Portuguese immigrants

The prosperous Emanuel Gouveia farm north of Springfield (1874)

The prosperous Emanuel Gouveia farm north of Springfield (1874)

Note: This entry has been updated and expanded.

Religious differences on the  island of Madeira were the unlikely backdrop for an equally unlikely influx of immigrants — people of Portuguese descent — to Sangamon County in 1850.

Members of the group had been converted on Madeira from their traditional Catholic faith to Presbyterianism  in the 1830s and ’40s. The conversion led to conflict with their Catholic neighbors.

According to a 2007 book review by Stuart Fliege:

(T)he Protestant movement on Madeira endured severe harassment. A series of attacks by rioting Catholic mobs were accompanied by beatings and there was torture and even one or two murders. Soldiers helped the mobs loot houses after hundreds of Presbyterians fled to the caves and ravines in the nearby hills. As a result, the bulk of the Portuguese Protestants left the island in a wave of immigration.

The Madeiran Protestants originally went to the West Indies island of Trinidad, but the oppressive climate and labor conditions forced them to look to America. A host of volunteer efforts and financial support helped pave the way and by 1849 they began arriving in Springfield, Jacksonville, and Waverly….

As a result of the Portuguese immigration, both Jacksonville and Springfield ended up with neighborhoods informally labeled “Madeira” — in Springfield’s case, the area was between Ninth and Tenth streets along Miller and Carpenter streets.

A Portuguese Presbyterian Church began operating at Seventh and Reynolds streets in the 1850s, but a dispute over baptism led to the founding of the Second Portuguese Presbyterian Church in 1858. The Second Portuguese Presbyterians built a church at Eighth and Miller streets in 1861; that building, now used by the Mental Health Centers of Central Illinois, might be the oldest church structure in Springfield.

The two congregations reunited in 1897 as First Portuguese Presbyterian Church; as non-Portuguese gradually made up a larger proportion of the membership, the name was changed to Fourth Presbyterian Church in 1908.

Illinois State Journal writer Beulah Gordon traced the history of the local Portuguese  in a 1955 article on the centennial of Fourth Presbyterian Church.

Forced to flee Madeira leaving behind their lands, houses and possessions, the Portuguese were brought to America by church groups. They arrived penniless, strangers in a foreign land in which they could not speak the language. …

The Portuguese … quickly established themselves as frugal, hard working and intelligent citizens. Today, 100 years following their advent, they have contributed to almost every phase of community life.

Rev. Robert Kieser (Courtesy State Journa-Register)

Rev. Robert Kieser (Courtesy State Journa-Register)

Rev. Robert Kieser (1896-1959) probably is the best-known of Fourth Presbyterian’s ministers. Kieser, pastor of the church from 1948 until shortly before his death, was blind. His seeing-eye dog, Prue, accompanied him everywhere, even in the pulpit. Kieser, who became blind in his 40s, spoke around the U.S. about his condition; his talks were usually titled  “Adventures in Darkness.”

Fourth Presbyterian Church eventually was merged into Clementine Memorial Presbyterian Church (now the non-denominational Clementine Memorial Church), 2075 N. 11th St. In 1979, the $50,000 proceeds of the sale of the Fourth Presbyterian building were spent to help build a new church, New Life United Presbyterian Church, at 2501 Sangamon Ave. That building now houses Springfield’s Korean Presbyterian Church.

Family names like Fernandes and Gouveia in central Illinois today indicate descent from some of the original Madeira islanders.

More information: Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Collection has two useful referenceschs logo (2)s on Springfield’s Portuguese community: The Gathering of the Portuguese: Fourth Presbyterian Church, Springfield, Illinois, by Wanda Allers (1984); and Minutes of Fourth Presbyterian Church from Dec. 4, 1892, to April 17, 1933 (1934).

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

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16 Responses to Portuguese immigrants

  1. James Vasconcelles says:

    My ancestors came from the island of Medeira.
    Emanuel Vasconcellos my great grandfather left the island of Medeira for the island of Trinidad where he married Mary Fernandes. They settled in Springfield and are now buried in Oak Ridge cemetery.
    My father changed the spelling of the name to Vasconcelles, he removed the “o”with an “e” to make it look like it was more American.
    A lot of the Portuguese settled in Jacksonville Illinois in a location called Portuguese Hill.

    • editor says:

      Thanks for the additional info, Mr. Vasconcelles.

    • LB says:

      Emanuel Vasconcellos: Is your family related to James Vasconcellos married to Johanna Martin Vasconcellos who arrived in Springfield during the mid 1800’s? They were religious exiles from the Isle of Madeira. I am researching family history in the Jacksonville/Springfield area.

