This first in a two-part series considers the rich history of Armenians in America and the close connections of their Christian heritage.
“Probably Armenia was known to the American school child in 1919 only a little less than England … of the staunch Christians who were massacred periodically by the Mohammedan Turk and the Sunday School collections of over fifty years for alleviating their miseries …” President Herbert Hoover
Every country and its people have a unique mission, formed on the basis of its historical development. The American nation was created by deeply religious Christians who saw their destiny as building the country of God on Earth. Christian, traditional, and conservative values are the country’s true foundation.
The entire Christian world sees in America something more than just a country – it sees hope. I am deeply convinced that, in this sense, America and Armenia have much in common. It is vital to know that Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion. For centuries, Armenians waged countless wars, defending their right to remain Christian. Not a single neighboring state having numerical superiority could tame and enslave the small but essential Christian outpost.
Armenian heritage in America has a vibrant history. The first Armenians appeared on the territory of the modern United States in 1630. Thus, historian Samuel Morison, in his 1930 book Builders of the Bay Colony, identified Armenians among the first thousand settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many British industrialists of Armenian origin moved to America and invested in urban construction, farming, and more. While listing the names of prominent British manufacturers in 1908’s Documentary Source Book of American History, 1606-1898, William MacDonald mentioned Jack Sadurian and Stefan Tarrien, who made significant contributions to the development of agriculture in South Carolina. Despite their limited presence, Armenians in the United States served in high positions in society and held substantial financial resources. From 1840 to 1911, due to the support of American Christian missionaries serving in their country, many Armenians from the Ottoman Empire were given the opportunity to immigrate to the United States.
However, Armenians who left for America did so quite reluctantly, preferring to live in their historical homeland. Therefore, most of them moved to the United States only to get an education or bring goods, such as jewelry, carpets, and spices, to sell. Groups of young students and graduates created the first Armenian organizations in New York, Detroit, and Boston, Watertown, and Worcester, MA. These were largely cultural and educational gatherings, where Armenians aimed to preserve their national identity. At numerous clubs established in universities, local Armenians met, spoke to each other in Armenian, and discussed topics related to history, culture, and traditions. According to historians, from 1870 to 1894, 40 Armenians were admitted to Yale, Princeton, Clark, and New York universities as well as to Andover and Amherst colleges. Student Christopher Seropian was among them, and he is credited with suggesting the idea of using the color green on the American dollar.
By 1875, three-fifths of the 75 Armenians living on the U.S. Atlantic coast had returned to Armenia after their graduation ceremonies to serve as lawyers, doctors, and other specialists in their homeland. However, the rest remained in America, making contributions in such fields as economics, science, journalism, and more. A graduate of New York University, Khachig Oskanian worked as a journalist for The New York Herald and was elected the president of the New York Union of Journalists. It is noteworthy that in 1868, an article published in TheCincinnati Enquirer stated that Oskanian planned to create an Armenian colony in the United States he intended to call New Ani, after the capital of medieval Armenia. By the way, the city of Ani was called “the city of one thousand and one churches.” According to Oskanian’s plan, that project would strengthen relations between Americans and Armenians because these nations were the defenders of the Christian civilization.
In 1895 and 1896, the first large group of Armenians came to the shores of America, fleeing the massacres in Western Armenia, where Sultan Abdul-Hamid responded with cruelty to demands for reforms. Despite their low salaries, these early immigrants sent money home to their families until they could return. In many respects, that group of people lived with uncertainty about the future of their families in America and the homeland they had left behind. Like other immigrants, Armenians mostly arrived on ships to the port of New York City and were inspected for admission on Ellis Island. Depending on where their families or other contacts were, some remained in that city. Others traveled to Boston and other industrial cities in New England. It became clear the heritage of Armenians and Americans would be forever entwined.
Part 2 of this series looks at how Armenian immigrants and their children quickly absorbed into American life, contributed greatly to American society, and never forgot their homeland when it was in need.
Arthur Ghazinyan, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to Forbes and The American Thinker and is the head of the European Studies Center in Yerevan, Armenia.