Tracing Roots

Kaunakakai church houses Molokai family history records.

By Melissa Kelsey

Molokai is full of history, but the island’s arguably largest collection of names and dates is stored in a small, dark room filled with lanky microfilm machines and tall storage cabinets. For all families who want to research their genealogy, the Molokai Family History Center at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kaunakakai stores a voluminous collection of records from the past.  

“It is the best kept secret that should be out, and yet, it is available to anybody,” said Barbara Nakamura, the Center’s former director.

Keepers of the Records
The Molokai Family History Center was officially founded in 1988, according to Nakamura, at which time she was its only staff member. Today, the Center is staffed by more than 30 volunteers.

“Families and the linking of families, both living and dead, are important to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said Nakamura, explaining why genealogy is an important element of the church’s ministry.

The majority of the Center’s historic records consist of books and microfilm, which are small pieces of film bearing miniature photocopies of documents. To read microfilm, visitors insert the tiny film into a machine that magnifies the letters.

Stored inside large, manila file cabinets, the Center maintains microfilm of census records from Maui County, Hawaii County and Honolulu County. Hawaiian newspapers, sugar plantation employment records, Chinese entry permits, passports and government court records are just some of the information the microfilm hold. In addition, there are birth, marriage and death records from the state Department of Health and historic data from other Polynesian islands.

“Everyone should know about their family history,” said volunteer Ronie Davis. “When a person passes away, all of their information becomes public knowledge.” 

Nakamura said the Center’s approximately 300 microfilm are owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and are all on loan from the Church’s central library in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the Utah library, over 2.2 million rolls of world genealogy records on microfilm are stored in granite vaults inside cliffs. If an individual on Molokai does not find the microfilm they need at the Molokai Family History Center, Nakamura said they can order any microfilm at the Utah library to be delivered to the Kaunakakai center. There are thousands of family history centers affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world in every continent except Antarctica, according to Nakamura.

In addition to the microfilm, the Molokai Family History Center has a print book collection of census records, Molokai cemetery records and Hawaiian birth records. Davis explained that until recently, most Molokai births took place at home. Families would bring the baby along with two or three witnesses to request a birth certificate, requests which were meticulously recorded. According to Nakamura, the most interesting book at the Center is an original collection of Hawaiian land ownership records.

Updating Technology
The Center obtained its first computer in 1993. In 2001, volunteers began utilizing the Internet, but only within a closed church network. Starting in 2008, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volunteers began the process of entering all of their genealogy records onto a worldwide web database, a little bit at a time. This month, the Church added 1.9 million new names. However, Nakamura explained that while the online records are convenient and available for anyone to use at home, it is still important to utilize the Center for primary document research.

All Are Welcome
Nakamura said individuals planning a trip to the Center should bring all of the family records they have, but if they do not have any, they should come anyway. She said Molokai residents have used the Center to do genealogy research for land rights applications, employment purposes, medical history and academic scholarships.

“We teach you how to organize,” said Nakamura. “We teach you how to file documents and do research.”

The Molokai Family History Center is open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. through 8:00 p.m. It is open on Saturdays and Mondays by appointment only. While the Center’s resources are available free of charge, there are minimal fees for microfilm loans, computer printouts, photocopies and other materials.

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