The Danger of Surname Research with Portuguese Ancestry

The Danger of Surname Research with Portuguese Ancestry

From time to time, I get asked whether I have a connection with someone.  It usually goes like this:  “I have Pacheco’s too.  We must be related!”  In the beginning, when we are naive, we don’t fully grasp how many different families there really are.  Just because there is a similar surname doesn’t mean there is a connection.

I am not familiar with the naming practices in a lot of countries.  I do have experience with France.  With my French ancestors, surnames are fairly constant.  They may come down the paternal or the maternal line but they go from a parent to a child.  Sometimes there is a dit/ditte name added, but still the root surname stays the same over several generations.

With Azoreans, it is more complicated.  The surname may be passed down from father to child or mother to child depending on the era.  The family may use a compound surname. But, the consistency does not last for long.

I’m going to show you some examples. You can click on each image to see larger versions. This is a screen shot from RootsMagic of my grandfather’s family tree.  Both sides of his tree are from Sao Miguel Island.  In this example, you can see that the surnames are consistent, except for Joao’s.  That is a story for another day.

Screen Shot Family Tree

Now, let’s see what happens when we look at his grandmother, Rosa’s, tree.  Her surname is Medeiros Pacheco.  Her father’s was Pacheco de Rezendes.  Her mother’s was Pacheco de Medeiros.  Not too bad.  She took her mother’s surname and reversed it (or the Priest messed it up).

Family Tree Rootsmagic

The consistency drifts away as we follow her mother’s tree.  Anna used Pacheco de Medeiros.  Her father used Medeiros Cordeiro and her mother used Souza.  If we go back two more generations, the surnames of her ancestors are Cardoso Pereira, Costa, Furtado Leitao, and Furtado.  Now you understand why I don’t participate in Surname Saturday!

It gets even more confusing when you look at the children.  This is the family of Anna’s brother, Manoel.  He went by Medeiros Sousa.  His children are Barbara Francisca de Mello and Joao Medeiros Sousa.

Family Tree in Rootsmagic

Let’s go one step further.  This is Barbara Francisca de Mello’s family:

Family Tree Example Rootsmagic

Do you see it?  Barbara’s children don’t have the same surnames!  Although the difference between Antonia and Manoel is spelling preference on the Priest’s part, Francisca went be Mello and Anna went by Moniz de Medeiros.  Children carrying a wide array of surnames, sometimes not even the same as their parents, was not uncommon.   Get further back into the 1600s and you’ll find that they don’t carry their family surnames at all.  I found folks who went by their godfather or godmother’s surname.  Some I could not identify who the surname donor was.

I present all this not to freak out Azorean researchers, but to be aware of it.  It shows the importance of finding the baptismal, marriage, and death records of all family members so you can sort out who was going by what name.  It is through the comparison of names across records of multiple family members that helps you determine if you’ve got the right family.

It also helps to have genealogy software or an online family tree application that you are comfortable with.  It should organize your data in a variety of ways that help you understand your ancestry from different perspectives.

RootsMagic is my preference.  What I’ve shown today is the screen shots from the pedigree and family group screens.  There are any number of reports that I could have used as example, but hey, I like these colors.

The important thing is to get your tree organized in a way that makes it easy for you to keep track of the naming practices and inconsistencies within your family. It will help you sort through the variations of everyone and keep you from going nuts.

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Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website,

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