|TRACING YOUR INDIGENOUS ROOTS IN SONORA: A CHALLENGE AND AN ADVENTURE
By John P. Schmal
In recent years, many Americans have taken an interest in their indigenous roots from northern Mexico. From the Late Eighteenth Century to the present, significant numbers of people from the State of Sonora migrated to Los Angeles and other areas of California. From the 1880s to the 1920s, Los Angeles Times newspapers were filled with stories about the battles fought between the Yaquis and the Mexican Government forces. Many Yaquis and other indigenous peoples in the State fled north to escape persecution from government forces. Some people simply needed to get away from the constant turmoil to find stable employment in California or Arizona. And today, many Californians claim descent from these refugees.
Located in northwestern Mexico, Sonora occupies 180,833 square kilometers, which amounts to 9.2% of the national territory of Mexico. Sonora shares 588 kilometers of borders with the United States, specifically with the States of Arizona and New Mexico. This state also shares a common border with the Mexican states of Chihuahua (on the east), Sinaloa (on the southeast), and Baja California (northwest). Sonora also has a long shoreline along the Gulf of California.
In 2000, Sonora had a total population of 2,183,108, making up 2.2% of the national population of the Mexican Republic. Sonora, with Hermosillo with its capital, is a mostly mountainous state, with vast desert stretches located along its western coastal region. Politically, Sonora is divided into seventy-two municipios.
The Ethnic Makeup of Sonora
Many people identify Sonora with the Yaqui, Pima and Pápago Indians. However, Sonora actually has a very diverse mix of origins. Among the many Spaniards who came to the area were significant numbers of Basques from northern Spain. Equally important to Sonora’s economy was the large number of African slaves who were brought into the region to work for the mining industry. A 1783 census indicated that there were 13 gold mines and 100 silver mines in twenty mining districts throughout Sonora (from Pfefferkorn, “Description of Sonora,” published in 1989 by the University of Arizona Press in Tucson).
The ethnic diversity of Sonora was illustrated by the 1921 Mexican census, which asked the residents to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white). Out of a total state population of 275,127 residents, 37,914 persons (or 13.8%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. A much larger number - 111,089, or 40.4% - classified themselves as being mixed, while a slightly larger number – 115,151 (41.9%) – claimed to be white.
Although 37,914 persons were classified as being of pure indigenous background, only 6,765 residents of the State in 1921 actually admitted to speaking an indigenous language. The most commonly spoken indigenous language was the Mayo language, which 5,941 individuals used. The Yaqui language was spoken by only 562 persons. This meager showing may have been the result of the deportations taking place in the previous three decades, but may also indicate that many Yaqui speakers were fearful of admitting their linguistic and cultural identity, for fear of government reprisal.
Tracing Your Indigenous Roots in Sonora
Many people have expressed an interest in finding a connection to their Yaqui ancestors. Others indicate some indigenous background, but are not clear if it is Pima, Mayo, Opata or Yaqui. In recent years, I have worked with several individuals in tracing their lineages, utilizing the resources of the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. Through this library and its associated Family History Centers scattered around the United States, you can access many church and civil records for most of the cities and towns of Sonora. Anyone can access this online catalog to see the availability of records for his or her specific region:
Once you have determined what records you need, you can order each roll of microfilm for $6.05. Once this arrives, you will have one month to utilize it at your local Family History Center. If you see long-term value in the film, you can renew it permanently and the library will make it part of its permanent collection.
There are a number of issues that can complicate researching indigenous roots in Sonora. These problems are discussed below:
Up until 1822, most Sonoran priests recorded the racial classifications of the persons they baptized and married. The Spanish racial order included a large variety of categories that included español (White), mestiso, mulato, indio, coyote and lobo, which covered the spectrum of skin color. Although this method of categorization was, in our present-day eyes, a very racist and degrading system, it does offer the researcher and family historian some insight into their own ethnic makeup.
After 1822, the racial classifications were made illegal in Mexico, although some parishes in Sonora continued to designate people as Yaqui, Opata, Pima, Pápago and Seri. Other Parishes –like Hermosillo and Guaymas – almost completely abandoned the labeling. By the 1850s, most of these tribal designations disappear from the church registers and you can usually not tell what kind of an Indian your ancestor was. At best, they occasionally referred to an indigenous person as “indígena.”
The Generic Classification “Indio / India”
Because of the “lost identity” of so many indigenous people who had become assimilated into Mexico’s colonial life, parish priests employed the generic terms “indio” or “india” to describe many of the persons being baptized or getting married in their parish books. Once the ancestors of these people had been baptized as Christians, they had become subjects of the Spanish empire and, in essence, the children of the local mission or parish. Their tribal identity had become unimportant because they were living, working and worshipping in the Spanish-speaking Christian community.
