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Beginning Spanish Research

Author: George y Peggy Hill Ryskamp

Millions of document pages exist in Spanish archives, a reality that is both enticing and intimidating for anyone searching for Hispanic ancestors. But understanding how to access and use Spain’s wealth of records can give even a novice researcher—working from either side of the ocean—the promise of successfully tracing family lines.

One challenge all researchers face is finding information about that key ancestor, the immigrant who left his or her birthplace in Spain and came to the New World. As a further challenge, frequently the immigrant passed first through another country before establishing finally in Argentina, Mexico, or the United States. Four key pieces of information are vital in tracing ancestral lines from Spain: 1) the person’s name, 2) place of birth, 3) at least approximate date of birth, and 4) if possible, parents’ names. The place of birth is pivotal as it gives the place to search in Spain, where nearly all records are housed on a local level.

Church Records and Government Vital Records
Catholic baptism, marriage, and burial records often include the place of birth of one or more generations. (Remember, nearly all Spaniards were Roman Catholic.)

Many times, church records made at the time of a significant family event before a trusted confidant such as the priest will give more specific details than a record of the same event made in the more formal setting of a public building. This is especially true for marriage records, where often the bride and groom needed to establish proof of being Catholic by naming the parish where they were baptized as infants.

The article “Catholic Marriage Records,” published in the May/June 2002 issue of Ancestry Magazine, is online here. It can help you find more information about these records and how to locate them. You’ll find that marriage records for Latin America regularly give the town or parish of birth.

Sources for Immigrant Information
Passenger lists can be a valuable source for immigrants arriving at U.S. seaports. After 1892 they provide the place of birth, but before that time information on them is more limited. For those immigrants who ended up in the United States and came via Mexico and Canada, U.S. border-crossing records give similar information. Many of these records are available through the U.S. National Archives and most are arranged alphabetically. In Spain, the Archivo General de las Indias, located in the former port city of Seville, has an extensive series of Spanish passenger lists and licenses covering the years before 1790. Those from the years 1500 through 1599 have been published and are available in many large libraries in the United States. Those of the next two centuries are available at Archivos Españoles en Red online at www.aer.es. Be prepared for challenges with this non-user-friendly site. However, if you are certain your ancestor left Spain during this time period, the results could prove worth the effort.

An increasingly significant source for tracing Spanish immigrants is the Immigrant Ancestor Project, a product of the Center for Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. With the recognition that immigrant information is more complete in the country of origin, several student interns have spent weeks at a time in Spanish archives for the past three years locating and retrieving documentation relating to immigration from Spanish archives.

While the scope of the project will extend throughout Europe, copies have already been made of thousands of emigration documents from sources as varied as a small municipal archives in Llanes, in northern Spain, to the Spanish national archives for the twentieth century housed in Alcala de Henares. Complete passport collections from the archives of Cadiz and Santander have been scanned, extracted, and are now available to search online at http://immigrants.byu.edu, with more being generated daily. The value of these records, generated by the immigrant at the time of his or her departure, speaks for itself.

Where in Spain?
Finding the name of a location quickly leads to the question: Where in Spain is this? Spain varies dramatically geographically, and the possibilities for your ancestor’s home could range from the rugged mountains of the northern Basque country to the flat, hot southern stretches of Andalucia, to anywhere in between.

A good Spanish atlas will most often give an answer. Another good source for finding place names is a detailed road map, although the place name may have changed since the time your ancestor lived there. Another excellent location source is the Madoz geographical dictionary, a sixteen-volume set published by Pascual Madoz 1849–1852 and reprinted in 1993 by the Centro Cultural Santa Ana in Almendralejo, Spain. This comprehensive series describes nearly every town, village, and hamlet in the mid-nineteenth century, giving critical information such as civil and ecclesiastical boundaries and also daily life details like the number of houses, types of crops, and how often the mail was delivered.

