Josefa de Mello wasn’t a Mello at all: Or, Why You Can’t Trust Portuguese Surnames

Josefa de Mello wasn’t a Mello at all: Or, Why You Can’t Trust Portuguese Surnames

Curious thing about Portuguese surnames.   They are inconsistent at best and downright frustrating most of the time.  Surname research is out of the question because you can’t depend on any consistency.  I shouldn’t have been surprised that Josefa de Mello’s surname turned out to be completely different than the name on her son’s marriage record.

Why I Couldn’t Find Josefa de Mello in the Parish Records

Let’s take a walk into the Azores Islands parish records, shall we?

Joam de Mello (aka Joao de Mello) was born in Povoacao, 7 Feb 1771.

His father was Francisco de Medeyros, a native of Povoacao.  His mother was Josefa de Mello, a native of Porto Formoso.

But, was she really?

The records in Maia, Ribeira Grande certainly point to this conclusion.  Joam de Mello married Maria Theresa de Medeiros on the 14th of Mar 1796 at Divino Esperito Santo Church.  His mother is listed as Josefa de Mello. (See Casamentos, Maia, 1777-1797, digital image 189, left hand side of the page)

So, why couldn’t I find any trace of this Josefa de Mello before Joam’s birth?

There’s Something Wrong with the Names

There’s one thing I’ve learned researching Portuguese people.  Okay, I’ve learned more than one thing, but this one is important to locating Joam de Mello’s mother.  Names are not consistent across records.

A person can start with one surname, marry under another, and die under another.  Makes for challenging trailblazing.

Women are worse than men.  Some take surnames, but some don’t.  Some take religious names.  Some like to change their religious name at different times in their lives.  Some did this deliberately to thwart me 200 years later.  I know.  They did it to you, too.

I was getting pretty frustrated at not being able to find Joam’s parents’ marriage record or any information on his siblings Apollinario, Pulqueria, and Leonarda.  With names like that they should stick out like sore thumbs.  But, they didn’t.

Josefa was not a Mello after all!

I took another stab at finding Francisco and Josefa’s marriage record in Povoacao but came up empty.  A search in Porto Formoso was next.

This is where I found them.

This is what I found them under:  Francisco Luis de Medeyros and Josefa Pacheco.


Her parents were Francisco de Sousa and Florencia Pacheco.  No sign of de Mello in sight. (See Casamentos, Porto Formoso, image no. 0083, right hand side of the page)

Josefa was a Pacheco which changes everything.  Could I have missed her children’s marriages because their mother was given as Josefa Pacheco?  It’s possible.

Why Did Joam Use de Mello Then?

That’s the million dollar question.  There doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.  His godfather was Alferes Joao Rodrigues (no godmother), so that’s out.

The only clue I have is Pulqueira’s godfather.  He was the Priest of the church, Pedro Joam de Mello.  Could Joam have taken his surname out of respect?

It may be that Josefa has a grandparent or other relative who is a Mello.  Hopefully, the records that has that information still exists.

This Affects the Mello Castanho Line

This gets me to thinking about this line.  It should have been Medeyros (Medeiros) or Pacheco.  Not Mello.

Joam’s children adopted Mello Castanho in the 1820s.  All but my 4th great grandfather, Felicianno, who was in the military and away for a few years, took this surname. Felicianno stuck with Mello.

The Mello Castanho surname has been brought down through the generations.  It’s spread far and wide to Canada, the United States, Brasil…and who know where else.

The Castanho is made up, most likely an alcunha or nickname.

Now I know the Mello is made up, too.

Both surnames vanish with Josefa.

You know something Azorean ancestors?  Genealogy is challenging enough.  You didn’t have to add these extra twists and turns.

Portuguese genealogists, heed my advice.  Never depend on surnames!  It will only get you in trouble with your research.  As a reminder, see what happens when you try to follow my Pacheco de Resendes line.  Mayhem, pure mayhem.




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2 thoughts on “Josefa de Mello wasn’t a Mello at all: Or, Why You Can’t Trust Portuguese Surnames

  1. I was wondering when did the first DeMello’s (Mello’s) first been Recorded in the town of Povoacao. Also is there any information on when the town was settled?I would appreciate any info you could help me with.

  2. Charles, Thanks for your questions. I don’t have the answer to when Mello was first recorded in Povoacao. It’s old surname, so I suspect it was there from the start. Portuguese surnames can be tricky though. As I wrote in my post, my ancestor wasn’t a Mello at all, but for some reason her son chose to take that surname.

    I did a little searching to see when Povoacao was developed. According to Wikipedia, the first settlement in Povoacao was set up in 1472. Looking over the archive records, it appears that Mae de Deus has the oldest records going back to the early 1700s.

    Hope that answers your question!

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