Ancestral Travel Stories (Part 2)
My Experiences in Researching Family History in Spain and Portugal (continued)
Posted by Aimee Troger                                   

    (On the otherhand, Portuguese records are quite accessible and centralized, with everything stored in one of the district archives, or the national archive, Torre de Tombo.)

    Another Spanish archive, this one a small civil register, gave direct access to the records, allowing us to freely choose whatever books we wanted to research right from the shelves themselves.  However, most archives provide an index for you to look up the records you would like to research, you then submit a request and the archivist then brings that book out to you in the reading room.  How exciting it can be to untie a bound volume of records, dating back sometimes hundreds of years!  Each entry hand written by the parish priest, or town notary, or whomever, depending on the type of record, each representing a person, a family, an event, all that happened so long ago, and yet is so very real, recorded there on old, stiffened, brown paper with ink and quill.

    From this research, many lessons were learned, and in one instance, it was a lesson re-learned, this time from another perspective.

    We were looking for a marriage record where we had the names and date, and we thought, the right town.  The family had submitted that their ancestor was married in a town called Carballo, up in the Galicia province of Spain.  Naturally, we decided to research the parish records, as all marriages were done through the church.  We started looking through the Carballo parish marriage book, but quickly enough saw that this marriage was not recorded there, at least not on the date we were given.  We figured perhaps they had the date a little off, or perhaps the marriage had been recorded later, as is sometimes the case.  But,  after some more searching we realized that this marriage wasn't to be found anywhere near the given date in that parish.  Even worse, through our research in that parish we hadn't seen any other records from the same family.  Usually there is something indicating another family member, but there were no records of the bride's, nor the groom's family.  This is when we determined that there was definitely something wrong in our search. 

    After some consideration, and a quick check in a geographical dictionary to confirm our hunch, we discovered that while this couple may indeed have been married in the town of Carballo, that in could have been in any of the 17 parishes that reside within that town's jurisdiction.  We learned that Carballo is what is called a municipality, covering a larger area than what would be considered the town itself.  While it included a parish by the same name, several other parishes also claimed Carballo as their town of residence.

    The family whose ancestors we were researching were, as is often the case, unable to provide any further information other than "Carballo", which meant we would need to research each parish in the municipality to locate that elusive marriage record.   At least we were one step closer to locating this family!  The other option would have been to consult the civil registry, which was located in the town of Carballo, but again, good fortune eluded us because the only exact date we was for the previously mentioned marriage, which took place just before Spain began its civil registration.

    It was during this experience that I realized I had dealt with a similar situation while researching a Portuguese family some time back.  The family knew what town their ancestors were from, and so, naturally we started researching records from there.  This research was done from here in the USA, using microfilmed records, since nearly all of Portugal's parish records have been microfilmed. 

    In this case it was the town of Meda, in the Guarda district in Portugal.  Again I looked up Meda and saw there was a parish by the same name, and it was there I began my search.  This search yielded nothing.  The family member knew something was wrong, because she was quite certain of the town.  Again we realized that while Meda was indeed a town, it was also what is called a concelho, or a municipality with several parishes within its borders.  And, of course, as was the case in Carballo, there was a parish by the same name, which had thrown us off.  But, in this case we were able to contact relatives still living in Portugal, and learned the exact name of the parish, located within the Meda concehlo.  This ultimately led us to some fantastic research on this family - they had lived in this parish for many years, as had much of their extended family going many generations back.  I am still working on their line because it has expanded so much!  What would have been a very disappointing dead-end search turned out to be a gold mine in finding and connecting a family.

    Both of these experiences taught two very valuable lessons:  one, that it is imperative to completely exhaust all primary sources.  In the case of the Portuguese family, they thought that the town name was what would be needed to locate the family,  without a thought to considering the need for a parish name as well.  This only makes sense, because even when someone states where they are from or notes it on documents, they generally indicate the town, and not a particular parish.  But, in southern European research, it is the parish that will have the most information. 

    The second lesson, was that when given the name of a locality, be sure to look it up to make sure it is not the name of a parish and a town, or even a municipality as the above cases illustrate.  In both instances the town had a parish by the same name, and we started our research there.  Instead, we now check first to see if the place was also a municipality, and if so, which parishes were located within its jurisdiction.  While we would still check the parish with the same name first, because of the likelihood of it being the right one, but now we are aware that there was also the possibility that the family resided in a different parish in the same municipality.  Fortunately, most of our research is now much more productive and efficient than was in the Carballo case.  But, it provided a valuable lesson, that I am pleased to be able to share with you,  my fellow ancestral travelers.

    The most positive experience from my time researching was working in Portugal.  The district archives there are wonderfully organized and centralized!  We were working on an immigration project and found a wealth of records, ranging from passport requests to ship lists to port registers, and everything else in between.  The archivists were also extremely helpful and truly an absolute delight.  I think I found this to be the case in nearly all my contacts, in both Spain and Portugal.  And, of course the food was also wonderful, and the scenery gorgeous.  I look forward to returning soon on another trip, whether it be for research, a vacation, or most likely, a little of both.
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