The First Armenian American Communities Take Root: The Armenian American Plymouth

Original published AGBU News magazine (March 2001)

The true Armenian community began to form in Worcester in 1867 shortly after the settlement of Garo from Bitlis, a servant of missionary George C. Knapp. Oral history suggests that while working at the missionary’s home, one of the servants, an Irish laundrywoman, convinced him that working in local factories could make him more than his scant monthly wage of 75 cents. Garo would soon join the ranks of the emerging working class at a remarkable $1.75 a day. Other Armenians flocked to the town with hopes of sharing in the American dream.

The trickle of Armenians would fortify the fledgling communities and by 1882 the first Armenian woman had arrived in Worcester, Sara Yazijian (known as Sara Writer), who would later be referred to as “the mother of the Armenian immigrants.” It wasn’t until the 1890’s when Ottoman massacres drove thousands of Armenian refugees to America that the foundations for a sustained Armenian community began. In the early years, Worcester predominantly enticed immigrants from Kharpert and in time would be known as “Little Kharpert.”

Brothers Gregory (seated on the running board), Charlie (at the steering wheel), and Sarkis Mugar (holding his daughter Mary) with other family members. Corner of Washington Street and Massachusetts Avenue,

The central Massachusetts city of 200,000 witnessed many firsts for Armenians in the New World. The first “Little Armenia” was formed in the otherwise Nordic immigrant enclave of Belmont and Laurel Hills. The first Armenian American compatriotic organization (The Illumination Education Union of Hassenig) and the first Armenian Church in America also emerged during the nineteenth century.

Worcester, like other New England industrial towns, attracted Armenians searching for well-paying factory jobs. Others became servants and it was reputed that the president of Vassar College employed only Armenians.

In his study of the Worcester community, local historian Hagop Deranian notes that early Armenian immigrants often viewed themselves as pilgrims rather than colonists as they arrived, like the Mayflower pilgrims in search of religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Many in the Yankee missionary establishment supported this perception and drew parallels between Armenia’s Battle of Avarayr and America’s Plymouth pilgrims as symbols of each nation’s resiliency to fight for their freedom of conscience. Reverend Herbert M. Allen wrote in the Watertown Daily Spy of July 15, 1901, “We may draw a fit comparison between the Armenian General Vartan [Mamigonian], who led his people against the overwhelming forces of the Persians in defense of Christianity, between him and the one whom we revere as the hero of Valley Forge and Yorktown [George Washington]…”

The industrial town became a transfer point for many new Armenian immigrants before they moved on to other cities including Boston. It would be known as the “Mother Armenian Community of America,” similar to the claims of American Yankees to the pilgrims of Plymouth.

Sarkis Mugar, father of entrepreneur Stephen Mugar, renowned photographer John H. Garo, sculptor Khoren Der Harootian, plastic surgery pioneer Dr. Varaztad H. Kazanjian and industrialist Moses Gulesian all settled in Worcester before moving on to Boston and other cities. The city was a mandatory stop for the parade of Armenian Who’s Who arriving in America to tour the nation’s Armenian communities, including poet Siamanto (Adom Yarjanian), political activist Garabed M. Tashjian, playwright Shirvanzade (Alexander Shirvanzade) and painter Hovhannes Aivazovsky, who donated a small painting to the local Church of Our Savior where it still hangs.

The Church of Our Savior, the first Armenian Apostolic church of the Americas, was established in 1891 in Worcester. Knowing their community needed outside support, the trustees devised an ingenuous way of soliciting donations from across America. They addressed letters to “Mr. John Armenian” in Detroit, Chicago and other cities hoping that the postal service would deliver them to the first Armenian they encountered. The clever stunt was successful in collecting donations from Armenians in twenty other cities and allowed the community of 600 to build its first communal symbol. Father Hovsep Sarajian would be the first Armenian Apostolic priest to arrive and worked diligently to better the standing of Armenians in the greater community.

The first Armenian Protestant church was consecrated in the following years. It may be no coincindence that Worcester native Rev. William Goodell initiated the first Protestant Yankee mission to the Armenians in the Ottoman empire 1831. In 1833, two young New England ministers, Eli Smith and Harrison Gary Otis Dwight, published their findings regarding the Armenian communities in the Ottoman, Persian and Russian empires. They reported that the Armenians they encountered near Kars had never even heard of America—that would quickly change.

