Tonga customs and research ideas

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A case study with research steps, and description of genealogy resources in the Family History Library.

Customs[edit | edit source]

The importance of correct family lines is jealously guarded, and has everything to do with land acquisition and passing on the titles of nobility. These concepts pre-date the Christian era.

In the case of weddings or funerals, there is a very exact order of things to follow. Who is in charge and makes the decisions is decided by the extended family, rather than the immediate family. Every person is inferior or superior to other family members. A female usually outranks a male, sometimes going back a couple of generations. Each person must know his or her place in the family genealogy to determine who is sitting in the proper place in the kava circle, which has great importance in the social and political life of each person.

Titles and Rank

To keep track of family ties, many Tongans make a  Tohi Hohoko map, a document which shows the descendants of their ancestral lines. The ancestral family is called the Ha`a, and most of us know which ha`a we are from.  Chiefly titles are divided into ha'a (clan groups or lineages), with titles being "sons" or "younger brothers" to the most senior title of that ha'a.  The ha'a, formerly the basis of military alliances and still defining ritual obligations, gradually became less important in the 20th century.

The aristocrats (hou'eiki) of Tongan society trace their descent from the Tu'i Tonga or sacred ruler.  Their status is assured regardless of titleholding.  In the 18th century there were many titles (indicating control of land-and-people).  Only a few of these titleholding chiefs were given the status of hereditary estateholder (nopele or matapule ma'u tofi'a) by Tupou I ( in 1875, 1880, and 1882), by Tupou II (1894 and 1903), and by Salote Tupou III (1921).  The place of residence for the Tu'i Tonga was Mu'a.

There are two other noble lines that impact Tongan genealogy.  A change in government was done during the reign of Tu'i Tonga Kau'ulufonuafekai.  He appointed his younger brother, Mo'ungamotu'a as the 1st Tu'i Ha'atakalaua, as a temportal king in 1470.  Tu'i Tonga would remain the sacred or spiritual king while the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua would take care of running the kingdom overseeing the cultivation of plantations, and directing the people in bringing tribute to the Tu'i Tonga.  Over time the Tu'i Tonga's power would wane and the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua's would grow.

Later the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua line would create another noble line known as the Tu'i Kanokupolu during the reign of the 6th Tu'i Ha'atakalaua Mo'ugatoga, who had married a Samoan chieftian named Tohuia from the island of Upolu, Samoa.  Their son Ngata would receive the title and serve as the 1st Tu'i Kanakupolu [meaning the Heart of Upolu honoring his mother's island].  Ngata's personal god was known as Taliai Tupou and the name "Tupou" was adopted by many Tu'i Kanakupolu rulers and is now always affixed to the name of the reigning sovereign.  Over time, the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua's power would wane during the time of Tu'i Ha'ataklaua Mulikiha'amea [1799] and the Tu'i Kanakupolu's power would grow culminating in the union of all of Tonga [Ha'apai, Vava'u, and Tongatapu islands] under one ruler, King George Tupou I [1852].


People moved from one village to another, so create a residental history of where your ancestors lived during their lives. Then study the history of the villages where they lived.

If you do a village family history project, all village families should be contacted and included in the project, especially the Nobles. As like European overseers, Tongan Nobles ,their parents and grandparents knew who were in their village and may have information to share with you about your ancestor.


The further back in time, the more likely that a person has changed his or her name. If someone did something, proving themself in a certain way, they may change their name accordingly. Study the context of the person’s life, including parents, and other family members when dealing with name changes. On some government and church records, the person’s several names may be given.

Surnames were unknown in Tonga prior to the setting up of mission schools in Tonga and were not widely used until the expansion of secondary education in the late 1940s.  Nowaday's most Tongans have a Tonganized papalangi name (e.g. Melenaite = Mary Knight; 'Ilaisaane = Eliza Ann; Sione = John; Tevita = David) plus a Tongan personal name (e.g. Manu, Finau, Ofa) and a surname. 

Some names are not gender-specific, e.g. Tupou and Manu can be given used by both male and female.

Tongan Spelling

Prior to 1943 the letter g stood for the sound ng, and the Wesleyan schools used the letter b where the Catholic schools used p; j had earlier been largely abandoned in favor of s.  In 1943 His Royal Highness Prince Tupouto's, newly appointed Minister for Education, and upon becoming the ruling monarch of Tonga in 1965, and known to his people as His Majesty Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, approved the substitution of ng for g and promoted uniformity in the use of p and s (eliminating b and j entirely), divided words that were formerly one word, and standarized the use of the glottal stop (fakau'a) in written texts where the sound occurred in spoken speech.

Therefore, researchers may encounter written records that 'look' different, however, are the same person. Case study:  Prior to 1943, maternal grandfather of Caroline Wolfgramm Irwin was known in government and religious records as Baula Lagi.  After 1943, this same individual is known in written record as Paula [Paul] Langi.  The slight difference in the sound of "P" substituting for letter "B".  Other relatives' names were also subtlely changed going from Jio to Sio [Joe].


