Spanish, Portuguese and Basque Genealogy Research Guide

By David A. Fryxell Premium

It’s a paradox: Although Hispanics recently became the largest ethnic group in the United States, the US Census Bureau doesn’t even count the number of people who trace their ancestry back to Spain. Many Hispanic Americans, of course, combine a variety of native heritages with Spanish, and their roots wind through the many Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Indeed, their only connection with Spain may be the Spanish language. But once you’ve researched your family tree in the Americas, you may find a branch that crosses the Atlantic, all the way back to Spain. Instead of coming through Ellis Island, however, your Spanish ancestors probably arrived at a port somewhere south of the border.

Remember, too, that the first settlements in the New World were not the English towns of Jamestown and Plymouth, but rather outposts of the Spanish empire. The oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, Fla., was founded by the Spanish in 1565 — 42 years before the British settled at Jamestown. The Spanish founded Santa Fe, NM, in 1610, were settling in Texas by 1682 (near El Paso) and began establishing missions in California in 1769. So the Spanish roots here also run deep.

Portuguese-Americans often have a more direct ancestral link to the old country than those from neighboring Spain. They celebrate their heritage in Portuguese enclaves ranging from Fall River and New Bedford, Mass., to California, where the Portuguese Historical Museum in San Jose preserves their past <>, and all the way to Hawaii. Besides Portugal itself, a significant strand of immigration also came from the country’s Azores islands, located 972 miles off Portugal’s Atlantic coast. Overall, the Census Bureau estimates that some 1.3 million Americans have Portuguese ancestry. In addition to those whose ancestors emigrated directly from Portugal, of course, people with ties to Brazil, South America’s largest country, also share a Portuguese heritage and language.

Other ethnic groups have found their way from the Iberian peninsula to the United States — notably the Basques, who originate from a Rhode Island-sized area that straddles the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. Linguists say their language, Euskara, is unrelated to any other. Though only about 70,000 Americans claim Basque ancestry, their influence belies their population, especially in the Western states. The Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise, Idaho <www.>, and the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada-Reno <> help preserve this rich heritage. You can discover and preserve your own family’s Iberian heritage by following these steps.

Accent on languages

To begin tracing your Spanish, Portuguese or other Iberian roots, you may first want a crash course in your ancestors’ language. Unlike the fortunate descendants of English-speaking European countries — and unlike those with common ancestries such as German and Italian, where resources are frequently in English — Portuguese and Spanish researchers will hit a language barrier. Even many of the most useful sites on the Web — that English-dominated global resource — are in Spanish or Portuguese. Where other ethnic ancestries have WorldGenWeb sites <www.> in English, the site for Spain <> “speaks” only Spanish. Portugal doesn’t have a GenWeb site, though there is a good resource for the Azores at < azoresindex.html>. It includes useful Portuguese information — and it’s in English.

Beyond the Web, you’ll need at least a smattering of your ancestral language to write for records and make sense of the ones you find. You can compose a serviceable records request by cobbling together phrases from the Spanish and Portuguese letter-writing guides from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL). (To download the guides in PDF form, click on S or P at < frameset rhelps.asp>.) The same FHL page also contains genealogical word lists for both languages. Take advantage of free online translation services and dictionaries, too (see the resource listings).

It helps to keep in mind a few key language differences from English. The Spanish alphabet contains 28 letters, with the ñ and the combinations ch and ll considered separate characters; the letter w is not considered part of the Spanish alphabet, but it may be found in terms of foreign origin. Spanish also uses the acute accent mark (‘) over the vowels a, e, i, o and u, though these don’t affect alphabetization. Portuguese, which is similar to Spanish, sticks with the English alphabet, but the letters k and w appear only in foreign words. Portuguese also uses a blizzard of accent and diacritical marks (not affecting alphabetical order): á,é, í, ó, ú, ç, ê, ô, à, è and ü, as well as the tilde (˜) over the letters a, e, o and u.

Both Spanish and Portuguese allowed a variety of spellings in documents before the mid-1700s, when spelling was standardized. The FHL’s word lists include a brief guide to common spelling variations and letter substitutions. People in both countries write dates genealogy-style. The standard order is day, month (which is lowercased), year; de, meaning of, goes between the date and month, and the month and year. So, for example, if your Spanish great-grandfather was born March 8, 1870, you’d write: 8 de marzo de 1870. In Portuguese, the date would be 8 de março de 1870.

Surname succession

Spanish and Portuguese surnames can be tricky, but they also can supply important clues. It’s common to add prefixes such as de la to surnames — remember Zorro’s alter ego, Don Diego de la Vega? These may trip you up when scanning alphabetized lists, since the prefix is often ignored. Don Diego might look for his Spanish ancestors under De la Vega or Vega de la — check both.

On the plus side, from a genealogical standpoint, is the tradition of women’s keeping their maiden names after marriage. Every genealogist who’s despaired of finding a female ancestor’s maiden name must wish for Spanish ancestry! Another helpful Spanish tradition is for a child to take both the father’s and mother’s last names, using the father’s surname as his or her family name. So, for example, when Julia Jimenez Montero marries Alejandro Ignacio Perez, she remains Julia Jimenez Montero; she might also tack on her husband’s family name, becoming Julia Jimenez Montero de Perez. When Julia and Alejandro have a daughter, Marta, the girl would take her father’s Perez as her surname, and then add her mother’s surname (in the woman’s case, the name immediately after her Christian name) to become Marta Perez Jimenez. The Portuguese variation on this theme is that the second surname, not the first, is the man’s family name, so she would be Marta Jimenez Perez.

This pattern can be invaluable in tracing your Spanish and Portuguese ancestors. Not only will you know the last names of your grandfather, great-grandfather and so forth, but you also should know the maiden names of your grandmother and great-grandmother.

To cover your bases, you may want to look for a male ancestor under his mother’s surname as well as his father’s.

Place setting

Once you have a sense of the surnames you’re seeking, focus on geography: Where did your ancestors come from in the old country? Even once you know the answer, finding that exact place — so you can start to search for records there — may be a challenge. Hone in on the smallest geographic unit possible, but you’ll also need to know what larger jurisdiction that town or parish is part of.

In northern Spain, towns are grouped together in municipalities; but towns in southern Spain are more likely to be independent municipalities themselves. You can find an Alphabetic Listing of Spanish Municipalities on the Web at < html>. Luis del Pino, who created that listing, recommends turning to your library if the town you’re looking for doesn’t make his list. Ask if the reference department has a copy of Diccionario Geográfico, compiled about 1850 by Pascual Madoz.

Spain’s municipalities, in turn, are part of provinces. Spain has 50 provinces, though these often fall under the original 15 kingdoms that make up today’s Spain. You can find a list of those province and kingdom names under Spain at < hisorgs.htm>.

Portugal’s basic unit of geography is the town, or freguesia, which is grouped with other towns into a council — similar to counties in the United States. Multiple councils make up a district. Records are generally kept on the district level, whether at a civil registry or in libraries (bibliotecas) and archives (arquivos). Portugal proper has 18 district archives, with another three in the Azores and one in the Madeira islands; the administrative districts are named for their most important towns. You can find an online, interactive atlas of Portugal (in Portuguese, but the search is straightforward enough for non-speakers) at < din/viewer.htm>.

Help from above

Once you’ve found the right place, you may want to turn first to the church. Because both Spain and Portugal are overwhelmingly Catholic countries, local churches kept many of the older records. Civil authorities didn’t venture into the record-keeping business until the 19th century.

Spanish parishes documented christenings, confirmations, marriages and deaths beginning generally between 1550 and 1650, depending on the locale; parishes also sporadically took censuses, called padrones. According to del Pino, you may find a few parishes with records as far back as 1500, whereas others have no records before 1800. These records might be kept at the original parish, or they may have been transferred to a central bishopric archive. In general, parish books whose most recent record dates back 90 years or more have been transferred to a provincial-level archive (though that’s not universally true, del Pino warns: In the province of Toledo, for example, most church records are still in the town parishes). You can write to the bishop’s office (use the guidelines in the FHL’s letter-writing guide) at:

Excmo. Sr. Obispo de (name of diocese) (postal code) (city), (state) Spain

(You can substitute España for Spain.) Look up the appropriate postal code online at <>. If the records are still at the parish level, you can find the address using an Internet “phone book” and searching for parroquia in the appropriate city; consult < teldir> for foreign phone books online.

Similarly, Portuguese churches kept records of baptisms (batismos), marriages (casamentos) and deaths (obitos). These records typically date to the 1600s — the oldest surviving documents date from 1529 — though the information recorded changed over the years. Records from the 1800s are particularly complete and include many details. Much as in Spain, record books with no entries more recent than 90 years ago will generally be in district archives. You can write to a bishop’s office by addressing:

Exmo. Sr. Bispo da (name of diocese) (postal code) (city), (state) Portugal

(Portugal is spelled the same way in Portuguese and English.) Portuguese postal axles can he found online at <> (click Pesquisa de Código Postal).

When writing to a local parish in either country, you’ll get better results if you include a small donation — $5 or $10 — I along with your request. The FHL’s letter-writing guide advises that US currency is most convenient for the recipient. Or you could send a cashier’s check payable to “Parroquia de (locality).”

Many church records from Spain and Portugal have been microfilmed by the FHL. You can search the library’s holdings at <> (click the link under Family History Library System), and then borrow the microfilm for a small fee from your local Family History Center.

Public assistance

Spain began its official Civil Register of vital records about 1870. If the records for your ancestors haven’t been microfilmed by the FHL, you’ll need to write to the civil registration office of your family’s town:

Oficina del Registro Civil (postal code) (city), (state) Spain

You might be able to find out what records — of all sorts — have been archived for your ancestral town in Spain by searching an online catalog from the Spanish Ministry of Culture at <>. Also try the ministry’s online CIDA database (CIDA stands for Centro de Información Documental de Archivos, or Archival Document Information Center; see the box on page 59). You can search for documents containing a particular surname, or query by town or archive name. The CIDA database covers not only Spain but also many Latin American archives. Use the links at <> to find the addresses of Spanish archives where you can send requests for the documents you’ve discovered.

Portugal began voluntary civil registration for non-Catholics as early as 1832, although official records don’t begin until 1878. Civil registration became mandatory for all citizens in 1911. You can write to the civil registration office for your ancestral town by addressing your envelope according to this format:

Conservatória do Registo Civil (postal code) (city), (state) Portugal

Immigration information

Fortunately for American researchers, most early emigrants from Spain to the Americas left from Seville, situated on the Guadalquivir River. The city’s archives are extensive. The Archivo General de Indias keeps all the information about people who traveled to America from 1500 to 1800. Its List of Passengers to America (1509 to 1701) includes crucial data about each passenger: name, place of birth, parents’ names, destination, departure date and often the parents’ places of birth and the passenger’s occupation. The archive also houses the Informaciones y Licencias, the records of each passenger’s application for a license to leave. Potential emigrants were thoroughly investigated, and the information that was compiled could be a research gold mine.

The list of passengers has been converted to electronic format, so it’s easy for the archive staff to search on your behalf. The license records, unfortunately, are too vast to be made easily searchable, so you’ll need to travel to Seville or hire a researcher there to access them. You can find out more about the archives at <>. Contact staff by writing, phoning, faxing, or e-mailing:

Archivo General de Indias Avenida de la Constitución, 3 41071 Seville Spain

Phone: +34 (95) 4 500 530 or +34(95)4 500 528 Fax: +34 (95) 4 219 485 E-mail:

Portugal created similar records, passaportes, on all emigrants beginning in 1757. Much like American passenger records, these became more detailed as time went on, and later records contain a wealth of details about Portuguese emigrants. Passport records are kept in the district archives; for a list, see <> and scroll down to Portugal. Some are also at the national archives in Lisbon. A number of passport records — including ones from Madeira — have been microfilmed and are available through the FHL.

Supplementary sources

Still running into roadblocks? Fortunately, you can try various other record types. Explore Spain’s military archives in Segovia for records of any male ancestors who might have served. If you suspect you have noble blood, consult Spain’s Royal Chancilaries for family histories. Spain also has a mix of civil censuses that could help.

Notary records have historically been important in Spain, as in Latin America, because notaries certified almost every major life event (including emigration, until the mid-19th century). These records can be challenging to search because they’re distributed among all levels of archives. They’re filed under the name of the notary; ask the provincial archives for the notary in your ancestor’s location and time, and for the repository of those records.

Portugal has excellent will records, which are kept (after 30 years) in its district archives. You even can find records of the Inquisition — Portugal’s are at its national archives.

Try joining several mailing lists and connecting with ethnic genealogical organizations. Consider visiting Spain or Portugal in person. Even if you don’t find every answer about your ancestors, you’ll still have the pleasure of exploring a beautiful part of the world — the place your family once called home.
From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine
Basque Genealogy and History
These resources will get you started tracing your Basque roots.

The Basque Genealogy Home Page


The Basque Museum and Cultural Center


Center for Basque Studies

University of Nevada-Reno/322 Reno, NV 89557 (775) 784-4854 Ext. 254 <>

The Etxeto Basque Family Genealogy Home Page


Euskal Herria: The Basque Country


Larry Trask’s Basque Page

< basque.html>

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine
Spain and Portugal Toolkit
 Trace your Iberian ancestors with these books, Web sites adn organizations.