The Map of Spain
The Iberian Peninsula contains the countries of Spain and Portugal. Historically, perhaps as a natural result of its mountainous nature, Spain divided itself into sixteen regions: Aragon, La Rioja, Cataluna, Asturias, Galicia, Castilla la Vieja, Castilla la Nueva, Extremadura, Andalucia, the Basque Country, Valencia, Leon, Navarra, Murcia, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands. Each of these regions is distinctive in geography, climate, and local culture.

Today, however, Spain is divided into fifteen autonomous communities. While some of these have maintained the same name and geographic boundaries as their historic counterparts, others have been merged or been given new names. Remember this distinction when looking for a certain location on a map or for a town based on family tradition as to its region.

Spanish place names include the lugar, municipio, parroquia, and provincia. Any of these could be given as a place of birth, residence, or marriage, particularly several years later in a government or church record. Civil divisions for an ancestral hometown may not necessarily be the same as the ecclesiastical divisions. For example, a person living in the province of Salamanca may not be from the diocese of that name, but from that of Ciudad Rodrigo.

One family found information on its grandparents, who were immigrants to the United States via Cuba, described in a civil marriage record as coming from Carballo, La Coruña, Spain. Because of an oral tradition, the family was believed to have originated from the region of Galicia. The correct Carballo was located on a map from several other towns of the same name. From the Madoz dictionary the family learned that Carballo pertains to the diocese of Santiago de Compostela, where they then went to look at parish records. In searching Carballo’s parish records, however, they found no family members during the appropriate dates nor any families at all with the same surname. A quick search of a local map revealed the explanation: Carballo is the name of not only a town with a local parish, but also a municipality containing twelve separate Catholic parishes in which Carballo is the capital. After searching through local censuses (padrones) in the Carballo municipal archives, the right family was located on a page for the hamlet of Rus, one of the twelve parishes in the municipality.

What Records Are Available?
This example of using censuses also illustrates the importance of knowing what records may exist. In general, the registers of Spain are comprehensive and excellent, and even in cases where some have been destroyed (generally the result of damage during the Napoleanic invasion [1808–14] and the Spanish Civil War [1936–39]), family lines can still be traced if a researcher is aware of existing record options.

Church Records
Thanks to a mandate by the Council of Trent in the 1560s, the worldwide Catholic Church has maintained records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths since approximately that time. In Spain many parishes begin even a generation earlier. While parish records vary in quality depending on the time period and competency of the local priest who maintained them, they remain the backbone of Spanish genealogy research.

The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed the parish records in about one third of the dioceses of Spain. These parish records can be located online through the Family History Library Catalog at www.familysearch.org, and copies of microfilm can be ordered through local Family History Centers. Note that in many dioceses only some of the parish records were filmed. If records for a parish are not found on microfilm, check in the Guia de la Iglesia en España (Madrid: Oficina de Estadística, 1951), with supplements in 1955, 1956, and 1957. Among these four volumes, parish records are described in detail for about ninety percent of all Spanish parishes. The CD version of this work, published in Barcelona in 2000, is more complete but not readily available. One caution in using this guide, however, is that in some instances parishes will not be mentioned nor properly described. Never assume that records do not exist based on information found or not found in the Guía de la Iglesia.

At first, the format and unfamiliar handwriting of a parish entry may seem daunting to a beginning researcher, but with patience and a few guidelines these records will come to feel familiar and enjoyable. Chapter nine of the book Finding Your Hispanic Roots (GPC, 1997) gives a detailed discussion in English of researching in parish records. The book Spanish Records Extraction, originally printed in English by the LDS Church to help those doing parish-record extraction and now available online at http://script.byu.edu/spanish/en/guide.aspx, contains an excellent series of lessons on how to read Spanish-language parish records.

