From the late 1800s to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, over 50,000 Armenians emigrated to North America. Most were single men and came from the Ottoman Empire (eastern Turkey). As conditions for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire worsened between the 1890s and 1908, the number of Armenians in North American increased significantly. At the end of the war, many who survived joined their families in North America and Europe.
Armenians In Lowell
Armenians began migrating to Lowell, Massachusetts in the early 1890s. The January 11, 1985 edition of the Lowell Sun reports that there was a gathering at the Elliott Church to show support for the Armenians.
The support was for the surviving victims of the Hamidian Massacres (1894 – 1896) that took place in Armenia during those years. These pogroms were one of the major reasons for the flight of the Armenians to foreign lands, including the United States and Lowell, Massachusetts.
Included in that Lowell Sun article are the following comments: “There are 150 Armenians in Lowell…good Christians…some of them relatives of the victims of the Turks in Armenia.”
Also based on an article in the American Wool and Cotton Reporter, dated November 16, 1899 Armenians along with Greeks were involved in a labor situation for better wages at the American Hydes (sic) and Leather Company. This manufacturer was located on the Concord River, on what is now Rogers Street. Many immigrants Armenians worked there since it was walking distance from the neighborhood where they settled.
Early census information for the number of Armenians living in Lowell is difficult to ascertain. There were a number of issues, some not unique to Armenians. Since Armenia did not have an independent nation, often it was up to the customs administrator to label the national origin of the immigrant. Sometimes, they refer to the Armenians and other times, they may have written the nationality of the stop-over country from which they came.
Furthermore, although most Armenian surname end in “ian,” (which means from, about, of), their last name may have been misspelled due to the different sounds between the Latin alphabet and the Armenian one.
According to George Kengott’s (1912) book, The Record of a City: A Social Survey of Lowell, Massachusetts, there were approximately 142 Armenians in 1905 and 200 Armenians in 1912 living in Lowell. We know that there were Armenians in Lowell as early as 1870 Ethnicity in Lowell (Forrant and Strobel, 2011).
They also indicate that the 142 Armenians that lived in Lowell were “less than one percent of the city’s total population of 94,889. Even this small figure made Lowell one of the ten most populous Armenian communities in Massachusetts in 1905.”
There is a record of an Armenian graduating in 1900 from State Normal School at Lowell (University of Massachusetts, Lowell). Andranik Garabedian. He may have been one of the first Armenian immigrants to arrive in Lowell. In an article in the Lowell Sun, dated December 17, 1806, Mr. Garabedian is interviewed and gives a detailed account of his escape from Turkey and the massacres. His father was a banker in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Mr. Garabedian was educated at Roberts College in that city. He was fluent in French, Armenian, and Turkish and was learning English.
The author of the article wrote “Mr. Garabedian is a bright young man, intelligent and polite. He is deserving of sympathy from those who might help him with employment.”
According to the Ak-Mak Bakeries website, the family that owns this corporation, the Soojians’ “great uncle Jacob established our first Armenian bakery in the United States at Lowell, Massachusetts, producing baked good of the Middle East — Peda bread, Demackly bread, Arabic Bread (Pita) and Armenian Cracker Bread — for the new Armenian immigrants who were coming to Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some ten to fifteen years later his son Paul and his nephews Michael and Sarkis joined him in the family business.” The families and the company resettled in California as did many ArmenianAmerican families in that decade and subsequent decades.
Brief Historical Background
It is important to note that unlike future waves of Armenian migration which was dominated by refugees this first wave came to America as immigrants looking for better opportunities as all other nationalities. However, it was the tragic history of the Armenian people in the late 19th – 20th century that forced immigration.
Historical Armenia is located is located in the eastern part of Asia Minor, south of the Caucasus Mountains. The heart of Armenia is located in the surrounding cities and villages of Lake Van; surrounded by the Pontus and Taurus Mountain ranges. Today, the small republic is land-locked and surrounded by Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey.
“The best known landmark of Armenia is Mount Ararat, on which according to the Book of Genesis Noah’s Ark alighted after its long voyage from Mesopotamia. Mount Ararat — which the Armenians call ‘Masis’ — is situated today a few miles from the border of the Armenian republic in Turkey.” (Lang, 39)
The mountain with a dual peak serves as a symbol and can be seen from many areas in current-day Armenia. Many diaspora Armenians travel to what is now the homeland and will go to the border to view the mountain.
In the 5th century B.C. we find the name Armenia in a royal inscription written by the then King of Iran. The Armenian language is unique. It falls under the Indo-European branch of languages. Its alphabet and sounds are not shared with other languages.
The Armenia nation converted to Christianity in 301 and the national church has been an active part of the Armenian community worldwide. Not only religious but culturally and socially. During the Ottoman Empire, the Church served as the administrator of the millet system, a system that allowed religious minorities to rule itself under their own religious laws. This did not apply to non-communal activities.
Geographically, Armenia has a lot of mountains. The mountain chains cut in both directions; north and south and east and west. There are also abundant rivers and lakes. The rough terrain isolated regions form other regions, thus creating many dialects and different cultural customs.
