Portuguese Heritage in Marin

By Larry Clinton - Sausalito Historical Society

The first Portuguese immigrants arrived in Marin County in the early 1800s from the Azores, where they had been enlisted by Yankee whaling ships that stopped in the islands for water, food and other supplies. The young, skilled Portuguese sailors were brought around Cape Horn to pursue the whales off the California coast.

 Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

As described in a new self-guided walking tour that highlights the life, work and final resting spots of these early Sausalitans, this area reminded the sailors of their homeland. Taken by the arid but cool climate, they settled quickly. Soon to follow were anchovy and sardine fishermen, boat builders and, finally, scores of dairymen from the Azores.

From the Gold Rush era on, successive waves of Portuguese immigrants arrived. They carved out new lives, but clung to the traditions of their past. As late as the 1940s, there was a saying that a traveler from the Golden Gate Bridge to Petaluma would never be out of site of a Portuguese dairy.

Settling in southern Marin, these newcomers established tight-knit communities in Sausalito and other nearby towns. By the turn of the century, immigrant dairymen had transformed the local industry. The largest numbers of Portuguese immigrants were from dairy farms in the Azores, already famous for its cows and cheese.

The Ilha de São Jorge is the center of the Azores’ dairy industry, and many of West Marin’s families have their roots there. Lush pastures and the temperate climate of West Marin were nearly ideal for dairy herds, just as on São Jorge. For decades, Marin County was the leading dairy production county in the state, and its famous butter was eagerly sought by urban residents.

Marin’s dairy industry was largely built by the hard labor of these newcomers. Times have since changed and, with the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore and the emergence of the Central Valley as a dairy production center, Marin’s dairy industry has become a quieter way of life. Its Portuguese heritage, however, is still celebrated.

Descendants of the early immigrants continue to live in Marin, their Azorean names a reminder of their heritage: Afonso, Amador, Avila, Azevedo, Bello, Bettencourt, Boreiros, Brazil, Cunha, DeFraga, Dias, Francisco, Ferreira, Freitas, Lourenço (Lawrence), Machado, Martins, Mattos, Moraes, Paulino, Pedrosa, Lacerda, Ladera, Lopes, Nunes, Quadres, Regallo, Rosa, Sequeira, Silva, Silveira, Soares, Sousa, Teixeira, Terra, Vieira and many others.

Sausalito’s Holy Ghost Festa is a reminder of the cultural ties that bind and unite Portuguese immigrants and their descendants. Jack Tracy wrote about the festa in the seminal Sausalito history, “Moments in Time.”

“The Portuguese community’s observance of the festival on Pentecost Sunday is based on an event in the late 13th century. Queen Isabel of Portugal prayed to the Holy Ghost to end the two-year famine that wracked her country and her prayers were answered. A celebration was held that has been reenacted each year since. A feast symbolic of the end of famine is a central part of the festival. The traditional meal consists of Sopa, Carne e Vino (soup, meat, and wine) following Mass, a procession through Sausalito streets proclaiming the visit by the Holy Ghost.”