Puerto Rico

The Tempest

Building one’s family tree and the excitement of “how far back” is a goal of many researchers. But what about the family’s history? Their story? Exploring the historical context in which the family lived can help offer clues to those pesky why questions: why did they leave for New York, or why did they stay in Berlin? Why was the family separated during WWI? Why did the family leave the countryside to live in San Juan? Newspapers can be an excellent source of learning context, particularly for events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities’ Chronicling America project presents thousands of digitized newspapers from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. While the search tools can be cumbersome, the effort is worth it.

Wondering what happened to your ancestors during Huracán Ciriaco? On 8 August 1899, the storm raked over Puerto Rico, transversing the island from southeast to northwest, bringing 28 days of rain, destruction of farms, thousands dead and many more displaced.[1] This event occurred less than a year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, an act that ceded the island of Puerto Rico to the United States government. Searches in the digitized newspapers of Puerto Rico help tell the story of Huracán Ciriaco.

Arroz y Habichuelas
La Democracia. (Ponce, P.R.), 15 Aug. 1899 [clip]

A letter from General George W. Davis, the US government appointed military governor of Puerto Rico, appeared in English and Spanish in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper.[2] La Correspondencia provided descriptions of the conditions in locations across the island, saying of Bayamon that tree branches and zinc tiles flew through the air, and that the hospital was without a roof.[3] It took until 15 August, a week after the hurricane hit, for the newspaper of Ponce, La Democracia, to put out an edition. That paper told a dismal tale of property destruction, listing the names of men and what they had lost. The editors wrote of the magnitude of the disaster, which grew day by day:

Conforme transcurren los días, va tomando mayores proporciones la magnitud del desastre que ha sufrido Puerto Rico. Cada momento de espera agrava más la situación, así como cada noticia que se recibe da más extensas amplitudes al cuadro de desolación que se ofrece a nuestros ojos. [4]

What else can be found in the digitized newspapers of Puerto Rico? Join my webinar Soy Boricua: Researching Your Puerto Rican Roots on Tuesday 12 June 2018 at 7pm ET, offered by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society.

Dedicated to the memory of the #4645boricuas


[1] The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War. Online Collection, Hispanic Division, Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/sanciriaco.html, accessed 1 June 2018

[2] Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 12 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1899-08-12/ed-1/seq-1/

[3] La correspondencia de Puerto Rico. (San Juan, P.R.), 09 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn91099747/1899-08-09/ed-1/seq-3/

[4] La democracia. (Ponce, P.R.), 15 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90070270/1899-08-15/ed-1/seq-2/

Solving a Massachusetts Mystery in the Records of Puerto Rico

Kallvalina McKola?

This is the name I’ve been searching for?

The 1908 civil birth register of James William Collins y Rivera retained an important vestige of the Spanish Civil Code[1] – along with the names of the father and mother, it requested the names of his maternal and paternal grandparents.

1908 Birth James Collins croppedQue es nieto por linea paterno de James Collins y Kallvalina McKola, naturales de Boston. He is the grandson of James Collins and Kallvalina McKola of Boston (paternal line).[2]

The baby’s father, also named James Collins, served in the US Navy, on bases in Puerto Rico and on ships. He was the focus of the research. My client, a native of Puerto Rico, provided the details the family had: James Collins might have been born in Massachusetts or perhaps Ireland. He married Rita Rivera. They had a son, also named James. My task: find James’ birth details and the names of his parents.

The birth register, along with the marriage register,[3]  established that James Collins, the seaman, was born about 1873, the son of James Collins. His mother’s name, the mysterious Kallvalina McKola.

How much Spanish did James speak, and how much English did the clerk know? The records are noted to be copies – did the clerk butcher the transcription? What about applying a phonetic approach? Could Kallvalina be Katarina, which would be the Spanish equivalent of Katherine (or Catherine)?

While there was only one James Collins in Puerto Rico, there were many in the records of Massachusetts. After a lot of digging and analysis, the parents and family of James Collins came into clear view. The death records of two siblings listed a mother named Catherine McCollough, and the birth register of James provided his mother’s given name as Catherine.

Kallvalina McKola. Catherine McCullough.

The clerk who wrote Kallvalina McKola was writing a version of Catherine McCullough. Thanks to the continued tradition of the Spanish Civil Code, that piece of information – the name of the baby’s paternal grandmother – was the key to finding the family in the Massachusetts records.

To learn more about researching the records of Puerto Rico, sign up for Soy Boricua: Researching Your Puerto Rican Roots.


[1] https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015011944769;view=1up;seq=7

[2] “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:9Q97-YSR1-G7?cc=1682798&wc=9PTJ-VZ7%3A131388001%2C133005601 : 14 October 2014), San Juan > Nacimientos 1907-1908 > image 141 of 254; oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).

[3] “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:9Q97-YS51-6G9?cc=1682798&wc=9PTF-K68%3A131388001%2C130919202 : 28 March 2015), San Juan > Matrimonios 1905-1907 > image 499 of 522; oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).