Jamestown Historical Society

From Farmhand to Freeholder

This article is part of series written by Peter Fay for The Jamestown Press on August 25, 2022.
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Almost all Portuguese immigrants to Jamestown were Azorean. In 1920, all 80 of them worked onerous low-skilled jobs. They were farmhands, teamsters, laundresses and servants, or they were quarrying stone to build the local streets and piers.

Dutra’s wife, Lillian Pementel Dutra, recalled her father “worked at the crusher crushing rock” near the Godena Farm.

John Joseph Madeiros’ grandmother “took care of the laundries for the rich houses,” washing clothes by hand into her 80s.

Azorean doffer and spinner boys showcase barefoot child labor in 1912 at the Seaconnet Textile Mill in Fall River, Mass. None of them could write their own names, and they spoke almost no English. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress: http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/nclc.02499/
Azorean doffer and spinner boys showcase barefoot child labor in 1912 at the Seaconnet Textile Mill in Fall River, Mass. None of them could write their own names, and they spoke almost no English. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Gloria Cabral immigrated alone at 14, working long hours at American Screw Co. in Providence. No Portuguese could be found among the skilled machinists or engineers at the Newport Torpedo Station or Jamestown Ferry. Many lived alongside the black families south of Narragansett Avenue.

According to a study in 1923, Azoreans occupied the lowest socio-economic status together with African-Americans. Azorean infant mortality, the bellwether of a population’s health, was twice as high as African-Americans, and four times higher than the native white population. Three-quarters of the Azorean people in America were illiterate.

Despite these meager beginnings, the Portuguese in Jamestown often achieved success, especially in their tradition of farming. The Vieira and Dutra farms were prosperous, but one of the few remaining is the small Godena (originally “Godinho”) property.

A wedding photo from 1928 with Anthony Silvia, from left, Lillian Pemantal Dutra (bride), Manuel F. Dutra (groom) and Lucy Pemantal. Photo courtesy Jamestown Historical Society, P2004M.334

Manuel Coelho Godinho first came to the Newport area in 1897 from Terceira, Azores, at 19 with his bride, Maria, after both his parents died young. He was a farmhand alongside Joseph Miller, who earned $5 per month.

In 1907, Godinho purchased one acre and a house south of Godena Farm for $175 from John T. Carr. Twelve years later, he purchased eight acres surrounding the John F. Weeden house (the Godena homestead) on the west side of North Main Road. For most of his life, Godinho worked small plots or others’ farms, growing asparagus to sell in Newport.

Manuel Godinho was one of the five incorporators of the Holy Ghost Society of Jamestown in 1927, the cultural center of the Portuguese community. For decades, the society, with its hall on Narragansett Avenue, sponsored Chamarrita folk dances, chouriço sausage and sweetbread dinners and processions during Pentecost from East Ferry.

Only six months before Godinho died in 1957, his son purchased 22 acres on the east side of North Main Road from the Carr Homestead Foundation for $2,000. It is known today as the Godena Farm.

The son, Manuel J. Godena, guarded it tightly, refusing to sell it to Commerce Oil, launching a lawsuit to stop their massive project to construct an oil refinery on the island. When the company bought all the surrounding land and bulldozed a lane through his property, he said, “they’re not going to get away with it. That’s for sure.” They did not, and the project was stopped.

In his waning years, Manuel J. Godena appointed his son Louis trustee of all his property and gave him power of attorney. A year later, Louis Godena, as trustee, decided to transfer the development rights to the Conanicut Island Land Trust for $25,000, ensuring his grandfather’s and father’s efforts would be memorialized for generations to come so all could enjoy the land cultivated by early Portuguese farmers.
Manuel Coelho Godinho (Godena) with grandchildren Louis R. Godena (left) and Miriam J. Godena (right). (Courtesy Louis Godena)
Manuel Coelho Godinho (Godena) with grandchildren Louis R. Godena (left) and Miriam J. Godena (right). (Courtesy Louis Godena)

Bibliography

Jennings, William J, Jr., and Patrick T. Conley, Aboard the Fabre Line to Providence: Immigration to Rhode Island, Charleston: History Press, 2013.

Quattromani, Shirley Teixeira (comp.). History of the Portuguese of Conanicut Island, Catherine M. Wright, Ed. Jamestown, RI: Jamestown Philomenian Library, 1980.

Williams, Jerry R., In Pursuit of Their Dreams, North Dartmouth, MA: University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, 2007.

“Injury added to insult”, Providence Evening Bulletin, Oct 31, 1957, 1; “Court asked to bar permit to Jamestown tanker pier”, Providence Journal, Apr. 5, 1960, 32.

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