The Armenian Genocide and a Brief History of Armenians in Maine
Last week, on April 24th, was the Armenian Genocide Day of Remembrance. It marked the 105th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, generally regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century.
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Between late April 2015 and the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, it is estimated that more than one million Armenians were murdered. Ottoman troops killed most of the Armenian men of fighting age, as well as thousands of women and children in mass shootings. Hundreds of thousands more died as a result of forced marches and deportations.
The Ottoman Empire had at one time been one of the most powerful states in the world. In the 15th and 16th centuries it occupied much of southeastern Europe and the Middle East.
By the 19th century it had begun to shrink. Ottoman Armenians had agitated for increasing local autonomy from the ruling Turks for years when, in October of 1895, Armenian revolutionaries seized the National Bank in Constantinople and threatened to kill hostages and blow up the bank if their demands for autonomy were not met. Although French intervention led to a peaceful resolution, the incident was the pretext the Ottomans needed to move against the Armenian minority. Over the course of the next year, over 80,000 Armenians were murdered.
A 1908 revolution had brought the Turkish nationalists to power. Initially, the “Young Turks” vision of the new Turkish nation looked promising: a secular, constitutional state in which all peoples would be equal. In reality, however, the expectation was that non-Turkish peoples would give up their demands for cultural autonomy. Over time, the Young Turk vision narrowed, and they turned towards a strident Turkish nationalism. By the time World War I erupted in 1914, the Young Turks had arrived at a hardline, ultra-nationalist view of a state that was culturally and ethnically Turkish and religiously Muslim. The Christian Armenians had no place there.
Listen: Audio recording of Section 3 of Martyred Armenia, by Fa’iz El-Ghusein
At first, actions against the Armenians were conducted on the pretense of security for the Ottomans in the face of the conflicts of World War I. But soon thousands of Armenian civilians, men, women and children, were deported from all over the Empire (particularly from provinces that were heavily Armenian) to camps in what is today Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
In order to ensure that there would be little resistance to the deportations, the Ottoman authorities first executed all the able-bodied Armenian men they could find. After that, older males were summoned by the government to report for deportation. Virtually all of them reported to the authorities as ordered: they were subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and then shot.
The deportations of the few remaining Armenian men, along with the women and children, continued throughout the spring of 1915. The deportees were marched through the desert, often stripped of their clothing, and without food and water. Those who stopped to rest were shot. Along the way, the deportees were frequently attacked and murdered by Ottoman troops, Kurdish horsemen, and local civilians. In addition, the Ottoman authorities organized mobile killing squads who descended upon the refugees. Women and children were raped and kidnapped. Many Armenian children were forcibly converted to Islam and given to Turkish families. Only about a quarter of those deported survived. The remainder died as a result of the attacks, disease, starvation and exposure.
Of the close to two million Armenians living in Turkey before World War I, less than 400,000 were alive in 1922. Today, that number is approximately 50,000.
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The first known connection between Maine and Armenia was most likely Cyrus Hamlin. Hamlin, the nephew of President Lincoln’s first vice president Hannibal Hamlin, in January of 1839.
Cyrus Hamlin was born in 1811 in the western Maine town of Waterford. After working as an apprentice silversmith in his brother-in-law’s workshop in Portland, he was persuaded to go to college and potentially join the clergy. He attended Bridgton Academy for prep school at age 18 and moved on to Bowdoin College, and then to Bangor Theological Seminary. After graduation in 1938, he applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In January 1839 he and his new wife Henrietta first set foot in Istanbul. He wrote to his family: “Here I wish to live and die. Here, above all other places on earth, I wish to labor.”
Not long after he arrived, he was given permission to open a school to work with the Christian Armenians, who were already suffering persecution at the hands of the Turks. He opened a school in the small town of Bebek. The mission of the Bebek seminary was to teach the boys to be self-sufficient, so the focus was on developing practical skills such as casting pots and pans, and baking.
Hamlin returned to Maine in 1873 to teach and eventually became President of Middlebury College in Vermont. He retired in 1885 but spent the remainder of his life lecturing about the persecution of the Armenians in their homeland and about Christian mission work. He died in 1900.
The local Maine community began in 1896 – created by families escaping the early massacre of Armenians in Istanbul. Garabed Yeghoian, his wife Tersagel and their children were the first to arrive. The family first fled to Marseilles, France. There they met English Temperance activist Lady Somerset and the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in America, Frances Elizabeth Willard. Given a choice between resettlement in England or America, Garabed Yeghoian chose America. Once the family had arrived at Ellis Island in New York, the WCTU arranged for them to move north to Portland, where the local chapter was led by Lillian Stevens. Two years later, Stevens became president of the national WTCU and vice president of the world WTCU. She used her position to bring two dozen of families to Maine.
The Armenians in Maine mostly settled in Portland around to area of Chestnut and Cedar Streets below Cumberland Avenue in the West Bayside neighborhood.
Former Portland resident Ed Carr wrote about growing up in the West Bayside neighborhood in the 1940s:
For some reason, unknown to me at the time, most of the other people on the block spoke a different language and didn’t look much like me and my family. That was because our tenement house was right in the middle of an Armenian enclave. Looking back now I can say with certainty that my experiences there have made a lasting impression on me and are the reasons why I have such great respect and admiration for the Armenian people. We bought our groceries from Mrs. Tevanian’s market and Peter Goulasarian ‘s store. Our building was owned by an Armenian gentleman who had adopted the American name of Charles. Next door to us was Leon Amergian’s Tavern. Everyone in the neighborhood gathered there regardless of their ethnic group. At night, from my room across the alley, I could hear the sounds of the jukebox playing the popular songs of the day. The words to “Pistol Packing Mama” and “Goodnight Irene” were etched in my memory forever. Directly below our apartment was the Armenian Social Club where they held parties, played cards and ethnic music and talked about their history. For fresh bakery goods we went to the Mezoian’s bakery on the comer of Chestnut and Ox ford Street. We got our haircuts at Haikie Tevanian’s barber shop. It was their children that I played with and went through school with. They had last names like Malconian, Manoogian, Antranegian, Kakalegian, Tevanian and Amergian. Their first names might have been Zorab, Vuskin, Noovard or Tehvan.
As we remember the lives senselessly lost in the Armenian genocide, we can also take hope in the fact that the survivors of this and other genocides maintain their cultural heritage and continue to contribute great things to our communities.
Those looking to learn more about the Armenian Community in Maine should visit the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine https://www.armeniansofmaine.com/.
A memorial stone honoring the Armenians in Maine can be found on Cumberland Avenue, just north of the Franklin Arterial.