I am my foremother’s wildest dream

So much can change within three generations

An old photograph. A woman sits on a nondescript flight of stairs in a flowery linen dress. The face shown looks just a little bit like yours. You remember your aunt saying that this was a great-grandmother, but otherwise the woman in the picture is shrouded in mystery. Her story must be known, you think. Who was this woman? What was her life like?

After my dad died in 2013, along with both sets of grandparents many years earlier, I became obsessed with finding out more about my family history. The mere existence of so many genealogical materials digitized, indexed, and searchable online thrilled me, and I quickly threw myself into the search for information. I joined the now some 19 million people who have taken an Ancestry DNA test and contacted distant family members to confirm or build on the details I found.

One of the most interesting finds, and one I was able to gather information on from relatives who remembered them before they passed away, were my great-grandparents. The woman in the flowery dress, Maria d’Assumpcao Ferreira, was born in the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1886 to Julio Ferreira and Maria (da Sançao) Ferreira. Her husband, Antonio Oliveira Joseph, was born in 1870, in Delgada, Leiria, Portugal.

Maria d’Assumpcao Ferreira was born on May 2, 1886, in what was then the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai’i, when her mother, Maria da Sançao, was 46 years old. Her parents had immigrated to Hawai’i, like her husband Antonio, as part of the great migration of 25,000 Portuguese from Madeira, the Azores, and Portugal, financed by sugar plantations seeking indentured laborers. Between 1880-1900, Portuguese immigrants were the third largest immigrant group in Hawai’i. They also became the third largest group of property owners rather quickly, as many of them moved off the plantations and took advantage of the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s encouragement of independent homesteads. Antonio, recently arrived from Portugal, widowed, with two children in tow, needed a caretaker in the form of a wife.

My great-grandfather Antonio was 16 years older than Maria when they married. She was 15 years old and couldn’t read and write. She was quiet and subservient. With both of her parents in their early 60s at the time of her marriage, it seems they wanted her out of the house and their care quickly, and Antonio offered that to them. According to family members, no one treated her as anything more than a slave; good for housekeeping, cooking, and breeding. She had her first child, a son, when she was just 16 years old. She would give birth to six more children over the next two decades, my grandfather Henry being her last. Her life was hard and by all accounts she wasn’t treated well, little better than chattel.

I wonder what she would have thought of me, her great-granddaughter. She died three years before I was born into a life filled with opportunity and choices. Would she have been proud of the woman I am today? A doctoral candidate, pursuing the the highest level of degree a student can achieve. Unmarried and childfree by choice, traveling the world, writing, teaching university students. I’d like to think that I am my foremother’s wildest dream, living the wildest dreams that she never got to fulfill, and in some cases not even allowed to dream of.  I’d like to imagine she would have been happy to know how much changed in the span of three generations and how far women have come to reach the point where I currently stand—something which should have been accomplished long ago.

Maria died on February 10, 1979 at the age of 92, outliving her husband by thirty years and dying just a few years before I entered the world. I never got to meet her, but relatives have described her as ceaselessly kind, warm, underappreciated, and overlooked. Her son Henry, my grandfather, was a gentle and kindhearted man, and perhaps his personality was shaped by his mother. I wish I could have met her. Finding information about your female ancestors can provide great inspiration. It can also be more challenging than discovering details about male relatives. Many historical documents only list women by their married name, or even by the name of their husband. It takes more effort to dig out the details of the female past. But it’s worth it. We all have brave and inspiring female ancestors – women who have been overlooked – deserving to have their stories told, or at the very least their names remembered.

Published by Jaclynn Joseph

Hawai’i born PhD student and university lecturer. Devourer of books, amateur historian, travel junkie and educator. A curious mind in search of the rational.

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