While the missionary establishment did much to bring Armenians to Massachusetts it was rapid industrialization that guaranteed a continuing flow of settlers.

Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company was an important employer of Armenians and by 1889, 285 Armenians were gainfully employed at what was then considered the largest wire factory in the world.

Armenians were ideal workers for many factory owners, as they were uninterested or uneducated about labor unions. In fact, their initial appearance in many Massachusetts towns were as strikebreakers, as was the case in Middleboro, Salem and Lynn during the 1890’s. While new immigrants arrived unaware of union politics, some in the Armenian community reacted to the eagerness of newcomers to scab by shunning them and refusing them admittance to various establishments.

Early settlers faced unfamiliar problems, such as industrial accidents and job buying. Many paid exorbitant bribes to acquire lucrative factory jobs. In 1889, a newspaper reported allegations of bribery in a local factory and soon a foreman and his assistant were dismissed for taking bribes from Armenian workmen.

Others complained of being beaten by co-workers who took offense to their willingness to work for little pay. In 1891, some would organize the Armeno-American Ameliorating and Protective League to address their concerns, perhaps encouraged by a court case which five years earlier awarded an Armenian a $10 settlement for being insulted with the phrase, “God-damn Turk.” But their resilience was strong and one early Armenian settler remembers, “…I’d eat five kuftehs (Armenian meat balls), a big bowl of madzoon (yogurt), take a picket off my fence and knock down three men…to get to my job at the mill.”

By 1910, many had moved beyond traditional factory jobs to professional trades or opened independent businesses. The famous Velvet Ice Cream company developed by the Kalashian brothers (Sam, Giragos and Sarkis) became a highly visible symbol of new Armenian American enterprises. The Kalenian family developed Armeno Cereal Company into the first national manufacturer of “bulghur” (cracked wheat) and provided their compatriots with an indispensable component of Armenian cuisine.

By the end of the century, Worcester also fostered one of the earliest flowerings of an Armenian American press as both Yeprad (Euphrates) and Tsain Hayrenyatz (Voice of the Fatherland) were being published. Curiously, the latter had transferred its headquarters from New York, “because New York was far from the Armenian communities.”

Worcester continued to play a national role until the 1920’s when Boston, and particularly Watertown, became the focus of future immigration.

Reverend Dajad A. Davidian, born in Worcester, recalls growing up in the tightly knit community, “Whoever wasn’t Armenian was considered American. Worcester was highly ethnicized like Watertown or for that matter all of Massachusetts.”

But Rev. Davidian, pastor of St. James Armenian Church in Watertown since 1969 and now retired, also remembers some of the difficulties he faced, “Growing up there was a time when I was not very proud of being Armenian. Living in an Irish neighborhood I had racial slurs thrown at me and occasionally found myself in fights. Only at the age of 16 did I start to hang out with Armenians. Because of my conditioning that whatever was not Armenian was considered American I became pro-Armenian to the point of becoming anti-American and this was during the McCarthy era.”

He adds that the rich mix of cultures was a strong asset of growing up in Worcester and even remembers the comical names each ethnic group had for others, “The Armenian kids would call Irish kids ‘tevek’ [Turkish for green leaf, an allusion to the shamrock], the Italians were ‘khmor oodogh’ [dough-eaters] and Armenians were called ‘Armos’. I even remember as a child ‘Babahoney’ was used to describe us, a distortion of ‘Babad hai ee?’ [Your father’s Armenian?].”

Soon the Worcester Armenian community would shrink as the town’s economic fortunes waned and people moved to Boston or other cities.

Rev. Fr. Davidian says his own move to Watertown was a natural progression, “Watertown was the larger community [during the twentieth century] and I felt like I fulfilled my life’s dream when I became the pastor of St. James.”

Now a long-time resident of the town, Fr. Davidian describes some of the town’s Armenian character, “Drive around east Watertown and you’ll discover there are many two-family houses where Armenians lived–upstairs and downstairs. It was closer to the factories and the men and the women who worked there could walk. The neighborhood has retained the middle-class character it always had. The trolleycars also traveled up Belmont and Mt. Auburn Avenues which made it convenient.” The town still has numerous Armenian businesses, institutions and place names, including Artsakh and Kondazian Streets.