Web Sites

Biblioteca Nacional


CIDA Database

Hispanic Genealogy Sources


Lists of Passengers to America


Perry Castañeda Library Map Collection — Spain


Royal House of Bourbon


Sí, Spain


Spain Mailing Lists


Spanish Archives


Spanish-English Dictionary


Spanish Genealogical Word List and Letter-Writing Guide

<>: Click on S and scroll down to Spain.

Spanish Genealogy


Spanish GenWeb


Spanish Ministry of Culture Archives Catalog


Spanish Postal Codes


Spanish WorldGenWeb


Books and Audio

Finding Your Hispanic Roots by George R. Ryskamp (Genealogical Publishing Co.)

• “Genealogical Research in the Archives of Spain” lecture by George R. Ryskamp (

Historical Dictionary of Spain by Angel Smith (Rowman & Littlefield)

Mexican and Spanish Family Research by J. Konrad (Ohio Summit Publications)

• “Natural de España: Connecting Your Ancestors With Spain” lecture by George R. Ryskamp (

• “The Province of Texas and Available Records in the Archivo General de Indas in Sevilla, Spain” lecture by Peter E. Carr (

Tracing Your Hispanic Heritage by George R. Ryskamp (Hispanic Family History Research)


Archivo de la Corona de Aragon Calle Almogávares, 77 08018 Barcelona, Spain +34 (93) 4 854 318 or +34 (93) 4 854 285

Archivo General de la Administración Paseo de Aguadores, 2 28871 Alcalá de Henares, Spain +34(91)8892950

Archivo General de Indias Avenida de la Constitución, 3 41071 Sevilla, Spain +34 (95) 4 500 530 or +34 (95) 4 500 528

Archivo General Militar de Segovia Plaza Reina Victoria Eugenia, s/n 40071 Segovia, Spain +34 (92) 1460 758

Archivo General del Patrimonio Nacional-Real Casa Bailen, s/n (Palacio Real) 28013 Madrid, Spain

Archivo General de Simancas Miravete, 8 47130 Simancas, Spain +34 (98) 3 590 003 or +34 (98) 3 590 750

Archivo Histórico Nacional Serrano, 115 28006 Madrid, Spain +34 (91) 7688 500

Archivo de la Real Chancillería de Granada Plaza del Padre Suárez, 1 18009 Granada, Spain +34 (95) 8 222 338

Archivo de la Real Chancillería de Valladolid C/ Chancillería, 4 47071 Valladolid, Spain +34 (98) 3 250 232 or +34 (98) 3 245 746

Asociacion de Diplomados en Genealogia, Heraldica y Nobiliaria Alcala, 20-2a Oficina 7-B Edificio Teatro “Alcazar” 28014 Madrid, Spain

Asociacion de Hidalgos a Fuero de España Aniceto Marinas, 114 28008 Madrid, Spain

Genealogical Society of Hispanic America Box 9606 Denver, CO 80209 <>

The Hispanic Genealogical Society Box 231271 Houston, TX 77223 <>

National Library of Spain Paseo de Recoletos, 20 28071 Madrid, Spain <>

The Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research Box 490 Midway City, CA 92655<>

Spanish American Genealogical Association Box 794 Corpus Christi, TX 78403


Web Sites

Azores GenWeb


Azores: Source of Immigration to the Americas


Finding Your Portuguese Roots

Perry Castañeda Library Map Collection — Portugal

< jpg>

Portugal Atlas


Portugal Mailing Lists
Portuguese-English Dictionary
Portuguese Genealogy Links
Portuguese Genealogy Resources
Portuguese Passenger Ship Master List
Portuguese Postal Codes
<>: Click Pesquisa de Código Postal.
Ship List Database


Historical Dictionary of Portugal, 2nd edition, by Douglas K. Wheeler (Rowmar&Littlefield)

The Portuguese Making of America: Melungeons and Early Settlers of America by Manuel Mira (Portuguese-American Historical Research Foundation)


American-Portuguese Genealogical Society Box 644 Taunton, MA 02780 <>

Arquivo Regional da Açores Palacio Betancourt, Rua Conseilheirc Angra do Heroismo, Azores, Portugal

Arquivo Regional da Madeira Palacio de S. Pedro 9000 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal

Instituto dos Arquivos Nacionais — Torre do Tombo Alameda da Universidade 1649-010 Lisbon, Portugal <>

Instituto Portugues de Heraldica Avenida da Republics, 20 1000 Lisbon, Portugal

J.A. Freitas Library Portuguese Union of the State of California 1120 E. 14th St. San Leandro, CA 94577 (510)483-7676 <>

Portuguese Historical and Cultural Society Box 161990 Sacramento, CA 95816 <>

Portuguese Historical Museum Box 18277 San Jose, CA 95158 <>

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine