Let's Reminisce: Two Portuguese immigrants in the Old West

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

We are often reminded that the US is a nation forged by immigrants, but there is one European country whose migrants here are rarely mentioned: Portugal. In particular their contribution to the settlement and development of the West has been slighted.

This was brought to my attention when a neighbor made a visit to her ancestral home, the Azores, a chain of islands that is part of Portugal. Her maternal grandfather, Manuel Brazil, immigrated to Boston at the age of eight, accompanied only by one family member, a cousin, just a few years older.

They arrived in New York, with placards telling their names and stating that they would be welcomed in California by relatives who had immigrated earlier. They made it to California and my neighbor’s grandfather later came to the Texas panhandle, which is where she was born and grew up.

Intrigued by this story, I asked for more background and was loaned a book entitled “Land, As Far As the Eye Can See,” by Donald Warrin and Geoffrey Gomes. From it I learned more about the lives of two immigrants from the Azores named Manuel Brazil, the elder being the uncle of my neighbor’s grandfather.

The uncle, Manuel S. Brazil was born in the Azores in 1850 and he immigrated to the US in 1866 at the age of 16. He eventually settled in the New Mexico territory and became a naturalized US citizen in 1872. Eight years later he purchased a ranch near Fort Sumner for $400, and one of the witness signatures on the deed was that of William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.

Although the Kid was already wanted for murder and known to be rustling cattle and horses, he remained on friendly terms with Brazil for a while. However, it was not long before Pat Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, and he set out to arrest the Kid in December 1880. At this point Manuel Brazil played a noteworthy role in helping Garrett bring about the capture of Billy the Kid.

On the evening of Dec. 19, after a confrontation with Garrett and a posse that resulted in the death of one member of his gang, Billy sought refuge on Brazil’s ranch. Confident that he was loyal to them, Billy asked Brazil to ride into Fort Sumner for supplies and information.

According to Garrett, Brazil came to him on the morning of Dec. 20 and reported that the Kid and his gang were crestfallen and vulnerable. The sheriff asked Brazil to go back and give the Kid misleading information, setting him up for capture. Eventually he was captured, and in April 1881 he was tried and sentenced to hang. Today Billy the Kid remains one of the most notorious figures from the era, and his life and likeness have been frequently dramatized in Westerns.

It was in the early 1890s that Brazil’s teen-aged nephew, also named Manuel, came to live with him in New Mexico. He remained with his uncle until 1910, and years later he was the source of information about the elder Brazil’s relationship with Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. In 1896, when the nephew was 15, he moved with his uncle to the Texas Panhandle, the two of them establishing a ranch just south of the Canadian River on the semiarid grasslands of the Llano Estacado.

They operated the ranch for more than 20 years, and Brazil senior became a prominent citizen of Roberts County. He sold his ranch in 1916, ahead of a collapse in beef prices, and invested in commercial real estate in Clarendon, another Panhandle town. However, by 1920 he had retired to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The nephew moved to California, but eventually came back to Plemons, TX, where he operated a large ranch. When the uncle died in 1928, he left some Panhandle properties to his nephew.

The younger Brazil had three children, including a daughter who became the mother of my neighbor. The theme of immigration was reflected doubly in her family, with a genetic inheritance of blue eyes that came from 18th century Flemish migrants to the Azores. One reason the Portuguese immigrants to this country often go unrecognized is their names are assumed to be of Spanish or Mexican origin.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.