He adds, “Watertown and Worcester are only 36 miles apart and everybody had relatives in both communities.” Only in the 1920’s did Greater Boston become the unchallenged center of Armenian life.


Building the institutions for a future community

While Garo is credited with being the first Armenian of the Worcester colony in 1867, during the same year Jacob Arakelyan settled in Boston and established what became the largest printing house in New England. But before Arakelyan another pioneer Armenian, Joseph Iasigi from Smyrna, settled in Boston as early as 1835. Iasigi, the Ottoman Consul in Boston, established India Wharf in partnership with an American as an import-export business. Iasigi’s lasting legacies include statues of Columbus and Aristides he gifted in 1850 to Louisburg Square Park in historic Beacon Hill and the historic Holy Family stain glass windows at Boston’s Catholic Cathedral later gifted in his memory by his son.

Other notable Boston Armenians of the nineteenth century included entrepreneurs Hagop Bogigian, best remembered as the “first Armenian American millionaire,” and Moses H. Gulesian.

Bogigian opened the city’s premiere oriental carpet store on Harvard Square in the late 1870’s. As luck would have it American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would be his first client. Their eventual friendship helped the merchant court his clients among the city’s elite. In 1882, when Bogigian moved to the fashionable Beacon Street, Longfellow used the store as a rendezvous point with friends who would arrive to have discussions before proceeding to the Atheneum literary club further down the street.

A native of Marash, Moses H. Gulesian would became a shining symbol of New World success. After arriving penniless in New York harbor in 1883, he moved to Worcester and eventually settled in Boston where he opened a successful copperworks factory.

In 1900, he was commissioned by the state to replace the wooden lion and unicorn symbols of the Old State House with copper ones–the originals incidentally were installed later on his home in Chestnut Hill.

Today Gulesian is best remembered for his efforts to save the U.S.S. Constitution, commonly known as “Old Ironsides,” the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy and the champion of the War of 1812. In 1905, Gulesian, overtaken by a strong sense of patriotism, sent the following telegram to Naval Secretary J. Bonaparte, “Will give ten thousand dollars for the Constitution, Old Ironsides. Will you sell?”

The offer made national headlines and one reporter suggested that the ship might worry the “Sultan” of Turkey if it was sold to an Armenian. “It would be a good joke if they could be led to believe that the old frigate might steal out of Boston some night and sail for the Mediterranean to bombard some of the unprotected ports of Turkey,” Gulesian replied.

Gulesian’s efforts rallied public support and saved the ship. For his role, Gulesian was elected President of the Old Ironsides Association and later he would be given the distinction of becoming the first foreign-born member of the Sons of the American Revolution.

Boston’s first Armenian enclave formed in the South Cove region of Boston, which by 1900 was also home to large concentrations of Syrians, Greeks, and Chinese and was commonly referred to as the “Orient of Boston.” As their economic fortunes improved most moved to other areas. Those that lived on Harrison Avenue moved to Watertown, while those on the haughtier Shamut Avenue would move to the wealthier towns of Newton, Belmont and Arlington.

The Boston community fostered an indigenous Armenian culture that gave rise to theatre troupes such as the Dudley Street Opera House, and a plethora of newspapers, including The Armenian Mirror-Spectator and Hairenik—which was the first to publish the unknown William Saroyan.

Sporting events, charities and politics also became fixtures of Armenian immigrant life early on. In 1911 the Boston Chapter of the Kharpert Union Educational Association sponsored a Boxing and Athletic Night at the Knights of Honor Hall in Boston which prominently featured Armenian fighters alongside boxers of other nationalities. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, all the major political parties had centers in Boston. The city would be home to many philanthropic organizations including AGBU’s first American chapter in 1908. By 1911, AGBU Boston had developed an employment agency in the midst of one of the era’s worst depressions.

As a testament to the growing Armenian presence in Boston, Otis Frothingham, a mayoral candidate of 1905, appealed to Armenian voters by purchasing a half page advertisement in Hairenik.

As early as 1895 some Armenians saw the need to train and prepare young Armenian men as military volunteers for Armenia. During the Ottoman massacres of 1894-96, the fledgling Armenian community could do little except watch the suffering of their compatriots on the other side of the world, but by the First World War there were efforts not only to collect funds but also to organize units to help fight the Ottomans.

