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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as Juan. Until the tenth century, common people did not use a surname. As the population increased, however, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. Additionally, the Council of Trent (1545–1563) made it mandatory to keep parish records that would list names of the child, parents, and godparents, which required distinguishing relationships between family members. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information.
In 1568, Phillip II decreed that the Moors should abandon their names and adopt Spanish names. Thus, some Moorish names such as Ben-egas became Venegas. The French practice of placing de before a name as a mark of nobility was also used in Spain, but it was only a preposition of origin (of or from) used before a geographic name. From long usage, names such as Del Monte became Delmonte, La Villa became Lavilla.
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.
In Spain, the name system was well established by the 1100s, and the naming customs of Spain became the basis for other Spanish-speaking countries. The four influences that played a part in the development of Spanish surnames were patronymical terms, occupational terms, descriptive or nickname terms, and geographical terms (estates, manors, or dominions). Examples of these influences are:
- Patronymic names (based on a parent’s name, usually the father’s name) such as Juan Martinez (Juan, son of Martín) or Juan Domínguez (Juan, son of Domingo)
- Occupational names (based on the person’s trade) such as José Herrera (José the Blacksmith) or Juan El Molinero (Juan the Miller)
- Descriptive names or nicknames (based on a unique quality of the person) such as Domingo Calvo (Domingo the Bald-Headed) or Juan El Moreno (Juan the Dark)
- Toponymic names (based on a person’s residence) such as Domingo del Río (Domingo from near a river) or Juan de Córdova (Juan from the city of Córdoba)
At first, surnames applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were used from father to son.
It is not possible to determine the exact year or even the century when a particular family name was taken. By the end of the thirteenth century, many families determined to retain the patronymic name without continuing to change the name from generation to generation. Thus, the hereditary apellidos (surnames) were in use in Spain by the time of the discovery of the New World.
In Chile, many surnames of Spanish origin were given to the native Indian children when the priests baptized them. Others were simply baptized Juan, José, María, and so on, and later descendants obtained a surname.
Typical surnames from various regions in Spain include Fernández and Morales (Castilian), Ibañez and Vásquez (Basque), Brétema and Seoane (Galician), Coelho and Ferreira (Portuguese), and Ventura and Gralla (Catalan).
The following suffixes show that the surname had a patronymic origin: -az, -ez, -iz, -oz, and -uz. There is a problem in that the scribes and priest often spelled the patronymic surnames with s instead of the z, and the plural surname ending in s they changed to a z. Therefore, the plural forms of surnames may be confused with the patronymic surname. Examples of plural names include Torres and Flores.
Spanish priests would often assign Indian family names as surnames.
Another distinctive practice of the Spanish naming system was the double and compound surnames. The person would be known by his paternal and maternal surnames. Compound surnames (apellidos compuestos) can be found with or without a y, a hyphen, or a preposition (de, del,or de la). Examples are: María García Fernández de León and José Juan Ríos-Prado y Rodríguez. While most present day names are taken from the surnames of the parents, historically the surnames might be those of the more prominent family and even those from grandparents.
Before the last 150 years, women did not take their husband’s surname. Now, in biographies, histories, and in social life, a woman who married a Martínez would attach her married surname (apellido de casada) de Martínez to her maiden name or paternal surname (apellido de soltera) and would drop her mother’s surname. If she was widowed, she would become Viuda (widow) de Martínez. Thus, a woman named María Josefa Torres Sepúlveda would become María Josefa Torres de Martínez on marrying, and would become Maria Josefa Torres vda. de Martínez as a widow. However, in the Catholic records, public records, legal records and especially the civil records, the maiden name of a woman is always used.
In telephone directories a person named Alonso Manuel de la Vega Martínez may be listed as VEGA MARTÍNEZ, Alonso Manuel de la, and the same person on announcements or business cards could be listed as Alonso Manuel de la Vega M. A widow named Ofelia Castillo vda. de León could be listed as LEÓN, Ofelia Castillo vda. de.
The following books are helpful for understanding naming practices:
Gosnell, Charles F. Spanish Personal Names: Principles Governing Their Formation and Use Which May Be Presented as a Help for Catalogers and Bibliographers. New York: The H.W. Wilson Co., 1971. (FHL book 980 D4go.)
Mugica, José A.. Los apellidos de Iberia: su origen y evolución (The Surnames of Iberia: Their Origins and Evolution). Bilbao, Spain: Editorial EDILI, S.A., 1966.
In Chile, many given names are usually derived from biblical names, such as José (Joseph, husband of Mary) or from the names of a saint, such as Bartolomé (Bartholomew). Some Spanish people used compound given names (nombres compuestos) such as María del Socorro.
When baptized, children were usually given one or more given names. One of these might be the name of the Saint Day from the day of baptism. The first name, or baptismal name (nombre de pila), may not have been used in the child’s life. In Chile, the child was usually called by the second or third name given at baptism; this is especially true if the first name was María or José.
Many books are available that discuss names in Chile. These are listed in the Family History Library Catalog "Locality" section under:
CHILE - NAMES, PERSONAL.
[COUNTRY] - NAMES, PERSONAL
And in the "Subject" section of the catalog under:
NAMES, PERSONAL - SPANISH
Some of the books that provide meanings for given names are:
Moesbach, Ernesto Wilhelm de. Los huilliches a través de sus apellidos: estudio etimológico de los patronímicos aborígenes sureños (The Huilliches through Their Surnames: An Etymological Study of the Patronymic [Names] of the Southern Aborigine). Santiago, Chile: Centro de Historia Familiar de Santiago, 1988. (FHL book 983 D4m.)
Gorden, Raymond L. Spanish Personal Names. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch College, 1968. (FHL book 980 D4g; film 0924066 item 1.)
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