Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spanish Surnames: A Tool for Extending Ancestral Lines

One of the greatest problems confronting most genealogists is ascertaining the surnames of the females who marry into each line. True, these surnames can be found in certain forms of primary data, but in most cases, even in the census records, the name of the spouse is given, but rarely with a surname. There have been numerous articles giving research avenues for tracing the female lines of descent (e.g., see “Tracing Female Ancestors,” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Family Chronicle, May/June 2002), so this brief article attempts only to illustrate an avenue specific to families with ancestors of Spanish descent. This method, illustrated with documentation from the U.S. Census records in Puerto Rico, can be utilized with other types of documents from Spain or Latin American countries that have family names in them. This will be illustrated with actual research on my wife’s mother’s ancestors.


My wife had left her home and family in Puerto Rico at 15 years of age to help care for a sick uncle who at that time was living in Long Island, New York. As a result of this visit, she remained in the United States, finished high school and college, married, raised a family, and only had contact with family members on an infrequent basis for 40 plus years. Of course, during this time there was no contact with collateral relatives, no hearing conversations about “old times” among family members, and no stories about grandparents. Until a few years after the death of her father, she did not even know the names of her grandparents since they had died before her birth. Her only living uncle, the brother of her father, gave her the grandparent’s names at that time. Slowly over the last few years, by returning to Puerto Rico to renew relationships with aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives, the ancestral list has grown larger. There has even been frequent contact with her paternal grandfather’s brother’s children who, until three years ago, she did not know existed.

The Problem

Her mother, supposedly shortly after birth, had lost her parents and was, along with her brother, and several half sisters and brothers, “farmed out” to different relatives. Over the years they ended up in various parts of Puerto Rico and the United States and for the most part only a few had any further contact with each another. The task we set for ourselves was to find out more about the “orphaning” of the children, and to trace her mother’s lineage back at least to her mother’s grandparents. Her mother had died in 1996 so there was no possibility of getting further information from her.

What we Knew

We knew the maiden name of my wife’s mother (Virginia Vega Maldonado), her maternal grandparent’s surnames (Vega and Maldonado), and that her mother was born to her father’s second wife. We knew the name of her grandfather’s first wife and the names of the children of her paternal grandfather by both wives. This information was obtained from the daughter of one of her mother’s half sisters. We did not know the names of either of her other’s grandparents.

The Spanish Surname System

By knowing the full name of a person in the Spanish naming system, one can know both the surname of the father and the surname of the mother. The full name of a person is as follows: Name (or names) + Father’s Surname + Mother’s Surname. In the case of my wife, her mother’s name was Virginia Vega Maldonado. Thus, it is known from her name that Virginia’s father (and his father) had the surname of Vega. It is also known that Virginia’s mother’s surname was Maldonado, since Virginia would be using her father’s last name (Vega) + her mother’s last name (Maldonado). It takes further research, of course, to ascertain the mother’s surname of her father, and the mother’s surname of her mother. We had been told by relatives that Virginia’s father was Jorge Vega and that her mother was Victoriana Maldonado. To indicate marriage, a female uses her father’s surname + de (of) + the surname of her husband. So Virginia’s mother would be Victoriana Maldonado de Vega. As one can see, it is a simple matter to ascertain parental surnames and marital relationships by the way the surnames are listed.

So, we needed to obtain the following information before we could proceed any farther.

Jorge Vega’s mother’s surname
Victoriana Maldonado’s mother’s surname

Only after we got this information could we proceed to the next generation in any systematic, documented way.

The Source: 1910, 1920, and 1930 US Census of Puerto Rico

It was felt that if we could find the family or individual members of the family in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 U.S. Census records for Puerto Rico, we could most likely find the other surnames. By noting the nearby neighbors, we might also get an idea who the parents and collateral relatives could be. Since it was known that Virginia Vega Maldonado was born somewhere around 1918, the 1920 US Census seemed to be the logical place to start. Jorge Vega and his family were found in the 1920 Census records for Manati, Puerto Rico (the birthplace of my wife). It provided the following information.

Head: Jorge Vega y Pedrosa Age 44
Wife: Victoriana Maldonado y Mercado Age 26
Children: Carlos Vega y Cancel Age 20
Natividad Vega y Cancel Age 16
Flora Vega y Cancel Age 8
Pedro Vega y Maldonado Age 3 & 5/12
Virginia Vega y Maldonado Age 1 & 10/12?

