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29 May 2020

Immigrant Sugar Plantation Workers in Hawaii: A History

As we observe Asian Pacific American Heritage month, we are pleased to share this post by CGS volunteer Cindy Thomson.

The first sugar plantation workers in Hawaii were Native Hawaiians.  Given their aversion to the regimented, arduous labor required in the cane fields and the widespread view (at least at that time) that disease was driving the Hawaiians to extinction, the sugar planters, mostly American businessmen, began looking elsewhere for labor.  Between 1852 and 1946, over 375,000 workers were recruited from around the world.  Immigrants who began arriving before 1900 included the Chinese, Portuguese, Germans, Norwegians, Galicians, and mainland (naichi) Japanese. Those who began arriving in 1900 or later included Okinawans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Filipinos, African Americans from the U.S. South, Spaniards, and Russians from Manchuria. The multi-ethnic nature of the workforce reflected early efforts to offset the numerous Chinese with Portuguese and other Europeans, and later efforts to offset the increasingly militant Japanese with recruits from elsewhere in the world. Europeans often brought their families, while most other groups consisted largely of males who arrived alone.

Contract between Japanese worker and McBryde Sugar Company, Kauai.
(Source: Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association Plantation Archives,
Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa)

The duration of labor contracts was five years for the Chinese, later shortened to three years. A contract typically required a work commitment of six days per week, ten hours per day in exchange for housing, food, water, firewood and medical care. Some of the Europeans were also offered homestead land. The ethnic hierarchy on the plantations dictated both living conditions and employment opportunities. Caucasians (other than Portuguese) were at the top of the hierarchy, then the Portuguese, followed by East Asians, with Filipinos (who were the last non-Europeans to arrive) at the bottom.

Low pay kept field and mill workers at the poverty level, and housing, sanitation and medical care were often substandard. On some plantations, grueling work conditions and sometimes harsh treatment by field overseers (“lunas”) led to resistance by the workers. This included work slowdowns, strikes, desertions, feigned illness to avoid work, violence against lunas, and property destruction – including arson in the cane fields and sugar mills.  The plantation workforce was up to 70 percent Japanese in the early 1900s and about 70 percent Filipino by the 1930s. Japanese and Filipino strikes were the most disruptive – typically lasting for months and involving large numbers of workers on multiple plantations. Strikers were evicted from plantation housing and other ethnic groups were brought in as strikebreakers. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) often made wage or other concessions months after a strike ended, so as to not associate the concessions with the strike.

A record card for Filipino Esteban Fernandez indicates he was fired
by the Oahu Sugar Company after taking part in a strike in April 1924.
(Source: Filipino Laborers Collection, Joseph F. Smith Library, BYU-Hawaii)

Most workers left the plantations as soon as their contracts expired and found work elsewhere in Hawaii or on the U.S. mainland.  Some Asians returned home, due to the proximity of their homelands to Hawaii.  The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which took effect in Hawaii when it became a U.S. Territory in 1900, terminated Chinese immigration to the islands.  When Korea became a Japanese protectorate in 1905, Japan stopped Korean immigration to reduce competition for their own workers in Hawaii. Under the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan, Japanese immigration was also restricted. Even after these dates, however, some Asians already in Hawaii were allowed to bring family members, including “picture brides,” to Hawaii.

The HSPA gradually mechanized operations in the fields and mills – providing their workforce with more skilled, blue-collar jobs and some advancement for those who were at the bottom of the plantation hierarchy.  Improved living and working conditions motivated multiple generations of the same family to stay on the plantations.  These laborers lived, worked and recreated together, enjoyed each others’ foods, intermarried, and sent their children to the same schools.  Plantation acres in cultivation began to decline noticeably in the 1970s and the last plantation closed in 2016.  Some families still have reunions to “talk story” about the tight-knit communities where they once lived and perhaps recall the ancestors who came to Hawaii so long ago.

