Overview of Colonial Spanish Borderland Research

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Colonial Spanish Borderland Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Colonial Spanish Borderland Research
Catholic Sacramental Records
Civil Legal Documents
Military Records
Catholic Church Diocesan Records
Spanish Land Records for the United States
Locating Colonial Records of Genealogical Value
Colonial Records of Texas
Colonial Records of New Mexico
Colonial Records of Arizona
Colonial Records of California
Colonial Records of Florida
Colonial Records of Louisiana
Colonial Records of the French and Spanish in the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi
List of Useful Resources for Colonial Spanish Borderland Research

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


In 1793, Gregory White, priest of the Catholic parish in Natchez, Mississippi, wrote the following entry in Spanish in the parish marriage book:

In the town of Natchez on the 22nd of the month of August of 1793 I Don Gregory White principle (propietario) priest of this parish having read three bans without having resulted in any impediments, wed Policarpio Regillo, legitimate son of Jose and of Maria Rufina residents of Lesuza Province (Corregimiento) of Tholedo and Margarita Thomas, legitimate daughter of Elias Thomas and of Catarina, residents of Virginia, the witnesses were Wendelina Piroth and Israel Lennard and I sign this- Gregorio White.

A Spanish groom, a bride from Virginia, an Irish priest, and two French witnesses'this typifies the Spanish frontier at the greatest extent of Spanish dominion in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Spain controlled lands from California on the west through Arizona and New Mexico (extending north into Colorado), Texas, Louisiana, the entire Mississippi River Valley (including posts as far north as Illinois), and the Gulf Coast sections of Mississippi and Alabama all the way across Florida to the east coast at Saint Augustine. As Americans schooled in the Frederick Jackson Turner theory of the expansion of the American frontier, many of us fail to recognize the significance of the Spanish presence in large areas that are now part of the territorial United States. Spain not only established the first two successful permanent colonies in the area now comprising the United States (Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1565 and New Mexico in 1598), but by 1800, the Spanish population had reached 26,800 in California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico (20,00 in New Mexico alone) and about 48,000 in the Louisiana Territory and the Floridas.<ref>Peter Gerhard, The North Frontier of New Spain (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 24-25, online at http://teaching.arts.usyd.edu.au/history/hsty3080/3rdYr3080/Louisiana/louisiana_after_the_purchase.</ref>

This Spanish frontier had established an active and dynamic presence for more than a century before the beginning of the American and French frontiers with which it collided in the eighteenth century. A constant interaction existed among these frontiers, with Britains, Frenchmen, and, ultimately, Americans crossing into, settling among, and interacting with the Spanish administration and people. As a result, many of those early American, British, and French settlers appear in Spanish records along with an extensive number of Spanish subjects. As inveterate record keepers, the Spanish kept extensive and detailed records of governmental administration and daily life. Aided by the common element of the Catholic religion, Spanish records are generally more extensive than their English counterparts during the colonial period, providing an excellent amount of material of interest not only to those who have ancestral lines among the Spanish settlers, but for those with ancestral lines among early American, British, and French settlers within areas under Spanish rule.

This chapter reviews the types and locations of records generated in the Spanish language by the colonial governments of Spain as well as by the Mexican government. It focuses on the southern third of the United States from Florida west through Louisiana to the California coast'all ruled by Spain as part of the colonies of Florida and Louisiana'and the northern frontier of New Spain (the Spanish designation for Mexico). Also covered are the Mexican years from independence in 1821 until the end of the Mexican War in 1849. The chapter is not all-inclusive. Many published materials of local interest may exist that are not mentioned here. A search by geographical areas of interest on the Internet and on WorldCat (the OCLC Library Consortium) at a local university or public library will yield many titles relating to specific places.

If one were creating a library of key reference works, the following would be essential:

  • Barnes, Thomas C., Thomas H. Naylor, and Charles W. Polzer. Northern New Spain: A Research Guide. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1981.
  • Beers, Henry Putney. Spanish and Mexican Records of the American Southwest. Tucson: University or Arizona Press, 1979.
  • . French and Spanish Records of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
  • Gerhard, Peter. The North Frontier of New Spain. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
  • Platt, Lyman D. 'Hispanic-American Records and Research.' In Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide, edited by Jessie

Carney Smith, 365'401. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

  • Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • . The Mexican Frontier, 1821'1846, The American Southwest Under Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

These volumes cover the entire area of Spanish occupation, with the exception of Florida. They not only provide details concerning types and locations of records, but also a history of the maintenance of the records themselves and the circumstances accompanying their creation.

History of the Spanish Borderlands

A family historian cannot effectively do research without understanding the history of an ancestor's locality and region and how it integrates into the broader spectrum of traditional history. Insight into the history of the Spanish and French presence in what is now the United States is provided by Ray Allen Billington in his foreword to The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513'1821, by John Francis Bannon:

For a generation after 1893 when Frederick Jackson Turner announced his 'frontier hypothesis,' he and his disciples pictured the population stream that peopled the continent as flowing from east to west, advancing relentlessly from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Its source, they taught, was the British Isles, whence came the Anglo-American pioneers. . . . They were joined at times by other European migrants, the Germans especially, but their cultural language was basically English and the civilization they planted was a British civilization, modified only by environmental forces operating on the frontier. . . .
[I]n stressing this viewpoint, to the exclusion of all others, [Turner] and his followers seriously distorted the truth. Actually four migratory streams contributed to the population of the United States during the era of settlement. The principal flood was, as Turner saw, moving from east to west, and carried with it the Anglo-American culture that laid the foundation on which the nation's civilization rested. But the superstructure built on this foundation was significantly altered as it was joined by lesser population streams during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
One of these originated in Canada and advanced upon the present United States from the northeast; French Canadians, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, occupied much of Michigan and the Illinois country, pushed their posts southward along the Mississippi River to Saint Louis and beyond. . . . A second migratory stream had its source in the Caribbean Islands. From there Spaniards advanced upon the mainland from the southeast, establishing themselves in the Floridas, and planting their outposts as far north as the Carolinas and Virginia. The third and most important subsidiary migration began in Mexico. From that Spanish stronghold a northward-moving frontier advanced steadily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, filling the plateaus of northern Mexico, and pushing on into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. By the dawn of the nineteenth century New Spain's mission stations, ranches and presidios swept in a giant arch from eastern Texas to the Bay of San Francisco.<ref>John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier 1513-1821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988); Clarence Henry Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947).</ref>

During the last half of the eighteenth century, Spain assumed control of the majority of the land in the modern United States that had been established by the French migratory pattern. In particular, Spain ruled the successful and significant colonies in the Louisiana area, thus extending the area of its control, colonization, and civilization in a giant arch from San Francisco to Saint Augustine.

The history of the Spanish frontier began with the establishment of a colony on the island of Haiti (then known as Hispaniola) by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. During the first quarter of the sixteenth century, the spread of Spanish dominion was relatively even, going north, west, and south. After first conquering several Caribbean islands, in 1513 Juan Ponce de Leon first explored the North American continent, where he discovered the bay of Saint Augustine in Florida.

The discovery of the Mayans in Yucatan in 1517 and of the Aztec Empire in Mexico in 1519 shifted the attention and direction of Spanish exploration. Beginning with the conquest of the Aztec Empire and the establishment of the colony of New Spain, Spanish attention was diverted west and southwest. Discovery and conquest of Peru, as well as the establishment of trade between Manila and the west coast of New Spain, further diverted Spanish colonization west and southwest. Spain's only contact with the area that became the United States was extensive exploration, but as explorers found no vast and wealthy empires or land and, instead, were frequently met by hostile indigenous peoples, no effort was made to colonize these areas.

By the end of the sixteenth century, Spaniards had effectively explored all of the areas ultimately occupied by Spain within the borders of the United States. Limited Spanish attempts to establish a Florida colony in the second quarter of the sixteenth century failed due to a variety of circumstances. Ultimately, the first colony Spain established in the continental United States was set up at Saint Augustine in 1565, a decision motivated solely by the fact that the French had established, on the Carolina coast, a colony of three hundred people. Within only days after settling the new Spanish colonists at Saint Augustine, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of Saint Augustine, moved northward and attacked and destroyed the French colony. In its fight for a portion of Spain's attention and the royal treasury, the colony in Florida became, throughout its life, a stepsister with the primary function of an outpost for defense against the growth of French colonizing efforts and, subsequently, the greater English development.

The most significant development of the North American Spanish frontier was found in New Spain, the area now covering the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Utah and Colorado. In a matter of a few years, all of central Mexico previously under Aztec domination became part of the colony called New Spain, and within two decades, Nueva Galicia was established to the northwest, still in areas that had been occupied or dominated by the Aztecs. Guadalajara, as the capitol of the province of New Galicia, became a crucial center for the development of all the Spanish borderland area, with many records of genealogical interest either generated by or sent to the provincial governor in Guadalajara, where they can still be found. In 1548, Guadalajara became a bishopric and thus exercised both ecclesiastical and civil authority over the region, which, until the 1770s, covered Texas and the modern Mexican states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas.

In that same year, silver was discovered in Zacatecas, with other discoveries following in Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, and further north in Queretaros and San Luis Potosi. Three centuries before the California gold rush, Nueva Galicia experienced North America's first mining boom.

Development in the 1560s pushed north of the Sierra Madre range, and a new province called Nueva Vizcaya was established, including the town of Durango'the northern capital for most of the colonization effort'in 1563. The province of Nueva Vizcaya included the areas now occupied by Arizona and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Coahuila. This entire area, as well as the separate political province of New Mexico, was under the ecclesiastical authority of the Bishop of Durango.

For the first time, as they crossed the Sierra Madre range into Nueva Vizcaya, the Spaniards encountered indigenous people not subjugated by the Aztec Empire. Two new concepts in Spanish colonization'the mission and the presidio'came into existence as a result, providing the basis for the Spanish presence and colonization efforts in this borderland area as much as two centuries later. As Spaniards moved north into hostile territories, their first line of colonization became missions established by the Franciscans and, later, Jesuit monks, friars who would preach among the natives as well as teach them trades and the concepts of 'civilization.' To protect the missions and establish Spanish governmental control, a presidio (Spanish fort) was established.

The mission and the presidio represent the major difference between the Spanish approach to frontier development and colonization and the Anglo-American approach. Spain's colonization came as a result of actions of the central government. New colonies weren't established without express permission and direction from Spain, or at least from the viceroy in Mexico City. Spain's purpose in colonizing was to establish a new city with an organized government in each new place. Generally, the colonists were accompanied by representatives of two distinct groups: Representatives of the Crown were to make certain that the Royal Treasury received its one-fifth duty on any gold, silver, or other valuables found. Representatives of the Church, usually members of one of the religious orders, would establish a mission. Colonial leaders prepared detailed written reports that were sent back to the viceroy and the Council of the Indies in Spain, and in many cases, no action was taken until a response had been received.

Spain established colonies comprised of organized cities with established patterns of religious and civic life common to Spanish society'a contrast to the approach of Anglo-American and even French exploration, where the first settlers into an area were usually rugged individualists without any direct control or connection with the government in the area they left behind. Most Anglo-Americans were generally not in the habit of reporting back and waiting for instructions before taking action. These Spanish characteristics, of course, are of great value to the historian and, specifically, the family historian today, as they provide extensive detailed records of the various Spanish colonies, their establishment, and their continued operation.

At the end of the 1580s, with the frontier at Durango, a thousand miles south of New Mexico, members of the Royal Court in Spain focused on securing a stronger foothold in the northern frontier. This focus came as a result of the activities of the Englishman Sir Francis Drake, including his attack on Mexican ports in the Pacific during his circumnavigation of the world. At the same time, reports had been brought of the peaceful Pueblo Indians living in agricultural communities and building cities in the area of New Mexico. At the request of Don Juan Oñate, son of a prominent and wealthy New Spain family, the Council of Indies approved a contract that provided Oñate with two hundred fully equipped and supplied men with their own provisions to lead the colonization of New Mexico, initiated in 1598. Continually beset with problems and never considered a success by the wealthy royal standards of other parts of northern New Spain, the New Mexican colony's survival is impressive. While New Mexico had its own governor, many of the elements of civil control were exercised from Durango and Mexico City to the south. Ecclesiastically, New Mexico remained a part of the diocese of Durango from its creation in 1621 until 1850, when the American occupation was completed.

