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22 May 2020

Religion and Politics: A Korean Family’s Journey to Hawaii

Cindy Kim Thomson shares this story of her Korean missionary ancestors

In 1904 my second-great-grandparents, Chang Sung and Chu No (Rebecca) Kim, immigrated to Hawaii from Hamhung in northeast Korea.  Accompanying them aboard the SS Gaelic was their only child, my great-grandmother Nak Kull Yee, with her husband and two small children. Nak Kull’s stories have been passed down in my family for generations: how her parents were converted by American Christian missionaries in Korea, how – during seasonal lulls in activity on their farm – they trekked hundreds of miles north (even crossing a frozen river) to proselytize in Manchuria, and how fearful they were of encountering tigers along the way. 

Hamhung and Manchuria are on opposite sides of the mountain ranges that run down the spine of the Korean peninsula. Considering the topography, was it even possible for Chang Sung and Rebecca to make that trek to Manchuria?  How could they proselytize in Manchuria when they couldn’t even speak Chinese? And did tigers really live in Korea?  I looked to histories of Korea and biographies and memoirs of the missionaries for answers to these questions.

Korean print depicting a tiger
(National Museum of Korea, Seoul)
According to early Korean church records in Honolulu, Chang Sung and Rebecca were baptized in Korea by the Reverend William Arthur Noble. Noble had arrived in Korea in 1891 and in 1896 took charge of the Northern Presbyterian Mission based in Pyongyang (then known as the “Jerusalem of the East”), now the capital of North Korea.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s (Chang Sung and Rebecca’s last years in their homeland), the mountains of northern Korea were prime tiger habitat. So great was the fear of these animals that some villages hired tiger hunters for protection. Tiger skins were the insignia of high office and also used on carrying chairs of the nobility, their teeth and claws used for ornaments, and ground-up bones for medicine. The tiger (now extinct in Korea) remains an iconic figure in Korean folklore.

The Yalu and Tumen rivers comprise the northern border between Korea and China. To escape famine and economic and political oppression, Koreans sometimes crossed these rivers (which froze over for months in the harsh weather) to find work in Manchuria or Siberia. In the late 1800s, about 70,000 Koreans were living in Manchuria. Chang Sung and Rebecca were likely preaching to fellow Koreans rather than to Chinese in Manchuria. 

In the spring of 1891, Presbyterian missionaries James Gale and Samuel Moffett, accompanied by an early convert named So Sangyun, left Seoul for a three-month, 1400-mile journey that included territory covered by the Northern Presbyterian Mission. Details of their journey are recounted in Richard Rutt’s A Biography of James Scarth Gale and His History of the Korean People (1972). Of particular interest to me was the portion of their trip where they visited Korean Christian villages in Tonghua, Manchuria, then crossed the Yalu River and stopped in the Korean towns of Chasong, Changjin and Hamhung. This route took them through the “immense Yalu forests” (suggestive to me of tiger habitat), the Yalu valley where “there were still seven or eight feet of ice in the ravines,” and the “fertile rice valleys” around Hamhung. I don’t know if Chang Sung and Rebecca followed the missionaries’ route, but I am no longer skeptical of Nak Kull’s stories of their travels between Hamhung and Manchuria.    

Korean immigration to Hawaii peaked during 1903-1905. Many Christian missionaries encouraged their congregants to find a better life and proselytize in Hawaii. Every ship departing from Korea included at least one minister who uplifted the Christians and reportedly annoyed some of the non-Christians. It’s no wonder that Christians were disproportionately represented among the Korean sugar plantation workers in Hawaii. Because the Presbyterians did not have a presence in Hawaii, Chang Sung worked for the Methodist Hawaiian Mission ministering to the Koreans at Pahala Plantation. He died in 1916, and Rebecca died in 1923.

Photo of Nak Kull, about 1952
Nak Kull raised eight children and outlived three husbands and a beloved son who died at age 24.  In 1950, just before the outbreak of the Korean War, she received word that her cousins in Korea had fled to the south from their home in now-Communist Hamhung. In 1952, when fighting on the battlefield had diminished, Nak Kull left for Korea to find her cousins at a squalid refugee camp in Busan. Her children, who had futilely objected to her departure, sent her money and goods to sell on the black market. Nak Kull died in South Korea. In 1957, her ashes were shipped to Honolulu (presumably by her cousins) and scattered at Koko Head after a service at the Korean Christian Church.

