The Allure of The Azores

Due west of Portugal, this archipelago of nine volcanic islands holds strong family and cultural connections for a number of Martha’s Vineyard residents.

Long ago, when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, a compassionate angel, seeing the abandoned flowers there, swooped down and gathered an armful of them to carry back to a happier home in heaven. But as the angel flew across the Atlantic, nine of the flowers fell from her arms, and the sea clasped them and held them – and brought all things beautiful to lie beside them. And when the angel saw this, she smiled and blessed her beloved flowers and they became the Azores.

So goes a pretty story of the Azores’ creation by nineteenth-century Boston poet Susan Dabney, who grew up on the islands. Today’s Azores, except for the largest island of São Miguel, where development has brought highways and a state-of-the-art cruise port, remain much as they were in Susan Dabney’s time. In March and April, azaleas are in bloom everywhere and camellias flower. When July and August come, pink and blue and white hydrangeas edge the fields and the roads. In autumn, pineapple-shaped, sweet-scented, yellow and red conteira replace the hydrangeas as borders to fields and roads.

Lying between North America and Europe, just four hours by plane from Boston, these nine Portuguese islands – São Miguel, Santa Maria, Terceira, Faial, Pico, São Jorge, Graciosa, Flores, and Corvo – are the westernmost point in Europe, about nine hundred miles off the coast of Portugal. Many of their inhabitants over the years have been fishermen, whalers, and seafarers, and beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, some began to venture out from their islands.

There were those who became crew on whale ships that put into the Azores, and those who served in the Portuguese army in its distant African possessions of Angola and Mozambique. Some left to avoid military service; others moved elsewhere in search of a more prosperous life. Some emigrants headed to the US, with large numbers going to California and New England. Many settled in New Bedford, where they could continue their fishing, or Fall River, where textile mills offered jobs. But they were islanders and country people, and island and country life appealed to them. And so it was that many – once there was money in their pockets – quit the mainland and found their way here to the Vineyard.

They came in large enough numbers so that, in the 1920s, Vineyard Avenue at the west end of Oak Bluffs was known as Little Portugal, and Wing Road at the foot of Circuit Avenue was referred to as Faial. Azorean-born fishermen and farmers and grocers lived in that neighborhood and raised chickens and pigs, potatoes and kale, marigolds and zinnias. The more entrepreneurial of them marketed the produce from their gardens and farms, or the fish they brought in from the sea. Some established their own stores in Oak Bluffs: Alley Brothers Public Market in Montgomery Square, the Boston Bakery on Dukes County Avenue, the Oak Bluffs Ice Company on Crystal Lake. Others went door to door, hawking their fish or produce from wagons. Family legend among the clans of John Alley (of West Tisbury) and Kerry Alley (of Oak Bluffs) has it that a fishmonger forebear calling, “alleybut, alleybut,” rather than “halibut, halibut,” gave the Alley family (formerly Madeiros or Medeiros) its present name.

In addition to settling in Oak Bluffs, Azoreans found their way to Vineyard Haven and Edgartown, West Tisbury, and Chilmark, though in lesser numbers. The descendants of these hard-working Azorean immigrants became town clerks and selectmen, police chiefs and fire chiefs, teachers and boat builders. One, Joseph A. Sylvia of Oak Bluffs, served as a state representative for thirty years – and now the state beach alongside Beach Road from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown is named after him.

The level of contact these immigrants or their early descendants had with the Azores varied, but many were disinclined to tell tales of their homeland – perhaps for economic reasons or because of escaping military service. But over time descendants have become increasingly proud of their Azorean heritage. Nowadays, with regular air service to the islands, many Vineyarders with a touch of the Azores in their blood want to know more about the land of their forebears and have traveled there in search of their roots.

Researching roots

An early, well-documented visit was made in 1972 by a group of Chappaquiddickers: the late Foster and Dodie Silva and the late Vineyard Gazette print shop foreman Walter Bettencourt. It was from pristine Graciosa – the gracious island – that their families had come. In a three-part series of Vineyard Gazette articles, Walter wrote enthusiastically of the black and white cows grazing on the chartreuse and golden fields of Graciosa, and of the fat red and white windmills that ground corn. He wrote of the fishing boats bobbing in the Praia harbor of the quiet island, and the warm welcome from relatives he had never before met.

