Metal mesh handbag made by the Mandalian company dating from the 1920s and '30s. The company was established by Saghatiel Mandalian in North Attleboro, Massachusetts (Collection of Hayk Demoyan)

Illustrated History of the Armenians in America Published by Hayk Demoyan

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Toy car designed like Derelian’s rug cleaning company advertisement, circa 1930 (Collection of Hayk Demoyan)

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Dr. Hayk Demoyan, a visiting Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University who is director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, has completed a new volume titled the Armenian Legacy in America: A 400-Year Heritage. This 620-page work, dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “Martin the Armenian,” the first Armenian known to have reached America, is in some ways a coffee table book. It presents the history of the Armenian-American community through over 2,200 primarily previously unknown illustrations, comprised of rare documents, photos and artifacts. A handful of these illustrations accompany this present article.

 

Armenian Crusaders marching in New York July 4 parade, 1918 (printed in Gochnag, 1918)

Demoyan became interested in the Armenian-American community when studying American involvement in humanitarian relief during and after the Armenian Genocide. As director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, he came to Boston and Los Angeles to give some lectures and pointed out the importance of this anniversary of Martin the Armenian, who came to Virginia in 1618. He said this was an opportunity to reexamine the creation of this community and its future, and see if its story can also contribute to understanding the American mosaic. In other words, his work will help the Armenian Americans understand their own history, while also demonstrating to Americans and American studies that Armenians are not an isolated ghetto community but a part of broader American history with their own valuable contributions.

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Initially Demoyan intended to create a small exhibition with a catalogue with perhaps 50 documents, artifacts and photographs, but during the fieldwork to collect materials over the past two years, Demoyan discovered, he said, that there was much still unknown to historians, and very few people are familiar with the visual materials, artifacts and data he found.

Consequently, he decided to make the project more extensive. Each artifact he discovered or bought (out of his personal funds) is a carrier of information. Demoyan said, “I realize that studying Armenian-American history is like working in a big archaeological field where you can always dig and find new artifacts.”

Unique cover from Wisconsin ‘Armenia town’ stamp cancellation dated to 1900 (Collection of Hayk Demoyan)

The structure of the book was already prepared when Demoyan came to the US for his Harvard stay, and after enriching it further he submitted it in December to the press. The book is in five parts.

The first part contains visual data and information on the life of the early Armenians in the United States from 1618 to the beginning of the 1900s. It includes the mapping of America in early Armenian-language maps, the first printing of Armenian books and newspapers, American missionaries publishing Armenian-language works and religious literature, Armenians in the Civil War and the Mexican-American War, and information on the lives of the early immigrants. The first Armenian-run businesses and many other “the first” stories are covered in this section.

The second part shows all aspects of the life of the community between peace and war, from the beginning of the twentieth century to World War II. Photographers, rug merchants, artists, drama, music, sports, libraries, political life and much more are highlighted.

In the third part, the American as well as the Armenian-American response to genocide are presented, including fundraising efforts, tickets, posters, and orphan care, and even how American presidents and candidates were involved.

The fourth part, on Armenian-American service and contributions, shows how the second and third generation of Armenians served their new American homeland in the US army during wartime, as well as Armenian-American life in the 1950s to 1980s.

The fifth part, titled Those Who Give America an Armenian Accent, includes information on artists, musicians, historians, noted businessmen and women, and many others.

The book’s chronological endpoint is in the early 1990s after the Republic of Armenia declared its independence. The first Armenian president visited the US, Armenia opened its embassy here, and the American University of Armenia opened in Yerevan. This ends the story, and heralds the beginning of relations between two countries.

Among the fascinating bits of information Demoyan presents in his book is the story of Agha Babigian from New Julfa, the first Armenian who came to California. A storm led the Dutch ship on which this merchant was traveling from Singapore to Holland to be diverted off its course to California in 1768. In other words, this year is also the 250th anniversary of the appearance of the first Armenian on the West Coast.

Out of thanks for his miraculous survival, Babigian asked the Mkhitarists of Trieste to find a good source on the history of the United States and translate it into Armenian. Consequently, William Robinson’s four volume History of America, was published in Armenian translation in Trieste in 1784 in memory of Christopher Columbus.

Demoyan said, “When we speak about Americans and Armenia, it is amazing that there are so many intellectual levels of interaction.” He gave as another example the fact that there were many different American works on American leaders like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln translated into Armenian. They were printed in multiple editions in places like Tbilisi, Echmiadzin and Nor Nakhichevan.

Demoyan expressed his gratitude to the Noubar and Anna Afeyan Foundation, which agreed to sponsor this book on behalf of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. It was printed by the Tigran Mets Publishing House in Yerevan in a premiere limited edition of one thousand. Demoyan also thanked those people and organizations whose support allowed him to finish the book relatively quickly, including, in the US, Project Save, the Armenian Museum of America, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, the Ararat-Eskijian Museum, the archives of the Salvation Army Museum in the New York and Chicago areas. In Armenia, the National Library of Armenia and the National Archives of Armenia were helpful. Furthermore, various individuals shared their personal collections with Demoyan.

On March 16-17, the Ararat-Eskijian Museum is hosting a special conference commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Armenian-American community. Demoyan will be one of the speakers. Part of his collection will be displayed alongside material from the Ararat-Eskijian Museum. For more information, see https://www.facebook.com/events/885572288270889/

On May 6, a similar exhibition and talk will take place at the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington, Mass., cosponsored by the Amaras Art Alliance and National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

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