CIndy Thomson photo
Cindy Thomson’s interest in genealogy began with family stories about her immigrant ancestors in Hawaii and evolved into an obsession over the past 15 years. After retiring as a Commerce Department economist, she moved to Oakland and started taking classes at CGS.  She also volunteers as a CGS Library and event assistant, and teaches a class on “Immigrant Sugar Plantation Workers in Hawaii: A Multi-ethnic Approach to Genealogy.” 
Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

20 May 2020

The A-Files: a rich source of information

Guest contributor Marisa Louie Lee offers a look at the genealogical riches available in A-Files at the National Archives. NOTE: Lee will lead a webinar on "20th Century Immigration and Naturalization Records" Saturday, May 30.

The majority of Asian Pacific Americans today have family connections to the period following  the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. For decades prior to this, immigration visas had been given largely to European immigrants with only a very small quota for immigrants of Asian descent. These quotas were abolished in 1965, and visas were issued preferentially to relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in order to reunite families. By 1980, 58.6% of Asian Pacific Americans were counted as having been born outside of the United States, an almost two-fold increase from the 1960 census.

Where, then, can historians discover more about these twentieth-century immigrants? And what about the stories of the pioneers who preceded and paved the way for their families, while living under laws and circumstances that tried to exclude them?

Since 1944, the federal government has maintained information about individual immigrants and alien residents of the United States in what are known as Alien Files, or A-Files. As of late 2019, over 1.3 million A-Files are publicly available through the National Archives at San Francisco and the National Archives at Kansas City. Currently, the A-Files in NARA’s holdings are for individuals born in 1918 and before. To search these holdings, use NARA’s online catalog.

The breadth of what can be found in an A-File is astonishing. No two A-Files are guaranteed to be alike. They can range from a single document to hundreds of pages. The extent and complexity of an A-File depends on an immigrant’s history and interactions with the federal government. The following examples give a glimpse into the diversity of these files.

Hazura Singh Mahaesar's photograph from his A-File
Hazura Singh Mahaesar was born in 1908 in Ganeshpur, Punjab State, India, and came to the United States in 1976. His two grown children had previously immigrated to the United States and were living in California.

In Mr. Mahaesar’s A-File, we discover more about his reason for coming to the United States. His wife had died not long before, and he was left with no immediate family in India. He decided to visit his adult children living in the United States, who in turn filed paperwork for him to remain with them and eventually become a permanent resident. His A-File has copies of his wife’s death certificate from India and his own teaching credential to teach Punjabi.

Vietnamese refugee Ky Thi Hong
applied for permanent residency in 1978

Ky Thi Hong was among the tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who immigrated to the United States during the Vietnam War. Born in Baclieu, Vietnam, she arrived at Camp Pendleton on April 30, 1975–the date of the fall of Saigon.

Three years after arriving in the United States, Mrs. Hong applied to become a permanent resident. Her A-File contains her Application for Status As Permanent Resident (INS Form I-485). Documents in her A-File also relate to her efforts to keep track of relatives in refugee camps in the years following.

Canuto Salaver's application for a permit to re-enter the U.S. in 1947,
for a planned trip to visit family in the Philippines

Canuto Salaver, who came to the United States from the Philippines in 1927, has an A-File that begins when he registers under the requirements of the Alien Registration Act in 1940. His A-File follows twenty years of his life, until he petitions to become a naturalized citizen in 1960. At the time of Mr. Salaver’s immigration to the United States in 1927, he was considered a United States national; this changed in 1934 when the Philippines was put on a path to independence and all Filipinos were re-classified as aliens. His A-File includes his Alien Registration Form (INS Form AR-2) from 1940, which shares that he was a musician working for a traveling band, and an Application for a Re-entry Permit in 1947 (INS Form I-131).

The A-Files are a limitless, rich source of stories about twentieth-century immigrants and the lives they built in the United States. To learn more about the A-Files maintained by the National Archives, visit the A-Files webpage on the National Archives website or read the article “The A-Files: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors,” from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue magazine.

 Marisa Louie Lee is a freelance researcher and workshop speaker who specializes in federal government records and Asian American history and genealogy. She previously worked for the National Archives at San Francisco and the Chinese Historical Society of America. Marisa is a proud alumna of the “Friends of Roots” program. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two young children, and serves on the board of her daughter's co-op preschool.

