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Addicted to Genealogy: My Family Tree Journey

Updated on January 23, 2016
Granny Jackson, one of the remarkable women in my tree
Granny Jackson, one of the remarkable women in my tree | Source

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Twenty Years and Counting

I began working on my family tree over 25 years ago. At the time, I knew next to nothing about my ancestry. But, I have always had a love for history and a desire to know more about my people.

Now, I've got a family tree with many branches and many leaves. I really had no idea how addictive this hobby would be.

It's been very rewarding. I've met cousins I never knew I had, I've learned family stories that I did not know, and I've gotten a sense of history. Research is challenging, but I love it so much!

My grandmother, Anne (Jackson) Shellabarger, with her son ca 1930
My grandmother, Anne (Jackson) Shellabarger, with her son ca 1930 | Source

It All Started with My Grandma

People often ask me how I got started in genealogy. I have always loved history and I've always had in interest in knowing where my roots were from. My parents never spoke much about their ancestry, which left me yearning to know more.

One afternoon I was visiting with my Grandma (my Mom's Mom). She lamented that no one wanted to know about the past anymore. She wanted to pass on the family history but, according to her, no one cared.

Here was my opening! I told her I was interested and I offered to help her. But, my Grandma was old fashioned. She believed this was a job for the oldest Grandson or the second oldest (any male who was available)--not a Granddaughter!

I insisted. I may have begged. Finally, she agreed to let me work with her.

My Grandmother wrote me letters and I typed them up. After her fourth letter, she declared that the family tree was "finished". Finished? No way! I now knew a little about my ancestors and how they came to America, but it only left me yearning for more.

My Grandma said she was finished--and she meant it. I wasn't done though. I was hopelessly addicted at that point. With or without her, and mostly without her, I researched the family tree. The process has often been painstaking, but each new bit of information, propelled me forward. What once started as four hand written letters from my Grandma is now a multi-generation tree filled with stories and photographs.

It's been a wonderful journey. One I hope is never finished!

Cousin Wilma was my first contact and she helped me get my family tree on the right track
Cousin Wilma was my first contact and she helped me get my family tree on the right track | Source

My First Big Break

A cousin sets me straight...thankfully!

The beautiful couple in the photograph is my Mom's cousin, Alfred Souza, and his wife, Wilma Larcher. If it weren't for Wilma, my research may have never gotten off the ground.

Like must budding genealogists, I jumped right in with no idea as to what I was doing. I had the usual misconceptions that the information must be all in one place and that everyone with the same surname must be related to me. I muddled about for a few months accomplishing very little.

I really had no idea how to go about this genealogy and was disheartened very quickly. I needed some help! I made a trip to my local public library and checked out some books. There's where I learned about pedigree charts and I got enough addresses of societies and organizations to be dangerous. I wrote to some of them, waited eagerly for responses, but didn't get back much in return that was useful. I did not know enough about my ancestors to move forward.

I decided that I should track down relatives who might be able to fill me in on things my Grandma didn't know. I only knew where one of my Mom's cousins lived so I sent a letter to him. Alfred Souza's wife, Wilma, wrote me back encouraging me to phone her. Alfred had died recently, but she was happy to answer my questions.

Wilma and I had a wonderful phone conversation. She told me so many things that my head was spinning. I didn't even know how to spell the Hawaiian place names where my Great Grandparents had lived! It was overwhelming, confusing, and thrilling.

When I got off the phone, I assessed this new information. I came to the realization that almost everything my Grandma had told me was wrong. At least now, I had some names and dates to put on my pedigree chart. I would have to start over, but I would be starting with the right information.

My ancestors came from five different countries. All these people came together in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then, a century or so later there was me! It's pretty amazing when you think about it.

Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing
Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing
A look at different genealogy research problems using real cases. The author shows how each was solved, many using easily obtained documents you may not have thought of.

Solving Mysteries is What It is All About

Nothing motivates me more to work on my family tree than reading about other people's genealogy adventures. This book is a delight! The author shows that there are many tools at a genealogist's disposal--it's just figuring out what they are.

Smolenyak is well known in genealogy circles for rooting out the toughest genealogies. I appreciated her thorough approach and how she brings out the story behind each case.

Gotta Love the Photographs!

My grandma's school photograph was found in the lost satchel
My grandma's school photograph was found in the lost satchel | Source

One of the things I love about genealogy is getting old photographs. I've had people dump them on me. They say "My Mom died and I have no idea who these people are, so here." I look over the photographs with reverence and then painstakingly try to give the faces back their names.

About 8 years ago while my Dad was cleaning out our old shed he came across a satchel. This satchel contained hundreds of photographs from the 1920s through the 1940s. The satchel belonged to my Grandma Shellabarger. It was misplaced sometime around 1978 when my Grandmother was moved into a rest home because of a brain tumor.

My Grandma was in her late 80s and going blind when the satchel was found. She could make out many of the faces and it brought her joy to see the photographs again. And, boy, did she let me know that she knew there was another satchel of photographs!

You can't know what pleasure I derived from this gold mine. When my Grandparents divorced, my Grandmother stored her stuff in my Great Aunt's basement. Sometime in the 1940s, the basement flooded and my Grandma lost almost everything. To find that these old photographs had not only survived the flood but had been found was one of the best things to happen to my family tree.

My great great grandfather's baptismal certificate may be in a language I don't know (Portuguese), but I learned how to read them
My great great grandfather's baptismal certificate may be in a language I don't know (Portuguese), but I learned how to read them | Source

A Brief History of Leprosy in Hawaii

If you know a little about Hawaii, you may know that in the 1860s the islands were being ravaged by diseases--including leprosy. In order to contain the spread of the disease, a leper colony was set up on the island of Molokai. It was a brutal period in Hawaii's history. Those suffering from the disease were deported immediately upon diagnosis. They could not take anyone with them. The ship would stop a great distance from the shore and the people were forced to swim to safety. If they survived the swim and got through the treacherous terrain, they'd be taken care of at the Kaulapapa Settlement. This was complete exile because loved ones were never allowed to visit Molokai and contact even with those aboard ship was very limited. If Theodoro had leprosy, he should have never left Hawaii. He should have been exiled to Molokai.

Language is not a Barrier

When I began researching, I envisioned that my Azorean ancestors would be the most difficult. I didn't know any Portuguese so I'd have a language barrier to climb. I was actually afraid to look at the Azorean records!

It turns out that my Azorean ancestors were the easiest to research. The Azoreans left behind a pretty good documentation trail. After 3-4 years of research, I had traced them from California to Kauai. I knew the name of the village on Sao Miguel Island that they hailed from. The only thing stopping me was the language.

I learned that there are Portuguese language syllabuses which show you how to find the pertinent phrases in documents. If you knew the keywords and phrases you could read the records.

Once I started looking at the microfilm at the local LDS Family History Center, I realized it wasn't so hard at all! Most records in a specific period are written by one person and follow a certain pattern. It takes longer to get used to the writing style of the 1800s than the actual word translations. With practice I became adept at pulling out the necessary information. There were enough Portuguese genealogists around to get help if needed.

The Azoreans kept excellent records primarily in churches. Since families tended to stay in a village one could go back several generations and not have to search in another village. If you are lucky enough to break the 1700 barrier, then there are a couple of books documenting Azorean family trees that will help you get back to the 1400s when the Azores Islands were first population.

My de Braga/de Mello line stayed in the village of Maia for many generations. They have roots going back to some of the original settlers on the island of Sao Miguel. Not many people know that the Azores were originally settled by minor nobles. Anyone able to trace their lines back to these original residents will then be able to leap back to Portugal, connect to royal lines, and spread their tree throughout Europe.

My great grandfather, Theodoro Pacheco (top row on the right), was smuggled from Hawaii
My great grandfather, Theodoro Pacheco (top row on the right), was smuggled from Hawaii | Source

Learning the Real Story Behind a Family Secret

The man standing on the right side of this photograph is my Great Grandfather, Theodoro Pacheco. When I was growing up, I was told the story about how Theodoro came from the Azores to Hawaii as a child. When he later came to California with his family, he thought there were too many Pacheco's in Oakland, Alameda Co., CA. So, he had his surname legally changed to Smith.

We laughed so hard at this story. What a dumb immigrant! What more common name could he have chosen than Smith?

As I began to research, this story began to play on my brain. Something about it didn't seem right. Could he have really changed his surname just because he thought Pacheco was too common? My Great Grandfather knew almost no English. Would he really go about legally changing his name when he barely navigated outside the few short blocks that lined his Portuguese neighborhood. I just didn't buy it. It seemed too easy.

As I contacted my Grandfather's cousins I learned there was a Pacheco who was very sick and had to be whisked away from the Azores or Hawaii depending on who you talked to. Could this have been Theodoro? Only way to find out was to get his death certificate. I was blown away when I received it. Theodoro died from the complications of leprosy!

After talking to my Grandfather's cousins, I put the pieces together. He was diagnosed with leprosy sometime around 1906. He received his deportation orders, but refused to go. His brother, Manoel, and brother-in-law, Joao Jacinto da Camara paid off a ship's captain. When the family left the ship at San Francisco, they were the Smiths. And, they added one baby. Theodoro's wife was 9 months pregnant when all this occurred and she gave birth aboard ship in San Francisco waters. They went on to Oakland where they were kept safe by family members within a street that was almost entirely inhabited by family members. Theodoro died 7 years later at the San Leandro Infirmary. He left his widow with 4 children. The youngest was just 7 years old.

The Smith's never told their story to their descendants. My Mom, her brother, and her two cousins never knew that their Grandfather had leprosy let alone it being the reason for the name change. That secret held for 80 years. Leprosy would have been taboo to speak about even amongst family. There was an element of fear since my ancestors were not born in Hawaii and they had not become naturalized before leaving. They were illegal immigrants smuggled into the US. I suspect they feared deportation to Molokai, being split apart, and maybe even worse, being sent back to the Azores.

My Genealogy Software Pick

If you're beginning your family tree, you're going to need genealogy software. RootsMagic is easy to use and powerful. The input screens are easy to follow. It has all the basic charts you'll need to organize your data. Plus it gives you the ability to customize input screens and charts to fill your needs.

With Family Tree Maker leaving the market, many will have to move to new software or the cloud. Try out RootsMagic. You might like it.

RootsMagic Family Tree Genealogy Software Version 4
RootsMagic Family Tree Genealogy Software Version 4
An easy to use full featured program to keep track of your family tree.

Busting a Myth

One thing I hear from genealogists is this lament "They've all died, so now there's no way to do it." Sigh... While it may be true that you won't learn the personal stories that fill in a family tree, you can research your tree even if all your grandparents, aunts and uncles, and elder relatives have passed away.

When I started my tree, I had no connection to my Portuguese roots. My Mom knew very little and she only had one living cousin. I didn't let that stop me! I filled in the families with the census and city directories. Then I rooted out obituaries. Obituaries offer a wealth of information.

I looked up all the listed descendants to see if they had passed away. Then I found addresses for those who might still be living. My Grandfather had 45 cousins who made it to adulthood. I wrote to every single one who might still be alive. The responses I received helped fill in the blanks.

Giving Back to the Genealogy Community

I've been humbled by the fact that so many people who never met me were so willing to answer my questions. Cousins of cousins sat on the phone telling me what it was like living on a sugar plantation in 1930. People only distantly related helped me figure out which Great Aunt and Great Uncle had which kids. There were the genealogists who helped me translated records and kindly let me know that I was doing things wrong. I would not have the rich genealogy that I have today if it weren't for the strangers who helped me along the way.

All these wonderful people have given me a sense that I should help others who are researching in the same areas I've worked with. For several years I was a volunteer for AOL's Golden Gate Genealogy Forum. I also volunteered for a couple of years at the website, Genealogy Chats Inc.

In 2001, I set of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website so that I could pass on some of what I'd learned. The website is designed to help people researching their Portuguese roots in Hawaii and to give them some sense of the history that lead to their ancestors' migration. I wanted to inspire people beyond the basic who, what, and where of genealogy. Why did Great Great Grandpa uproot his family and migrate to another country? How did Great Grandma cope with the loss of her third child? Why did Grandpa do all the cooking? These little things bring your ancestors to life. I hoped to inspire people to pursue these questions.

By 2007, I had made progress on my Irish and French lines. I wanted an outlet for sharing what I'd learned about my own tree and the research tips I'd picked up along the way. I started the Research Journal Blog so that I could write about all my roots, not just my Azorean roots. I hope that writing about my genealogy challenges and how I overcame them I will inspire others to persevere through theirs.

By researching my family tree, I've gained tremendous respect for my ancestors, what they accomplished, and what they became.

My Advice? Be Persistent! Be Patient!

One more thing... In working on my family tree, I've fallen into many pot holes. I've made mistakes, mixed up lines, and hit dead ends. But, I kept going. Persistence is the key to making progress on your family tree!

Try to try again...and then try some more

As you research your family tree, you may find that those closest to you become resistant to the idea. You may find that those who have the information you need have passed away--or they refuse to tell you what they know. You may find that the records you need aren't online yet. I've heard people say a million times "I want to work on my tree, but they're all gone now, so there's no one to ask" or "I wrote that mortuary but they weren't helpful at all." I say hogwash! Don't let dead ancestors, unwilling relatives, or other obstacles stop you from researching your family tree. Sure, there will be times when you can't go any further because a fire destroyed the archives or recording events wasn't mandatory for the period you need. But there are millions and millions of records just waiting for you to unearth them. If one database doesn't work, find another. When you feel defeated, take a break, and then come up with a new approach.

Genealogy research is not easy. Don't be fooled into thinking it is. If you believe that all you need to do is go to a genealogy website, type in a surname and your family tree will miraculously appear on the screen, you've been seriously mislead. But, if you are willing to put in the legwork, learn about the area you will be researching in, work back from ancestor to ancestor, you will be rewarded! . Sometimes you'll make big discoveries, other times it might feel like you spend weeks finding one or two facts. Genealogy research is like detective work. You reveal clues until a person's life story unfolds. You will find genealogy to be one of the most gratifying and addictive hobbies you've ever participated in. Look at me. I started 20 years ago with misleading information and a Grandmother who refused to go any further. I'm still making discoveries and I'm still loving it!


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