More than most Mexican states, however, Sonoran priests did frequently describe their parishioners as Pima, Yaqui and Pápago. But in a large parish like Alamos in the south, researchers are more likely to see lobo, coyote, mestizo and indio applied to their ancestors during the colonial period.
Jurisdictional Issues and Missing Church Records
Another problem with parish records in Sonora is the placement of church records. Sometimes several towns or cities may be attached to one parish. For example, in the Family History Library Catalog, you will notice that there are no church records available for Pitiquito or Caborca. However, both towns are close to Altar, where the parish records date back to 1771.
The Presidio de Santa Gertrudis de Altar was established in the 1775 within the territory of the Pimas. However, the nearby town of Caborca was established earlier (in 1688) by the Jesuit missionary, Eusebio Francisco Kino. Originally called “Caborca Viejo,” the modern mission was established in 1790. The Altar jurisdiction was very large and for a long time was the central administrative point for the present-day municipios of Caborca, Oquitoa, Tubutama, Saric, Pitiquito, Puerto Penasco and San Luis Rio Colorado.
Because of these jurisdictional issues, many baptisms and marriages of people from Pitiquito and Caborca can be seen in the Altar records. For example, the following 1806 marriage of two Yaqui Indians from the “Mision de Caborca” can be seen in the Altar records:
En el año del Señor de mil ochocientos y seis, dia veinte, y ocho de Julio, haviendo precedido las tres amonestaciones, que dispose el Santo Concilio Tridenino, y no resultando impedimento alguno, Yo, Fr. Santiago Visategui, Pon. App. y Ministro de esta Mision de Caborca, pregunte a DOMINGO YGNACIO BUITEMEA, soltero, hijo de PEDRO DOMINGO BUITEMEA, y de JUANA MARIA BAISEA, difuntos, y a JUANA MARIA CECILIA, doncella, hija de FRANCISCO BUITEMEA, y de MARIA DOMINGA LILIJAN tambien difuntos, todos Yndios Yaquis de los Pueblos de Vica y Buimiris, y haviendo dado su mutual consentimiento por palabras de presente, que hacen verdadero matrimonios…
During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, many Indians in Sonora frequently moved from their traditional areas to towns and missions in the territories of other tribes. Although Pimas inhabited the area around Altar and Caborca, researchers will frequently find baptisms of Opatas, Seris, Yaquis, Pápagos and Yumas, all of whom came to or were brought to the presidio and the mission. I have transcribed the following baptism of a Pima Indian child from Caborca’s Mission records in 1799:
En el año del Señor a mil setecientos noventa y nueve dia dos de Diciembre, Yo Fr. Ramon Lopez, Misionero Ap. De esta mission de Caborca, bautice solemnemente a un parbulo, que nacio el dia veinte y nueve del mes proximo pasado de Noviembre, hijo de MANUEL GALINDO, y de CALENDARIA SERRANO, conyuges, Yndios de esta mision. Se le puso por nombre JUAN MARIA CALIPTO….
The family history researcher exploring Sonora roots should be prepared to see Spanish words and names spelled differently from the way they are spelled today. Except for the Yaquis, most indigenous people will also carry Spanish surnames.
Although Altar’s records go back to 1771, the marriage records are largely incomplete and mixed with the baptisms. Altar’s records are contained on 49 rolls of film. It is most unfortunate that there appear to be no baptism or marriages available for Altar from 1836 to 1850. For anyone whose ancestors came from Altar, this is a potential stumbling block, although it can be worked out.
Another problem with searching for your indigenous roots in Sonora is that the parents of newly converted Indians may not be recognized in the church records. Essentially, if the baptized person was now a Christian his non-Christian parents were not considered important to the church record. As an example, I have transcribed the baptism of a Yuma Indian girl in Altar’s church in November 1853:
En la Parroquia de Guadalupe de Altar en trienta dias del mes de Noviembre de mil ochocientos cincuenta y tres, bautisé solmnemete á una niña de edad siete años á quien pusé por nombre MARIA SELAYA, hija de PADRES NO CONOCIDOS, Indígena Yuma. Fueron Padrinos: CLAUDIO SELAYA y JOSEFA SELAYA, á quienes adverti el parentesco y de mas obligaciones de que doy fé.
With this baptism, a young indigenous girl without parents was given the Spanish surname of her godparents.
Rayon and San Miguel de Horcasitas
In both Altar and in Rayón, near the center of Sonora, I have found various baptisms and marriages of some Yaquis and Pimas as late as the 1830s. Like Altar, Rayón was a center of attraction in terms of employment, and I have seen Pimas, Pápagos and Yaquis equally represented in the City during certain periods.