At the end of the seventeenth century, the French, under Pierre de le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, established colonies at Biloxi on the Mississippi River and, later, up the river at New Orleans, Natchez, and the Arkansas Post. Concerns with the developing French colonies prompted Spanish expansion into Texas, where, in 1700, San Antonio de Bexar was created to support missions and presidios established in east Texas at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1723, San Antonio became the capital of Texas and the center point for Spanish colonization of Texas.

A second corridor of new Spanish expansion involved the development of the local area along the Gulf Coast and inland, forming the kingdom of Nuevo Santander and state of Nuevo Leon. An extension of this area was that portion of what is now Texas south of the Nueces River. Historically, this area belonged to the Nuevo Santander area and only became a part of Texas following the defeat of Mexico and end of the Mexican War. Even today, much of its culture and society has stronger ties with the Mexican provinces of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon than with San Antonio de Bexar.

A third corridor swung up the coast on the western side of the western Sierra Madre range, through the provinces of Nayarit and Sinaloa and into the provinces of Sonora and Baja California. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the California coastline had been explored, and ships from Manila going to the Mexican port of Acapulco regularly stopped to draw fresh water. Efforts to colonize what is now California didn't come until 1769, with the establishment of San Diego. The initial colonization in California began not from the pressure of a society moving up the coastline but as an attempt to establish connections between northern Sonora and the coast resulting from international pressure by English and Russian explorers.

Beginning in 1763, those pressures took on different dimensions as the French were totally eliminated from North America at the end of the Seven Years War. (Our American portion is called the French and Indian War.) As a result of treaties ending that war, Quebec became a British colony and Louisiana, the Mississippi River Valley, and the Gulf Coast became Spanish colonies. Spanish colonies on the Gulf Coast, including those in both Florida and Louisiana, were governed from the Captaincy General in Cuba, while the rest of Florida became English from 1763 to 1783. Just as the northern provinces of New Spain reported to the viceroy in Nueva España, similarly, reports were sent back to the Captain General of Cuba or, in the earliest time period, to Santo Domingo. The occupation of Louisiana consolidated and even extended the colonization efforts of the French. Interestingly, even the presence of newer French colonists such as the Acadians (French refugees driven out of Nova Scotia by the British) added to the French character of the Spanish colony of Louisiana.

As Spain acquired sovereignty over Louisiana, it lost control of Florida. From 1763 to 1783 Florida was a British colony. Britain returned Florida to Spain at the end of the American Revolution in recognition of Spain's participation on the side of the American colonists. Ultimately, within little more than a generation, those very colonists whom Spain had assisted took over control of both Louisiana and Florida by purchase (under pressure that it would be lost by conquest if the purchase were not accepted). Within two generations Spain lost Texas and within the third, at most, all the Spanish area within what is now the United States.

The discussion above is at best an oversimplified summary of the development of the Spanish and French frontiers. For a family historian, the details about specific localities, settlements, and settlers can be as important as the overall broad picture of that development. A good history, such as The Spanish Frontier in North America by David J. Weber, giving a broad historical picture and providing a bibliography of the development of the borderlands areas on the Spanish and French frontiers, would be helpful.

Spanish Colonial Institutions

An understanding of how Spain governed the American colonies will help a researcher better understand the records generated. From the initial financing of the voyage of Columbus by Queen Isabel of Spain, the discovery and colonization of the Americas was a commercial venture. By the time of Columbus's second voyage, the Spanish government was sufficiently concerned about the commercial aspect of his undertaking that treasury (Hacienda) representatives were sent to accompany him and a system was set up to govern any future commerce with the colonies. In 1503, the Spanish government established the Casa de la Contratación de las Indias, which governed all commercial transactions between Spain and her colonies. This body, established at Seville, remained there until the eighteenth century, when, due to the silting of the Guadalquivir River, the port was no longer accessible and the Casa de la Contratación was moved to Cadiz.

In 1519, the Real y Supremo Consejo de las Indias (Royal Supreme Council of the Indies) was organized in Madrid to control all governmental affairs and represent the Crown in the American colonies. As colonial government expanded, the various colonies were divided up into virreinatos (viceroyalties) and provincias (provinces). The virreinatos were presided over by a virrey (viceroy), who literally represented the king in those colonies. Each virreinato also had a legislative/judicial council known as the audiencia, which advised the viceroy and had both secondary and original jurisdictions and certain legislative powers. For most of colonial history, the major virreinatos were those of Mexico and Peru. They were further divided into provincias in which a governor and council held the administrative, legislative, and judicial functions concurrently.

Larger towns or districts were governed by the alcalde mayor or corregidor. Like the officials discussed earlier, these local officers were appointed by the Crown through the Council of the Indies. Each town also had a governing council called the cabildo, composed of a number of councilors as well as local magistrates, law enforcement officers, and royal treasury representatives.

Between 1764 and 1790, the Spanish Crown reorganized colonial government around larger, centralized units called intendencias.

All of these colonial divisions were supervised by the Real Consejo de las Indias in Madrid, which handled governmental affairs, and by the Casa de la Contratación de las Indias in Seville, which handled matters relating to commercial transactions. The latter was, in turn, directly supervised by the Consejo de las Indias. Therefore, if a court case arose on a local level, it could be appealed first to the audiencia; from there to the virrey or directly to the Consejo de las Indias; and ultimately to the Consejo de Castilla or to the king himself. This procedure applied not only to judicial matters, but to administrative and executive matters as well.

Various overviews of Spanish colonial institutions are found in Spanish Empire in America and Northern New Spain: A Research Guide.<ref>Thomas C. Barnes, Northern New Spain: A Research Guide (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1981); Clarence Henry Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1940; reprint, Harcourt, 1985).</ref>

Ecclesiastical Divisions

The colonies continued the Catholic Church's policy of dividing ecclesiastical affairs into two categories: the organized Church under direction of the local bishop and the religious orders operating under direction of their superiors. In most cases, the frontier missions were organized by members of a religious order, generally Jesuits or Franciscans. Later, as Spanish civilians moved into an area, secular (not of the religious order) parishes were established under the direction of the nearest bishop, with each bishopric and the geographical area over which the bishop served known as a diocese.

Sacramental records can usually be located for the missions and parish churches in the current parish church or diocese to which that parish belongs. Numerous exceptions, of course, exist, where parish records have ended up in diocesan archives, religious order archives, other parishes, state archives, and even private collections, such as that of Yale University or the Huntington Library in California.

Spanish-Language Record Types

As Spain developed her colonies, bringing to them the institutions and activities of the Spanish homeland, basic colonial record types remained similar, if not identical, to those found in Spain itself. Uniformity of government control, as well as uniformity of religion, produced records that, from any colony, or even from Spain, differ only in small details rather than overall concepts necessary for doing research. This means that a beginning family history researcher can utilize materials written for Spain, Mexico, or anywhere else in South or Central America to become familiar with the standard content and format. This also means that even after the colonies' independence, the records in the former colonies tend to be relatively uniform in format and content because of the centralized control exercised by both church and state.

As a help in understanding the content of Spanish language records, the author recommends obtaining a copy of Finding Your Hispanic Roots by George R. Ryskamp.<ref>George R. Ryskamp, Finding Your Hispanic Roots (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997).</ref> Chapters 9 through 15 include sample documents with typed transcriptions in Spanish and translations in English. A survey of record types relating specifically to the Spanish colonial experience can be found on pages 13 through 17 of Northern Spain: A Research Guide by Thomas C. Barnes, Thomas H. Naylor, and Charles W. Fultzer. Further developing the ability to utilize particular Spanish records, that same volume contains a discussion of Spanish paleography (older handwriting systems) on pages 18 through 24, as does Chapter 7 of Finding Your Hispanic Roots. A helpful aid in learning to read the handwriting in Spanish Catholic Church records is Spanish Records Extraction, published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1981.



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