September 6, 2015

Antepassados (Ancestors)

It's time to meet the Portuguese relatives!

Caetano Freitas (aka "Caton Frates," my great-great grandfather) was born on Ilha das Flores, Azores on August 5, 1845.* The story in the family was that he was a "stowaway" on an American whaling ship, a very common trope in Azorean genealogy circles. It's doubtful that he actually sneaked on board without the captain's knowledge. Whaling ships were seen as a way out of the harsh poverty, unemployment, and military conscription in the islands, so it was not unusual for young men and teenage boys to get hired on. But they were leaving the country illegally as draft dodgers, and would often row out to the ships at night to avoid being caught by the military. The work was brutal and dangerous, and the pay was terrible; these guys often worked for nothing more than their passage. They could be at sea for years before they finally landed in North America and jumped off, settling mainly in eastern Canada, New England, and California.

We don't know when Caetano left Flores or for how long he was at sea. We don't know if he landed on the east coast and made his way west (the Transcontinental Railroad wasn't completed until 1869), or if he landed in San Francisco (more likely), or why he settled in the Avila Beach/Arroyo Grande area (he had lots of Portuguese neighbors, so maybe he knew someone or had relatives there; there was also a shore whaling station there). According to the 1900 US Census: he arrived in 1865, the year our Civil War ended; he could not read or write but he could speak English; he worked as a warehouse laborer and had not yet become a US citizen. By 1910 he had become naturalized and had learned to read and write — but it says he did not speak English! I wonder if maybe that box on the census was referring to the person's first language?

Caetano got married in 1882 at age 37 to Maria Isabel Avellar, though I seriously doubt he was single for the entire 17 years before that. This makes me wonder if there could have been a first wife and other children. His death certificate says he was born on Flores in 1845 and was a retired fisherman (whaler?); he died on March 22, 1919 in Avila Beach at age 73 of myocarditis, and is buried with his wife in the Old Mission Cemetery in San Luis Obispo.

[* The census says Caetano was born in 1837, but his death certificate says 1845; if he was born in 1837 he would have been pretty old to ship out on a whaler, so I lean towards the later date. On the other hand, the 1900 census and 1910 census are consistent as to his age, so they can't be discounted. And there's no telling how long it took him to get here. It's possible he could have left when he was 20 and landed in California eight years later. If the census date is correct, then he was 45 when he got married and 81 when he died.]

Maria Isabel Avellar (aka "Mary Frates," my great-great grandmother) was born February 7, 1855*, probably also on Flores. We don't know when she arrived in the US, or how she got to California. She may have met Caetano there, or she may have been promised to him ("engaged" as a child) before he left the Azores and then came over when she was an adult and he could afford it (this was not uncommon). Or she may have been a mail order bride, arranged via relatives or friends in the islands. We'll probably never know. All the official records tell us is that she married Caetano in 1882 at age 27 (depending on which of his birth years you believe, she was either ten years or eighteen years his junior). She could not read, write, or speak English. She and Caetano had seven children: Mary (1883-1952), Manuel (1884-1949), Caton Jr. (1885-?), Julia (1887-1965), Antone (1891-1950), Virginia (1893-1974), and Francisco (1895, died at 6 months of whooping cough). She died on July 9, 1908 at age 53*, thrown from a wagon when the horse got spooked and backed it into a ditch near Pismo Beach. Caetano suffered a broken leg in the accident.

[* Her death certificate says she was 56; if that is true she would have been born in 1852, which puts her birth year on the census into question. It also spells her last name the normal Portuguese way, Freitas; the newspaper reports about the wagon accident spell it as Fratis.]

Manuel Fraetis, date unknown
Caetano and Maria's son, my great-grandfather Manuel Sylvester Fraetis (note the different spelling), was born October 4, 1884 in Avila Beach. In 1907 at age 23, he married Elaine Van Orman, who was nine years his senior (born January 13, 1875 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin). The story is that they met when a cruise ship Elaine was on broke down in Avila Beach, and she had to hang around for a few days while they waited for it to be repaired.

Three years earlier Elaine had divorced her first husband, John Tolle, with whom she had three children: Frances (aka "Thelma," 1894-1977), Clarence (1896-1945), and Nadine (1898-1976). After the divorce she left her kids to be raised by her parents, and I can imagine there may have been a certain amount of scandal around this. Elaine had supposedly been a "concert pianist," though there is nothing to indicate how professional she was. Maybe she was playing piano on the ship that broke down in Avila? In any case, she had three more children with Manuel: Mary (1907-1982), my grandfather Francis (1909-1983), and Virginia (1912-1995). Notice that Elaine and Manuel were married in 1907 (date unknown) and their first child, Mary, was born on May 4 of that year. Clearly, they had a "modern" relationship.