Although Armenian survived many invasions and attacks throughout the centuries, it was towards the end of the Ottoman Empire (19th century – early 10th century) that the people were victims of a genocide that nearly destroyed the entire population.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by Turkey killed 1.5 million Armenians and most of the survivors became refugees in nearby nations. Although, many Armenians in Greater Lowell are descendants of these survivors, many came at the turn of the century gfirst to escape the Hamidian pogroms and secondly to pursue a different life.
Today, Lowellians commemorate the Genocide with a number of activities including a flag raising ceremony at Lowell City Hall where in 2015 for the 100th Anniversary of the Genocide a monument dedicated to the victims was erected.
Armenians like most other immigrant groups, came to the country in distinct waves. Lowell was chosen for the same reason most other immigrant groups selected the Mill City: work opportunity, available housing, geographically near the east coast port cities were they landed, and an acceptable community.
In the late 19th century, the pioneers of Armenian immigration to Lowell came from a region of Armenia called Kharpet (Harput, Kharput, Hokhe) in eastern Anatolia. During that period, Armenians and their homeland was part of the Ottoman Empire. That region was dominated by Armenians. Today that area is part of Turkey and it is called Elazig. There is no longer an Armenian community in Eastern Anatolia, including Kharpet.
Kharpet was a modern city by late 19th century standards for that region of the world. Therefore, many of the Armenians who migrated to Lowell as well as the other neighboring cities such as Lawrence, Brockton, Lynn and Watertown were skilled, had an entrepreneur temperament, some arrived with their spouse or were quick to marry.
Kharpet is not only a city but also the name of the province. Many of these immigrants that came to Lowell were from the adjoining towns. When it came to education, this area had a distinctive advantage.
The missionary movement from European countries and the United States had invaded that area. Given the significance of the location of that region, diplomatic delegations from various nations were also present in Kharpet.
This combination led to foreign exposure to the inhabitants. In addition to hospitals, the major contribution was education. Kharpet had numerous schools for all ages. It was known for its three fine colleges: French Catholic St. Joseph College, German College of Kharpet, and Euphrates College.
Euphrates College played a major role in the migration of Armenians to America. The school was established in 1852 by the foremost American missionary organization, American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. The construction of the complex was funded mostly by the U.S. Government.
The school was originally established as American Harput Missionary College. Originally a theological seminary to recruit and educate clergy for the Evangelical church, in 1859 the school broaden its scope and provided general education and changed its name to Armenia College. It had to change its name again at the strong recommendation of the ruling Ottoman government. It was finally named Euphrates College in honor of the major river, the longest in Western Asia whose two branches merge in Kharpet Province.
By the end of the 19th century, the college had expanded to include an orphanage, a hospital and a high school for boys and one for girls.
These educational advantages and exposure to foreigners helped create higher aspirations among the people. But more important the constant voyages of the missionary, travelling back and forth from the United States to Armenia, rendered the means to explore.
All this added with the growing uncertainty of the Armenian situation in the Ottoman Empire accelerated the migration movement from Kharpet to the United States.
In his predominant book on Armenian-American immigration, Torn Between Two Lands, the historian Robert Mirak writes:
“… ‘America promises everything…Fabulous stories are related here [Armenia] of the rapidity with which wealth is obtained there.’ This impression was constantly reiterated. “A typical missionary field report from Kharpet station in 1885 stated, ‘large numbers of young men are starting for America in search of work…The impulse of those who are ambitious is to leave the country altogether.’ The emigration naturally claimed a large portion of young, well-educated, and aggressive teachers and students of the missionary schools on the plain, to the deep satisfaction of their American teachers.”
The Armenian situation was well known in Lowell. Armenians were asked to come and speak at various churches about the crisis; the Lowell Sun gave it wide coverage; in late 1927 the local government passed a motion to have a drive to have every school child in Lowell donate a can of condensed milk to be sent to the refugees via the Near East Relief effort.
Armenians come to Lowell: The establishment of the Community
As Armenians came to Lowell, they wished to remain be a political force in the decision making on the future of the Armenian people and establish cultural and educational groups to maintain their ties with the homeland and their past.
When Armenians arrived in Lowell, the majority moved to tenement, boarding houses and apartments that were located in what is now called Back Central Street. The area was multinational: “A huge block located at the corner of Elm and Linden Streets contained thirty-two tenements in 1912. Fourteen different nationalities lived in the block known as ‘Joe Flynn’s Wonderland’ and the ‘Hotel Philadelphia’. [There were] ‘two large buildings with one front entrance in a retreating nook…Among the fourteen ethnicities in the building were Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Italians, Poles and French-Canadians (Kengott, 52). In 1890, Lowell Armenians established a Chapter of the Social Democrat Hunchakian (Bell) Party. The group, founded in 1887, had a socialist ideology and called for an independent Armenia. The group lasted until the early 1920s, when Armenia became a Republic of the U.S.S.R.
Another organization that was established was the Armenian Gregorian Education Societies of Hokhe, Korpe and Medz Gerd. They formed this group in 1892 as a cultural gathering club. Korpe and Medz Gerd were suburban towns to Kharpet.