The parish registers of Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Rayón commence in 1813 and the registers for nearby San Miguel Arcángel in San Miguel de Horcasitas begin in 1750.
Although Santa María Magdalena Church in Magdalena has some records as far back as 1698, its marriage records only reach back to 1850. In genealogical research, working with both marriage and baptism records from one location is important and when one or the other is missing it can make an already difficult search more complicated.
Some of the earlier records of Magdalena include baptisms of both Pima and Pápago Indians. (In the United States, the Pápagos are known as Tohono O'odham). Below, I have transcribed the 1771 baptism of a Pápago Indian child from Magdalena’s parish records:
En quarto de Julio de mil setecientos setenta y uno, Yo el infra escrito Ministro por su Magestad de esta Mission de Santa María Magdalena bautice solemnemente d un parvulo, que nacio el dia dos por la mañana, hijo de JOACHIM ARELLANO, Pápago, y de su legitima mugger, MAGDALENA PARMA, Pápago, hijos de dicha Mission alque puse por nombre, FELIS MARIA. Fueron Padrinos FELIPSE GONZALEZ, Pima Govez., y su muger MARIA SUSANA, Pápago, hijos de la Mission….
Even in Magdalena, in the northern border area far from Yaqui territory, researchers can find some Yaqui records. As an example, I have transcribed this March 1841 baptism of a Yaqui child, whose parents have Yaqui surnames:
En dicha Yglesia e el mismo dia mes y año, yo el Br. Trinidad Garcia Rojas, cura encargado del Rio de San Ygnacio y puntos de la linea, bautizé y escrcizé y puso el Santo oleo y sagrado crisma an niño de seis meces de nacido aquien puse por nombre JOSE LUIS DE LA CONCEPCION (de la nacion Yaqui), hijo legitimo de JUAN AGUSTIN AGUIBUAMEA and JUANA MARIA GUAISATA. Fueron sus padrinos: JOSE LUIS HUYUAMEA y MARIA REFUGIA CONSEPCION….
The Mayo Indians inhabit southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa. In 1614, a Jesuit mission, Santa Cruz de Mayo, was established in what is now the municipio of Huatabampo to assist the Mayo Indians with their spiritual lives. However, the actual town of Huatabampo was not founded until 1898 and parish records of the town only begin in 1906.
Nearby Navojoa, also in the territory of the Mayo Indians, has parish records that only go back to 1891. Navojoa, Cohuirimpo, Masiaca, Navojoa and Tesi were, until 1917, part of the large Alamos district, and it is there that the researcher can hope to find records for their ancestors.
Quiriego and Sahuaripa
Quiriego, which lies on the border between the traditional Yaqui and Mayo homelands, was, for some time, attached to the Parish of Sahuaripa, for which church records are available. Sahuaripa, located in southeast Sonora, was originally a town of Opatas. A mission was founded there in 1641 and we currently have access to Sahuaripa’s baptisms as far back as 1781. However, marriage records only start around 1810 and are not complete until 1854. The registers include events from several parishes, including: Arivechi, Bacanora, Bacum, Carrizal, Cócorit, La Dura, Movas, Onavas, Nuri, Quiriego, Rebeico, Rio Chico, Rosario, San Antonio de la Huerta, San Nicolás, Santa Rosa, Santo Tomás, Soyopa, Tacupeto, Tepachi, Tepoca, Tezopan, Trinidad and Yécora.
The Parish of Alamos
Alamos is a colonial Mexican town established in the late Seventeenth Century in the territory of the Mayo Indians. The parish itself was founded in 1685 and the records we have access to begin in 1696. However, there are gaps of several years in both baptisms and marriages during the next hundred years, complicating intensive research. For example, the baptisms from late 1699 to early 1751 are missing, as are the marriages from between 1699 to 1758.
As an important part of the silver mining industry, Alamos attracted many kinds of people: Spaniards, African slaves, free mulatos, Indians from other parts of Mexico and Mayo and Yaqui Indians from the surrounding regions. And this diversity is represented in the colonial Alamos records. However, the generic term “indio” is applied more frequently than the Yaqui and Mayo classifications, and coyotes, lobos, mulatos and mestizos are fairly abundant in the Alamos colonial registers.
Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora is located in the west central portion of the State. The city was originally founded in an area that contained Seri, Tepoca and Pima Bajo Indians.
In 1741, the town was given the name Pitic. Much later in 1828, it was renamed Hermosillo in honor of the revolutionary general, José María González de Hermosillo, but it did not become the capital of Sonora until 1879.
