As we conduct our virtual reference services in Archives and Special Collections (ASC), under the restrictions the COVID-19 virus has placed upon us, we’ve been receiving a large number of requests for scans from our Durango Microfilming Project resources. With Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15) geting underway, it seems like a good time to talk about these amazing collections of archival records from in and around the state of Durango, Mexico – how we acquired them, why we have them, what kind of information they contain. You might find that there are records in those collections of great interest to you, especially if you are from a long-time New Mexico family with roots in Mexico and Spain, or if you are just interested in the history of northern New Spain and New Mexico.
How it all began
The vast archive of the Archbishopric of Durango, Mexico first came to the attention of ASC through the work of Mesilla historian Mary Daniels Taylor. While researching the origins of Mesilla and New Mexican priest, and outspoken Mexican patriot, Ramon Ortiz, Taylor found herself in Durango, Mexico, where Ortiz, in the 1830s, had studied in the seminary run by the diocese. In the archive housed in the city’s beautiful baroque cathedral, she uncovered a gold mine of documentation related to Spanish and Mexican-period New Mexico, for New Mexico had fallen under the jurisdiction of the expansive Durango diocese until after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). More about the content of that documentation in a minute. It didn’t take much for Taylor to convince Austin Hoover, then director of the NMSU Archives, of the importance of these unique materials as an untapped resource of primary documentation of early New Mexico. Negotiations with church officials in Durango resulted in the Archbishop approving a project for NMSU to microfilm the contents of the huge archive. This began a 15-year effort that produced more than 1,200 reels of microfilm, well over 1 million pages of documentation, from four important archives of the Durango region.
The archive of the Archbishopric (Archivos Historicos del Arzobispado de Durango – AHAD) produced the greatest amount of microfilmed material by far of these four archives – 731 reels. The archive does not contain the typical sacramental registers – baptisms, marriages, deaths – associated with most church archives, but instead holds the records of the bishops and archbishops of Durango and all the business of the church dating from 1603 up to the present time. This includes extensive correspondence between the bishops, deans, priests, and parishioners throughout the far-flung diocese, discussing all manner of topics of interest to the church. Durango’s bishops held tremendous power in the northern provinces and their actions had a direct impact on the lives of nearly everyone in the diocese. Other types of records in the AHAD include church financial records, tithes, decrees and edicts, papers on the founding of parishes and chapels, records of lay-brotherhoods (cofradías and hermandades), detailed descriptions of land and people served by the parishes of the diocese, censuses of parishioners, ordination of priests, reports of miracles, employee files, information about agriculture, and much, much more.
The most often used set of records in the collection, by far, are the diligencias matrimoniales, or pre-nuptial investigations. Parish priests initiated these investigations when there was an impediment preventing a couple from marrying in the church, which required approval of the bishop. This occurred at parishes throughout the diocese, including New Mexico. Genealogists and historians treasure these records because of the level of detail provided about individuals, families, kinship and social relationships – information about common people that is not easily found in other types of archival records. A common impediment to marriage was some degree of blood relation between the betrothed. In these cases, the priests produced reports containing family lineages going back generations, with testimony from witnesses who knew, and often were related to, the couple. Elaborate, decorative árboles genealógicos (family trees) demonstrated the blood relationship between the couple and their forebears. I’m sure you can imagine how genealogists get very excited about these documents.
During the course of microfilming the archive of the Archbishopric of Durango, some other important archives came to the attention of NMSU. With the help of local experts in Durango, arrangements were made with the governor of the state for NMSU to microfilm the state’s notary archives. With documents that date back to the 16th century, the notary archives cover the area of the current state of Durango and contain legal documents that required official acknowledgement by a civil notary – agreements, land transactions, sales of goods and personal property (in some cases including people), contracts, estate inventories, wills and testaments, probates, charters and incorporations, etc. Very few notary archives in Mexico have been microfilmed, so access to these types of important records can be difficult.
When the notary archives microfilming was complete, NMSU moved its microfilming camera to the state’s historical archive, where government records of the colonial province of Nueva Vizcaya and later the Mexican state of Durango are held. The earliest records filmed date to 1568, five years after the founding of Durango by Francisco de Ibarra. The records include accounting documents of the royal treasury, records of mining activities, civil and criminal court cases, military and war documents, records related to relations with indigenous populations, land and water affairs, testaments and other notary records, public works, commerce and industry, and a host of other government documents. Of note are extensive military records dating to Mexico’s decade long struggle for independence from Spain (1810-1821) and during the United States invasion of Mexico in 1846.
In 2005, the NMSU Archives started its final microfilming project in the Durango area, just across the state line in the small town of Sombrerete, Zacatecas. The municipal archive of Sombrerete holds an incredible store of documents from this important colonial silver mining town. Founded in 1555, Sombrerete was the center of one of the richest silver–producing regions of New Spain. The system of mines in the region are still productive today, after more than 450 years of exploitation. Interestingly for our region, there is a peculiar mountain range near Sombrerete with rocky peaks that resemble organ pipes called la Sierra de Organos, or the Organ Mountains. Early travelers on the Camino Real through our region would most certainly have known of the Organ Mountains of Sombrerete and one can conjecture that our beloved peaks may have taken their name from this southern range.
As you might imagine, the Sombrerete archive contains extensive documentation of mining activities in the region, but many other types of records that make up the archive paint a fairly complete picture of life, culture, politics and law in northern New Spain. The Sombrerete archive contains the same types of records as both the Durango notary and historical archives. Additionally, there are records documenting New Spain’s system of presidios, or forts, which made up its line of defense against northern intruders, both Indigenous and European. Africans, both slaves and free, made up an important part of the population in colonial New Spain, particularly in major mining districts. The Sombrerete archive has extensive documentation on slave sales, manumission, and the social status of people of African descent.
The microfilms produced by the NMSU Archives are unique resources available only here at NMSU and at the archives in Mexico where they were produced. A complete set of all the films were deposited with the originating repositories to help ensure the long-term preservation of these priceless resources. Detailed guides to the collections are available online for browsing and searching. Historical and genealogical researchers have extensively used the Durango Microfilming Project collections. Historians have produced books, articles and dissertations from these collections and countless genealogical researchers have found the information that has helped them fill in critical details in their family histories. Still, the potential these archives hold for the study of society in northern New Spain remains largely untapped. We know that many more scholarly studies can and will be produced from the Durango microfilms. Staff here in the ASC are ready and eager to help answer questions about the Durango collections and we are able to provide scans of documents for researchers who cannot come in to view the films in our research room. Let us know how we can help you in your search.