10 Reasons Why You Can’t Find Your Portuguese Ancestors

10 Reasons Why You Can’t Find Your Portuguese Ancestors

Genealogy is challenging. Portuguese genealogy has challenges all it’s own.  Have you fallen into these pitfalls and misconceptions along your research trail?  If so, you’re not alone.  I bet we’ve all made similar mistakes.  The important thing is to learn from them, then learn how to get around them.

Let’s see this list of 10 reasons why you can’t find your Portuguese Ancestors and see if we can all get passed them.


Number 1 reason you can't find your Portuguese Ancestors (Source: Pixabay)
First reason you can’t find your Portuguese Ancestors (Source: Pixabay)


 1. You think they were from Portugal because it says so on the census.

This could be about any source document.  You want to believe that the people knew where they were from, but the reality is there are discrepancies in records.  A lot depends on how the question was asked and who is interpreting the answer.  Did the two people speak the same language?

Something to consider is that people often answered questions like “Where are you from?” by naming a well known place nearby.  I’ve found several relates born on Kauai who are listed in a variety of records as being born in Honolulu.  Same goes for the Azoreans.  Portuguese often gets listed as being born in Portugal.

If your ancestors went to Hawaii, you have a better chance of them being from the Azores, Madeira, or Cape Verde especially if they came before 1900.  Most of the people who came from Portugal to Hawaii migrated after 1900.

This is an example from the 1910 US Federal Census.  No one in this group who has Port in the birth place or parents birth place column as their place of birth was born in Portugal.

No one in this example was born in Portugal
1910 Census Example


 2. You refuse to learn their Portuguese names.

You will not find anyone named Joe, Johnny, Mary, Belle, Tony, or Frankie in the Portuguese language or immigration records.  Those are the anglicized versions of the Portuguese names. Until you accept that the names are Jose, Joao, Maria, Isabella, Antonio, and Francisco, you are going to keep fumbling around in the early records.  Most Portuguese people in Hawaii used Portuguese name forms until at least 1900.  After that, the names begin to loose their Portuguese flavor.

In The Problem with Names: Well, We Never Called Her That!, I include a list of Portuguese names and the common and not so common anglicized name forms.

 3. You’ve mistaken a woman’s religious name for her surname.
Your great grandmother was name Maria dos Anjos.  Sometimes dos Anjos is a surname for Portuguese women, but most of the time it is a religious name.  Women were given religious names and it was the custom for them to be referred to in records by that name.

Some other religious names are Espirito Santo, Conceicao, Jose, and Jesus. When you see these names in the surname field in records for women, be skeptical.  It may not be the surname of her family.

 4. You believe that your grandparents and your great grandparents had the same surname.

I feel you on this one.  We think of surnames as a permanent fixture passed down from parent to child.  But, it wasn’t so in past times.  When it comes to our Portuguese ancestry, anything goes.

Even though there were naming patterns and rules in different eras, it is not uncommon to find parents and children using different surnames.  It is not uncommon for children within a family to use different surnames.  It is not uncommon for the name to take on a whole new feel when the family came to America.  It is not unusual for four children to have their father’s surname, two to have their mother’s surname, and the seventh to have his godfather’s surname.

This is why when doing Portuguese genealogy research it is important to collect as much information as possible.  Make note of what patterns the extended family uses. Is the mother’s surname passed down or the fathers?  Are the children using a compound surname?  Are the children routinely given their godparent’s surname?

5th reason you can't find your Portuguese ancestors (Source: Pixabay)
5th reason you can’t find your Portuguese ancestors (Source: Pixabay)

 5. You haven’t researched all the family members.

I know genealogists who do marriage research.  They work from parent to grandparent to great grandparents, rarely making note of the descendants and their connections.  This could lead to errors.  You need to collect as much information as possible about each family in order to follow the correct lines.

Think about this.  The main first names given to Portuguese children in the 1800s are Maria, Isabella, Amelia, Jose, Joao, Manoel, Antonio, Sofia, and Francisco.  In my Pacheco Family Tree, in my grandfather’s generation, there were eight female babies named Maria.  Seven of them were named Maria Pacheco.  In order not confuse them with each other, it is important to collect information on all the families in my grandfather’s generation.