Hermosillo’s Church, La Asunción, was not established until the 1780s and the parish registers – contained on 194 rolls of film by the Family History Library – begin in 1783. The early records of Hermosillo contain a fair amount of indigenous peoples and an equally large amount of Spaniards. Many of the early indigenous parishioners had not yet adopted the Spanish apellidos, which is illustrated by this 1783 baptism in Hermosillo:
En Veintiguatro de Septiembre de 1783 baptizé solemnemente aun parvulo Pima, que nacio el 22 del mismo mes, y se le puso por nombre FRANCISCO XAVIER, hijo de JUAN BAPTISTA, y de su muger TOMASA, Indios Pimas de esta Villa y Mission del Pitic: Padrinos: Francisco Duarte, Pima de Cumuripa, y Rosa Seamo, india del Pueblo de Santa del Mayo, aguienes adverti el parentesco spiritual the y para que conste lo firmé en dicho dia mes, y año ut supra
Although Hermosillo was not in the territory of the Yaquis, a fair amount of Yaquis moved to this population center to work and raise their families. With time, many of the Yaquis started to use surnames. One example of this is in the baptism record of a person whose parents had Yaqui surnames in 1784:
En seis de Junio del 1784, Yo el infrascrito --- asistemente de Santa Villa de San Pedro de la Conguista baptize solemnemnte el parvulo, el primero que nacio el 30 del mes anterior, y se le puse el nombre, FRANCISCO, hijo de MANUEL BUSAAEL y de MARIA CHANAYEI, conjuges Hiaguis de Huirivis, sirvientes de Duarzo…
In the colonial records, the Mexican priests had many different spellings for Yaqui. The above-reference record used the spelling, Hiaguis, but there were other kinds as well.
I am happy to report that the records for Hermosillo, for a period of many years before and after the end of the revolution (1823) are quite good and fairly easy to understand. However, designations of “Indio” and “Yaqui” become very scarce after 1810. It is quite likely that many Yaquis baptized or married in the church may not have been categorized as such. For the most part, the marriage records at Hermosillo began in 1814 and are quite detailed for most of the Nineteenth Century.
Guaymas is located along the Sea of Cortez, approximately 120 kilometers south of Hermosillo. This town was near the northern edge of the Yaqui territory. When the San José de Guaymas Mission was established by the Jesuits in 1701, the territory was within the domain of the Seri Indians. Guaymas was not promoted to the status of a town until 1859.
The parish registers of the San Fernando Church are contained on 63 rolls of film and begin in 1783. However, with the exception of several years in the 1780s, the marriage records for Guaymas do not start until 1846. Although large numbers of Yaquis moved to this town for employment, the Guaymas records, like the Hermosillo records, are not filled with many indigenous classifications after 1820. If you are looking for your Yaqui ancestors in Guaymas, you may find them, but they will probably not be called Yaquis.
For a few short years in the 1780s, Guaymas contains a large amount of marriages of Yaquis who have Spanish given names and Yaqui surnames. Some of the individuals married during this period included: DOLORES ABASHESEALAE, JUAN MATHEO ACHEMEA, PABLO AGUAETEMEA, LORENZO AMIMOLLESPO, LUIZ AREMIPAI, GERONIMO BACOMEAME, LUIZ BASORITEMEA, MAURICIO BUITEMEA, MARIA LORETO CALASAYTE, MICHAELA CAULIQUI, LUIZ COCHOTAGUE, JUAN ANDREZ GAIGUOTEMEA, JUAN FRANCO GUAPOPIJUAME, THOMS. HAMACAMEAME, XAVIER JAIGUOTEMEA,
MATHEO MACHIGUIQUITI, NICOLASSA SEALLOQUESIA, MELCHOR TANGINSICOMEA and AUGUSTIN TETUJEBITMEA.
The Mission 2000 Database
Mission 2000 is a database of Spanish mission records of southern Arizona and northern Sonora containing baptisms, marriages, and burials from Seventeenth Century to the mid-Nineteenth Century. Some of the mission records extracted for this database include Arizpe, Caborca, Magdalena, San Ignacio and Horcasitas. The ethnicity of the names in this database include Apache, Seri, Opata, Yuma, Yaqui, Spanish and Mexican. You can access this database at:
Tracing your indigenous roots in Sonora can be very challenging. The movement of people – both Spanish and indigenous – from one city to another can complicate your research. However, the International Genealogical Index and the FHL’s Pilot Database can be valuable tools in helping your research and help you detect the movements that may have taken place from generation to generation. These tools are available at:
For those who have an interest in understanding Sonora’s indigenous research, please read the following story written by this author:
I have traced indigenous roots in Sonora with several friends and acquaintances, but I dedicate this article to my friend, Teddy Whitefeather, a true daughter of Sonora.
Copyright © 2009 by John P. Schmal. All rights under applicable law are hereby reserved.
John P. Schmal and Donna S. Morales, “Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico” (Heritage Books: 2003).
Various films of the Family History Library. Catalog Website: