Civil Legal Documents
As the Spanish colonies moved beyond the initial frontier stage, legal documents were recorded by escribanos, or notaries. A summary of the kind of document that would appear in a notary archive indicates a wealth of information for the family historian: wills, adoptions, emancipations, sales of rural and urban land, construction of buildings, proof of purity of blood, nobility records, transfers of titles, dowries, rescue of captives, sales of slaves, marriage contracts, sales of cloth, sales of horses, printing of books, apprenticeship records, contracts with professionals, land titles, executions, inventories of decedents’ estates, guardianship estates, mining claims, powers of attorney, and many others.
Petitions or lawsuits filed as part of the governmental apparatus frequently appear in collections of civil legal documents retained in colonial archives. In some cases, these were lawsuits in the sense that they involved a dispute between two civil parties. In others, they were petitions requesting governmental approval or the granting of privileges, somewhat similar to probate or guardianship petitions in today’s courts. Generally, those labeled petición were of the type requesting governmental service or approval. A demanda was a claim—usually against a third party—relating to a contract or other dispute, the initial document in a litigation action. Similarly, a diligencia represents the final order or response of the responsible person to one of the above.