Puerto Rico Vital Records: Civil Registration and Church Records

December 22, 2020  - by 
a puerto rican family together at the beach

When tracing your family history in Puerto Rico, you’ll want to consult two important kinds of vital records—civil registration and church records. These record types may be able to help you identify ancestors and place them on your family tree.

Puerto Rico Civil Registration Records

In 1885, under Spanish rule, Puerto Rico began civil registration of all births, marriages, and deaths. (Some municipalities began keeping these records earlier.) The island became a United States territory in 1898 as an outcome of the Spanish-American War. The practice of civil registration continued, making the Puerto Rico record keeping system different from record keeping on the United States mainland.

a street in puerto rico.

Civil registrations are rich in genealogical information. They may reveal up to three generations of relatives’ names. Here is what you may discover in birth, marriage, and death records:

  • Births (nacimientos): Child’s name and sex; date, time, and place of birth; date and place of registration; legitimacy status; name, age, marital status, occupation, residence, and birthplace of mother and father; names of grandparents.
  • Marriages (casamientos): Name, age, marital status, occupation, residence, and birthplace of bride and groom; date and place of wedding; parents’ names; names of witnesses and the person who provided consent (often the bride’s father).
  • Death (defunciones): Name of the deceased (women may be listed with married surname); age, marital status, residence, and birthplace of deceased; date and place of medical certificate and death; details about the informant; names and birthplaces of parents and, if known, grandparents; date and place of burial.

You can explore Puerto Rico civil registrations for free at FamilySearch.org. First, search for your relatives’ names in the index. If you don’t find matching entries, it may be because their names haven’t been indexed yet. If you know or can learn your family’s town of origin, scroll down below the name search area on the collection page, and choose the option to browse through the registrations for that place. Alternately, it’s possible that the records you need aren’t online yet. You can order these records individually from Puerto Rico’s Department of Health Demographic Registry.

A puerto rican flag painted on a door

Puerto Rico Church Records

The Roman Catholic Church has been in Puerto Rico for more than 500 years. Local Catholic parishes recorded baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths. Later, other churches came to Puerto Rico as well, such as Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. However, to this day, the Catholic Church remains the dominant faith.

Of Catholic sacramental records, baptisms are typically the most genealogically detailed. They name the child, along with his or her sex; date and place of birth; date and place of baptism; legitimacy status; parents’ names, hometown, and residence; and the names of grandparents and godparents. Notes may have been added later with the child’s marriage information.

Early baptismal records were written in blank books, but in more recent decades, churches used preprinted registers. Here’s a sample baptismal record from a preprinted register.

A puerto rican vital record, labeled to show the different pieces and what they can

Other sacramental records are generally not quite as detailed. Confirmation records typically just name the child, parents, godparents, and the date and place of confirmation. Marriage records name the bride and groom, along with their marital status, hometown, parents’ names, and the date, place, and witnesses of the marriage. In death records, look for the deceased’s name, age, sex, date and place of death, parents’ names and places of origin, and sometimes burial details and the identity of a spouse.

You can search a free collection of Puerto Rican Catholic church records from several parishes on FamilySearch.org. Scroll down on the collection page, and click Browse to see which parishes are included. If the parish you’re looking for doesn’t appear, go to the FamilySearch Catalog. Search for the municipality you want, and look under the church records category for parish records.

Tips for Using Puerto Rico Vital Records

a man in puerto rico playing the accordion

Many Puerto Rican genealogical records were written in Spanish. This Spanish genealogical word list can help you decipher important words and phrases from old documents. Watch a tutorial on reading old handwritten Spanish, which can be tricky.

As you look for relatives in old records, it will help to understand Spanish naming traditions, including multiple surnames. Also, it is common for Puerto Ricans to use nicknames. When trying to determine whether a record pertains to your relative, consider the total evidence it contains—places, dates, names, and identities of kin.

Many Puerto Ricans were enslaved before 1873. These tips for researching enslaved Afro-Caribbean ancestors can help you understand important historical context and research strategies.

Finally, whenever possible, consult both civil registrations and church records. Cross-reference what you discover in each, especially when you see unexpected names or dates. Compare dates of events to the date the record was made—if a lot of time has passed, the record is more likely to have errors.

Ready to discover more about your Puerto Rican ancestors? Start your search here in free genealogy records.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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