Armenians in the Central Valley and "Fresno Indians"

Posted By on August 20, 2009

In the early 1900s Armenians moved to the central valley of California in droves.  Many came from the east coast (including both sets of my grandparents with my mother and father), as they had heard from other Armenians of the wonderful climate and vast open spaces.  The hot summers, mild winters and arid region reminded them of their homeland.  Right away they started farming and planting grapes, a favorite in their Mediterranean homeland.  In spite of the prejudices and difficulties they faced (so common for many new immigrant groups at that time), they prospered and they succeeded.  Vineyards after vineyard were planted and raisin production became gold for the town of Fresno.

1880 – At $3-to-$20 an acre, cheap land and an arid climate set the stage for widespread California raisin production in the areas east of Los Angeles and in the San Joaquin Valley. The Valley grows to be the dominant production area for the entire United States.

1881 – The first Armenians arrive in Fresno County, bringing with them long-held expertise in raisin production.

http://www.sun-aid.com/en/healthyliving/history_of_raisins_and_dried_fruit.html

One of the prejudices these new central valley immigrants were to face was when in 1894 the Congregational church ousted them from the church with parishioners complaining “they smelled like garlic.”

Discriminatory acts against Armenians were common in Fresno.  Restrictive covenants against landholding, discrimination in employment, prohibitions against membership in lodges and clubs, including the YMCA and veterans’ organizations, were enforced.  The Armenians were called “Fresno Indians” and “lower class Jews.”  In 1894 a group of Armenian parishioners was ousted from the First Congregational Church, despite the fact that they had been among its founding members, because others felt uncomfortable with them as church members.  Discrimination in housing persisted until the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) struck down restrictive covenants against “undesirables.”  Informal restrictions persisted until the 1960s.

Thernstrom. S.,  Orlov, S., Handlin. O. (Eds).  (1994) Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London England

I was never called a “lower class Jew” but I was often called a Fresno Indian.  It was a slightly derogatory term, but I had no idea what it meant.  I believe I asked someone, possibly my mother, why people called me that.  I was told it was because Armenians were some of the first immigrants to Fresno, which made them similar to American Indians.  I didn’t think it was so bad, but people used it as a racial slur.  Recently, I read an interesting explanation out of a locally published book, Bulbulian, B. The Fresno Armenians (2001) Quill Driver Books.  Apparently, Hollywood producers would come to Fresno and hire Armenians to play Indians in Westerns.    Therefore, they were “Fresno Indians.”

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4 Responses to “Armenians in the Central Valley and "Fresno Indians"”

  1. My father once told me he heard the term “Fresno Indian” for the first time when he was in the Army. I had no idea of the derivation until now. Thanks for the explanation!

  2. Skip says:

    Hi, I really can relate to your comments and I appreciate your sharing them. I will be giving a presentation at our faculty forum on my family and their life (in particular) as ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley and the difficulties they and others faced. You can read more in my book The First Casualty of War. Thank you and best wishes.
    Skip Kazarian, Ph.D
    Assistant Professor of English

  3. shirley says:

    Hi Skip! Are you a second generation Armenian like me? Your book sounds very interesting and I will certainly secure a copy! Especially since my grandfather, whom I never met, came to the valley to farm. He did well, then bought more land and tried to expand. When that didn’t go well, the bank took everything from him and his family. He ended up dying in a Sanitarium in Stockton in 1925. I think your book might help me understand what happened to him.

    After my grandfather died and my grandmother remarried, the 5 boys and stepfather started a Box manufacturing company in Fresno which did very well. We were always very close to farmers and their situation. Thank you so much for posting this.

  4. Stacy says:

    Came here looking confirmation that Armenians are called “Fresno indians”, because I wonder if it referred to looks somehow. I think Armenians are the most beautiful people I know of. We, OTOH are called “ice monkeys”.

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