Six years later, there was another old-country pilgrimage when three Edgartown couples – Jean and Howard Andrews, Simone and Ed Prada, and Fran and Al Resendes – went to see the land of their ancestors and make a connection with relatives there. Jean Andrews’s maternal grandmother, a young widow with two children, had come to Taunton around 1900 from Faial and then moved on to Edgartown. Howard’s forebears were also from Faial, so they centered their visit on that island and the neighboring sister island of Pico (just a twenty-minute ferry ride away), home to Jean’s paternal grandparents and Ed’s forebears.

Entranced by the beauty of the Azores, the Andrews returned four times. “That first time,” Jean remembers, “all the older women wore black and you could still find lace makers. The last time we were there [in 1995], women were out of the house and in jobs. They were wearing backpacks instead of long black dresses, and you could buy ice cream. No more lace making. It was quite a change!”

For generations – until the 1980s – whaling was one of Pico’s major sources of income, and its history is told throughout the islands. Lajes, the former whaling port on Pico, hosts a whaling museum, while on the Faial waterfront, Pete’s Tavern showcases a fine collection of scrimshaw. Today whale-watching from tour boats is a major summer attraction on both of these islands.

In the museum one learns how during whaling days, a lookout was stationed atop the peak that gives Pico its name (at 7,313 feet, it is the highest point in Portugal). When a whale was sighted in deep water offshore, the lookout would wave a black blanket as a signal to the whalers below. If a whale was close to shore, a white blanket would be waved. Then seven whalers in a thirty-three-foot-long open boat would put out to sea to battle the leviathan.

Most of rocky, 168-square-mile Pico is barren and windswept, but wine grapes grow there, protected from the winds and sea salt by distinctive black stone walls. The walls are unique enough to have been proclaimed a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Faial’s port capital of Horta has attracted pirates, privateers, whalers, naval flotillas, and yachtsmen for centuries. Today’s yachtsmen, who stop there to pick up their mail on trans-Atlantic cruises, have made it a practice to paint pictures on the seawall as a record of their visit, and it is said to be bad luck not to leave such a memento behind.

Above the Horta waterfront towers a shipping warehouse marked “Bensaude,” and it belongs to the family of Beatrice Bensaude Frantz of Vineyard Haven. Without the Bensaudes, the Azores might be quite a different place.

Bea Frantz’s entrepreneurial great-great-grandfather Jose Bensaude was born in Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel, in 1835. He was among those who saw the need to create a proper port there. Today Ponta Delgada is a major transatlantic cruise port that welcomed more than forty ships last year alone. It was also Jose Bensaude who introduced profitable tobacco growing as well as cigarette and cigar manufacturing to São Miguel; he started a tea plantation there as well and transported the island’s oranges to England.

In the 1890s, the Bensaude and Company Shipping Line was started to transport goods and passengers on a regular basis between the Azores and Lisbon. Then, at the end of World War II, Bea’s father, Vasco Bensaude, founded SATA, the islands’ airline. He also began production of beet sugar and of alcohol made from the sugar. Today, his grandchildren – Bea’s nephews – still maintain the shipping business, and also own a hotel chain with properties on the Portuguese mainland as well as on the islands.

In the 1930s, Vasco purchased the spacious Terra Nostra Garden, which had been started in 1780 by Thomas Hickling, a Boston merchant who became an honorary consul to the islands. Vasco restored it and opened it to the public. In 1990, Bea’s nephew Joaquim Bensaude hired an English horticulturist from London’s Kew Gardens to identify the garden’s 2,500 trees, as well as to plant 3,000 more. The handsome nineteenth-century home there is now a Bensaude hotel for private parties, and the hardy can jump into the mud-brown thermal pool.

Though her childhood winters were spent in Lisbon, Bea recalls happy Azorean summers. She and her sister would take long walks to the mountains. “There were fabulous views of the lakes of Sete Cidades, and on clear days, Santa Maria would be visible in the distance. Pop bred dogs, so there were always dogs to take walking,” Bea remembers. “He raised Irish wolfhounds for a while and then Cumber spaniels and he’s credited in many of the dog books with having saved the Portuguese water dog from extinction. It had fallen out of fashion after fishing from dinghies largely ended, because what it was popular for was the way it would jump out of a dinghy and catch a fish and bring it back in its mouth without a tooth mark on it. I think it was sometime in the 1930s when Pop went to the Algarve to get some to breed.