By 1905, Armenian United Guard units were organized in Worcester and during the First World War many Armenians would join the Armenian Legion to fight the Turks in the Near East. Of the 1,200 Armenians that fought in the Legion, the majority hailed from Massachusetts. Greater numbers would volunteer during the First World War with the American military and in the famed YD (Yankee Division) of Massachusetts Armenians were particularly numerous.

In the war years, the community’s center of gravity would shift to Watertown, a town adjacent to the city of Boston and the eventual heartland of the region’s Armenians.

After the Second World War, Greater Boston played a crucial role in establishing institutions that would reflect the emerging diversity of the Armenian American community. Most prominent among them is the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) founded in Cambridge in 1954, “to foster the study of Armenian history, culture and language on an active, scholarly and continuous basis in America.” Other organizations still active include the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF), the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA), the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA), the Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association and two day schools (St. Stephen’s in Watertown and the Armenian Sisters Academy in Lexington).

The city’s world-renowned universities have always attracted many Armenians from around the country as well as from the four corners of the globe. Barbara J. Merguerian, born and raised in a suburb of neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, was first lured to Boston in the early sixties to attend Harvard and remembers encountering the unique character of Watertown, “It was a real shock to get on a bus in Watertown and hear people speaking Armenian. This was before the Lebanese influx and it wasn’t very common in those days.”

After a brief stay in Washington D.C. she would return to Boston and become editor of The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, “When I was first named editor, the fact that I was a woman was the first thing everyone noticed—I wasn’t expecting that.”

She has witnessed the changes that have occurred over the decades and offers her insight into the evolution of the community, “During the Cold War years, and I know from my own family, the different political affiliations and debates were rather bitter. I think things changed during the 50th Anniversary of the Genocide when the political parties came together. Since then, during important events we unite when necessary.”

It was during the years of her editorial career at The Mirror-Spectator that she would witness the cultural shift that would revitalize and change the community forever. She recalls, “The pre-1970’s community was mostly made up of Armenians who had either come before or soon after the Genocide. People worked their way up—it was a settled community. In the seventies the influx of Armenians from Lebanon fleeing the civil war saw tensions develop between those who knew American ways and the Lebanese who didn’t but were more educated in Armenian ways. Eventually both sides grew to acknowledge and learn from differences and develop a cohesive unit.”

After the seventies, other waves would arrive in Watertown, including Iranian-Armenians and refugees from the former Soviet Union, particularly Baku Armenians fleeing the bloody pogroms of the late eighties.

Rev. Fr. Davidian notes that a unique group of Armenians from the remote village of Gigi near Kayseri in Central Anatolia adopted Watertown as their New World home. He describes the impetus for their arrival, “The first Gigitsi, known as ‘Topal’ or ‘Bastermadji’ Markar, arrived before the First World War and started to bring over his relatives. Some villagers moved to Istanbul but 75% of the village is here in Watertown. It may only be seven or eight families but that constitutes over 300 people.”

The face of the Armenian community in Watertown is as strong and diverse as ever, according to the pastor, who challenges the perception that the community may be past its glory days, “There are more Armenians today than there have ever been in Watertown and there are 10 Armenians serving on the town committee.”

He adds, “Today you have a number of visible groups in the Watertown Armenian community. The old Armenians or ‘deghatzis’ [natives], the Armenians of the Near East and since we are often the first American stop on transatlantic flights we’ve had Iraqi Armenians and others who claim refugee status here. Then there are the ‘Hayastantsis’ [Armenian-Armenians] which include many repatriated Armenian Americans from the forties as well as those that first settled in California and have chosen to call Watertown home.”

Today’s community faces the same issues, assimilation and unity, which confront other communities around the world. Barbara Merguerian who admits that these issues are something she faced daily when raising her two daughters, suggests another dilemma is increasingly becoming part of the issues to be confronted by the community, “I think there is an issue of where we should put our strength. It came up during the 1988 earthquake and then again after Independence. There is a strong feeling that we need to help Armenia and we do, but we also need strong and thriving Armenian institutions to preserve our heritage.”

Merguerian is optimistic about the future of Boston’s role in the American Diaspora, “The Boston area institutions have the potential to be a great impetus for the future. It will depend on whether we can find the leadership needed from a younger generation.”

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