In the second post of our six-part series, “Key Records and Repositories,” we focus on church and cemetery records in the Southwestern United States. Today, we’re exploring the unique aspects of church and cemetery records in states like Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. These records are not only vital links to the past but also gateways to understanding the diverse cultural heritage of this region.
The Role of Church Records in Southwestern Genealogy
In the Southwest, church records hold a special place in genealogical research. They often predate government records, offering a wealth of information such as baptisms, marriages, and burials. These records are particularly crucial in regions where civil registration started later. For instance, in New Mexico and Arizona, where Spanish missions and later Mexican and American churches were integral to community life, these records can reveal relationships, migration patterns, and even cultural practices.
To access these, start by identifying the relevant church or diocese, which often have archives. Additionally, regional repositories like the Southwest Genealogy Library in Albuquerque or the California State Library hold microfilms and digitized collections of church records. See a list of get-started websites at the end of today’s article.
Locating Baptism, Marriage, and Burial Records
Finding baptism, marriage, and burial records in the Southwest requires an understanding of the area’s religious history. For example, in California, the early Spanish missions played a critical role in record-keeping. In Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has meticulously maintained records. To locate these, consult local church archives, diocesan repositories, or specialized collections like the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City. Additionally, many of these records are increasingly available on platforms like FamilySearch or Ancestry.com, often indexed for easier access.
For example, this index in the Membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1848, at Ancestry contains links to valuable information for my third-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Avery (red circle), and her family. If I click on each of the blue links within the indexed record (red box), a seperate record appears for that individual. Also, note the naming patterns: six of her eight children carry her maiden name, Avery; her three sons (arrows) all have a variation of the same three names. If I click on William (star), his record shows his parents, John and Alice, along with birth, death, and occupation details. A genealogy goldmine.
The Significance of Cemetery Records and How to Interpret Them
Cemetery records in the Southwest are more than just dates and names; they’re stories etched in stone. They offer unique insights, especially when church or civil records are lacking. These records can be found in local cemeteries, church archives, or regional repositories. Pay attention to epitaphs, symbols, and the layout of the cemetery, as they can provide clues about religious beliefs, social status, and even historical events. These clues can lead you to researching the correct church for your ancestor. For example, there are over 75 Emblems of Belief to choose from at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Online resources like FindAGrave and BillionGraves can be invaluable, but visiting the cemetery in person, if possible, offers additional context and detail.
Hispanic and Native American Religious Institutions
The Southwest’s rich Hispanic and Native American heritage is deeply intertwined with its religious institutions, making their records important for genealogical research. Many Hispanic Catholic records, for instance, are stored in diocesan archives like the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
For Native American research, consider the specific tribe’s history and religious practices. Some tribes maintain their own archives, while others’ records are kept in mission archives or national repositories like the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions at Marquette University, Wisconsin, or the FamilySearch Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Get excited for more Native American and Spanish Language Resources in Part 5)
Using Online Databases and Physical Archives
In today’s digital age, many church and cemetery records are accessible online. Databases like FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, and the USGenWeb Project provide extensive collections. However, not all records are digitized. Visiting physical archives can unearth hidden gems. State archives, university libraries, and local historical societies often house unique collections.
When planning a visit, prepare by checking online catalogs, contacting the archive for advice, and planning your research strategy to maximize your time. For example, the Colonial California Records collection at FamilySearch contains a list of online Catholic Church mission records. You can view the list of missions at home, but you can only access the images from a local FamilySearch Center or one of its affiliates.
Another option for public access to mission records is the Early California Population Project (ECPP) database, developed by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The United States Compiled Genealogies on the FamilySearch Wiki has fantastic tutorials with diagramed pictures and tips on using catalogs to find and access genealogy books (both digital and paper). See state-specific details in the links below:
- Arizona Colonial Records and Arizona Compiled Genealogies
- California Compiled Genealogies
- Colorado Compiled Genealogies
- Nevada Compiled Genealogies
- New Mexico Colonial Records and New Mexico Compiled Genealogies
- Utah Compiled Genealogies
PRO TIP: Download the Guide to Users to take your ECPP database research to the next level.
Case Study: Uncovering My Hispanic Heritage in California
Background: My great-great-grandmother, Antonia Feliz (or Felix), was said to have family roots in the early Spanish settlements of California. Family lore said that her father, Antonio, descended from Vicente Feliz, a Spanish soldier who helped settle Colonial California or Alta California.
Objective: My objective was to trace Antonia’s family lineage back to the 18th century using church records.
- Methodology: I studied baptism, marriage, and death records from Spanish missions in San Carlos, San Luis Obispo, San Gabriel, and Santa Barbara. At home, I used indexes from FamilySearch to locate original records. To view digitized images of the originals, I was required to search at a local FamilySearch facility (see image below). I discovered that Santa Barbara Mission records were not available online. To obtain those records, an archivist at the Huntington Library, located and sent a digital image of the originals.
