If you have ancestors who, like mine, came from the region of Galicia (NW Spain), then please read on. Here are a few facts and tips about how you can start tracing the family history of the gallegos in your family, regardless of where you live.
Civil Registration in Spain
First, you must bear in mind that Civil Registration in Spain only came into existence at a national level in 1871; this meant that all births (provided that the baby survived the first 24 hours), marriages and deaths which took place on Spanish soil had to be recorded in the local town’s Civil Registry (Registro Civil), which is usually located in or very close to the municipality’s local council. Every municipality in Spain has its own Registro Civil, which will therefore include the births, marriages and deaths which occurred in the parishes under its jurisdiction. Thus, if you are searching for a Birth/Marriage/Death (BMD) certificate which took place after 1871, you will necessarily need to know where (city, town or village) the event actually took place. If you know the parish but are unsure to which municipality it belongs, a quick search on Google or Wikipedia will almost certainly prove useful, as small parishes rarely have anything like historical societies or museums dedicated to local history.
Knowing the date of a BMD is also very important, but not always absolutely necessary when ordering a certificate. This is particularly true if you are ordering a certificate from a small-to-medium-sized town. If you are ordering certificates from a large city like Madrid, Barcelona or Valencia, you may well have to inform the registry not only of the exact date, but also of the city district where the event took place. If you don’t know a person’s birthdate or birthplace, but you know when they married or passed away, ordering the marriage/death certificate might provide useful clues, as marriage and death certificates usually include the person’s age (or the exact date of birth) as well as the person’s place of birth. How to order a certificate from the Civil Registry in Spain? You can order Spanish certificates personally by going directly to the local registry office, or online. Unlike England and Wales, there is no single repository of BMD certificates in Spain, nor are there any national or online indexes which allow the general public to scour lists to find one particular certificate.
If you need a certificate but can’t order it personally from the office where the document is being held, then visit the Spanish Ministry of Justice webpage (available in English) on www.mjusticia.gob.es. By clicking on the “Trámites y gestiones personales” menu at the centre of the page, and then scrolling down to the “Familia” section, you will be able to choose the type of certificate you wish to order. By following a few simple steps, you will reach a page which you will basically have to fill in with the person’s details, plus your name and contact details so the authorities can send the document to you within a space of a few days. Make sure you choose the literal version, which is basically a photocopy of the original document; you can always get a translation of the document. A plurilingüe (multilingual) copy will contain far less details about the person or people in question, and will therefore be less useful from a genealogical point of view. If you don’t know the exact date of the event (BMD), try to at least enter an approximate date, or else just enter the year and leave the day and month blank (for example: 01/01/194); if you don’t know the book (tomo) or the page (página) where the certificate would be, just enter three zeros. There are very few restrictions as to whose BMD certificate you can actually order, but you might find yourself facing publicity restrictions when ordering certificates of people who are still alive. Sometimes, you may also have some trouble ordering the birth cert of someone who is not related to you or doesn’t share the same surname(s) as you; you may also be required to explain why you have ordered the birth certificate of a celebrity, or a politician. In certain exceptional cases where the person was born illegitimate, or got a divorce, you might be asked by the registry office to prove your family link to the person whose certificate you are ordering. But despite these hurdles, on the whole ordering certificates in Spain is quite easy, aside from being free and usually genealogically very useful, so give it a try!
Registro de Nacidos, Casados y Difuntos
But let’s stick to Galicia. Did your gallego ancestors give birth, marry or die in the last 140-odd years? If so, then you know you have a sporting chance of ordering their certificates from the local Registro Civil. However, you’re in for a treat if your ancestors came from Santiago de Compostela, the Galician capital city. The Registro de nacidos, casados y difuntos (Registry of births, marriages and deaths) was created in Santiago as early as 1842 and would remain in existence for a further three decades, when it was merged and replaced by the creation of compulsory civil registration in 1871, during the brief reign of Amadeus I. This means that those of you with ancestors from Santiago will probably be able to track your forefathers back at least one or two generations more than most other gallegos. In order to check whether your family’s records are available online, you can look for the scanned copy of the actual certificates by accessing the webpage of the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela (USC) Archives (http://www.usc.es/arquivo/arquivo/presentacion.htm). The webpage is in Galician, but is also partly available in English. Bear in mind that the USC’s Archives go far beyond primitive civil registration; you can also find legal documents such as wills, public notary declarations, family trees, university files and many Church papers which go back well beyond the 15th century in some cases. Be warned that the USC’s Archives can only be viewed online with certain navigators, such as Internet Explorer.