On outlying islands, people would often wait to get births, marriages, and deaths recorded at the headquarters of the place where they lived. Sometimes, people did not know the exact date of their birth. For instance, one man had an estimated birth date on his record that had been given by his mother a few years after his birth. The record also contained the date that he had been told was his real birth date. When the man had to decide which date to keep, he chose the one on the record that was an estimated birth date because it was the same as a favourite relative. His reasoning was to honor this relative by using the same birth date as his own even though it was not accurate. It may or may not be possible to be completely accurate with dates.

Case Study[edit | edit source]

I am Tisina Melila Wolfgramm Gerber. My husband is Roy Gerber.

My father is Iohani Otto Melila Wolfgramm. He was born in 1911 and died in 1997. His father was Charles Fredrick Wolfgramm, and his mother was Salome Fo`ou Afu. Dad’s grandfather, Frederick Gustav Ludwig Wolfgramm, emigrated from Pyritz, Pomern, Prussia in 1885 to join others of his family, who were copra traders. Frederick’s wife was Kisaea Sisifa, daughter of Afi`a Folola Havea Tu`i Ha`ateiho and Ilaisa`ane Pita Haveatuli.

My mother is Salote Lasini Fakatou, who was born in 1915. Her father was Penisoni Kaufusi Fakatou and her mother was Selu Vaia Mafi. My parents, Iohani and Salote, had 19 children, of which I am the 5th child born to them.

My father moved to the United States in 1960.

Following are some things I have learned in doing Tongan family history work:

1. Interview family members and write their information.
My father has worked and prayed a lot to get the information of his family, and so has my mom. We have talked for hours with my father and mother, and I helped them record in writing the things they have memorized and the records they have obtained. Also, I talked with my Aunt Edna P. Wolfgramm Burningham, to get information on the German lines. It is important to talk to the older relatives and make sure their information is recorded while they are still living.

2. Gather written records.
My mother wrote our family genealogy on a family map, or Hohoko. Many Tongan families have charts like this. She wrote on sail cloth with a ball point pen so it could be folded up and carried and not be torn or destroyed by the elements. The map is about 4 feet wide and 20 feet long. (See the picture in Step 5 of the Pacific Island Guide.)  I used this map to copy the basic information I needed.

3. Enter information into Personal Ancestral File or similar computer program.
Family members helped me copy the information from the Hohoko into the Person Ancesral File computer program. From there, it can be printed out as pedigree charts and family group records preparing the names for publication and other work you wish to share.

4. Write what is learned and share the information with others.
We also compiled the stories of our family and published them in a book, Tisina Wolfgramm Gerber, Man of Faith and Courage [FHL book 921.9612 G313i]. Testimonies, family stories and memories, as well as family history of our ancestors have been compiled in this book.   You also could eventually compile your family stories into a book, if you have the time and the means to do it,

5. Share the information with others.
Before we came to America, my father was able to get permission to copy the royal lineage charts of Amelia Tamaha at the Kings’ palace, and several other charts of Royal ancestors. He brought these with him. The family donated them to the Family History Library as the Iohani and Salote Wolfgramm Papers mentioned below.

Research Ideas and Resources[edit | edit source]

Most Tongans know the name of an ancestor who was a chief. Look for this ancestor in one or more of the following sources. Compare the different sources to get a more complete genealogy.

Iohani and Salote Wolfgramm Papers

Tisina Wolfgramm Gerber donated the information which was collected by her family and they were microfilmed. [Iohani and Salote Wolfgramm Papers] (Salt Lake City: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 2003) [FHL film 1224623]. The papers on this microfiom include the charts of the royal families which Iohani gathered in the 1050s before he left for the United States.

  • 95 Genealogy Charts of Royal Families, Nobles, and Chiefs from `Ahoeitu and Tangaloa and his son `Ahoeitu (the first Tui Tonga, 950 A.D.) to Tui Ha`atakalaua, 1450, including the Ha`a Túi Kanokupolu line. (This is not a complete record, but only a few from the Genealogy papers of Iohani and Salote Wolfgramm).
  • Amelia Tamaha Records from the year 1844
  • Túi Latai Mataele (who came from the royal lines) book of records (copied from the Tongan Royal Palace).
  • Veikune book of records of Queen Matáaho’s father.
  • 77 Genealogy Charts of Royal Families, Nobles, and Chiefs from `Ahueitu and Tangaloa and his son `Aho Eitu, the first Tui Tonga 950 A.D. to Takulaua Tui, Ha`a Takalaua 1450, including the Ha'a Túi Kanokupolu line.These charts are in larger print, with some additional names than are found on the 99 Genealogy Charts of Royal Families, Nobles, and Chiefs in this same collection.

Kakolosi Tui’one's Tongan Pedigree Maps and CD

Kakolosi K. Tui’one, Tongan Pedigree Charts Including Royal Lineages (West Valley City, Utah: K. Tui'one, 2002) [CD-ROM no. 1125 supp.; PEDIGREE no. 2182 pt. 1-71]

During his life, Kakolosi Tui’one worked hard to collect the records of the royal family of Tonga. He was given permission in 1949 to copy the records of the royal family. These records are on “maps” or hohoko charts. They are on a Compact Disc that must be read by a Computer Assisted Design (AutoCAD14) program. (It is not possible to see what is on the CD by loading it onto a regular word processing program).

The maps are 32 by 41 inches and cannot be printed out by a regular computer printer because they are in AutoCad format. There are 70 maps in the set. You can callKakolosi’s children at 801-446-5362 and they will print out the ones requested. If you want to buy the CD with all of the files on it, you can also request it from the Tui’one Family. The family donated a copy to the Family History Library, which has the call number CD-ROM no. 1125 - INTL Lib Att Win.

A printed copy of these maps is located in the bottom drawer of one of the large pedigree chart and map cases in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The call number is PEDIGREE no. 2182, pt. 1 - 71 INTL Pedigree File. Ask a Library Attendant for help in getting them.

Note: Because the maps are computerized, each map has a file name. The file name contains family names on the charts. They start with the letters of the alphabet contained in the map. Look at the index to see the file names for the maps and the name of the ancestral couple of the decendants on that map.

The Cole Jensen Collection

An important collection of copied genealogies for Tonga is found in the Cole-Jensen Collection: Oral Genealogies and Genealogical Information Collected from the Polnesian Peoples and from the Pacific Islands.  These records were collected over a 50 year period and microfilmed in 1984 by the Genealogical Sociey of Utah.  The original collection consisted of 51 binders.  The original materials no longer exist as an intact collection.  However, there are nine microfilms: 1358001 through 1358009, available at various family history centers.  This collection contains family group records, pedigree charts, and oral genealogies collected from the lslands of Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Cook Islands, and French Polynesia, including the Society, Marquesas, Austral Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago.  The following microfilms contain Tongan information:

1358004:  Newspaper article with pictures of Queen Salote Tupou III and Tongan genealogies from Binder 20.

1358006:  Names, dates, and places for 1000 pedigree charts.  From Binder 35. 

1358007:   Family Pedigree Charts of Hawaii,, New Zealand, and Tonga. (Not indexed); Genealogy from Tonga Islands, collected by Sinisa Fakalata 

1358008:  Genealogy of Tonga: Ko'e Tohi Hohoko Eni 'A Kingi Siaosi Tupou II. Written in 1903 and copy given to Rudy Wolfgramm. Tonga Genealogy; Family Records; Kingdom of Tonga and Island Families; "Koe Tohi Hohoko" with table of contents.  Ko'e Tohi Hohoko Eni 'Ae Haa Tu'i Kanokupolu, 150 pages; Takalaua and Vaeleveamata Story, 121 Pages.

Government Death records of Vavau 1880-1941,133 pages; Niuatoputapu Births 1888-1944 and Deaths:1888-1939 with index of 78 pages, Copied by Sione M. Kauvaka and is only those related to Sione M. Kauvaka according to V. Hemaloto.

Birth and Death Rocords of Ha'apai District copied by Sinisi Fakalata, Islands mixed.  Contains some from Niuatoputapu and Vava'u with an index.

Tohi Hohoko: Family Genealogies from Tongan Islands, including a summarized version of the Cole Jensen Binder 43, compiled by Etuini Tupou from the Tamaha records in 1844.

Tongan Oral Histories

Kalolaina Mapa and Tevita Mapa were commissioned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gather oral genealogies throughout Tonga during the 1970s. There are over 800 Tongan oral genealogical interviews, which they gathered on reel-to-reel tapes. The tapes were transcribed, and the transcripts were microfilmed. In 2006, the tapes were transferred to compact disc (CD) in order to preserve them. For more information about these oral histories click on Tongan Oral History.

Using the FamilySearch Catalog to Find Tongan Sources

The Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog will help you find and use records about Tongans. In the online Catalog click on each blue underlined topic or title to see more details about it. Click the View Film Notes button to see microfilm numbers. The sources on microfilm may be viewed at your local Family History Center. To find a family history center near you,click here. Search the online Catalog for the records of Tongan ancestors at each of the following levels:

National level. Use the Place Search to find the records of for the whole nation of Tonga. To do this click here, and then click on the blue underlined topic of interest.

Island group level. Likewise, use the Place Search to find additional records at the island group level. Click one of the main three island groups below and then click on the blue underlined topic of interest within that group.

Island level. Some of the records of Tonga are about an entire island, for example, Niuafo'ou. To start, open the the Place Search by clicking here . Then find records at the island level by typing the name of the island in the Place field, and then clicking on the Search button. In the Place Search Results click the blue underlined name of the island. Then click the blue underlined topic of interest for that island to see titles under that topic. Click the blue underlined title to see more details. If available, also click the View Film Notes button.

Village level. Some records are only about one village, for example, Hoi. To start, open the the Place Search by clicking here . Then find records at the village level by typing the name of the village in the Place field, and then clicking on the Search button. In the Place Search Results click the blue underlined name of the village. Then click the blue underlined topic of interest for that village to see titles under that topic. Click the blue underlined title to see more details. If available, also click the View Film Notes button.