- I utilized special archives, such as the Huntington Library and its online database to gather more details about the Santa Barbara mission. The Huntington Library’s Early California Population Project (ECPP) online database helped me locate original church records to differentiate between men of the same name. And, an in-person visit to the library in Merino, California, provided access to land documents that were key in linking Antonia to the correct Feliz family. (More about ECPP in Part 5.)
- Exploring connections between church records and land grant documents put the Feliz family in a time and place. I accessed information about Spanish land grants online through the California State Archives. Their online exhibit supplied a hand-drawn map of the Feliz Family Rancho, called a Diseño, which added rich contextual evidence.
Challenges: Gaining access to non-digitized records requires planning and patience. During a family visit to California, I set aside time to research at the Huntington Library in Marino. Their supportive and friendly staff helped me obtain the necessary membership and reserve a 3-hour research session. To maximize my limited time, their knowledgeable curator helped me narrow down to the five most relevant records to search.
The effort was worth it. I located and transcribed the original land document that contained the signatures and names I needed to accurately verify family connections. I knew beforehand that photos were prohibited in the reading room, so I came prepared with my laptop. I also had to adapt and adjust my research plan. One record set became unavailable on the day of my visit, so I consulted my backup list to quickly request another. Even though not all documents contained relevant information about my specific family, I enjoyed the experience and look forward to returning.
Language can be another challenge to overcome. I am an English-speaker and so I had to learn how to read and interpret old Spanish script to extract genealogical details from church records. The BYU Script Tutorial was the most valuable resource for me, along with books by George and Peggy Ryskamp. My practice and persistence paid valuable dividends as I gradually located and translated multiple family church records that linked my heritage to the correct Feliz Line in the village of El Fuerte, Mexico.
Outcome: Researching church and land records provided the most accurate details to verify my family tree, revealing migration patterns of each Feliz family that resulted in connections to multiple historical events in the region. It turns out that Antonia’s father, Antonio, was not the son of Vicente Feliz, who inherited the Feliz Rancho. However, family lore usually contains elements of truth, and same-name couples are common. More likely, another Antonio Feliz with ties to Alta California can be discovered in future research sessions.
For genealogical research in church and cemetery records in the Southwestern United States, several websites stand out as top resources. Each offers unique collections and tools to aid in your research:
FamilySearch – familysearch.org: Operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, FamilySearch is a free resource with an extensive collection of genealogical records worldwide, including church and cemetery records from the Southwestern U.S. Start with one of the articles below for excellent search tips and resources by state.
TIP: Once you click on the links below, scroll down the page until you see a table or bullet list with state names, then click on your ancestor’s state to learn more about their online records and other available resources.
- United States Church Records
- Indigenous Peoples of the United States Church Records
- United States Cemeteries
- Find a Grave – How to find, get started, or contribute.
Ancestry – ancestry.com: A subscription-based service, Ancestry offers a vast array of records, including church and cemetery records. Its database often contains indexed records, making searching more efficient.
- Search path from Ancestry’s homepage: > “Search” > “Birth, Marriage, & Death” > “Death, Burial, Cemetery & Obituaries” OR “Birth, Baptism & Christening” > “USA”
Find A Grave – findagrave.com: Specializing in cemetery records, Find A Grave provides access to millions of grave records worldwide, including those from Southwestern U.S. cemeteries. It’s particularly useful for locating burial sites and viewing headstones. For detailed instructions from findagrave.com, see:
BillionGraves – billiongraves.com: Similar to Find A Grave, BillionGraves focuses on cemetery records and provides GPS locations for graves, making it easier to find specific gravesites.
USGenWeb Project – usgenweb.org: A volunteer-driven project, USGenWeb provides free genealogy websites for every state in the U.S., including those in the Southwest. These sites often contain transcriptions of church and cemetery records; search by state, then county, then topic. Remember to add helpful links to your locality guide.
Cyndi’s List – cyndislist.com: This comprehensive directory of genealogy sites includes a section dedicated to religious records and cemeteries. It’s an excellent starting point for finding specific resources. You can search categories alphabetically from the home page or click on the categories below for direct access:
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) – archives.gov: As discussed in the first post, NARA provides access to federal records, which can be invaluable for research in areas with a significant federal presence, like Native American reservations in the Southwest.
The Library of Congress – loc.gov: Their collections include church and cemetery records, among a vast array of other historical documents.
Each of these websites offers different types of records and search capabilities, making them collectively a robust set of tools for genealogical research in church and cemetery records in the Southwestern U.S.
What is your favorite resource? Share your successes and suggestions below.
Come back for Part 3; we’ll inspect land and property records, including Spanish land grants.
Complete series of Key Records and Repositories for Southwestern United States Research:
Part 5 – Native American and Spanish Language Resources
Part 6 -Using University and Private Collections for Genealogical Research