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

18 May 2020

Quarantine Quests: Quaker Connections

This Quarantine Quests story comes from CGS member Sandy Fryer, who used DNA and records from the Society of Friends to home in on an elusive ancestor.

Those of us whose ancestors had distinctive surnames have it much easier than those who struggle with a Smith, Murphy, Lee, or Jones. Sandy Fryer has to contend with a third-great-grandfather named Elverton Jones. Thank heavens he has an unusual first name. The only thing Sandy knows about this elusive ancestor’s birth is that he was born in Virginia about 1800.
Sandy created this table to help her keep track of yDNA connections
Traditional research methods have not enabled her to expand beyond these basic facts, so Sandy decided to submit a yDNA sample from her brother in hopes of finding new leads and paths to follow. Sandy joined the Jones DNA project and used FamilyTree DNA to identify other Joneses within a genetic distance of 3. These individuals have a 78% chance of having a common ancestor within six generations. Since Sandy lacks sufficient information to identify Elverton’s parents her strategy is to look at other Jones families in hopes of finding a common ancestor.

She started by looking at R.A. Jones, but fairly quickly proved that his family tree was only accurate to his third-great-grandfather.  Next, she focused on R.L. Jones, who had identified his Jones line back to a Richard Jones born about 1704.  Notably, this family line were Quakers and it was fairly easy to verify R. L. Jones’s work. Needless to say, doing this work is a painstaking effort requiring good record keeping–an ideal diversion while confined to one’s home during the pandemic.

A third lead is C.D. Jones, for whom Sandy has been able to document multiple generations. More importantly, she again confirmed a Quaker connection and documentation that Nathan Jones, C.D.’s fifth great grandfather served during the American Revolution–for which he was expelled from the Quakers.
One of the records Sandy found for Nathan Jones in a Roster of
Revolutionary Soldiers in Georgia
This Quaker theme seems like a strong lead. The Quakers kept good records so Sandy’s next research steps will focus on Quaker connections. She asks, “If any of our members have experience researching Quakers, particularly in Virginia, please get in touch with me to share what you know.” Sandy can be reached at

The member-posted family trees on have aided Sandy in her search. Knowing that one cannot rely upon these trees as being accurate, Sandy has instead used the trees to find documentation that supports their claims and sometimes offers clues to other places where she can look for further documentation. Ancestry has pretty good Quaker records, which is also helping her make progress.
One of the Quaker sources Sandy found mentions Nathan Jones and
two of his brothers
Sandy created a table to help her keep track of the names and facts she is finding for each Jones candidate. Her table enables her to easily compare each individual by generation and associations. Sandy also created a family tree using her Legacy genealogy program for her yDNA connections. She uses this tree, which is separate from her primary tree, to keep each piece of information she finds along with her sources. She also uses Legacy to create reports that help her analyze her data.

Since using Ancestry Family Trees has helped Sandy make progress on her conundrum she admits to feeling a little guilty for not having shared her research on Ancestry. Now, she is reconsidering that decision and may share some portion of her tree publicly. 

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

17 May 2020

Online Genealogy: Week of May 18-24

Here are some online genealogy events offered this week. Most are free. See our post Genealogy Learning in the Time of Coronavirus,” for links to archived classes at Ancestry, FamilySearch, RootsTech, and more. The National Genealogical Society also offers some free resources online.

American Ancestors offers these free online presentations:
May 20: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland
May 21: Creating a Research Plan for Cluster Research by Lindsay Fulton
May 22: Lords, Ladies & Mummies: The Story of Highclere Castle by Curt DiCamillo

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society continues its series of free webinars.
May 19: Live Genealogy Q&A with D. Joshua Taylor and Susan R. Miller
May 19: Introducing the NYG&B's Online Records Platform with Frederick Wertz
May 21: The Impact of Andrew Carnegie on the Building and Shaping of New York by John Kinnear

Legacy Family Tree and MyHeritage offer these webinars:
May 19 & 20: Discover the Holdings of German Archives by Teresa Steinkamp McMillin
May 20: Timesaving Apps for Busy Genealogists by Lisa Alzo
May 22: Fridays in May: Your Questions Answered LIVE—More DNA with Diahan by Diahan Southard