  2. Wayne Quintal says:

    Very nice reading. Some Portuguese Presbyterian families remained in Trinidad and their descendants are around today. Most have re-converted to Catholicism. There were also a lot of Catholics migrating from Madeira to Trinidad between roughly the 1880’s and 1920’s, including my family. (de) Quintal; Correia; Da Costa; Sardinha; Teixeira. Thanks, Wayne Quintal, Trinidad

  3. Joseph Fernandes says:

    Interesting read, thank you. Our histories are so similar it’s erie. My great grandfather Manoel left Funchal I believe not so much in the wake of the religious persecutions but as a result of the economic crash that occurred following the two agricultural crises of the mid-19th century. Firstly oidium (powdery mildew) in 1852 that destroyed some 40% of the vineyards of Madeira and followed by the Phylloxera pest of 1872 that ravaged much of what was left. The essentially agricultural economy collapsed and many left the island in search of better opportunities. Manoel arrived with his 2 children, my grandfather Joseph Gregorio and my great aunt Maria Marta. Joseph Bento, my father was the first born in Trinidad in 1903, my great aunt, known sometimes as Mary Martha married a João de Freitas and bore him 19 children. They moved to Texas when João enlisted in the US Army. There are countless de Freitas’ from Montreal to Texas (I’ve met a few) but it’s important to keep a family tree and to pass on the history if not the language.
    Joseph E. Fernandes

    • editor says:

      This is a fascinating conversation. Thanks to both of you for commenting.

      • Kathy Cassity says:

        My grandfather was John Harold Fernandes, who was cousin to some DeFrates, and Mendes, in Springfield, Illnois. I think my great-grandfather or great-uncle may have been a Mauel Fernandes.

  4. Brian Barwick says:

    I am a descendant of Grigorio Vieira and Maria DeFreitas who settled in Jacksonville and Manuel Rodrigues Baptista and Thomasia de Jesus who settled in Springfield. The Vieiras were from Santo Antonio da Serra while the Rodrigues’ were from Arco da Calheta. All spent time in Trinidad but we’re in Illinois by the fall of 1849. My three times great grandfather Jacinto Rodrigues Baptista, known as Jesse Rodgers in the United States, was born in Madeira in 1843. In August 1862, he enlisted in the 130th Illinois of the Union Army with several other Madeirans. The 130th and 77th Illinois units were at the point of Confederate attack at the Battle of Mansfield in Louisiana (AKA battle of Sabine Crossroads). Jesse was injured in the Union retreat but was not captured. The Illinois 77th and 130th were so decimated that the remnants of the two units were combined into the 77th Illinois. I visited Madeira a couple of years ago and went to several of the old churches were my ancestors were baptised and married. I would encourage other descendants to make the trip.

    • editor says:

      Brian: Thanks for the comment.

    • Jeanine Sauerwein says:

      Brian,
      I am currently researching the Vieira and Lopez(s) families. I see your comments and I would like to know if you might be referring to Emanuel Vieira (Grocer) of Springfield who married Annie (?). He also had a sister Anna who married Joseph Lopez they had 8 children and she died very young and suddenly in 1870. Another sister married a Mr. DeFrates. I am hoping to find out if the same Vieira family is the one you are referring to from Santo Antonio da Serra and how you found this.
      Thank you
      Jeanine Sauerwein

      • Brian Barwick says:

        Jeanine:

        The Vieiras I mentioned were three brothers who settled in Jacksonville. One was named Manuel but I think he was a farmer in Jacksonville and your Emanuel is a different person. If your interested in tracing Emanuel back to Madeira i could suggest some approaches. Doris Sanford was a descendant of Marcos Vieira (a brother to the 3 Jacksonville brothers) who i understand researched all things Vieira. Her papers are at the Lincoln Presidential library. That might be a good place to start. Also, I traced the Santo Antonio Vieiras using publicly available records and would be willing to explain how I did that. However, too lengthy for this forum.

  5. LB says:

    I noticed the photo of the DeFrates Market in this article. Does anyone know the first name of the DeFrates who owned the market? I might have a connection.

    • editor says:

      LB: Newspaper ads in 1919 and 1920 list the owner only by initials: A.J. DeFrates. However, the 1920 U.S. Census lists an Arthur De Frates (no middle initial given) as a grocer in Springfield. My guess is that’s him. You can check with the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library to confirm — they have city directories for the period. You can do that in person if you’re in central Illinois. Otherwise, call the library at (217) 753-4900. Thanks for reading.

      • Kathy Cassity says:

        My mother, Ruby Fernandes, is related to a Joe, and Ray DeFrates. Her father was John Fernandes who was born in 1865 or 66, in Springfield, and his parents came to Springfield in the 1800s from the Madeira Islands.

  6. LB says:

    Thankyou!! We are planning a vacation and want to make a stop in Jacksonville/Springfield to research family history. We have several lines, Vasconcellos, DeFreitas, Govia, from the Isle of Madeira, religious exiles who settled in the area during the mid 1850’s. One of my ancestors first employment upon arrival was chopping wood for Abraham Lincoln.

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