Tracing an ancestor from Madeira to the West Indies

Faial, Madeira – Wikipedia

In the mid 1980s, my husband’s Kittitian grandmother sketched a quick family tree of her ancestors. On her maternal side, she wrote a few minimal facts… her grandfather was a Cannonier, whose family came from France or Italy, she thought, and her grandmother was labeled only “Cabral, Madeira”. We also had an old photo of three young ladies in St Kitts, one of whom was my husband’s great-grandmother Margaret Johanna Cannonier. I have been able to trace this extended Cabral family back to Madeira, but it’s taken several years of patience. Here’s a (hopefully) brief description of the journey…

The first task was to go through the St Kitts civil records at a Family History Center (using I was able to find the birth records for Margaret Johanna Cannonier and two unnamed sisters, after expanding my search outside the year quoted on Margaret Johanna’s gravestone (the stone says 1869, but she was actually born in 1868). The three birth records showed that their father’s name was John Henry Cannonier, and their mother was Eliza (formerly Cabral). Margaret Johanna’s record said that the birth was reported by a neighboring blacksmith named John Thomas Percival Challenger, living in the town of Old Road.

Birth record, St Thomas Middle Island Parish, St Kitts 1868

There happened to be quite a few births for J. T. P.’s children, with his wife listed as Arcenia (or sometimes Ascenia) Augusta Challenger, née Cabral. This was a pretty good clue that there might possibly be a family relationship between Arcenia and Eliza, but without any proof at that point.

Through other sources, I had learned that Arcenia Challenger immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s after her husband died, along with at least one of her sons. This was a huge help to investigating her Cabral background, because US records at this time held lots of information. Arcenia died in 1924 in Brooklyn, NY, so I was able to get her death certificate from the NY City Municipal Archives (city death records are also available at Family History centers). Her birth year was listed as 1847, but her birthplace was mistakenly given as Spain.

Parents listed in 1924 death record for Ascenia Augusta Challenger, 1924 in Brooklyn, NY (NYC Municipal Archives)

Further research revealed some other Cabrals in NYC during the early 1900s, and several of them turned out to be brothers and sisters for Arcenia, including Alfred Cesar, Leonard Candidus, Mary, Jean, and Gemmeniana. Mary’s 1930 death record gave her parents’ information more accurately.

1930 Bronx, NY death record for Mary P. Cabral (NYC Municipal Archives)

Indexes for NYC vital records can be easily searched on the free website.

The younger Cabral siblings were recorded as born in St Kitts, so returning to Kittitian civil records showed some additional Cabral births, as well as mother Libana’s death in 1891. The birth records told me that Francis’s middle initial R stood for Richard (or Ricardo), and Libana’s name was also written as Libana Joaquina Veira. Portuguese names can be very confusing, as they can carry several middle names that refer to paternal or maternal ancestors.

With the United States records, I had lots of information on Arcenia Challenger and her Cabral siblings. But the central problem remained – how to determine Arcenia’s relationship (if any) to Eliza Cabral and her Cannonier daughters?

The answer took its time in coming. While searching through the surname indexes for the St Kitts civil records, looking for any appearance of a Cannonier, I stumbled on a death record from 1897 for an Agnes Cannonier. Finding the full record in the birth registers for that year was the last puzzle piece to fall into place.

1897 death record for St George Basseterre parish, St Kitts

Agnes’s death was reported by “Alfred C. Cabral, uncle” of Cayon Street in Basseterre. Agnes’s age of 29 puts her birth in the right time period for the unnamed daughters born to John Henry Cannonier and Eliza Cabral. And uncle Alfred C. Cabral was the clincher, matching Arcenia’s brother, living in St Kitts before he immigrated to New York City. If Alfred was Eliza’s brother, and he was Arcenia’s brother too, then Eliza’s parents were Libana and Francis Cabral.

An added bonus to the information on Eliza’s parents is that records in the Madeiran archives can be searched for the Cabral names. I’ve found an 1852 birth listing for Joao Cabral, christened in the same year in Funchal, Madeira, with parents Francisco Ricardo de Menezes Cabral and Libana Joaquina De Menezes. There’s also an 1844 marriage record from Faial, Madeira for Francisco Ricardo Cabral de Menezes and Libania Joaquina Vieira.

Sometimes a genealogical puzzle is built from lots of tiny pieces. If we’re lucky, they eventually fit together and the picture fills in.


  1. Civil Registration, 1859-1932, Basseterre (St. Christopher) Registrar, Church of Latter-day Saints films,, 1990
  2. Register of New York City death records, Church of Latter-day Saints films, , 2005
  3., Italian Genealogical Group, 2020
  4. Regional Archive and Public Library of Madeira, searchable databases, 2020

One Comment

  1. Thersa said:

    Amazing that you were able to find so much information, pieces of your puzzle. I am still struggling with 3 GGP who migrated from Madeira to St Kitts after mid 1800. I have lots of Portuguese DNA cousins on Ancestry. I feel my GGPs are listed as siblings to some people out there (hidden) with trees. I also wonder if one of my GGF migrated from Azores. Lovely article. Gives me hope.

    September 16, 2020

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