Many are familiar with the painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso but some may not know the events that inspired it. On 26 April 1937 the town of Guernica, in the province of Vizcaya, Spain was almost completely destroyed by German and Italian bombers during the Spanish Civil War. Besides the tragic loss of life in the village an equally devastating record loss took place as well. All the records in the municipality as well as those from the parish church were destroyed. How can someone looking for ancestors from this town ever hope to trace their ancestry? Searching for available records for Guernica was the subject of recent research trip to the province of Vizcaya.
Noel Maxfield, a family history major and student director of the Immigrant Ancestors Project at Brigham Young University, and I recently set out to see what records still existed that might be useful in constructing a family tree for someone whose ancestors lived in Guernica before the bombing. Although the task seemed like it would end in failure, we were both pleasantly surprised to find that some records have survived in other archives in the province.
It’s always important when undertaking a task as daunting as this to consult with a local expert or two. In our case we visited with Iñaki Odriazola the director of the local FamilySearch center in Billbao. He is a native of the area who has done extensive research in the area and is well acquainted with the local records. He recommended several archives in Bilbao where he knew about collections for Guernica.
Our first stop was the Archivo Foral de la Diputación de Vizcaya. This is a government archive where we found tax lists and census records created under the direction of the provincial government and therefore stored at the provincial archive. We also found some notarial records. Among these legal documents you might find marriage contracts, wills, estate records, and land transactions, all of which can be helpful for reconstructing family groups. Another useful record found was a Catálogo de genealogías which includes transcriptions of documents that were used to establish claims of hidalguía or nobility. Spaniards who could prove their noble status as a hidalgo were granted certain privileges and were exempt from some taxes. This status was hereditary and therefore proving their grandfather or great grandfather had this status had its benefits.
In another archive in Bilbao, the Archivo Histórico Provincial de Vizcaya, we found more notarial records for Guernica but not much else. These records as well as those of the Archivo Histórico Foral de la Diputación are only available onsite. The Archivo Histórico Eclesiástico de Bizkaia houses ecclesiastical records for the diocese of Vizcaya and has an online searchable catalog where you can perform a keyword search and a locality search.
Although the records aren’t as plentiful as you would hope we discovered to our surprise it was not a complete dead-end either. When faced with a burned parish and/or a burned municipality, learn to think outside the box when trying to locate possible record substitutes. Visit with a local expert, take a look at other jurisdictions that might have covered the area and above all maintain a positive attitude. You may be surprised at what you can find!