Also, Legacy Family Tree continues to unlock one archived webinar per day through the month of May. The classes follow a 7-day rotating theme:
Sundays - Methodology
Mondays - DNA
Tuesdays - Ethnic Genealogy
Wednesdays - TechZone
Thursdays - Around the Globe
Fridays - Beginners
Saturdays - Technology
May 18 - DNA Rights and Wrongs: The Ethical Side of Testing by Judy Russell
May 19: Military Resources for the Beginning Genealogist, with Tina Beaird 
May 19: Lessons in Jewish DNA: One Man's Successes and What He Learned On the Journey by Israel Pickholtz
May 20: The Best Built-in Windows 10 Storage Hack by Marian Pierre-Louis
May 21: Emigration via Hamburg by Andrea Bentschneider
May 22: Getting Started in Family History: Census Records by Cheri Hudson Passey
May 23: Seven Steps to Manage Digital Files - Denise Levenick
May 24: Quality, Time and Completion: Developing a Research Plan (Part One) by J. Mark Lowe

Conference Keeper lists many of the above, as well as these events:
May 19: Restoring Old Photos and Documents with Rick Voight
May 22: Implementing a Forensic Genealogy Program by Bode Technology
May 22: Photo Organization with Maureen Taylor

Stay safe, be well, and happy learning!

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

14 May 2020

Lost at sea: a discovery in a Japanese koseki

As we observe Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we share this story by guest contributor Gordon Hamachi, based on research into his Japanese heritage.

"That’s got to be a mistake," I muttered, as I puzzled over my freshly received koseki tohon.  Koseki tohon are official Japanese government records that identify all family members in a household.  According to the translation, my maternal grandparents' only child was a male named Yojiro Nishikawa, born 21 April 1930.

Family members all disagreed.  My mom is one of seven children, all born in California, starting with Hatsuko (“Grace”) in 1925.  Even if there was some unknown Japanese custom regarding the oldest son, that would be Katsumi, who was born in 1926. Phone calls confirmed what I already knew: nobody had heard of a family member named Yojiro. 

This would not be the first time a government bureaucracy had erred.  When I originally requested my family records from Japan, I was required to attach a copy of my mother’s U.S. birth certificate.  Her birth certificate is a sloppy mess, with multiple typographic errors in both her first and last names. To avoid unnecessary confusion, I silently corrected these errors with Photoshop before transmitting the birth certificate.

Because Yojiro couldn’t possibly be a relative, I promptly forgot about him as I gleefully mined the Japanese government records to add four generations of ancestors to my family tree.  It was months later when I revisited the matter of Yojiro.  This time I noticed something odd that I had missed: according to the koseki, Yojiro was "born above Pacific ocean between Honolulu, Hawaii and San Francisco, U.S." He couldn’t have been born on an airplane, as Pan American’s China Clipper didn’t begin service until 1935.  In 1930 people traveled across the Pacific by boat.

My maternal grandparents, Haruji and Tsuruye Nishikawa, from their Alien Registration cards
Fortunately, steamship records are freely available on  I was delighted to find a couple of matches for my grandmother.  One was from 17 April 1924 when—just after she married in Japan at age 18—she traveled to San Francisco on the Korea Maru.  The other was dated 11 April 1930, when my grandmother sailed on the Tenyo Maru from Yokohama, Japan to San Pedro, California with children ages five, three, and one. Presumably she had taken them to Japan to visit family. Out of curiosity I also searched for the mysterious Yojiro Nishikawa.  This led to a tragic discovery. A separate page of the passenger manifest of the Tenyo Maru recorded that my grandmother gave birth to a son, Yojiro, on 21 April 1930, about 400 miles northwest of Honolulu, followed by his death a few days later of pneumonia, not far from San Pedro.  Imagine the hardship of traveling while pregnant in a tiny third-class cabin with three small children, giving birth on the ship, and then losing the child.

Yojiro was a late addition to the passenger manifest

Only births and deaths reported to the Japanese Consulate in the U.S. make their way into the official Japanese records.  My grandparents never bothered to inform the consulate, but the steamship company doubtlessly reported births and deaths that happened at sea.  This is why Yojiro was recorded as their only child.

That is the story of how I discovered an uncle that nobody knew.

Gordon Hamachi was born in Southern California, moved to the Bay Area to study computer science, and then worked in the tech industry.  Now retired in Mountain View, he has been working on genealogy for the past five years and repairing books at CGS.  Bicycles and computers are some other things that he likes to repair: years ago he was on the board of Berkeley Neighborhood Computers, and more recently he served on the board of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Exchange.
Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society