Portuguese IL

We thank Emma Verstraete (MA, ABD, Anthropology, UIUC) for the text of this entire section on the Portuguese in Illinois. Some of the material is part of her doctoral dissertation research. Emma’s photo above is a shot of Madeira today. 
Please be sure to look at the story map Emma has created for the text that follows: https://arcg.is/1SuPzi

We also call attention to this valuable resource:


Originally ‘discovered’ in 1419, Madeira had an important geostrategic position in Portugal’s maritime explorations. The islands were colonized and sugar cane was introduced by the Portuguese government. By 1450, Madeira had transformed the landscape of the island into an environment optimized for sugar cane production [1]. Slaves from the African continent were imported and became instrumental in sugar cane production and the construction of 2,100 kms of irrigation channels, called levadas. Madeira quickly became the largest exporter of sugar (known colloquially as ‘white gold’) in Europe. Sugarcane was processed into sugar crystals or turned into rum. These valuable resources were traded for gold and religious icons.

However, sugarcane is a destructive crop that causes deforestation and loss of soil nutrients. This necessitated the import of wood for casks by the sixteenth century. Eventually, it was no longer profitable to grow sugarcane and process sugar in Madeira because the Portuguese colony of Brazil had more extensive natural resources that had not yet been consumed. Instead, farmers began to utilize the levadas and agricultural fields to plant grapes and thus produce Madeira’s eponymous wine. That wine quickly became a large export, eclipsing rum production and transforming Madeira into a trading and export hub near the African continent at the height of the age of exploration.

In 2019 the Regional Government of Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago of four islands off the shore of northwestern Africa, celebrated the 600th anniversary of the islands’ discovery. During that celebration, Miguel Filipe Machado de Albuquerque, the President of the RGM, stated “History is still alive, exactly because we are a people that do not forget their roots. A people who, on the contrary, build from their roots their own opening to the outside world, stating their difference and their capacity to integrate, learn from and to fraternize with different people.” This remark acknowledges Madeira’s connection to world history and the spread of Madeiran immigrants in direct correlation with the Mythic Mississippi Project’s interest in the Madeira exiles who journeyed to Illinois during the nineteenth century.


In 1839, Dr. Robert Kalley, a 30-year old Scottish physician and Presbyterian missionary, arrived in Madeira with his wife, who was ill with tuberculosis. The climate agreed with Margaret so they stayed. Moreover, Dr. Kalley observed that Funchal, the island capital, was filled with impoverished workers who could not read or write [2]. An ideal target for his faith, Dr. Kalley established schools and preached the Protestant gospel. But as a colony of Portugal Madeira was strictly Roman Catholic, and local church and government officials were staunchly opposed to Dr. Kalley’s attempts to convert local citizens.

Those attempts were successful enough that by August of 1846 tensions between the two religious groups had escalated to a boiling point. Violence and property destruction drove converted Madeirans to hide in nearby caves and hills and survive on roots and berries to avoid the mobs. Officials attempted to arrest Dr. Kalley and temporarily imprisoned converted citizens since Protestant worship was legal only for foreigners. The Protestant Madeirans were faced with a difficult choice: exile or imprisonment and possibly death.

Approximately 2,000 exiles secured passage to Trinidad, in the Caribbean, then a British colony [3]. They attempted to create a settlement but faced poverty and a climate that did not agree with them. In October 1848 one of the Portuguese pastors on Trinidad wrote to the American Presbyterian Society pleading for help due to the dire conditions they faced. Help given, the exiles made their way to New York City. Then the APS made a deal with the American Hemp Company to send the exiles to Island Grove, Illinois. The Society would pay for the exiles’ transportation to Illinois, and the American Hemp Company would pay for lodging and food with a promise of 10 acres of land per family. Despite the certified $10,000 bond (worth approximately $324,000 in 2020), the American Hemp Company reneged on their promise during the summer of 1848 and the APS was left with 130 families without prospects. The APS wrote to pastors in the nearby towns of Jacksonville and Springfield and pleaded with them to sponsor the exiles to come to Illinois. Ultimately, each town pledged to sponsor approximately 100-150 individuals with food, lodging, and jobs. In November of 1849, the Madeiran exiles arrived in central Illinois to begin their new lives.


The Presbyterian churches in Springfield acted as central organizers for the 130 exiles – collecting food, clothing, and home goods to meet the exiles’ early basic needs. At the time there were three or four open houses for the exiles to move into and residents took in individuals, couples, or entire families based on the amount of space they had available.

Springfield received the designation as the state capital in 1837 and the town began expanding at a breakneck speed. The exiles became part of this dynamic situation. They were an ambitious, hardworking group. They set to work trading for household goods they needed and saving cash wherever possible [4, 5]. Many of the exiles were skilled laborers and established their own brickyard where they made bricks by hand while experienced stone masons hand-cut the foundations for their buildings. Exiles got work in Springfield and the surrounding farms as farm hands, laborers, servants, and seamstresses [6].