It was around 1895 when Armenian began celebration their Divine Liturgy at St. John Episcopal Church on Gorham Street in Lowell. Visiting pastor, Rev. Stepan Der Stepanian would perform the liturgy. This custom of an immigrant group using another religious’ group building is very common and continues to this day in Lowell among the new arrivals. The first Chapter in the United States of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyn) was formed in Lowell in 1895. The organization is worldwide, very prominent in the Armenian Diaspora. To this day, the organization still exists in Lowell. Most of their efforts are spent lobbying on Armenian issues.
In the late 1910s, the Lowell Chapter of the Armenian Relief Society was established. The all women, volunteer humanitarian organization provided worked to provide assistance to the Armenians in the homeland. The group is still very active today and in addition to supporting cultural, educational and philanthropic efforts, they own and operate an Armenian Center on Liberty Street in Lowell’s Lower Highland section. The building was purchased in 1964; it had been used as a church prior to the purchase. They also support many local non-Armenian charities in Lowell. Most of the members live in Greater Lowell.
As previously mentioned, religious services were held in an Episcopalian church. There was much desire within the community to have their own church that would serve not only their religious needs but also be a center of cultural and social activities.
Late in 1910, at the home of Mrs. Soghome Markarian, 26 Armenian women gathered and formed the Ladies Aid Society. Their major goal was to build a church. In 1913, Mrs. Margos Der Manuelian, served as Chair of the Building Committee. Land was secured and in 1915, the lot at 60 Lawrence Street was conveyed to the Armenian National Church of Lowell.
The total cost of building the Church was $10,456, about a quarter of a million by today’s monetary standards. The community raised $5,765 and took out a loan for the balance. With volunteer help in constructing the building, St. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church was consecrated on April 16, 2016.
This was the second Armenian Apostolic Church in the United States and the third Armenian Church. The other two Armenian Protestant and Armenian Apostolic were both in Worcester. The church was named for the canonized leader of the Battle of Avarayr, Vartan Mamikonian. The armed conflict between the governing Persians and the Armenians was to defend Christianity as the national faith of the Armenians.
The Community Grows:
As the Armenian population grew, mostly through “chain immigration”, those who had worked in the mills when initially arriving turned to commerce. By the mid-20s to the early 30s, Armenians in Lowell had an extensive business ownership network. Among the professions were: barber, billiard room owner, card room operator, carpenter, confectioner, store operator, dressmaker, fruit seller, grocer, laundryman, lawyer, locksmith, lodging house operator, painter, physician, shoe repairman, tailor, and variety store owner.
In effect, if you were Armenian, you could fulfill most of your requirements by dealing with another Armenian. Many of these businesses were operated by husband and wife, and if they had older children, they would help also.
There was still a considerable number of Armenians that worked in the mills; mostly shoe factories or leather hide tanning.
Most of the immigrants and their first generation children remained in the Back Central Street area both for their housing and their business. At the end of the depression many moved to other neighborhoods, mostly in the Highlands, lower Belvedere and Centralville sections of Lowell.
The first generation Armenians were eager to take on their American identity without sacrificing their Armenian one. So for example, at home they would be called by their Armenian name at school their English name.
When World War II came, parents were quite proud to have their children serve. As a result of that war and subsequent wars, the Armenian-American Veterans were formed. The organization is still active.
Armenians had access to Armenian-language and English-language newspapers published in Boston that covered issues pertaining to the community. Additionally, in the early 1980s, an Armenian radio program began on Sunday morning on what is now WUML. The radio show is still active. At the beginning it was produced by the students at Lowell Tech, now it is a community-based organized program.
Immigration to Lowell picked up again in the late 1950s when relatives, mostly siblings, who were survivors of the 1915 Genocide and who had settled as refugees in other nations, began to arrive to the United States. Those who settled in Lowell were not numerous but they brought new life to the Community.
At the same time 1st and 2nd generation Armenian-Americans started to move to the suburbs such as Chelmsford and Westford as well as southern New Hampshire.
The last waves of Armenian immigrants came to Lowell in the 1970s and 1980s. Those for the most part were cousins of the first generation Armenian-Americans. They came from the turbulent Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon, Iran and Syrian. Most of them arrived with their entire family and once established moved to other areas, mostly California.
In the late 80s and early 90s, a group of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan were resettled in Lowell but there numbers were small and most of them moved out of the City.
Lowell continues to be the center of the Armenian community in this area. Many come back in late July to assist the Armenian Relief Society at the Lowell Folk Festival. The group has participated in this activity since 1987, when it was the National Folk Festival. Prior to that, they had participated in other ethnic organizational activities such as the Regatta Festival and the International Institute ethnic festivities.
Through the commitment by those who have remained, the Community has been able to sustain itself. Most of the Armenians in Greater Lowell can be considered middle to upper class. They are for the most part educated and have a professional career.
Through the ease of travel, access through the internet and social media to Armenians throughout the world and a reawakening of Armenian identity, Lowell’s Armenian-Americans will stay active and contribute to both the United States and the Armenian nation.