Early Occupations

"There's gold in them thar hills"

Some Portuguese immigrants dreamed of gold, but reality set in and they turned to what they knew.

Years:  1849 — 1960

The Gold Rush

The first groups of Portuguese immigrants were attracted to California by news of the Gold Rush.  Crew members who deserted the whaling ships docked in San Francisco Bay were followed by a larger group that arrived in the late 1850s to search for gold.  For most, the dream of wealth was an illusion and they turned to occupations that they knew.

Shore Whaling

The emergence of shore whaling in California can be credited primarily to Portuguese immigrants from the Azores.  The first whaling station was located in Monterey, and the activity spread along the coast from Crescent City to San Diego.  As in the Azores, shore whalers in California maintained small farms to supplement family income.  When the whaling industry died out in the 1880s with the discovery of petroleum, Portuguese immigrants turned to agriculture.  For Azoreans accustomed to coaxing a living from tiny fields and thin volcanic soil, the fertile valleys promised land and freedom. They flocked to California’s farmland to feed the growing population.


The growth of the sheep industry in California was due in part to the demand for food by the increasing population of miners.  Portuguese and Basques entered into this solitary occupation herding sheep along the coastal mountain ranges and in the San Joaquin Valley.


Manuel Silva was one Portuguese immigrant who came to Santa Clara Valley in 1877 to try farming. He found most local farmers sowing 40 pounds of seed to the acre and realizing poor yields.  Silva and other Portuguese farmers tried sowing more seed to an acre and quadrupled yields.  This practice was later adopted throughout the valley. Some Portuguese started truck farms, planting the foothills with peas, beans, potatoes, and corn.  Circa 1906, John Lacerda started a wholesale market called the East Side Foothill Vegetable Association at Capitol and Alum Rock Avenues.

Orchards and Canneries

Manuel Nunes came to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1869, settled in the Berryessa area of San José, and started a walnut and prune orchard near Hostetter and Lundy Roads.  Many new immigrants worked in the large established orchards until they could earn enough money to buy their own land.

By the 1920s, many Portuguese had joined the valley’s burgeoning fruit industry, producing prunes, pears, apricots, peaches, cherries, and grapes.  Most of their orchards were small family farms under 100 acres.

Women and children supplemented their families’ incomes by picking fruit and working in the drying yards, packing houses, and canneries during the peak season.  Several women recall the flatbed truck with benches that Tom Chew, owner of the Bayside Cannery in Alviso, sent around to the Portuguese farms to pick them up for work.

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