Rich Roots

By Lauren Gamber Premium

History has created a unique heritage mix on Puerto Rico. Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493, claiming the island for Spain. Four hundred years later, following the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. By then, the Spanish had left their mark on the island, nicknamed the Isle of Enchantment, as evidenced by its language, dominant religion (Roman Catholic) and art.
Although Puerto Rico’s official languages are both Spanish and English, the island’s culture is decidedly Spanish—with a twist of African, Indian and Anglo influences. As you trace your Puerto Rican roots, don’t be surprised if you stumble upon African, French, British, Dutch or South American ancestors. Immigrants from all over have settled there and flavored the local culture—something to keep in mind as you embark on your ancestral island adventure.

Cultural blend

When Columbus arrived, Taino Indians lived on the island, but the combination of European diseases and enslavement by the Spanish decimated their numbers.
Juan Ponce de León founded the island’s first town, Caparra, in 1508. By 1521, the town had moved and was renamed Puerto Rico (Spanish for “rich port”). Over time, the town’s name changed again to San Juan, and the entire island became known as Puerto Rico.
The Spanish brought African slaves and Indian slaves from neighboring islands to work the gold mines and sugar cane plantations they established. Spanish men often married indigenous and African women.
During the second half of the 1500s, Spain turned San Juan into a military outpost, and the British, French and Dutch began to fight over and settle the other Caribbean islands. Spain invested more resources in Puerto Rico in the late 1700s, encouraging population growth there. Canary Islanders, French settlers from Louisiana and Haiti, and Spaniards from the Dominican Republic (then Santo Domingo) settled the island’s towns. Large sugar cane and coffee plantations prospered. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from China, Italy, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Corsica and Lebanon made their way to the island.
After Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898, Americans began moving there. Though Spain had forbidden Judaism in Puerto Rico, Jews arrived in secret; in the 1930s and 1940s, European Jews sought refuge on the island. All this migration and improved health conditions resulted in a population increase that strained the economy in the early 20th century. The Great Depression, an earthquake and several hurricanes worsened the situation. In the 1930s, many Puerto Ricans moved to the United States, the majority settling in New York City. Eventually, immigrants dispersed throughout the United States, but New York maintained a large Puerto Rican population. Those in Puerto Rico, meanwhile, experienced major economic change as jobs shifted away from plantations and into cities. Today, Puerto Rico’s population is largely urban with a quarter of its residents living in San Juan. The island is a self-governing territory of the United States and its residents are US citizens.

Latin lessons

Start your genealogical research by gathering as much information as you can from relatives, then focus on an ancestor whose name, hometown and approximate years of residence you know. With this basic information, you’re ready to fill in the missing branches in your family tree.
Next, see the FamilySearch Latin American Research Outline. The outline details where to find records, particularly those you can borrow on microfilm through the Salt Lake City-based Family History Library (FHL) and its branch Family History Centers (FHCs). (Find an FHC near you.) It also offers general information about Spanish naming practices (see the Names, Personal section) and racial classification terms you’ll find in Catholic parish registers (see Racial Terminology).
Puerto Rico’s historical records were written in Spanish, and even though many Puerto Ricans speak English today, Spanish is still the dominant language. If your Spanish is rusty, you’ll find FamilySearch’s Spanish Letter-Writing Guide and Spanish Genealogical Word List helpful.

Records roster

Your best sources for Puerto Rican records, Hispanic Genealogical Society of New York vice president Charlie Fourquet says, are the FHL and FHCs, followed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Northeast Region in New York City. You’ll also use records from the Demographic Registry (Registro Demográfico) and Puerto Rico General Archive (Archivo General de Puerto Rico) in San Juan.
To take a look at the FHL’s roster of records relevant to Puerto Rican genealogy research, go to the library catalog and choose Place Search. In the Place field, type Puerto Rico, and hit Search. Here’s a snapshot of helpful holdings in the FHL and other repositories:
Censuses: Puerto Ricans were enumerated in US censuses beginning in 1910. The FHL has microfilm copies of US census records for 1910, 1920 and 1930 (the most recent census open to the public). You also can access census records through large libraries, NARA and its regional facilities, (subscription required) and HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries). The government took a special population census of Puerto Rico in 1935; NARA has these schedules on microfilm M1881.

Church records: The Catholic Church and other religious organizations recorded baptisms, marriages and deaths before and after official civil registration began in 1885. To find church records, you must know the town where your ancestor lived and the parish he belonged to. The FHL has some church records on microfilm; run a place search on Puerto Rico as described above, then click the church records category to see what’s available. Most original records are still with the parish church (check in this online church directory), but one of five historical dioceses (listed on Wikipedia) might have copies.

Civil registration and vital records: The Puerto Rican government recorded almost all births, marriages and deaths beginning in 1885; municipalities kept some records for earlier years. The FHL has microfilmed and digitized some civil registrations. 
For records that aren’t microfilmed, you’ll need to send a request. If the birth, marriage or death occurred before July 22, 1931, send a request to the demographic registrar office (Registrador Demográfico) in the city or town where the person lived. You’ll find addresses online here.
To get copies of records created since July 22, 1931, contact the Department of Health’s Demographic Registry in San Juan (see our Puerto Rico genealogy resources list).
Copies cost $5 in the form of a money order payable to the Secretary of the Treasury. Include a signed letter indicating the full name of the person whose record you want, your relationship to that person and your reason for requesting the record; a copy of an identification card; and a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Immigration and emigration records: The FHL and NARA have various microfilmed records documenting people who moved in and out of Puerto Rico, particularly during the 1800s. That includes passports from 1795 to 1889 (FHL films 1389447 and 1389448; and 1506812 and 1506813), emigration records from 1816 to 1837 (FHL film 1389436), foreigners in Puerto Rico between 1815 and 1845 (NARA film T1170) and airplane passengers from 1929 to 1941 (NARA film A3438).

Between 1930 and 1959, the Bureau of Employment and Identification and the Migration Division of the Labor Department of Puerto Rico issued 47,342 English identification cards to US citizens born in Puerto Rico. The Center of Puerto Rican Studies at The City University of New York’s Hunter College has the official applications for these cards, plus supporting documents that serve as proof of US citizenship. From these records, you can learn your relative’s birth date, birthplace, residence at the time of application, marital status and more.

Maps and gazetteers: The Puerto Rico General Archive has the best selection of historical maps, Fourquet says. You’ll also find some maps at NARA.
Military records: Check the FHL for microfilm copies of military records for Spaniards in Puerto Rico between 1793 and 1800, plus WWI and WWII draft registration cards (these are also at NARA and digitized on
Slave registers: The FHL has registers dating from 1867 to 1873, the year slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico. NARA microfilm Registro Central de Esclavos, 1872—also available at the FHL—lists slaves’ names, physical descriptions, parents and owners.

Island retreat

Eventually, you’ll want to make a trip to your ancestral island to take advantage of the record repositories there. Puerto Rico is only 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, which means you can get to any destination quickly by car. US citizens traveling directly to Puerto Rico don’t need passports, and the temperature stays in the low- to mid-80s year-round. What more excuse do you need to plan a family history vacation on the Island of Enchantment?
Puerto Rico Fast Facts
US territory status: 1898

US commonwealth status: 1952
First US census: 1910
Civil registration begins: 1885
Birth, marriage and death records begin: 1931
Contact for vital records dating after July 22, 1931:

Department of Health
Demographic Registry
Box 11854
Fernandez Juncos Station
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00910
(787) 767-9120


A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2010 of Family Tree Magazine.

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