Here’s the plus side.  Not only will you keep yourself from following the wrong people, your genealogy will be much richer because you’ll learn so much more about the whole family.

 6. You don’t keep track of the name variations you have found.

Have you read my article about my great grandfather, Jozimas de Braga?  This is a classic example of how many ways one person’s name can be listed in records.  Jozimas is an uncommon Portuguese first name.  He was recorded as everything from Zozimo to James.

If you make note of the variations, the different spellings, and the names that people refer to your ancestor by, you’ll have a good idea of how they might appear in records. Make note of the variations because they will help you later.  And, remember phonetics!  Names were often recorded as they sounded.

 7. You believe there is only one way to spell names.

One of the more difficult realities for genealogists to face is the fact that spelling does not matter.  You must remember this:  There was no standardization of spelling until the 1800s, and then, it was a slow progression.  Portugal adopted standardization in 1911 long after most of our ancestors left.

Your ancestors were most likely illiterate and probably could not spell their names.  Regional spellings as well as personal quirks could affect how a name was spelled in records.  Letters changed.  X used to represent the sound made by “ch”.  Pacheco used to be spelled Paxeco.  You will see both Souza and Sousa in Portuguese records even when folks tell you that Sousa is the right way.  Get to Hawaii and you might also see Suza and Susa.

The Problem with Names: How’s That Spelled? will help you deal with this frustrating aspect of genealogy.

 8. You haven’t looked at Portuguese records because you don’t know Portuguese.

Psst…I’m going to let you in on a secret.  I don’t know Portuguese either.  Well, except for swear words.  They are completely useless unless I’m frustrated from trying to translate documents. I learned how to read the records and you can, too!

Do you have any birth, marriage, or death records handy?  What do you notice about them?  They follow a format, don’t they?  Portuguese language records do, too.  Once you learn the keywords within the records, you can read them.

There are word lists and dictionaries to help you accomplish this task.  Cheri Mello’s guide “Finding Your Portuguese Roots” (PDF File) has some great examples of records translated word for word.

What it takes is practice.  Once you’ve read a few, you realize there is surprisingly very little variation between records.  My Portuguese Baptismal Record Cheat Sheet will help get you started.  (Click to enlarge.)  Keep practicing and you’ll get better over time.


 9. You skip over Hawaii because you know where your ancestors were from.

There are so many ways you can fail if you decide not to research your ancestor in Hawaii.  Sure, your grandmother said they were from Achada, but can you prove it?  You need to verify place of birth because there are no island wide name indexes for the Azores or Madeira.  As mentioned above, names can be common.  There could be several couples with your great grandparent’s names in any set of records.

Another reason not to skip over Hawaiian genealogy research is if you do you are missing vital parts of your ancestor’s story.  What plantation did they live and work on?  Did they move around the island?  Did they stick with sugar plantation work?  Did they have cousins who migrated, too?  Did they have children who died young that you didn’t know about?

There is also the possibility that grandma doesn’t remember things all that well.  My grandmother told me my grandfather’s family was from Madeira, my great grandparents were married when they migrated, and they came over in the 1890s.  Both my great grandparents were from the Azores, they came over as children, and they arrive in 1882.

Tenth reason you can't find your Portuguese ancestors (Source: Pixabay)
Tenth reason you can’t find your Portuguese ancestors (Source: Pixabay)

10.You don’t have enough information to research in the native country.

In order to research in Portuguese records, you must know this information:

  • You must know the names of the family members who migrated and at least their ages.
  • You must know when they migrated so you can look for records in the right time period.
  • You must know what village they were from.  Without a village, you cannot search for your ancestors in these places.

By compiling as much information as possible about your ancestors in American records, you will increase your odds of being able to research them in their home village.  Always work from the known to the unknown.  If they were in California, start there.  Work back to Hawaii.  Then, when you get the name of the village you can begin researching the Portuguese records.

Are you ready to start you research in Hawaii but don’t know where to start? I’ve written two research guides to help you research your Portuguese Hawaiian family tree.

Your Island Roots: Researching Your Portuguese Ancestry in Hawaii  A general guide to research your Portuguese ancestors

Portuguese Hawaiian Immigration: A Research Guide  A guide to navigating immigration records.

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