As an added bonus, in the next house lived Alejo Maldonado y Maisonet ( age 58) and his wife Brigida Mercado y Echevarria, of the right age to be the father and mother of Victoriana. At this point, the postulated relationship, of course, was only an avenue of further research.

What did this information give us? We now knew that Jorge Vega’s mother’s maiden name was Pedrosa. We knew that Victoriana Maldonado’s mother’s maiden name was Mercado. We verified that Jorge’s first wife’s maiden name was Cancel by the surnames given for the first three listed children. We had already been told by relatives that her name was Julia Cancel. We also found Virginia living with her parents. So, at this point, both of her parents were still alive. This meant that she had not been orphaned at birth as we had been told. It also
showed, that based on the children’s ages, Jorge’s first wife probably died somewhere between 1912 & 1915, with his remarrying Victoriana thereafter [another avenue to follow up with primary documents such as death records].

Our next step was to go to the 1930 US Census in the same area to look for the same family members. What we found was not what we expected and opened up many other questions about the stories we had been told by relatives. Still in Manati, Puerto Rico, we found the following persons, representing three generations, living in the same household,

Head: Brigida Mercado de Maldonado Age 50
Daughter: Victoriana Maldonado y Mercado Age 30
Grandson: Pedro Vega y Maldonado Age 12
Granddaughter: Virginia Vega y Maldonado Age 10
Grandson: Bonifacio Vega y Maldonado Age 8

What did we find here? First, Jorge Vega is no longer with Victoriana and she is now living with her mother. Since the living family members say the family was split up due to a death in the family, it would appear that it was Jorge who probably died shortly after the 1920 Census, living long enough to father his son, Bonifacio. We now know that our guess as to whom Victoriana’s mother was in the 1920 Census is confirmed. We also know that most likely her father, Alejo, is now dead. We also see that the children by Jorge Vega and Julia Cancel are no longer in the household. They would have been the ones going to other family members upon their father’s death. Further research in fact has pointed out the fact that at least two of Virginia’s half sisters were by this time living with family members in Ponce, Puerto Rico and another was already married.

The next logical step was to find Victoriana’s parents in the 1910 Census. They again were found in the same area of Manati, Puerto Rico as suspected. The household data as listed follows:

Head: Alejo Maldonado y Maysonet Age 48
Wife: Brigida Mercado y ____ (?Sp) Age 46
Daughter: Victoriana Maldonado y Mercado Age 16
Son: Ricardo Maldonado y Mercado Age ?
Son: Juan Maldonado y Mercado Age 14
Son: Tomas Maldonado y Mercado Age 12

There are some discrepancies between the listed ages of individuals in the three censuses, yet it is obvious that we are talking about the same members of this family in all three. [This is an avenue of further research]. This Census entry added three brothers to the family of Victoriana. We are now beginning to fill out the collateral relatives.

Collateral Relatives

Since we are attempting here to show how the use of Spanish Surnames can extend ancestral lines, we will illustrate a few more of the steps that we took to provide us with names that we could research further by other means. By using the 1910, 1920, and 1930 Censuses we did the following searches to obtain the names of possible collateral relatives.

In order to obtain possible siblings of Victoriana Maldonado y Mercado, we did a search of all surname entries in the surrounding geographical area for Maldonado y Mercado. The 1920 Census shows a Maria Maldonado y Mercado de Arroyo of the right age to be a sibling. In both the 1910 and the 1920 Census a Gregorio Maldonado y Mercado is shown as head of his family and is of the right age also to be a sibling. A cousin of Virginia Vega Maldonado told me that Virginia had spent some time as a child with her uncle Gregorio. This would be consistent with that story. We therefore postulate that these two individuals are probably also siblings [another area for further research]. The children of Alejo Maldonado y Maisonet and Brigida Mercado y Echavarria would then be as follows:

Gregorio Maldonado y Mercado B. Abt 1883
Ricardo Maldonado y Mercado B. Abt 1885
Maria Maldonado y Mercado B. Bet 1989 & 1990
Victoriana Maldonado y Mercado B. 1894
Juan Maldonado y Mercado B. 1896
Tomas Maldonado y Mercado B. 1898

