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Poring through Portugal

The western European country of Portugal has a rich history of settlement of far away places. There are many places to look for Portuguese records, both personal and commercial. Records can go back over 500 years. Links are given to helpful web sites and books.


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This time on our genealogical research tour of European countries, we are looking at Portugal. The country is the westernmost country of mainland Europe and borders on the Atlantic Ocean. It is closest in size to the U.S. states of Maine and Indiana, although with 10.5 million people, it is closest in population to Ohio or Michigan.

Not surprisingly with a location on comparatively warm water seacoasts, the country has been noted for sailing and exploring for much of its history. Being on the Iberian Peninsula, it was also conquered by Arabic forces and held for quite a period of time. Still, Christians and Jews were tolerated by the conquerors and were not wiped out. In the late Middle Ages, circa 1400, Portugal was becoming a major power in fishing and overseas commerce. Historically about 80 percent of Portugal was Roman Catholic. Places where Portuguese folk settled include the east and west coasts of Africa, in Southeast Asia, the nation of Brazil, and of course North America and even Hawaii.

The language is Portuguese, which is related to Latin and Spanish but is quite distinct from both. It is spoken by over 200 million people, and of course, that includes Portugal itself, Brazil, some African nations and southeast Asian countries. In the USA, it can be found being spoken in Massachusetts, where sources claim it to be the second most spoken language after English, and also Rhode Island, California, Hawaii and New York State. This is not surprising, as these states do have seaports and the Portuguese were very well known for their skills in sailing and fishing. Immigrants to North America have come from several distinct areas - mainland Portugal itself, but primarily from islands that were settled by the Portuguese [Cape Verde, Azores, and Madeira] and thus supplied many of the sea faring persons who eventually settled in North America. And there are estimates of nearly 500,000 persons of Portuguese descent in Canada as well. In fact the province of Labrador was named after the Portuguese explorer João Fernandes Lavrador.

Most immigrants appear to have come after the turn on the 19th century (after the War of 1812). However, U.S. immigration office figures show almost 400,000 Portuguese coming in to the U.S., but only less than 3,000 before the U.S. civil war (the early 1860s).

As with any genealogical research, you have to know where the people that you are researching originated before you can pursue records from their native land. Since the vast majority of Portuguese immigrants came to the USA not that long ago (post-Civil War) or about 150 years ago, that could only be 4 to 6 generations of family in this country. Verbal remembrances and family traditions can be very useful.

Such things as church records, club memberships, naturalization papers, obituaries, wills, letters and correspondence, records of visits to the old country, newspapers, and the like could very well yield useful clues as to where to look. There were a significant number of Portuguese who came to Canada fleeing a 1950s political strongman, and that is only a parental or grand-parental generation.

In looking at some of the records easily available online, I found some on Familysearch going back to the mid-1400s; including indexed and non-indexed records.

One of the best things about the rise of Internet-based search is that many items which formerly one had to travel visit are available online, often for free. And there are databases that can be searched, message boards that one can post to, and so on. While it would be a folly to rely on web-based sources alone, there are a number of web sites that a searcher can use to find more about their family tree. It can help to ask for assistance through the web, either directly from relatives, through the message boards, other web sites that share information, and other commercial sites which have family trees posted, and so on.

Of course, being a librarian, I like the fact that there are some books that can be used as well. They can be of much longer length than this brief guide and have sample pictures of documents, maps, etc. The caveat though is that once a title is published the references in it can change, web sites can come and go, and this has to be borne in mind.

I like to use the free. WorldCat web site at, because it allows advanced searching; the saving of searches; and actually gives you links to the libraries and archives which hold various titles (including online, microforms, etc.). And it tells you how far these libraries are from you! Very cool. It does NOT give actual titles of places held on LDS FHC microfilms, which are not a part of the database that makes up Worldcat. But that LDS FHC catalog can be searched for free at, and there you can find clickable links to the items that have been digitized and put online. Needless to say titles published a long time ago do not make reference to online sources.


  • "Basic Portuguese Paleography," by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Dept., Publisher: Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.: The Department, 1978.

  • "Finding Your Hispanic Roots," by George R. Ryskamp, Publisher: Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., ©1997.

  • "Finding Your Portuguese Roots," by Cheri Mello, Publisher: Torrance, Calif.: Cheryl L. Mello, ©2000.

  • "Genealogical Research in Portugal," by António Machado de Faria, Publisher: Salt Lake City : Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Inc., ©1969.

  • "Guide de recherche généalogique au Portugal," Publisher: Paris: Editions généalogiques de la Voûte, 2004. [in French].

  • "How & Where To Research Your Ethnic-American Cultural Heritage: Portuguese Americans," by Robert D Reed and Danek S Kaus, Publisher: San Jose, Calif.: R & E Publishers, ©1994.

  • "Spain, Portugal, and Mexico: Some Research Sources." by Southern California Genealogical Society, Publisher: Burbank, CA (122 S. San Fernando Blvd., Burbank 91503): Southern California Genealogical Society, Library and Headquarters, [1989 ?]

In addition, the Family search web site states: "In December 1993 the national archive printed a two-volume book under the title, "Inventario Colectivo dos Registros Paroquais" (Collective Inventory of the Parochial Records), listing each parish church and which of its records were in the national archive and which were in one of the district archives." It is held by the FHC in Salt Lake.

Web sites

There is no one "best" web site for any genealogical search. The one that you find to be the most helpful will rank the highest in your estimation. And speaking as a librarian, it's the Wild West out there on the Internet. One can only make educated guesses at the "best" web sites for a given task. I found these to be interesting and useful.

These three immediately above, as part of the Familysearch web site have clickable links to dozens of informative sub-pages.

Many of these sites link to Portuguese language pages; in addition, you might find sites like these useful: FamilySearch: Portuguese Genealogical Word List; Portugal - Language, Names, Handwriting & Script; and facebook: Portuguese Genealogical Word List.

Boa sorte com sua pesquisa genealógica Português!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2013.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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