Ancient map of Cape Verde
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My father is African American and Cape Verdean, and he grew up on Cape Cod. His mother was Almeda Matilda Santos, born Jan. 22, 1922. She died March 7, 2002, and her parents had immigrated to the United States from Cape Verde Islands in the early 1900s. My father’s father, Benjamin Franklin Johnson, was the child of a slave who escaped to Canada with a Wampanoag Indian wife, as the story goes. 

Can you tell me who my Cape Verdean ancestors were, or how I would trace that? Renee Johnson

Perhaps we can. First, it’s important to note that the Cape Verde Islands nation (officially known as the Republic of Cabo Verde) is a nation of about 540,000 people located about 600 miles off the coast of Senegal on the west coast of the African continent. A Portuguese colony between the 15th century and 1975, Cabo Verde was active in the transatlantic slave trade and other types of commercial shipping. Immigration between the African country and America dates from the 18th century, when Cabo Verdeans were recruited for the New England whaling industry. According to The CIA World Factbook, 71 percent of the people in Cabo Verde are “mulatto” of mixed African and European heritage, while 28 percent are African and 1 percent are European. More than 200,000 people of Cabo Verdean descent live in the United States today. Many live in New England.

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What Do We Know About Almeda Santos Johnson?

Which brings us to your grandmother Almeda Matilda Santos Johnson. We found the March 10, 2002, obituary of Almeda “Tillie” (Santos) Johnson, published in the Cape Cod Times newspaper. Almeda was born in Falmouth, Barnstable County, Mass., and was a lifelong resident of that town. If you are able to get to the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Mass., you can access the newspaper’s archives to pull up the obituary (more about accessing newspaper archives online is below).

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We also found a birth index listing for “Almeda Santos, Falmouth, Massachusetts, 1922, volume 40, p. 454” in the database Massachusetts Birth Index, 1901-1960 and 1967-1970, available at Ancestry.com (subscription required). This entry most likely pertains to the birth record of your grandmother. Knowing that she was born in 1922 and resided in Falmouth, we checked the 1930 U.S. federal census for an 8-year-old girl in Falmouth, Mass., and found a possible match for the family of Almeda Santos.

An 8-year-old named Elvira Santos resided in the household of Joseph and Mary Santos, both of Cabo Verde, in Falmouth, Mass. You can view this record at Ancestry.com: “Joseph Santos household, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, Falmouth, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, Roll: 883; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 0011; Image: 431.0; FHL microfilm: 2340618.” Although her first name isn’t Almeda, it may have been because of an error on the census taker’s part, or could have been a nickname for the child. Other members of this household include Arthur Santos, age 18; Albert Santos, age 14; Rose Santos, age 13; and Victor Santos, age 12. Do any of those names ring a bell?

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Moving forward to the 1940 U.S. federal census, we saw a possible listing for Almeda Santos in the census entry for 18-year-old “Talvida” Santos, who lived with Mary Santos, a 59-year-old widow and Albert Santos, age 24. (Check Ancestry.com under “Mary Santos household, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, Falmouth, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, Roll: T627_1565; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 1-28.”)  Based on this census listing for the Santos family, Joseph Santos died prior to April 17, 1940, the date this census was enumerated. A death index listing for “Joseph Santos, Falmouth, 1940, volume 42, page 6” appears in the Massachusetts Death Index, 1901-1980, available at Ancestry.com. This index listing most likely pertains to the death record of the husband of Mary Santos.

What Do We Do With the Clues We Now Have?

Now that you have these leads, there are a number of sources you can use to verify that the family listed in these census records is a match for the family of Almeda Matilda (Santos) Johnson, and to learn more about the Santos line of your family.

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The Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics has birth, marriage and death records that have been filed in Massachusetts since 1921. If you reside in the Boston area, you can visit the registry to research the records in its collection, as well as purchase certified copies of these records. If you are unable to visit the registry, you can also order copies of these records by mail. You also have the option to order these records online through VitalChek.

Begin your search by reviewing Almeda’s full birth and death records (we only showed you the index records) in order to verify the names of her parents, and then work back through the Santos line from there.

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If Joseph and Mary Santos were, in fact, the parents of Almeda Matilda (Santos) Johnson, you can then request a copy of Joseph’s 1940 death record, using the death index listing information we located for Joseph Santos. This document may provide his birth date, as well as the names of his parents, bringing the Santos line back another generation. His death record will also list where he is buried.

Once you learn Joseph’s place of burial, we suggest that you contact the cemetery office to inquire about his burial plot. The cemetery staff may be able to tell you the names of other family members buried in that plot, as well as their death dates. This information will help you obtain more family names to research. For instance, once you know Joseph’s exact death date as well as those of other family members, you could then search for their death notices or obituaries in local newspapers. These articles may provide additional clues about when Almeda’s parents immigrated, when they were married and also list the names of other relatives, including the names of their parents.

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There are several subscription-based newspaper databases available online, including GenealogyBank and Newspapers.com. Many libraries have local newspapers available on microfilm. The Falmouth Public Library has microfilmed copies of the Falmouth Enterprise newspaper dating from 1896 and the Cape Cod Times newspaper dating from 1936. Some libraries offer to make photocopies of newspaper articles for a fee, so check with this library to see if this service is available.

Libraries Are Your Friends in This Search

In addition to their newspaper collections, town libraries are a valuable resource for genealogy research. The Falmouth Public Library has a number of items in its genealogy and local history collections that may be helpful to your research on the Santos family. Another library you may wish to contact is the New Bedford Free Public Library in Massachusetts. A large number of Cabo Verdeans who immigrated to the United States arrived through the port of New Bedford before settling in locations like Cape Cod. The city’s library has a number of sources of interest pertaining to Cabo Verdean research.

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The James P. Adams Library at Rhode Island College also has an extensive collection of materials pertaining to Cabo Verdean history and culture. Posted on its website are several guides related to Cabo Verdean research that will provide additional avenues to pursue as you look into your family history.

Besides these libraries, the Zion Union Heritage Museum, located in Hyannis, Mass., has a number of collections related to Cabo Verdeans who resided on Cape Cod.

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If you establish the birthplace of Almeda Matilda (Santos) Johnson’s parents, one source you may wish to consult is the database Republic of Cape Verde, Catholic Church Records, 1787-1957, which is available online through Family Search. This database does not include an index, so it requires a page-by-page search. However, these records include births, marriages and deaths, which will help take your family lines back several generations. In addition to this database, a number of microfilms pertaining to Cabo Verdean genealogy and history are available to rent through the Family History Library.

Finally, if you want to verify the story of your Wampanoag great-grandmother, we suggest taking a DNA test of your ancestry admixture at 23andMeFamilyTreeDNA and AncestryDNA as a first step. Keep in mind that Native Americans are closely related genetically to East Asians, and so if you do have Wampanoag ancestry, it could show up as Asian in test results. If you do get a positive result, read our previous column, “How Do I Legally Prove Native American Ancestry?” for additional steps to take.

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Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.