Earthquakes in the Azores

Since the Azore Islands have been inhabited, and probably long before then, they have been plagued by earthquakes. Some of these have been minor, but many of them through the years have been devastating. "Teremoto" is earthquake in Portuguese and surely a word that struck terror in the hearts of many of our ancestors! While researching death records or obitos, if you see that word associated with deaths, you will know that the region suffered greatly and that probably many lives were lost in that time.

The following excerpt is used with permission from Eloise Cadinha "Some years back I was researching next to Dorothy, who was researching the Death Records in Calheta, Sao Jorge, in the 1700s when she asked me to give a look to what she was researching. So many deaths listed in the margins, 6, 3, 8, 4. She pointed to one record. Her ancestors wife had died along with all his children except one. The priest had mentioned the one survivor. The priest knew all his parishioners and wrote each entry well.

We thought we had come across some kind of plague...nearly killing all the residents of Calheta. I had looked at many death records but had never seen anything like those enteries in Calheta. I rolled the film back a couple of pages and there across the top of one page was the word TERREMOTO. I told Dorothy - these people had died in an earthquake. Dorothy, not knowing Portuguese, had missed this. I told her she should have pulled out her dictionary, which she always had near her.

When I had first visited Calheta I had been told of the terrible earthquake of 1757, and had later read about that devastating earthquake which destroyed the Calheta district. Yet, a few miles away in Velas the quake was scarcely felt.

Some years back when there was only the Portugal List - no Azores List - I did post the following to the list. It might be of interest because of the recent postings on the Death Records.

Before listing the dead, the Vicar of Santa Catarina Church, Father Joao Machado Teixeira, who had escaped death himself, wrote that his two brother priests were killed that night. He wrote a short account of what happened. Following is my translation.

"Following this note are the records of the people who died on the night of the 9th and early morning of the 10th day of July of this year 1757, that razed and demolished the stone walls of the fields, the cliffs, the fountains, and not a single house remained that had not rotated on its foundation, and a large part of its residents dead underneath these same ruins; and for them who lived through the Divine Kindness and Compassion will remain with a life so crushed and torn to pieces even though it can be said that by a miracle they escaped; nor would there be a place where the dead could be buried: - because the mother church of this town and the three chapels suffragans to the mother church are all turned around from top to bottom, nothing remaining in their church yards where they can be buried.

"God by his infinite compassion left me life, removing me from under the many large stones of my house that fell on top of me, he permits that these days that he conserved my life only to be fruitful in his saintly service, Blessed and Praised always Divine Compassion."

-- Neatly written, page after page, the dead are listed by household, the number of dead of each household written in the margin. How well Father Machado knew his parishioners. He gives their names and ages; single, married or widowed; where they came from if not natives of Calheta; and in many cases their occupations. What is so amazing is the amount of detail in these records at such a time of upheaval.

The churches in Calheta, Ribeira Seca, and Topo were destroyed and 1,034 people in the district were killed, and many others crippled or maimed. My ancestors in all three places survived the earthquake. One can imagine the terrible hardships of the people of this district.

In another earthquake on the 16th of April 1852 on Sao Miguel a lot of damage was done to parish churches, especially one of them, Santa Luzia, in Feteiras. Here the church was severely damaged, the churchyard walls fell in, many homes were destroyed, and people slept in the fields for weeks. My gg-grandparents living in Feteiras were 8 and 10 years old; old enough to remember it always. Later they lived in Hawaii. They must have remembered that day often when the goddess of volcanoes, Madame Pele, showed anger with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. I wonder if they ever told their three children of that April earthquake.

Another earthquake closer in time, not a memory of the past, was the powerful earthquake of 1980 which destroyed so much of Angra. My father’s great-aunt and husband were killed in that earthquake.


© Kathy Andrade Cardoza 2022