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John Buttencourt Avila (March 19, 1865 – December 25, 1937) was a California farmer who has been called the father of the sweet potato industry.[2][3] He was a Portuguese American who came to California as a young man, and settled in Merced County.[4][5][6][7][8]

John Buttencourt Avila
John Buttencourt Avila[1]

March 19, 1865
Died25 December 1937 (1937-12-26) (aged 72)
Resting placeCalvary Cemetery
ResidenceMerced County, California, United States
Other namesJohn B. Avila
OccupationFarmer, fruit grower
Known forFather of the sweet potato industry
HeightFive ft, nine in
Political partyRepublican
Board member ofAncient Order of United Workmen
Spouse(s)First wife, Imilia Pacheco
Second wife, Pulisena Duarte
ChildrenFour daughters



Avila was born March 19, 1865 on São Jorge Island in the Azores of Portugal.[4] He immigrated from the Azores to California in 1883. For the first several years Avila worked as a laborer on local farms in Alameda County (Niles and Mission San Jose areas).[9] Avila then in 1888 moved to the Atwater-Buchach area in Merced County and planted a successful garden of sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) from seeding stock of his country.[9][10] Then he planted a field of 6 or 7 acres of sweet potatoes.[5] Eventually, with his brother Antone, he bought a 20-acre farm field in Merced County for a $1 an acre that was flood land near the Merced River in a California valley.[9][10] Avila planted sweet potatoes there and became a pioneer sweet potato grower in Merced County.[11] He produced over one hundred sacks of sweet potatoes per acre.[11] As of 1905, Avila was selling his sweet potatoes to buyers in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, and shipping out up to one hundred and forty-five railroad carloads a year.[11]

This species of potato was originally native to Central and South America.[10] It is thought that the sweet potato was originally introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus.[10] From Avila's original European Azore plantings of his sweet potato crop there grew a major commercial industry in the area of Atwater and Buhach, California.[4][8] Avila promoted the spread of sweet potato cultivation in the Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin Valley in California.[12] The sweet potatoes that Avila introduced became popular in San Francisco eating establishments, restaurants, and hotels.[9][13]

In 1905, Avila lived on his forty acre ranch, located northwest of the town of Merced. Ten acres were devoted to growing sweet potatoes. The remaining acreage was used for farm produce such as fruit and alfalfa for farm animals. At this same time period he had a general merchandise store in Merced.[13] The sweet potato industry in California during the beginning of the nineteen hundreds was controlled by a group of Portuguese growers called the "Big Four" of which Ávila was one.[9] By 1910 sweet potatoes were grown on over 2000 acres in Merced County alone,[9] and on over 5,000 acres throughout California.[9] Sweet potato growing became associated with dairy farming in the area: "Typically a family would buy twenty to forty acres, plant sweet potatoes the first season, and later start a dairy herd."[9]

Avila was a city leader of Atwater and became a founder of the Atwater branch of the Bank of America. During 1912–13 Ávila was the supreme president of the Cult of the Holy Spirit.[8]


Avila was married twice.[14] Merced County records show that Avila had married for the first time on September 7, 1893 to a lady ten years his junior, Miss Imilia Pacheco.[15] He had two daughters by her, Delfina and Belmira. Avila's second wife's name was Miss Pulisena Duarte.[14] She was one year younger and also came from the Azores.[14] By her he had an additional two daughters, Maggie and Mary. Avila's four daughters were all born in Merced, California.[16]

The 1920 U.S. Census lists Avila as a grocery store operator in Merced, California.[17] This same census shows the family consisted of three daughters still living in the household.[17] The 1930 U.S. Census shows Avila (spelled then "Anla") as a rancher, and 65 years old.[18] He still lived in Merced with his wife (64 years old) and with one daughter in the household (Belmira Anla, 33 years old).[18]

Characteristics and naturalizationEdit

According to the California voter registration of 1892 Avila had a very dark complexion, dark hair, and brown eyes. He was 5 feet, 9 inches tall and was able to read and write. This source also shows he was naturalized on August 4, 1888 in the Superior Court at Merced County, California.[19]


  1. ^ California, Great Registers, 1866–1910," index, FamilySearch (accessed June 30, 2013), John Buttencourt Avila, 1896.
  2. ^ Johns 1981, p. 373.
  3. ^ Hook 1983, p. 178.
  4. ^ a b c Cardozo 1976, p. 37.
  5. ^ a b Hart 1987, p. 398.
  6. ^ Sifakis 1984, p. 25.
  7. ^ Williams 1982, p. 45.
  8. ^ a b c "Chronology". July 15, 2010. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h "California" by Robert L. Santos; California State University, Stanislaus, Librarian/Archivist Archived February 6, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b c d Kane, Joseph (1997). Famous First Facts, A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries, and Inventions in American History (5th ed.). H.W. Wilson Company. p. 2, item 1020. ISBN 0-8242-0930-3. Sweet potato was brought to California in 1888 by John B. Avila, a native of the Portuguese Azores. Avila planted a 20-acre plot of Ipomoea batatas, a species originally native to Central and South America that was probably introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus.
  11. ^ a b c Guinn 1905, p. 1549.
  12. ^ Pozzetta 1991, p. 323.
  13. ^ a b Ebeling 1979, p. 340.
  14. ^ a b c Guinn 1905, p. 1550.
  15. ^ John Bettencourt Avila and Imilia Pacheco, 1893 accessed June 30, 2013
  16. ^ 1910; Census Place: Merced, Merced, California; Roll: T624_89; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 0100; FHL microfilm: 1374102. John B Avila, "1910 United States Census" accessed June 30, 2013
  17. ^ a b 1920; Census Place: Township 8, Merced, California; Roll: T625_121; Page: 12B; Enumeration District: 162; Image: 1063. John B Avila, "1920 United States Census" accessed June 30, 2013
  18. ^ a b 1930; Census Place: Township 8, Merced, California; Roll: 178; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 28; Image: 776.0; FHL microfilm: 2339913. John B Avila, "1930 United States Census"
  19. ^ California State Library, California History Section; Great Registers, 1866–1898; Collection number: 4-2A; CSL Roll Number: 26, FHL Roll Number: 976937 "John Buttencourt Avila".


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