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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 4, 2004

Who's in your family tree?

"We are all omnibuses in which our ancestors ride, and every now and then one of them sticks his head out and embarrasses us."

— Oliver Wendell Holmes

By Peter Erikson
Advertiser Staff Writer

Illustration by Martha P. Hernandez • The Honolulu Advertiser

Hunt starts at home

Embarking on a hunt for your ancestors? You might start by asking family members about their lives.

Relatives can also help dig up documents and other key items.

But don't stop there. The National Genealogical Society suggests collecting birth, marriage, death and divorce rec-ords, as well as family Bibles, old letters and photos.

Military, probate, cemetery and federal census records, ship manifests, old newspapers, diaries, biographies and obituaries also can prove valuable.

Ancestral authority Elbridge M. Smith dresses the part when describing how a raging sea tossed his Mayflower ancestor into the Atlantic.

Smith, 90, slips on a light-chocolate-colored, broad-brimmed felt hat "with a rounded crown," a green tunic, black breeches, stockings and shoes and a white linen collar to deliver classroom presentations.

He sets the scene: It's the winter of 1620, and the Mayflower is headed to the New World during a "beastly" storm.

Below deck, seawater soaks bedding and clothes, and passengers lie amid the stench of sickness. A disgusted John Howland climbs on deck to get some fresh air.

"A wave came and washed him overboard," Smith says. "He caught a halyard on his way over, held on and yelled, and a sailor pulled on the rope first, and then hauled him in with the aid of a boat hook.

"This isn't a fable — it's a true story," he adds.

Smith mesmerized students during visits to Saint Mark Lutheran School in Kane'ohe and Kapalama Elementary in November.

At Saint Mark, "I had the whole darn school, three sessions," said Waikiki resident Smith.

He served as national education chairman of the Mayflower Society for three years and republished a teaching kit, "Coming to America," about Pilgrim life that is distributed to classrooms in Hawai'i and other states.

He also helps others trace their lineage. So do dozens of local organizations, including the Daughters/Sons of the American Revolution, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' family history centers.

Hawai'i, in fact, may be the only state aside from California to have a "freestanding" Daughters of the American Revolution library, says Eric G. Grundset, director of the DAR library in Washington, D.C. The DAR Aloha Chapter Memorial Library is part of the chapter house in Makiki.

Fast-growing pastime

Groups like DAR help sate America's appetite for genealogy, which Scotland's National Tourism Board calls one of the fastest growing pastimes in the western world.

"It's a fatal disease — you keep going until you die," said Kathy DeFoster, treasurer and membership chairwoman for the Honolulu County Genealogical Society and librarian for the DAR.

Grundset traces the initial boom in genealogy to the American Bicentennial, as well as Alex Haley's novel "Roots." Celebrations surrounding the nation's birth touched off history and restoration projects in the early to mid-1970s, while Haley's story of Kunta Kinte prompted many to explore their ancestry.

DeFoster points to the formation of the USGenWeb Project in 1996. The group of volunteers is digitizing state maps (including one of the kingdom of Hawai'i from 1837), transcribing veterans' pension records for all wars before 1900, and collecting cemetery data, among other things.

The Internet allows people to hunt for ancestors on their home computers, but it also can be a detriment.

"Unfortunately, a major part of what has been posted online is poorly documented, if it is documented at all," said Grundset, who has roots in 17th-century Virginia. "Many mistakes in older published genealogies have been perpetuated by those books being digitized and thereby given a wider audience. Advances in genealogical scholarship, corrected genealogies and updates to older material are often missed by researchers who rely primarily on the Internet to conduct their research."

All the more reason to consult experts like Samuel Lowe and his wife, Daphne. The couple volunteer on Tuesdays at the LDS family history center on Beretania Street.

Everyone "is welcome, and it's free," said Lowe, 80, area adviser for LDS centers in Hawai'i. "And there's no proselytizing — it's strictly genealogy and family history research. "Otherwise, people would be afraid to come."

About 200 people a month visit the Beretania Street branch. The Lowes help Boy Scouts seek merit badges, assist Kamehameha Schools applicants and prospective homesteaders in proving their Hawaiian ancestry, and show others how to comb through reels of microfilm and microfiche for a variety of records.

They steer others to computers to access LDS databases that contain about 970 million names.

"The average person doesn't really know how to do the research — they're not detectives," said Lowe. "When they come here, we don't do the research for them — we shown them how."

Uncovering witches

It took a bit of sleuthing for DeFoster to find a book of early Connecticut probate records that listed "my witch ancestors."

DeFoster discovered that her 9th great-grandfather and his second wife were hanged in 1651 in Wethersfield, Conn., "for crimes against God and a familiarization with the devil.

"Their crime was being poor. They didn't have a lot of money, so they didn't have the position to protect themselves," said DeFoster. "He also sold a gun to an Indian. The fact that he had no money and no power and that he had committed a crime put him on the outside of society, so it was very easy for him to be railroaded.

"And so," she added, "they yanked him."

DeFoster helps others learn the fate of their own ancestors. The DAR library, she said, is a good resource for those researching the colonial period to the mid-19th century. "Our collection contains many serials that can only be found in libraries in major cities," said DeFoster.

Some people have to look no farther than their own family to find written records.

That's how Nancy Tome, outgoing president of the Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii, learned about her maiden name Moriyama.

A copy of a family genealogy book heavily damaged during World War II prompted a search in which she discovered her family is a branch of that of King Sho Shin, who ruled Okinawa from 1477 to 1526 in its former capital Shuri.

In a 1994 visit to Shuri, now part of Naha City, Tome discovered, in an area obscured by weeds, the family grave at which her grandparents worshiped.

"Having only a picture of the marker of the gravesite, we were lucky enough to find it. We were so excited about that," said Tome.

While Tome had access to extensive records, others aren't so fortunate.

Barbara Nakamura, LDS family history adviser for Maui and Moloka'i, said: "Many do not realize the value of old records. Many records are still preserved only in the minds of the elderly and must be written down."

Some digging required

The Bishop Museum has preserved Hawaiian manuscripts from the 19th century that are "useful but require a great deal of work" to sort through, said DeSoto Brown, archives collection manager.

More useful is the Louis Sullivan collection of photos taken of Hawaiians in 1920 and 1921 "to document how people looked," Brown said. The photos list names and ethnicity.

"Their real value comes for people trying to find pictures of family members," Brown said.

The Hawai'i State Archives has valuable information as well, including marriage records from 1826 to 1949. But archivist Allen Hoof stressed that the archives' primary function is preserving government records. "We don't do genealogy," he said.

Those who do include New England native Richard Dennis Souther, who began recording his family history about 20 years ago while working for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Part of his job was helping people establish they were at least 50 percent Hawaiian.

"Many of them would ask me, 'What is your nationality and background?' — and I didn't have a clue," said Souther, founder of the Honolulu County Genealogical Society. "That year, I went back to Massachusetts and started taking down names and addresses of relatives, and it took off from there."

Among Souther's ancestors is Honolulu-born Hiram Bingham, a Yale professor and real-life Indiana Jones who led Peruvian expeditions that rediscovered the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and Vitcos. Bingham also was governor of Connecticut and a U.S. senator.

Souther chronicles his ancestry on his Web site (www.geocities.com/Heartland/Estates/9785/souther.html) and 748-page "Souther Family History" book — the final edition of which will be released at a July 2005 reunion in Hawai'i.

Samuel Lowe's Hawaiian heritage is equally as robust: His ancestor Lonomakaihonui, a descendant of King Kamehameha I, had growths under each ear that resembled bunches of grapes. He was nicknamed "Huihui," which means "collection." It stuck as the family surname.

His grandmother, Mele Chang, born in China, joined her father, Luis, at sea but jumped ship when they were anchored at what is now Barbers Point. She swam ashore, ending up in Nanakuli. A year later, Luis returned to Hawai'i to find his daughter and lived here until his death.

"If Mele hadn't jumped ship, I wouldn't be here, Samuel Lowe said. "There would be no posterity.

'Families are eternal'

It's critical to know one's roots, said Lowe.

"We learn the hardships they went through," he said. "We have a connection to them. That's why the church says all families are eternal. We believe we'll all return to the spiritual world with our families on the other side."

Smith's whole family is involved in genealogy. Wife Edna is genealogy records chairman for the DAR for New York state and is an associate member here. And son Elbridge W. is treasurer of the Sons of the American Revolution branch in Honolulu.

"If we can get others to be proud of who they are and what their forerunners accomplished, so much the better," said the elder Smith, who was stationed in Hawai'i and on Okinawa during World War II. "It makes us better Americans."

He urges students to study their own genealogies. Last year, Smith addressed 140 students in six classes in upstate New York, where he and Edna spend the warmer months. "I point out that we're all immigrants if we go back far enough," he said.

Reach Peter Erikson at 525-5489 or perikson@honoluluadvertiser.com.

• • •

Getting started

Get a pedigree chart or family-group sheet and mark down yourself, your parents and grandparents and so on. Choose an ancestor you'd like to learn more about.

"Always work backward from the known to the unknown," the National Genealogical Society says. Include the sources for all information you collect.

Get names of ancestors' siblings and spouses, says the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration (www.archives.gov/research_room/genealogy).

Pedigree charts are available at LDS Church family history centers. You can also download charts and group sheets from the Public Broadcasting System (www.pbs.org/kbyu/ancestors) or at Genealogy Search (www.genealogysearch.org/free/forms.html).

Kindred Konnections (www.mytrees.com) allows you to create a family tree online, upload pictures and download charts and software. It's all free, though you can upgrade your account for a fee.

  • Get a camcorder and interview family members. Use old documents, paintings, furniture and other items as props to tell the story.
  • Visit a library or genealogical society and seek research on your family already done by others.
  • Check the LDS Church's superb site at www.familysearch.org.

Other top sites include:

For immigrant ancestors, check the American Family Immigration History Center

Check spellings of names and other information. Only publish information that can be confirmed.

Store information in a software program. Some of the most popular include Family Tree Maker (www.broderbund.com), Family Origins (www.formalsoft.com), Legacy Family Tree (www.legacyfamilytree.com) and Ancestral Quest (www.ancquest.com).

Professionals prefer The Master Genealogist (www.whollygenes.com), which is more customizable than the others. The LDS Church offers its Personal Ancestral File for free, though you'll have to pay $13.50 for a companion program that prints pedigree and other charts.

Try the new technology: DNA research. Firms specializing in "anthrogenealogy" or "biogenealogy" say tests — which cost hundreds of dollars — can tell "what percentage of your DNA is shared with Africans, Europeans, Asians and Native Americans," or help discover others to whom you share a common ancestor. A story in the Baxter (Ark.) Bulletin describes a woman who used DNA to track her family's roots back 400 years to Ghana.

— Peter Erikson

• • •

Where you can find out more

Here are a few top genealogy resources for Hawai'i. See the Honolulu County Genealogical Society of Hawaii Web site (rootsweb.com/~hihcgs/resources.html) for a complete list.

Honolulu County Genealogical Society

Memberships available for $18 (family) and $12 (individual). Meets monthly at Manoa Gardens Community Center. Address: P.O. Box 235039, Honolulu, HI 96823-3500. Reach Kathy DeFoster for membership information at KDeFoster@aol.com.

Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii

Meets monthly at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. Call Nancy Tome at 373-9210.

Portuguese Genealogical Society of Hawaii

Special collections include records of Portuguese whalers who "jumped ship" in Hawai'i and married local women, according to the organization's president and director, Doris Naumu. The society also has records of other immigrants.

Address: Palama Settlement, Room 11, corner of Palama and North Vineyard, Honolulu. Library open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Phone: 841-5044.

USGenWeb Archives Hawaii Cemetery Project

The cemetery project seeks to place burial lists online. Access the site at www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/hi/is_hawaii.htm.

Bishop Museum Library & Archives

Resources include the Louis Sullivan collection of photos taken of Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian people from 1920-21. Library and archives open noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays, except holiday weekends. Address: 1525 Bernice St., P.O., Honolulu, HI 96817-0916. Phone 848-4148 (library) or 848-4182 (archives).

Hawaii State Archives

Marriage records from 1826-1949.

Address: Iolani Palace Grounds, King and Richards streets, Honolulu, HI 96813. Phone: 586-0329. E-mail: archives@hawaii.gov. Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

State Department of Health

Make a genealogy request for vital records by writing to the department at Office of Health Status Monitoring, Issuance/Vital Statistics Section, P.O. Box 3378, Honolulu, HI 96801. See www.hawaii.gov/health/records/genealogy.html for information.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' family history centers

Special collections include: Delayed Birth Registrations and Hawai'i Census records.

To find a family history center near you, see www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp or call 955-8910.

Daughters of the American Revolution, Aloha Chapter

DAR offers a partial collection of early Quaker directories, the New England G & H Register and the New York Biography & Historical Record, among others. The Aloha Chapter meets monthly from September to May. Call 949-7256 or e-mail darhonolulu@hotmail.com. A Big Island-Hawaii Loa Chapter was established in 2001. E-mail: darbigisland@hotmail.com.

Sons of the American Revolution, Hawaii Society

In the spring a general meeting is held jointly with the Daughters of the American Revolution. Another is held in the fall. Check groups.msn.com/HawaiiSocietySonsoftheAmericanRevolution. Reach Elbridge W. Smith at 523-5050 or Ewslaw@cs.com.

Hawaiian Historical Society

Collections include index of Hawaiian Journal of History, early city directories and Hawaiian newspapers. Address: 560 Kawaiahao St., Honolulu, HI 96813. Phone: 537-6271 or e-mail hhskaren@lava.net. Web site: www.hawaiianhistory.org.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Elbridge M. Smith designed a teaching kit used in classroom demonstrations about Pilgrim life. Smith republished the kit.