Elaine van Orman in 1895, age 20
The 1910 census shows them living at 607 West Cypress St. in Santa Maria, where Manuel was working as a foreman of some kind. In 1920 they were living at 2615 E. 55th St. in San Antonio Township (which later became Huntington Park), where Manuel was working as a foreman in a "chipping room" (lumber mill?). In 1924 he was working as a laborer for Union Oil. In 1930, after the Great Depression hit, they were living at 2209 Walter St., also in San Antonio, with all three of their kids plus a son-in-law and two grandchildren; Manuel was working as a longshoreman, and Elaine was working in a tailor shop. In 1940 they were living at 2465 E. 126th St. in Compton with their youngest daughter Virginia, who was divorced by then. At that time Manuel was working in a lumber yard. He died on September 22, 1949, just ten years before I was born. Elaine died less than seven months later on April 9, 1950. They both died in Compton, but I'm not sure where they are buried.

My mother and aunt have fond memories of Manuel and "Lainie," who apparently had a happy marriage and were quite playful with each other. They remember that he used to call her "kiddo."

[Interesting aside: It is through Elaine's mother, Mary Elizabeth Garland, that I am distantly related to my friend and fellow composer Peter Garland; we had known each other for many years before I found out he is my eighth cousin.]

Manuel, Elaine, and my grandfather Francis, 1934
The family history gets a bit more complicated with my grandfather, Francis Garland Fraetis (born July 5, 1909 in Avila Beach). I knew him and adored him as my grandpa. He was very sweet to me, and I always regretted that I didn't get to spend much time with him because we lived so far away. He was known to be able to play all kinds of instruments, and in the 1940s he had a little dance band in San Francisco called the Serenaders. He loved Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman. I have his alto saxophone, his wedding ring, and a point on my left ear that I inherited from him and my mom.

But Francis was also kind of a black sheep, to put it diplomatically. To be more blunt, he was a criminal, at least during certain periods in his life. In 1927, during the Prohibition era, he was arrested at age 17 for possession of liquor and got one year, though that was possibly probation; my mother and aunt were not aware of this incident. In 1930 he was convicted of armed robbery with a sentence of five years to life, and did four years in San Quentin. He claimed that he was just driving the car when his buddies had him pull into a gas station (grocery store?) and robbed it. I don't think anyone in our family believes that.

Francis Fraetis age 20, San Quentin
Francis got out of San Quentin in 1934 and married my grandmother, Evelyn Wohlfarth (1908-1990). They had met in Los Angeles and when he went to prison she moved to Marin County to be near him, I suppose so she could visit him in the big house. That sounds rather romantic of her, which is a little hard to imagine given how unhappy their marriage was and how bitter Evelyn remained about it for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, they were married on New Year's Eve 1934 in Fullerton, where Evelyn's family lived, but returned north to Marin to live in Fairfax and San Anselmo. They had two kids, my aunt Sandra (born 1936) and my mother Renée (born 1938). Evelyn had some mental health issues and was institutionalized multiple times and supposedly underwent electroshock therapy. Her illness must have been significant because when they divorced (year?), my grandfather — the convicted felon! — got custody of the kids. It was unheard of in the 1940s for a mother to be denied custody, and I know my grandfather was very strict with the girls so that there would be no trouble and they would not be taken away from him.

Francis Fraetis & Evelyn Wohlfarth, 1930
In 1952 Francis got remarried to Carmen Caiati (1921-2012) and things were pretty good for a while. Unfortunately, he got into trouble again when the girls were teenagers. He was selling insurance and was caught keeping his clients' premiums rather than applying the funds to their accounts. This time he went to Marin County Jail. I'm not sure what year that was (1954? '55?) or how long he was inside, but he missed my mother's wedding in 1958 and my aunt's wedding in April 1959. However, he was out in time to be at the hospital when I was born that September. As far as we know, he stayed out of trouble for the rest of his life, although it seems likely that he took some secrets to the grave. When he died in February 1983 of complications from an allergic reaction to medication, they found a wallet in his desk with a whole other set of identification… He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay.

Me & Grandpa Fran, my 2nd birthday
My grandmother Evelyn died at 82 after refusing treatment for colon cancer, even though her doctors claimed it would be easy to cure. Carmen died suddenly at 91, having complained of a stomach ache after eating Thanksgiving dinner with the family; we don't know the actual cause of death. She claimed she had never been to a doctor or a dentist in her life.

My mother and aunt are both still living in northern California. Out of respect for their privacy I won't go into any detail about them here. But last Mother's Day I took them to their first Espirito Santo festa at the Portuguese Hall in Sausalito for a hit of their Azorean roots, and I think they enjoyed it.