Spanish Emigration Records in Hispanic Research

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Hispanic Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Hispanic Research
Church Records in Hispanic Research
Immigration Records in Hispanic Research
Spanish Colonial Records in Hispanic Research
Spanish Emigration Records in Hispanic Research
Government Records in Hispanic Research
Spanish Nobility Records in Hispanic Research
Military Records in Hispanic Research
Using Newspapers in Hispanic Research
Census Records in Hispanic Research
List of Useful Hispanic Research Resources

This article originally appeared in "Hispanic Research" by George R. Ryskamp, JD, AG in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

During the colonial period before 1790, passenger lists were generated by the Casa de la Contratación as part of the commercial regulations of the American colonies. Found in the third section of the Archives of the Indies in Seville, the passenger lists can be divided into two categories: (1) listas (lists) or libros de pasajeros (books of passengers); and (2) informaciones y licencias (information and licenses). The former, covering the period from 1509 to 1701, is a series of books recording the names of passengers traveling from Seville to the Indies. (Seville was the only legal port of departure for ships going to the Americas.) The sub-section covering the period from 1534 to 1790 for informaciones and licencias is a collection of loose copies of petitions requesting special permission or license to travel to the Americas to settle or conduct certain business; in many cases, these were the same individuals who appear in the passenger lists. In nearly all cases, both the passenger lists and the permissions petitions record the name of the emigrant or, in the case of whole families, the name of the head of the family and his place of birth or residence before emigrating to the Americas.

There is some question as to whether even a majority of those actually going to the Americas appear in the passenger lists at Seville. It was, of course, possible to travel by ship to England or France, and from there to go to the colonies on one of the many ships that illegally transported merchandise (contrary to Spain’s prohibition of non-Spanish ships in her colonies). It is also likely that many captains were willing, for an appropriate fee, to allow a passenger to embark for the colonies without prior legal approval. Recording was even less complete in the last half of the eighteenth century, following a policy of liberalization, which allowed commerce between the colonies and the ports of Seville, Alicante, Malaga, Cartagena, Barcelona, and La Coruna. After 1792, even more liberal policies allowing trade with any ports in Spain and with many of the non-Spanish ports of Europe and the Americas contributed further to the lack of records. Peter Boyd-Bowman, in the introduction to Indice biogeográfico de cuarenta mil Pobladores españoles de América en el Siglo XVI, expresses a belief that passenger lists reflect only about 20 percent of those who actually went to the Americas during at least the first sixty-year period.17 Others put the number as high as 80 percent. No matter which estimate is correct, there are two important things to remember: (1) the passenger lists at Seville are extremely valuable because, for those names that do appear, they are a key to finding a specific locality of origin in Spain; (2) the immigrant ancestor’s non-appearance does not mean that he or she did not emigrate during that time period but is merely an indication that he or she may have been among that percentage of individuals who did not follow the procedures to obtain official approval for immigration to the Americas. (Note that the rich as well as the poor evaded such restrictions for a variety of reasons, including those who came as military personnel, and that failure to follow official procedures is no indication as to the character or financial state of the person involved.)

The staff of the Archives of the Indies at Seville developed an index to the entire section of passenger lists, including both the listas y libros de pasajeros and the informaciones y licencias. Seven volumes of the Catálogo de pasajeros a Indias are now available in printed form, covering the years 1509 to 1599.18 The entries are arranged by date, with an alphabetical index by surname in the back of the volume. Each entry contains the name of the individual, parents’ names (when known), and the residence or place of birth in Spain (figure 17-7). This work is further supplemented by Peter Boyd-Bowman, Indice geobiográfico de 56 mil pobladores de América.19 These two volumes cover the period from 1493 to 1539, which includes nearly all of the 15,000 entries in the first two volumes of the Catálogo de pasajeros a Indias; the volumes draw extensively from archives throughout Spain and the Americas to arrive at the 56,000 individuals contained in the index. For the period from 1600 until 1790, the archive’s staff compiled a massive card index of the archive’s passenger list section that can now be found at

There are no passenger lists available in a single major archive for the nineteenth century, although there are for the period before 1790. During the first years following the end of the colonial period there was little emigration from Spain. However, as the political and social situation stabilized in the former colonies, in Spain the pressure of population increase, agricultural limitations, political unrest, mandatory military service (beginning in 1835), and civil war resulted in increased emigration. By 1840, governors of the coastal provinces in northern Spain and, by 1853, the national government were sufficiently concerned that new regulations controlling emigration were issued. The required documentation, which varied from one province to another and over time, included the following:

  1. Provincial passport.
  2. Fianza (bond).
  3. Statement from the alcalde (local mayor) or corresponding local official as to the person’s good conduct and legitimate reasons to travel, and that there are no outstanding obligations, financial or military.
  4. La obligación de paga de reales (contract for payment of passage).
  5. Licencia de los padres o de esposo (permission of parents or spouse).
  6. Contrata de embarque (boarding contract).

The challenge to the researcher is in locating these documents. Provincial passport registers are found in the provincial historical archive of the issuing province (usually the province of embarkation). It is likely that the statement of good conduct, the parents’ permission, and possibly the bond will have been prepared and signed before the notary or municipal secretary of the hometown. While these documents may be found among home sources, this information is unfortunately of little value in locating the place of origin.

The boarding contract, passage payment contract, and sometimes the bond may be found in the notarial records of the port city of embarkation. If that port has been identified, a search in its notarial records for the time period might prove helpful. Unfortunately, these documents are not indexed or segregated from other notarial documents, so a personal search among them would be necessary. See chapter 12 of Tracing Your Hispanic Heritage for a description of this process.

The contrata de embarque is in reality a full passenger list in many cases. Spanish historians’ recent interest in these documents has resulted in the identification and indexing of two sets, published in the following books: María Pilar Pildain Salazar’s Ir A América: La emigración Vasca a América and Juan Carlos de la Madrid Alvarez’s El Viaje de los emigrantes Asturianos a América.[1] Check the Family History Library Catalog and other library catalogs for similar books.

Although national passports only came into use around 1920 in Spain, passports have been in use for a much longer period in Latin America. In addition, certain Spanish maritime provinces required passports in the nineteenth century, and these are found in the provincial historical archives. Unfortunately, there are no published indexes to these records, and generally there are no internal archive indexes. The Immigrant Ancestors Project of the Center for Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University is working on identifying and extracting these emigration records from hundreds of archives in Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal. More about the project and the resulting free searchable index can be found at the project website.


  1. Maria Pilar Pildain Salazar, Ir A América: La emigración Vasca a América (Guipuzcoa 1840-1870) (San Sebastián, Spain: Donostia, 1984); and Juan Carlos de la Madrid Alvarez, El Viaje de los emigrantes Asturianos a America (Gijon, Spain: Biblioteca Histórica Asturiana, 1989).

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