Spanish Colonial Records in Hispanic Research
Occasionally, searching the records of the American country to which the ancestor immigrated will not yield the place of origin. This is particularly true if the immigrant ancestor arrived during the colonial period (1492–1821), for which there may be no records preserved in America that could indicate the place of origin in Spain. Only when all possible sources in the new country have been exhausted, or a Latin American or U.S. source has provided a clue as to a specific type of record in Spain that should be searched, should a search in Spanish archives begin.
Records relating to Spain’s American colonies are of two types: (1) purely local records that were generated for various administrative purposes, and (2) records involving transactions between Spain and her colonies or between private individuals in Spain and others in the colonies. This last category involves a wide variety of transactions: commercial, governmental, travel, and military.
Local records sent to Spain from the American colonies are extremely varied. Some involve explicit details of daily life, as reported by local governors; some include detailed records on particular individuals, such as those compiled by the Inquisition and by the military orders in reviewing the background of a person. Many official government documents were prepared in triplicate, with one copy kept in the local archives, a second copy sent to a viceregal or audiencia capital (found today in Latin American national archives), and a third sent to the appropriate governing body in Spain. The most valuable and extensive repository of such local American records in Spain is the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville.
Records relating to specific individuals and families residing in the Americas can be found throughout the archives of Spain. When all possible American sources have been exhausted, check potential Spanish archival sources for information to connect ancestors with a specific parish in Spain. In spite of the wide variety of archives that contain such material, the vast majority of documents relating to the Spanish colonies and colonial governments are limited to these three archives:
- The Archivo General de las Indias in Seville, containing records of the Casa de la Contratación (Commercial House), Consejo de Indias (Council of the Indies), and other entirely colonial administrative entities existing before 1820.
- The Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid, containing records for nineteenth-century colonial administration of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
- The Archivo General de Simancas in the province of Valladolid, containing records of Castilian government before 1800, including many records relating to the Americas found mixed in general administrative sections, such as Guerra (War) and Hacienda (Treasury).
Extensive guides and inventories exist for each of these archives, in books, handwritten indexes, and online. The last offers actual digital images of many documents in their collections.