“We loved climbing the stone walls and riding our donkeys, and my brother had a horse that he rode. And every morning we’d go swimming, of course.”

Today the gatehouse to the Bensaude family’s Ponta Delgada home is a spring and fall getaway for the Frantzes. Bea has been a Vineyard resident since her 1965 marriage to David Frantz, whom she met when she was summering in Falmouth and David, a year-round Vineyard resident, was an engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Recent journeys

In 2010, John and Anna Alley of West Tisbury set off on an Azorean exploration that took them not only to São Miguel, the island from which John’s grandfather had come, but to Pico and Faial, as well as Terceira and São Jorge.

The first Azorean stop was Terceira, whose capital city of Angra do Heroismo – the oldest in the archipelago, dating to 1450 – was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significance as a key port during centuries of maritime exploration. Following a 1980 New Year’s Day earthquake, much of the city’s original vernacular architecture was painstakingly rebuilt. Pastel and white façades of eighteenth-century houses line narrow streets. Wrought-iron balconies are everywhere. From May to September, bullfights are held – although the bull is never killed – and a highlight of the city is the turn-of-the-eighteenth-century Bettencourt Palace, now a public library. Renting a car, the Alleys drove on narrow dirt roads across the island’s hills to the wide beach at Praia da Vitória.

Crocodile-shaped São Jorge is renowned for its steep cliffs over the churning sea and the small, rocky platforms at their base. With twice as many cattle as people, and grass for the cows to enjoy at its higher elevations, the island has become renowned for its strong white cheese. There, during the Alleys’ visit, there was a “running of the bulls,” where a bull tied to a rope charged as villagers taunted him.

Many Vineyard-born visitors head to São Miguel, since it’s the largest island. Two years ago, William Correllus, his daughter and son-in-law, Patti and Raymond Leighton, and their daughter, Jennifer, went from Oak Bluffs to São Miguel for Jennifer’s wedding. For years, her grandfather had dreamed of seeing the Azores, and Jennifer had always thought she would like a destination wedding. And so, on December 30, 2010, she and David Clough of Manchester-by-the-Sea were married in the Church of St. Margherita in Ponta Delgada.

Jennifer’s grandfather turned out to be one of the successful returnees fortunate enough to locate a family house and centuries of family records. In the days after the wedding, he found his way to the little white and black stone village of Água Retorta at the eastern end of the island. There indeed was the house where his grandfather Joseph Furtado Correllus and his uncle Ernest, both of whom settled in Vineyard Haven, grew up. Village church records showed generations of Correllus births and deaths.

In February of this year, Amanda White of Edgartown flew to São Miguel with her father, Edgartown-born Ken White, and her mother, Ellen, in search of information about their past. With baptismal and marriage records of Ken’s maternal grandparents, Jose Lopes Benefeito and Marianna Melo, the Whites went to the Ponta Delgada Library and were directed from there to the village of Porto Formoso, on the northern side of São Miguel.

Knowing that both Ken’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been fishermen, the Whites went down to the village port. “There, my father began talking with one of the fishermen and he recognized the Benefeito name when my father said his grandfather had been a Benefeito. Right away, the fisherman led us to the street where the family house had once stood,” Amanda says. From that house, the Whites were directed to a woman who, over glasses of local pineapple liqueur, excitedly told them she thought she and Ken were actually second cousins.

Like other recent Vineyard travelers – Patricia Costa, Keith Dodge, Earl and Glenn Peters, and Raymond Moreis Jr., all of Oak Bluffs – the Whites also visited São Miguel’s dramatic headlands, and its tea and pineapple plantations. At the blue and green lakes at Sete Cidades, they heard the legend of the blue-eyed princess who fell in love with a green-eyed shepherd: When their marriage was forbidden, the princess cried so hard that her tears formed a blue lake while the shepherd’s tears became a deep green one. At the hot mineral waters at Furnas, they experienced the Azorean equivalent of a Vineyard clambake – sausage, potatoes, cabbage, chicken, beef, and pork – which is cooked underground at the hot springs.

The Vineyarders who have made the journey to the mid-Atlantic Azorean islands of their forebears say going once is simply not enough. The sweeping fields, the rocky overlooks above the deep blue sea, the white and black stone cottages on headlands, the mosaic designs of whales and sailing ships that pave the city streets, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century churches, the hospitable Azoreans – all of it – lure them to journey back.