was much easier in those days since they were looking for people to populate the frontier. Apparently, that didn't work out and he moved on.

We aren't sure of the exact sequence of events but we do know that he worked for a time in San Francisco as a carpenter or painter. He eventually ended up as a ranchhand for Henry Miller, a German immigrant who teamed up with a fellow countryman to form the Miller-Lux livestock empire covering thousands of acres in the western San Joaquin Valley of California. Miller ran the ranches in the Valley and Lux ran the meat packing plants somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area. According to my grandfather, Miller would travel around to his various ranches and talk to his men, often around the campfire and recounted the story of one such encounter to my uncle. I estimate the time frame to have been from the mid 1870's to possibly 1880 or so.

He may also have worked as a shephard for other ranchers during the early 1880's. Here again, the details are not clear. Sometime during the latter part of this period, my uncle said that my grandfather was a partner in a saloon, possibly either in Fresno or Madera. However, as the story goes, my grandfather sold out to his partner because the partner who ran the Saloon wasn't being honest about the income.

In about 1883, after 14 years in the US, my grandfather returned to Flores and married my grandmother. Within a year, their first child, my oldest aunt was born. In 1885 or 1886, my grandfather returned to California, not really having made his fortune in the new world during his first stay. The second time, he was offered a partnership in a herd of sheep by an older man. After a few years, his partner decided to retire and sold my grandfather his interest in the business. In 1891 or 1892, after having been here for 6 years, my grandfather sold his herd of sheep and returned to Flores with a nestegg to build a house for his family.

In 1894, the house was finished and my mother was born. Three more children were born including my uncle Joe, another uncle and another aunt. Of his 5 children, 3 eventually immigrated to the US, all settling in the Fresno California area:my mother, uncle Joe.and uncle Frank. My two uncles immigrated as US citizens, but my mother lost her citizenship by marrying my father who was still an alien. My grandfather lived the remainer of his life there on Flores, dying in 1939.

© 2004 John Vasconcelos


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