A search within the same geographical region likewise was done to postulate the siblings of Jorge Vega y Pedrosa. The same surname search was made for Vega y Pedrosa as was done for Maldonado y Mercado. As of this date, we still have not found the parents of Jorge Vega y Pedrosa, but the search still continues. Their postulated children however follow:

Jorge Vega y Pedrosa B. 1876
Guadalupe Vega y Pedrosa B. 1877
Juan Vega y Pedrosa B. 1878
Clemento Vega y Pedrosa B. 1880
Carmen Vega y Pedrosa B. 1884
Marcelo Vega y Pedrosa B. 1893

It seems highly likely that the first five are siblings due to their birth dates and close physical proximity. Only Marcelo, born 9 years after Carmen, is questionable. But, out goal was to use the Spanish surnames with the Puerto Rican Census data to aid in extending ancestral lines, not to necessarily confirm the relationships. The goal is within reach because we can now take these hypothesized sibling relationship and obtain further verification and documentation from other sources.


Among the countries with a Spanish heritage, upon the discovery of the full given name of the members of each preceding generation, both the surname of the father and the surname of the mother of the next ancestral line can be known and researched. For example, for Alejo Maldonado y Maisonet above, we know that his father’s surnames will be Maldonado + whatever his father’s mother’s surname was. We know that his mother’s surnames will be Maisonet (her father’s surname) + whatever her mother’s father’s surname was. So, when looking for records of families that could possibly be his parents we are looking for a male Maldonado and a female Maisonet.

Likewise, for Brigida Mercado y Echevarria, we know that her father’s surnames will be Mercado + the surname of his mother. Her mother’s surnames will be Echevarria (her father’s surname) + her mother’ mother’s surname. We will be looking for her parents in a family with a male Mercado and a female Echevarria. The same pattern continues on with each preceding generation.

The American and Northern European custom of omitting the maiden name of the wife in most records after marriage, creates untold difficulties for genealogists trying to extend their ancestry. The Spanish surname system, on the other hand, is made to order for genealogists. If only everyone could be so lucky as to have ancestors with Spanish or Latin American roots.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Genealogical Passion--The Fun of The Search

Do you love doing genealogical research? Has family history become a passion instead of a hobby? Are you driven to find the next link or that missing bit of historical data that you just can't seem to find? Welcome to the club! We share the same disease. I am not sure there is a cure, but it is a survivable disease!

As a retired professional educator and an amateur family historian and genealogist, I am intrigued more by the “why” of doing genealogical research than I am by the “how”. Over the last decade, and probably starting much earlier with Haley’s Roots series on television, the average person has increasingly became interested in his or her “roots”. I, like many of them am still an amateur, but an ever learning amateur.

Even as my knowledge and abilities in genealogy increase, I hope to remain an “amateur” in the true meaning of the word. “Amateur” means a person who “loves” what he or she is doing. I do not want to lose that “love” of genealogy.

Amateurs usually begin their initial interest in genealogy and family history for a specific reason. They may just be interested in a specific “colorful” ancestor they have heard of, or may think they descend from royalty. Whatever the reason, they have developed a “why” that leads them to want to know “how”. If we get too involved with the techniques and sources related to the “how”, we may forget our “why”and lose the “fun of the search”. This is something you never want to do.

I spend many hours doing research through the internet, occasionally a total day. My wife asks me; “Don’t you get bored doing the same thing all day long?” My reply is; “No, to me it is not the same thing. Every time I run across a new piece of the family puzzle, I am re-invigorated and the adrenaline starts flowing”. This excitement is a common “illness” among amateur genealogists.

When I was recently comparing her time spent on a hobby with my genealogy research, she said: "Mine is a hobby, yours is a passion". "Touche!". I could not argue with that.

To me, it is the “fun of the search”, the “why” that keeps me going. I have the background in research to enjoy the details, but could never get excited just by the details of documenting my ancestry.

I am intrigued by each ancestral story that brings alive a little bit of my genetic and social inheritance. I believe that the majority of amateur genealogists share my excitement with each of their own discoveries.

This site is designed to provide support for the AMATEUR Genealogist, whom I believe to make up the majority of the those pursuing the hobby of genealogy and family history. It has been estimated that there are more than seventy five million (75,000,000) people throughout the world interested in this hobby.

I will use this site to post comments, essays, research suggestions, tool recommendations, or maybe an occasional challenge. I look forward to interacting with my readers.

© 2008 by E. Lamar Ross and Infopreneur Publishers, LLC.