THE PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES OF THE 19TH CENTURY CENTRAL VALLEY - Armenian Immigrants
ARMENIAN SETTLERS COME TO FRESNO COUNTY
Armenia may be nearly halfway around the world from the San Joaquin Valley, but, for thousands of Americans of Armenian descent, Fresno County has been home for generations. Along the way, Armenians became leaders in agriculture and business, and their Fresno culture served as fodder for some of America’s greatest 20th century literature.
It began with an Armenian merchant, Hagop Seropian, who had settled in Massachusetts but found the winters too harsh. In 1881, Seropian moved west to Fresno with his half-brothers, George and John. They found the climate and region to be similar to what they had known in Armenia. The Seropians turned out to be effective promoters. They wrote glowing accounts of the San Joaquin Valley and Fresno County to Armenian communities in New England and the home country.
The Seropians began as grocers and then became packers of dried fruit. Their packing house was the first to ship oranges and figs to Eastern markets and set the stage for the major Armenian role in Fresno County grape, raisin and tree fruit growing and packing business that would follow.
The numbers of Armenian settlers grew slowly but steadily until the early 1900s when the genocide of the Armenian peoples 1914-15 drove many of them from their homeland to the Central Valley. Many went into farming, but others became professional fixtures in business and services. For generations, Fresno County’s Armenian community was closely knit and subjected to degrees of discrimination.
Armenians brought new varieties of grapes to Fresno. Within fifty years (1930) of the Seropian brothers' arrival in Fresno, Armenians owned 40 percent of the county's raisin acreage and represented 25 percent of its growers. They also were the leading dried fruit packers and green fruit shippers.
Those Armenian arrivals who chose to live in the city of Fresno clustered in the southeast part of town on the west side of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. Known as" Armenian Town," the area expanded east of the tracks in the 1920s and moved north in the 1930s.
As was the case with so many of the immigrants who came to Fresno, Armenians would not be fully accepted into the life of the community until the 1950s, largely because of a prejudice that was attributed to their Middle Eastern appearance, language and customs.
In part because of the prejudices which isolated them from the rest of the community, the Armenians formed their own benevolent and fraternal organizations for charitable purposes, to perpetuate an awareness of the Armenian heritage and to give a cultural uplift to its members. Armenian-language newspapers were important to the community.
Fresno's most famous Armenian son is William Saroyan, a novelist, playwright and film director. Born in Fresno in 1908, Saroyan was recognized throughout the world for his short stories and plays. Following his death in 1981, Fresno's Convention Center theater was renamed the William Saroyan Theater.
The Armenians of Fresno County Timeline
1881 – First Armenians arrive in Fresno County
1894 – Large immigration of Armenians to Fresno County due to Hamidian massacres
1897 – First Armenian Presbyterian Church constructed in Fresno
1900 – Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church built. Church burns in 1914 and is rebuilt in a new location in the heart of "Little Armenia"
1901 – Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church developed
1902 – Kaghakatsi (meaning Citizen) newspaper founded, renamed Nor Or (meaning New Day) in 1923
1908 – Asbarez (meaning Arena) newspaper founded in Fresno, moves to Los Angeles in early 1970s
1915 – Armenian Genocide occurs in present day Turkey