By 1851, Dr, Kalley had arrived in Springfield to stay with Abraham Lincoln’s next door neighbors, the Corneau family. On Sunday mornings he held a special service for the exiles at the First Presbyterian Church. Meanwhile, the Madeirans saved up money for materials and the purchase of a lot for their church, accomplished in 1854 [7]. They built the church with hand-cut stone foundations and sturdy bricks.

Newspaper accounts in 1854 note that a large settlement of the exiles had sprung up between Ninth and Tenth streets along Carpenter Street. Archaeological investigations and historical research indicate that “Madeira” resident Manuel Ferras even operated a small corner store on his property with basic essentials. However, artifacts found at the excavations show that exiles still took advantage of the extensive shopping district in downtown Springfield [8].

But all was not well in Springfield among the congregation of exiles. In 1857 a debate over baptism reached a boiling point. Part of the Springfield assembly of Madeirans believed that their Catholic baptisms as babies had made them baptized in the eyes of God. But others believed infant baptism did not serve the same purpose and therefore that the converted Madeiran congregation should be rebaptized. The conflict generated two major changes: Dr. Kalley’s departure and the creation of the Second Portuguese Presbyterian church. Dr. Kalley left Springfield in 1857 to begin his journey to Brazil, where he launched another successful ministry with the assistance of several Madeiran exiles. The Second Portuguese Presbyterian church built a new church in 1861 after several years of fundraising efforts – including a small contribution from Abraham Lincoln himself [9, 10].

During the year of 1860 Abraham Lincoln was on the campaign trail for the Presidential election while maintaining his home in Springfield. As a neighbor of Mr. Corneau’s, Lincoln was undoubtedly aware of the Portuguese exiles from the time of their arrival. It is well known that he frequently employed some of the exiles for various duties, including maid service, laundry, and as seamstresses. Most notably, Maria Da Silva worked as a seamstress for Mary Lincoln during the summer 1860. Da Silva constructed multiple hand-sewn gowns for Mrs. Lincoln, including her outfit for the Inauguration and the dress she wore the night her husband was assasinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. [11]. The exiles continued to position themselves as skilled and hard-working citizens throughout the late nineteenth century.

In 1897 the two Portuguese Presbyterian churches resolved their differences over the concept of baptism and came together to form a single church. The original Portuguese Presbyterian church was sold to New Hope Baptist Church, a community of African-Americans in Springfield who wanted to establish their own place of worship [12, 13]. The Second Portuguese Presbyterian Church still stands today, though it has been transformed into office spaces and a health clinic.


Settlement and faith are also the story in Jacksonville, 35 miles west of Springfield. In November 1849, 100 Madeira exiles arrived in Jacksonville, led by their pastor Manuel De Mattos. Manuel De Mattos had been the acting pastor for the exile congregation in Trinidad and New York City.  He received his training in ministry and theology in Scotland. 

The Jacksonville Portuguese quickly built a small church where De Mattos held weekly church services and the community gathered. [14] [15] And the Madeirans quickly settled themselves into Jacksonville, establishing a small community outside of town called ‘Portuguese Hill’, a landmark that is still marked on maps today. In addition to their farms and households they also established a small school called Trinidad School, which was a simple one room school house run by one of Madeirans, who taught lessons in Portuguese. [16]

But in 1857 the Jacksonville exiles also suffered a split congregation over baptism. However, this split would not be eventually mended as happened with the Springfield schism. Instead, the separation of the Jacksonville congregations became the grounds for a landmark legal case that ultimately made it all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. The case was focused on individual rights to communal church property, which finally led to the sale of the original Portuguese church in Jacksonville and the construction of a new church. That church still stands today and is known as the Westminster Presbyterian church. [17]  

In 1999 the Jacksonville Presbyterian congregation hosted a small gathering of descendants of the original Madeiran exile community to mark the 150thanniversary of their arrival in Illinois.

1. https://daily.jstor.org/madeira-the-island-that-helped-invent-capitalism/
2. https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/portam/exiles.html
3. https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/when-springfield-took-in-portuguese-refugees/Content?oid=11452315
4. Illinois State Journal, November 12, 1849 and May 10, 1854.
5. Mae Tuttle’s oral history, on file with the UIS special collections library.
6. Mae Tuttle’s oral history, on file with the UIS special collections library.
7. Illinois State Journal, May 10, 1854.
8. These archaeological investigations were conducted by the local Cultural Resource Management firm: Fever River Research. Investigations at Carpenter Street also uncovered archaeological evidence of the property destruction from the 1908 Springfield Race Riots.
9. Schism on the Prairie, The Journal of Presbyterian History,1997.
10. Abraham Lincoln and the Second Portuguese Church, Financial History, 2004.
11. When Springfield took in Portuguese refugees. By Erika Holst. Illinois Times, September 24, 2015.
12. Mae Tuttle’s oral history, on file with the UIS special collections library.
13. Daily Illinois State Register, June 7, 1936. Information courtesy of Doris Bailey
14. Illinois State Journal, Movember 12, 1849 and May 10, 1854.
15. “Schism on the prairie.” The Journal of Presbyterian History, 1997.
16. “Protestant exiles from Madeira in Illinois.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/portam/exiles.html
17. “Schism on the prairie.” The Journal of Presbyterian History, 1997.