The format of repetitive words and phrases in a parish record can be used as a structure to help puzzle out difficult handwriting in the remaining entry. For example, the date (usually given at the beginning) will include a limited number of word options and can give clues in deciphering particularly challenging letters. Some phrases will quickly become signals of important information to follow. Bauticé solemnemente a or a similar phrase will precede the name of the child being baptized; casé y velé en facie iglesia is generally the phrase used before the names of the bride and groom in a marriage entry.

The names of parents (and grandparents, which are often given) should be carefully noted along with indications of origin (natural de) and residence (vecino de). The names of the padrinos, should also be noted, as often they may be related or come from a neighboring town that might turn out to have family members in it. This practice is especially helpful in cases where grandparents’ names are not given.

Government Records
Spaniards have been inveterate record keepers since the Middle Ages. Among extensive government records a researcher could possibly find documents relating to court cases, emigration, taxation, business permits, laws and regulations, and much more. Indexes to many of these from the Spanish National Archives can be found online at www.aer.es . However, the most important government records for the beginning researcher are found locally.

Civil Registration and Censuses
Civil registration began in Spain in 1870, in records the British genealogist Gerald Hamilton Edwards described as “the best in the world” because of their incredible detail. Unfortunately, none of these records have been microfilmed, and they can often be consulted only in the local juzgado or in small towns in the city hall, in many cases only with the permission of a local judge. Generally, letters written from the United States to the juzgado requesting document copies are answered within two to six months. Municipal civil registers covering the years 1839–69 may be found in many municipal archives as well.

Census records are generally found in municipal archives, as described above in the example from Carballo. Consequently they cannot be used as a locator tool like U.S. federal censuses, however they often contain excellent detailed descriptions of complete families, even during the eighteenth century. A national census known as the Catastro de Ensenada, taken between 1749 and 1752 in the areas under the control of the crown of Castile, is microfilmed for most towns and available worldwide through local Family History Centers.

Notarial Records
Notaries in Spain perform much the same function as a contract, drafting wills, marriage contracts, land sale documents, guardianship papers, death inventories, and much more. For hundreds of years, notaries have preserved these documents. The resulting chronologically arranged bound books are generally housed today in a provincial historical archive in each of Spain’s fifty provinces.

The experience of working with the loosely structured format and legal terminology of notarial records can be both frustrating and intimidating. Notarial documents, however, will pay dividends to the persistent researcher. Not only do they validate and flesh out information found in parish records, but in the event that these have been destroyed or are missing information, notarial research can provide the key to overcoming challenging family connections. For the period from 1611 to 1696, the parish marriage records of Cantalpino, in the province of Salamanca, no longer exist or do not give parents’ names. Notarial records, particularly wills and marriage contracts outlining family lineages in the process of bequeathing goods from one generation to another, have allowed the Sanchez family, for example, to link many direct-line families found in the existing baptismal records, which begin in 1553.

Notarial records have also helped clarify family ties in cases of surname flexibility, a common challenge in Spanish research before 1650. In another part of Spain, in the city of Zorita, province of Caceres, the finding of a will in the notarial books managed to tie a family together. The testator, Alonso Sanchez Ximenez, names as his heirs “my children Tome Xil Canos, Maria Rodriguez and Alonso Sanchez Ximenez.” No other document gives a distinct surname for each child—explaining at last the challenges posed by that family line.

Success in Spanish Records
There are a number of books and resources available either online or in bookstores that can guide both beginning and advanced Spanish researchers. With these helps, even a beginning researcher who knows the place of origin in Spain should be able to trace back several generations, if not several centuries. Research can be conducted from filmed records for many places in Spain. For others, research by correspondence, hiring a professional researcher, or traveling to Spain can yield equally excellent results. Regardless of the method or combination of methods a researcher chooses, Spain’s detailed volumes of civil registers, parish records, censuses, and notarial records promise the possibility of successful results.

George R. Ryskamp, J.D., AG is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, member of the Academia Americana de Genealogía, author of numerous books and articles, and international lecturer. His wife Peggy has helped facilitate much of the above. The couple offers research services through Hispanic Family History Research.

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