March 18, 2018

Searching for that Enslaved Ancestor

Many, and for some unknown reason, believe that slavery in Puerto Rico existed only on the eastern part of the island. The reality is that slavery existed throughout the entire island. There was no imaginary line separating the two sides. Thinking this way will lead people down the wrong path in finding their ancestors.

There are many who were enslaved in Cabo Rojo, Aguadilla, Mayaguez, San German, and Toa Alta, just like in Rio Piedras, Trujillo Alto, Gurabo, and Caguas.These are not the only municipalities but just a few that I am pointing out here. We also have maroons or cimarrones in Utuado that joined the Tainos in the mountainous region.

One thing that I have found in researching my African roots, there is a consistent pattern of our enslaved and freed ancestors. Once freed, most remained in the region of where they were enslaved; you'll understand as you continue to read.

Since some were able to purchase their own freedom, they also stuck around if their family remained enslaved. I have seen countless records of where a man or woman will marry someone who is enslaved but they are free. It lets us see another aspect of what our African ancestors and their descendants faced but are not captured in records for that reason. A simple baptism can tell a whole story. In addition, when many are searching, you're looking everywhere but the obvious place.

Potentially, where your family lived is likely is where they were enslaved. To understand this, place yourself in their shoes.  You have nothing of your own, you were fed and clothed by your slaveowner and your family is still enslaved. With the island being but so big, where were they going to go without funds? Why would they leave and risk being enslaved on another island? Usually if a woman who is emancipated married an emancipated man, she is likely to be from another town or region as she married into the man's family but not the other way around.

So thanks to my dad, he already had advised me that our enslaved ancestors were from the Quebrada Negrito region. This piece of information he gave me led to me being able to locate ancestors. Looking at a map always helps to determine where to look for records. My 2nd great grandmother, Francisca de la Cruz, moved in with her husband upon marrying him.  Francisca was actually from Carolina. You can read about her on my website.

People in Loiza, PR

You also have to keep in mind Spain's Moret Law, passed into law on March 22, 1873.  This law supposedly abolished slavery on the island of Puerto Rico. It simply granted people over the age of 60 years, those that belonged to the state, and children born to slaves after September 17, 1868, their freedom. However, individuals had to purchase their freedom. This is not just another ugly twist but also a way of ensuring people remain enslaved. This is why I keep telling everyone, slavery DID NOT end on March 22nd, 1873 in Puerto Rico; please stop repeating this false information. Slavery actually continued for years. In actuality, the Moret Law was changed in 1886. In 1886, the law was amended and gave full freedom to all without exceptions.  Keep in mind that this law also applied to the island of Cuba.

PARES entry on Moret Law

In addition, the Moret Law required that former slaves work for another three years for the slaveowners, people that were interested in their services, or for the "state" in order to pay back some compensation. The Spanish government created the Protector's Office to oversee the transitional process. The Protector's Office had to pay the difference owed to the former slaveowner once the contract ended. Many of the freed slaves continued to work as free people, receiving wages for their labor. If the former slave decided not to work, the Protectors Office would pay the former slaveowner 23% of the former slave's estimated value, as a form of compensation. The likelihood of individuals not wanting to work was low due to very limited resources and poverty on the island.

So while going through baptismal church records searching for enslaved ancestors, there has always been a consistency; godparents assigned to a baptism were of European descent or someone who is well established in the community. However, I found this not to be the case while doing research on my de la Cruz family from Carolina, then Trujillo Bajo, in Rio Piedras.

While many people have skipped over the Rio Piedras books, they did so because they didn't see the book listed as containing slave entries. However, don't dismiss the books labeled as "de todas clases" as it includes exactly what it says, of all classes. This means that you will find enslaved people in these records.

A surprise of finding something else in the entry of a baptism was surprising as I looked at the images for baptisms covering from 1831 to 1837 in Rio Piedras.  Double surprised when I saw two entries on the same page. Take a look at the image below and you can click on it to expand it.

Rio Piedras Church record 1831 - 1837

The pattern of European descent assigned as godparents went out the door with these entries as previously stated. I found two records where one godparent was a slave and the other a free black person. In addition the child being baptized was born into slavery as the mother was a slave too.

The record at the top left reads:
that the child, Maria, is the daughter of Maria del Carmen, enslaved and owned by Dona Dominga de la Cruz. Her godparents are Carlos, slave belonging to Lupratha Cruz (sic) and Petrona Gonzales, free black woman.
 The record at the bottom left reads:
that the child, Juan Bartolo, son of Maria Valentina, enslaved and owned of Catalina Fispatrick(sic). His godparents are Antonio Dominguez, free black man and Maria Diomina, slave of Catalina Fispatrick.

Another surprise and it seems as if it were done in a hurry was that of an African man, of about 30 years of age, being baptized and found on the right side of the above image. The surprise is that the godparent was the slaveowner himself and no godmother. It comes off as if he were in a hurry to get the process over and done with. One thing is for sure, never skip books because what many may assume as not listing out slaves, it doesn't mean that the book doesn't contain them.

If the image is hard to read, you can easily access it by clicking here and it should open in a new window.

So the ask from many is "How did I get so far in my research of enslaved ancestors?". My answer is that it isn't easy and it requires a lot of reading to understand how things were throughout the Caribbean. Remember, Puerto Rico is not on it's own planet and unique to what occurred throughout the Caribbean.

Your takeaway is that you should not be searching all over the island but to stay close to where your last ancestor lived and unless a record states that they were from another region, you shouldn't be automatically looking elsewhere. I haven't found that to be the case in my research. It is every important that history is understood for the time period you are seeking your ancestor, when towns were established, and what were they prior to establishment. If you do not do the background research, you'll never find your ancestors. 

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