Church Records in Spain
But let’s go back those vital records which existed before the introduction of civil registration. Up until 1871, it was up to the Catholic church to record christenings (which usually took place within hours of the birth), marriages and funerals (which according to Spanish custom, usually take place within a day or two after the death). Baptism records dating as far back as the second half of the 18th century will generally offer very useful information, such as the names of both parents and grandparents, and where they all came from or where they lived; occasionally the record might also include their profession, and who the child’s godparents were, often stating if they were actually related to the baby, and how. These type of records will also include the mother’s and grandmothers’ maiden names – remember that women in Spain do not drop their maiden name upon marriage, which means that, in this sense at least, it is a lot easier to trace your female ancestors in Spain. Marriage entries will equally mention each partner’s age, place of origin, status before marriage, profession, parents’ names and the latter’s place of origin; if the prospective spouses were somehow related, the marriage entry will probably include a reference to the Papal dispensation which enabled the local priest to perform the ceremony, the couple having been given official permission by the Church to marry, regardless of their blood connection. Finally, funeral entries will generally state the date on which the death took place, the deceased person’s status, and sometimes might also include the name of their children and (occasionally) the cause of death. If the person who died was married, the record will probably mention his or her spouse’s name; if, on the contrary, the person was single (soltero/soltera, or in older documents, célibe) or died in childhood, the record will very probably mention who the parents were as well. Dead babies and infants often lack a first name on the funeral record even if they had already been given a name when they had been christened; instead of a name, you will sometimes find the word párvulo (infant) written where the name should be. Pay special attention to marginal notes and the cause of death, as they can prove to be very revealing clues to your investigation.
Finding where church records are kept can be rather tricky, as many documents in Spain (usually those which are over a century old) have been taken to the diocesan archives, which are usually found in larger cities where the Archbishopric’s seat is located. Thus, you may find that the church records for the parishes of the city of La Coruña are actually located in Santiago de Compostela, La Coruña city being within the jurisdiction of the diocese of Santiago. If in doubt, you might want to get through to the local priest and explain why you are looking for the church books; he may well be helpful and send you a free copy of the entry you are looking for (as long as he still has access to the books) or else provide you with the contact details of the Diocesan Archives (Archivos Diocesanos) where the documents are being stored and preserved (and which you can normally access for free). Taking notes directly from the original document is theoretically available to anyone, whilst obtaining official copies of these documents is usually subjected to a fee, so make sure you select your documents properly.
The region of Galicia is divided into four provinces (officially called A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra). The political capital is Santiago de Compostela, although Vigo is the largest city, followed closely by the city of A Coruña. The political divisions of Galicia, however, do not correspond with the region’s ecclesiastical division into archdioceses, of which there are five: Santiago, Lugo, Mondoñedo, Ourense and Tuy-Vigo. Each one has its own Archivos Diocesanos, which essentially means that each one is independent from the rest and will therefore operate in a very different way from the others. From my own personal experience, the archives in Santiago are very well kept (although access to certain old documents is limited because of conservation issues) and they have very capable and friendly staff working there too; you might need a small pocket dictionary however, as they are unlikely to speak much English. Up to now the staff in the archives of Tuy-Vigo have been very unhelpful -though I have yet to visit the archives personally, and the archives in Mondoñedo were run up to a couple of years ago at least by an ageing priest, which made investigating and browsing records rather difficult.
If you want to go beyond vital records, there are many other sources in Galicia and online which will fill you in on the lives of your ancestors. Online you will find easy access to passenger lists and emigration records on FamilySearch and Ancestry, among others. FamilySearch also includes some, albeit very few, online church records from Galicia, which can be useful if you are unable to travel to the diocesan archives. However, the information online will include the very basic details about a person and his/her parents, so you can forget all about learning about godparents, grandparents and causes of death if you’re limited to surfing the net.
You might also want to look up local history societies (contacting the local council –ayuntamiento- might be a good starting point) for additional information about the places where your ancestors lived and worked. Unfortunately, tracing a will or any other type of legal document can also prove rather tricky, but it is certainly not impossible. Many legal documents are preserved in the regional college of public notaries (Ilustre Colegio de Notarios de…), or else in University archives (Archivo Universitario de…). You might want to try contacting local organisations and online forums (such as http://foros.xenealoxia.org/) for guidance and advice on your particular quest; many societies in Spain have made their repositories available online, which is aa good starting point. Although mostly in Spanish and/or Galician, you will easily find many webpages dedicated to the history of Galicia and Galician genealogy. You just need to start looking. So what are you waiting for?
Here are some useful links which I have used many times:
– Spanish Ministry of Justice
– Diocesan Archives of Santiago de Compostela
– Diocesan division of Spain (including a detailed map of the ecclesiastical division of Galicia)
– University of Santiago de Compostela Archives
– Lugo Diocese Webpage
– Tuy-Vigo Diocese Webpage
– Family Search (useful for church and emigration records)
– Galician Emigration Arquives
– Spanish Archives Portal (PARES)
– Rememori.com (obituary search engine)
– ABC newspaper archive (useful for looking up obituaries and marriage announcements which took place after 1903)
– La Vanguardia newspapers archive (ditto, since 1881)
– Xenealoxia.org Forums
– Complete list of Spanish Dioceses (including contact details)
Of course, these are just tips and the very basics of Galician genealogy. If you want more information about your Galician/Spanish ancestry, or you don’t know where to start, your quest, you can always drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do for you. Genealogist solidarity, right?