Brazil Historical Geography

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Historical Geography

This section describes the changes that have taken place in the state structure of Brazil. Depending on where your ancestor lived, it may help to know about changes in the borders of Brazil. This information can help you to understand how records are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog.

The boundaries of Brazil have changed at various times. Brazil has been enlarged by various treaties from areas of French Guiana, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. Important changes in the territory of Brazil include the following:

1777 The Treaty of San Ildefonso redrew the Portuguese-Spanish frontiers. The Portuguese were to withdraw from Uruguay (known as Cisplatina or Banda Oriental) in exchange for possession of Rio Grande do Sul.

1828 Uruguay gained independence from Brazil.

1895 The mission territory dispute was settled when land was given to Brazil. This land now forms part of the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina.

1900 The Amapá boundary dispute with French Guiana was settled.

1903 Brazil obtained the state of Acre from Bolivia.

1904 The boundaries between Venezuela,

1905 Columbia, Ecuador, and Brazil were settled.

1909, 1927 The boundaries with Bolivia were settled.

In addition, many states have been reorganized, their names and boundaries have changed, and many local place names have changed. You may need to determine previous boundaries and jurisdictions to locate your ancestor’s records. Gazetteers and histories are helpful sources of information about these changes.

From 1532 to 1536 Brazil was divided into 15 hereditary captaincies. These grants were given to favored persons who took the title of donatários. They became the local governors over their areas, with privileges of levying taxes, issuing land grants, founding cities, and appointing municipal officers and judges.

After 1549 the captaincies came under the jurisdiction of a governor general.

In 1808, 10 captaincies generals governed over the following captaincies:

  • Bahia
  • Goiás
  • Maranhão
  • Mato Grosso
  • Minas Gerais
  • Pará
  • Pernambuco
  • Rio Grande do Sul

The subcaptaincies at this time were:

  • Ceará
  • Paraíba (under Pernambuco)
  • Piauí (under Maranhão)
  • Rio Grande do Norte
  • Rio-Negro (under Pará)

After Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822, the existing captaincies became provinces, and in 1889, with the end of the Empire, the provinces were designated as states.

Brazil is now divided into 26 states and more than 3,700 municipalities (the jurisdiction of Civil Registration).


The first captaincies existed as almost independent governors under the king until 1549, when the king appointed the first governor general. In 1604 the king established the Counsel of the Indies (Conselho de Indias), later in 1642 known as Conselho Ultramarino (Overseas Council). In 1736 the council became the Departamento da Marinha e Ultramarino (Department of Marine and Overseas), which administered affairs in the Brazilian Portuguese colonies until 1808. In 1754 the last captaincies reverted to the crown.

Following is a list of the captaincies and their history:

Espírito Santo (Captaincy of Vasco Fernandes Coutinho, from 1532). In 1799 it separated from Minas Gerais, becoming an independent captaincy. It was a province from 1822 to 1889.

Bahia (Captaincy of Francisco Pereira Coutinho, from 1536). It was a province from 1823 to 1889.

Bahia. It grew through the absorption of the old captaincies of Ilhéus and Porto Seguro.

Goiás. It became a captaincy in 1744.

Ilhéus (Captaincy of Jorge Figueiredo Correia, from 1536). It is now part of Bahia.

Itamaracá (Captaincy of Pero Lopes de Sousa, from 1535). It was made part of Paraíba and Pernambuco in 1700.

Maranhão(Captaincy of Fernão Álvares de Andrade, from 1523). It belonged to the French from 1594 to 1615 and then to the Dutch from 1630 to 1654. It was administered separately from 1655 to 1774 and from 1774 to 1822, and then it became a province from 1822 to 1889.

Maranhão(colonial province). It was created in 1621, embracing a large portion of Northern Brazil, including much of the Amazon basin. In 1700 it was split into the captaincies of Maranhão, Pará, Piauí, and Ceará.

Mato Grosso. It became a captaincy in 1748.

Minas Gerais. It was created in 1710 and existed as one captaincy with São Paulo until 1721, when they were made separate captaincies.

Pará or Maranhão (Captaincy of João de Barros and Aires da Cunha, from 1523). It was a captaincy until 1823.

Paraíba. It is a captaincy.

Paraíba do Sul. It became part of Rio de Janeiro.

Pernambuco (Captaincy of Duarte Coelho, from 1693). In 1799 it was divided into the provinces of Pernambuco, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, and Paraíba. In 1817 it was divided again into Alagoas and Pernambuco.

Piauí(Captaincy of Antônio Cardoso de Barros, from 1535). It was a subordinate captaincy of Maranhão and became independent in 1817.

Porto Seguro (Captaincy of Pero do Campo Tourinho, from 1536). It was made part of Bahia.

Rio de Janeiro (Captaincy of Martin Afonso de Sousa, from 1523). It was a province from 1822 to 1889.

Rio Grande (Captaincy of João de Barros and Aires da Cunha, from 1535). It is now in the states of Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba.

Rio Grande do Norte. It is a captaincy.

Rio Grande do Sul. It was created in 1807 in an area still claimed by Spain.

Quinhão(from 1536). It became part of São Paulo.