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. She is a CGS member and teaches a class on “Immigrant Sugar Plantation Workers in Hawaii: A Multi-ethnic Approach to Genealogy.” For more information, contact her at

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

26 May 2020

Chinese Exclusion Act files in Seattle: a treasure trove of information

We continue our observance of Asian Pacific Heritage Month with this blog post about the Chinese Exclusion Files found at the National Archives in Seattle. Trish Hackett Nicola leads a free webinar on the collection on May 28.

Trish Hackett Nicola never expected to find herself specializing in records related to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Her own ancestry is German and Irish. But when the Seattle-based genealogist met Loretta Chin about eighteen years ago, she was introduced to the Chinese Exclusion Act files held at the National Archives at Seattle. Chin “told me about how wonderful these files were, and she became my mentor,” says Nicola. Today Nicola works with a small team of volunteers who have devoted themselves to preserving and indexing the more than 50,000 government files collected on Chinese immigrants between 1882 and 1943. The files represent those who arrived at the ports of Seattle, Sumas, and Port Angeles in Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Vancouver, B.C.

Since May 2015, Nicola also has published an ongoing blog,, in which she features particularly interesting finds from the records. “I started the blog to highlight the personal stories that are found in the Chinese Exclusion Act case files,” she says. “I wanted more people to know what valuable family and social history is found in these files." 

Lee Gok Suey, father of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee

There’s the case file for Lee Gok Suey, for example, born in China although both his father and grandfather were American citizens. His father, grandfather, and other relatives had to undergo detailed and repeated interrogations before Lee was finally granted admission to the U.S. in 1937, at the age of 17. Lee grew up, served in the Korean War, married, and fathered five children—one of whom, Edwin, would become San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor in 2011. This file contains more than 50 pages of detailed information about Ed Lee’s ancestors and relatives, including specifics of the village in China where the family came from.

12-year-old Ora Chang in 1910

In sharp contrast is the slim file that contains an application by Charlotte Chang seeking to take her young son and daughter with her on a trip to visit relatives in China in 1910. The file contains names and addresses of many family members but little more. It does, however, include a charming photo of twelve-year-old Ora Ivy Chang, dressed all in white, with enormous satin bows in her hair.

The files vary widely in content; each is unique, providing a glimpse into the lives of immigrants from all parts of China. They usually contain “incredible” photos, Nicola says, and intimate details of the subject’s life. “The file might describe the person’s village and neighbors, or tell if they owned a rice cooker, or the number of windows in their house.” Of crucial importance to genealogists is that the files usually contain the subject’s original name written in Chinese characters, enabling researchers to trace their Chinese family back hundreds of years. “We now have two volunteers who speak and read Chinese and we are including the name of the subject of the file in Chinese characters on the blog,” says Nicola.

The Seattle files are indexed by file name and number. Nicola and fellow volunteers are now meticulously adding important metadata to each file—names, keywords, cross-references to relatives' files, notes on photos, maps, or other items of interest, and much more. Trish Hackett Nicola gives an overview of the Seattle Chinese Exclusion Act Files on Thursday, May 28. This is a free webinar hosted by CGS; register at the link at EventBrite.

Trish Hackett Nicola is a certified genealogist with more than 30 years of experience. She has volunteered at the National Archives in Seattle since 2001.
Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

25 May 2020

Family Tree Maker SIG Goes Virtual

The Family Tree Maker Special Interest Group, co-facilitated by Ron Madson and Karen Halfon, became our first CGS Special Interest Group (SIG) to take its meetings to the Internet.  The regular meeting of the group was held online on Zoom on May 16, 2020 at 1:00 pm.  The official meeting was ushered in by a “social hour” beginning at 12:30. Attendees were free to chat with each other or ask questions before the meeting started.

A notable guest to this virtual event was Russ Worthington (“Cousin Russ”), who authors the blog “Collecting Cousins.” He contributed updates and insights on the progress, status, and functioning of the new FTM release.  We may be seeing him in upcoming virtual meetings.

The Family Tree Maker Special Interest Group met online this month
The topic for this meeting was a discussion of the newest release of the FTM software, FTM2019.  The agenda included new features of the software program including a function called “TreeVault” which allows users to upload a tree to the vendor’s (Software MacKiev) cloud storage. The Vault-saved tree is updated in real time with every update or change made to the FTM tree and can be restored to the user’s computer when and if necessary.  

A video recording of the meeting is posted on YouTube: 

The FTM-SIG plans to continue the monthly Zoom meetings during these shelter-in-place times, at the usual time on the third Saturday of the month. The June 20th meeting program will focus on "Family History Fact and Event Management Tools." For more information, contact:
Ron Madson (
or Karen Halfon (

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

23 May 2020

Online Genealogy, Week of May 25-31

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.

Don't miss the two CGS online classes offered this week!
May 28: The Chinese Exclusion Files: A Treasure Trove of Original Documents by Trish Hackett Nicola
May 30: 20th-Century Immigration and Naturalization Records by Marisa Louie Lee

Legacy Family Tree and MyHeritage offer these webinars:
May 26: Enlightened Design with the MyHeritage Chart Creation Tool by Janet Hovorka
May 27: Mistrust Transcriptions: And Here's Why by Dr. Bruce Durie 
May 29: Fridays in May: Your Questions Answered LIVE—More Tech with Thomas by Thomas MacEntee 

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 25: Which Spot Does X Mark, Anyway? X-DNA Testing in Action by Debra Renard
May 26: Jewish Genealogy for the Non-Jew: History, Migration, DNA by Schelly Talalay Dardashti
May 27: Need a Fillable Form? Word Has Your Back! by Amie Bowser Tennant
May 28: Effective Use of GENUKI: England’s Largest Free Genealogy website by Paul Milner
May 29: 1910-1940 Federal Censuses & State Censuses to Fill in the Gaps by Amie Bowser Tennant
May 30: Microsoft Word Series: Getting Started with Microsoft Word by Thomas MacEntee
May 31: Ten Tools for Genealogical Writing by Harold Henderson

Conference Keeper lists many of the above, as well as the following:
May 26:  United States Vital Records Overview (FamilySearch)
May 26: Strategies to Analyze Endogamous DNA by Alec Ferretti (Virtual Genealogical Association)
May 26: Documenting An Ancestor, Seema Kenney (Thomas Crane Public Library)
May 27: "Homestead Act" by Peter Summers (Pinellas Genealogy Society)
May 28: “The Pursuit of Happiness and the Migration Experience: Faith, Land and Hope" by Wolfgang Grams (Germanic Genealogy Society)
May 28: Using Non-Population Schedules for Context and Evidence with Jill Morelli (Florida State Genealogical Society)
May 31: “Finding B. Berman: A Case Study in Getting Past a Genealogical Brick Wall” by Martin Fischer (Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois)
May 31: Scottish Genealogy Workshop by Paul Milner (Heinz History Center)
May 31: Food: A Window on Jewish Life, Culture, and Genealogy, by Joan Nathan (Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston)

Stay safe, be well, and happy learning!

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

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

11 May 2020

A Message from CGS President Jim Sorenson

As various governing bodies take actions to phase in a reopening our economy, CGS is monitoring those decisions to see when we might be able to re-open our library and resume classes at the library. Even after it appears that we can open, CGS will need to determine what measures are needed to ensure compliance with County restrictions as well as to provide for the continued safety of our patrons and volunteers. At this point, I do not expect us to open until mid-summer. Before we re-open, we will publish our new operating procedures in the blog and provide notice of them on our website. Among our "new normal" procedures under discussion are:

  • Library access by reservation only.
  • Social distancing and the wearing of masks while at the library.
  • Rules for the cleaning of touch surfaces.
  • Limitations on the size of classes, SIGs and committee meetings at the library.

These measures are expected to remain in place for several months. Some of our committees and SIGs have already started having meetings using remote conferencing and we are taking steps to enable the presentation of many of our classes using that technology. Those classes will be announced on our website as well as on our blog and elsewhere. As a follow-up on a previous blog posting, I’m continuing to write sketches of each of my grandparents as I remain at home. The following is just a brief summary from that work:

My paternal grandparents were married, but not to each other. She was 19, he was 43 and her family doctor. The specific circumstances of the encounter which led to the birth of my father will never be known. The doctor died three years later in 1921 of what he thought was the flu. Months later, the public health service determined that he had died of typhus fever at the front end of an epidemic within the Navaho community in New Mexico where he was supervising the construction of a hospital for these often-neglected people. He may have been the worst of my grandparents but also the most noble.

We will have plenty of time to learn more about our ancestors. We will have time to tell the stories of our ancestors. But right now, our ancestors would want us to stay safe so that we will be able to do those things in the future.   

James Sorenson, President

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

09 May 2020

Chinese Couplets: A daughter's long search for her immigrant mother's past

On Mother's Day, we are pleased to share this story by guest contributor Felicia Lowe.

I didn’t really know my mother.
She spent most of her life hiding who she was.
Lying about where she came from, how she got here.
What secrets were so dark that the truth had to be concealed?

These are the opening lines to my documentary “Chinese Couplets,” which explores the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) on four generations of women—my maternal grandmother, my mother, Lettie Kam, my daughter, Alana, and me. The story is shaped by my quest to unravel the mystery surrounding my mother’s origins, the revelation of her illegal immigration to America during the period of Chinese exclusion, and the resulting web of secrecy and shame underlying her assimilation and achievement of the American Dream. The journey takes us from contemporary San Francisco to 1930s rural China, across the world to pre-revolutionary Cuba, post-Mao rural China and again to California, a place on the cusp of its own revolution in multiculturalism.

Felicia Lowe's mother (center) as a baby,
with her mother and older sister.

The research was complicated and messy.  There was not a single source to gather the information I needed to formulate a picture of my mother’s journey to America. For one, she was a “paper daughter,” meaning she had assumed the identity of a child of a citizen, one of the few exempt classes allowed to enter the United States in 1937. For me, the intrigue began when I was three years old and my mom instructed, “If anyone asks where I come from, say Hawaii.”  I knew from my aunt, her older sister, that they were born in China so it was very confusing.

My mother maintained her “born in Hawaii” persona most of her life and refused to offer any explanation as to why her maiden surname was Kam (Kam Sau Quon) while her sister’s last name was Louie.  At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Kam Sau Quon’s files revealed the story of a family with three young children who left Hawaii for China in 1924, then chose to return in 1937 as war was escalating in China. To learn of my mother’s early life, I read my aunt’s immigration transcripts.  She left China in 1931 in an arranged marriage so there was no subterfuge in her interrogation answers.

An ally in my investigation was my daughter, Alana.  She was able to break through her grandmother’s shell of secrecy by interviewing her for a school assignment. Out of it emerged a huge revelation.  My mother did not meet her father until he returned from Cuba when she was 15.  He’d left his pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter to find work there.  Chinese in Cuba?  That was new news to us.

Trips to Cuba and China followed in search of answers.  The most precious was a visit with my mother to Dutou, the village she’d left six decades earlier.  Like the Chinese couplet, a traditional poem consisting of two lines of verse held in contradictory and complementary balance, my family’s cross-generational tale encompasses a series of interlocked pairings: my mother’s secretive relationship to the past and the mother she left behind when she emigrated to America… my own fraught relationship with my mother… and my daughter Alana’s less-burdened curiosity about her Chinese ancestry and the bright hope it offers for healing the immigrant cycle of rupture, abandonment, denial and shame.

The turbulent times in which my mother came of age, the powerful challenges that all immigrants face, and the strength of the women, both my grandmother and mother, define my daughter and me.  It is their gift and our legacy–secrets and all.

Felicia Lowe is an award winning television producer, director, and writer with 40 years of production experience.  Her films “Chinese Couplets,” “Carved in Silence,” “Chinatown,” and “China: Land of My Father” have been broadcast on PBS and are used in classrooms across the country.  She’s long been associated with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation through her films and activism.

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society