Sant’Ana (Captaincy of Pero Lopes de Sousa)

Santa Catarina. It was established in 1739.

Santo Amaro (Captaincy of Pero Lopes de Sousa, from 1523). It became part of São Paulo in 1681.

São Tomé (Captaincy of Pero de Góis, from 1535). It became part of Rio de Janeiro.

São Vicente (Captaincy of Martin Afonso de Sousa, from 1532). In 1681 it, along with São Tomé, became part of São Paulo.

São Paulo. It was created in 1709 as an outgrowth of the captaincy of São Vicente and a portion of Santo Amaro and existed as one captaincy with Minas Gerais until 1721, when they were made separate captaincies.


Following is information about the jurisdictions and origins of each state of Brazil. The state capitals are indicated in parentheses:

Acre (Rio Branco). It was turned over to Brazil in 1903 by Bolivia. Its boundaries were fixed by the treaty of 1909.

Alagoas (Maceió). It was part of the captaincy of Pernambuco until 1817. It was a province from 1823 to 1889.

Amapá (Macapá). It was part of Pará until 1943. It was long in dispute with French Guiana until 1900.

Amazonas (Manaus). It was created as a province in 1850. Its western boundary was in dispute with Colombia until 1905 and with Ecuador until 1904. The territory of Guaporé, including Rio Branco (now Rondônia), was acquired in 1905. Rondônia was created from it in 1943.

Bahia(Salvador). It was once a captaincy that was founded in 1536. It became a province in 1823 and a state in 1889.

Ceará(Fortaleza). It was part of Maranhão until 1680, when it became a dependency of Pernambuco. It became an independent captaincy in 1799.

Distrito Federal (Brasília). It was created from Goiás and inaugurated in 1960.

Espírito Santo (Vitória). It became an independent capitaincy in 1799 from Minas Gerais.

Fernando de Noronha Território. It became a capitaincy in 1504 and then later became dependent of Pernambuco.

Goiás(Goiânia). It was a captaincy from 1748 to 1755.

Guanabara(See Rio de Janeiro.)

Guaporé(See Rondônia.)

Maranhão(São Luís). In 1621 it embraced all lands north and west of Ceará; The captaincy of Maranhão and Great Pará existed from 1690 to 1751. The states of Ceará and Pará were created from it.

Mato Grosso (Cuiabá). It was part of São Paulo until 1748, when it became a captaincy. It became a province in 1822. It was enlarged by treaty in 1927 from Bolívian territory.

Mato Grosso do Sul (Campo Grande). It was created in 1977 from southern Mato Grosso.

Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte). It became a dependent captaincy in 1720 from São Paulo.

Pará(Belém). It was created from a former captaincy.

Paraíba (João Pessoa). It was settled in 1584. It was a part of the Itamaraca captaincy and then became a dependency of Pernambuco.

Paraná (Curitiba). For a long time it was part of São Paulo. In 1853 it became a separate province.

Pernambuco(Recife). It was an early captaincy, created in 1693. The captaincies of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, and Paraíba were created from it in 1799, and in 1817 Alagoas was created from it.

Piauí(Teresina). It became a subordinate captaincy of Maranhão in 1718 and became independent in 1817.

Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro formerly in Niterói). It was called Guanabara before 1960. Originally it was part of the São Tomé and São Vicente captaincies. With the formation of Brasília, Pernambuco was absorbed in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Rio Grande do Norte (Natal). It was formed from Pernambuco in 1799.

Rio Grande do Sul (Porto Alegre). From 1737 to 1807 it was a dependent captaincy of Rio de Janeiro. In 1851 the southwestern part was obtained from Uruguay. It then became an independent captaincy. In 1760 it was separated from Santa Catarina. It became a province in 1822.

Rondônia (Porto Velho). Formerly called Guaporé, it was obtained from Bolívia in 1909. It was created from parts of Amazonas and Mato Grosso in 1943.

Roraima (Boa Vista). Formerly called Rio Branco, Roraima was created from lands formerly part of British Guiana (Guyana) by treaty with Venezuela in 1905.

Santa Catarina (Florianópolis). It was first settled in the 1660s. It became a captaincy in 1738 from São Paulo.

São Paulo (São Paulo). It was a captaincy that was created for all areas south of Rio de Janeiro (São Vicente). In 1681 the capitol was transferred to São Paulo. In 1763 it was recreated as a captaincy.

Sergipe (Aracaju). It was a dependency of Bahia until 1821, when it became a captaincy. In 1824 it became a province.

Tocantins(Miracema do Norte). It was created from northern Goiás in 1988.

Geography Publications at the Family History Library

The Family History Library has the following atlases that give historical information:

  • Mello, Francisco Ignácio Marcondes Homem de. Atlas do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: F. Briquiet, 1909. FHL 981 E7m; FHL 0924466 item 3
  • Pauwels, Geraldo José. Atlas geográfico melhoramentos (Geographical Atlas of the World and Brazil). 20a. ed. São Paulo: Edições Melhoramentos, 1962. FHL 981 E7p

Other sources about boundary changes are found by doing a "Subjects" search for Brazil - History in the FamilySearch Catalog.